The Celtics need Malcolm Brogdon.
That’s why they traded for him one year ago. Imperfections emerged, his isolation defense ranked among the worst in the league, he battled a strange issue finishing around the rim early in the season and the Celtics fell short due to similar offensive issues during the late stages of the playoffs that ended recent runs. While a freak injury rendered Brogdon unplayable in the east finals, the Celtics couldn’t have asked for much more from him.
Brogdon proved one of the more reliable night-to-night shooters I’ve watched in a Celtics uniform. He shot over 45% from the field in 17-of-25 games to close the year, hit 50% of his attempts during the team’s 21-5 start and converted 44.4% of his threes as one of the league leaders throughout. His pick-and-roll game flourished, he won sixth man of the year and, trailing in two series, he found his voice by calling for a defensive mentality from the Celtics, who fell just short of the Finals. Then, Boston decided to move him in the original Kristaps Porziņģis trade.
Bad feelings became inevitable following such a dramatic reversal. Reports indicated Boston continued shopping him after the deal before shutting talks down. Most uncompleted trade ideas leak as rumors, De’Andre Hunter this offseason landing in Indiana, for example. Much fewer actually go through before cancelling like Brogdon’s deal did. That alone creates an intriguing storyline entering training camp after Gary Washburn and Ramona Shelburne reported that the events of this offseason angered Brogdon, who hasn’t returned to Boston yet.
“The organization has had a few conversations (with Brogdon),” Mazzulla said. “I think any time you’re in a situation like that and you’re in a relationship, you just have to take small steps into it. There’s a healing process, there’s a listening process and there’s a process toward, this is where we’re and where we have to get to. We’ve had some conversations as an organization, but at the same time, we understand the situation that it was and as the healing process goes on, we’ll just continue to move forward as well as we can. As far as I know, he is (progressing health-wise).”
Tip-off, time and a shared goal should mend issues by opening night, but it’s also unclear where Brogdon stands physically in his recovery from his torn right arm tendon. Brad Stevens left the door open for surgery in June, while noting Brogdon felt better day-by-day and the Celtics’ doctors believed no procedure was needed. Brogdon mentioned it as a possibility after Game 7, while few updates followed throughout the summer. If he needs more time, the Marcus Smart trade would challenge Derrick White and Payton Pritchard to play more minutes.
The Celtics can afford to wait if that becomes the case. Seeding shouldn’t matter significantly in the east and they won 11-of-14 games Brogdon missed last year. Boston will need his second-side, on-ball and bench creation later. Fans bemoaned his missed passing opportunities, but he posted 1.01 points per possession running pick-and-roll sets, in the 81st percentile of all NBA players, and scored nearly half of the team’s bench points.
More repetitions running P&R in Smart’s absence should improve his reads, along with opportunities to target Porziņģis in staggered second units. He’ll need to accept that sixth man role again though, as Porziņģis’ arrival came with the desire to return to double big. White and Brogdon made for a compelling pair last season (+7.7 net rating, 112.5 off. rating, 762 mins.). That’ll have to appear in rotation.
Another complication emerges when Brogdon enters camp on a two-year, $45 million deal he can extend, increasing his salary by up to 140% ($31.5M). That seems unlikely given the second apron implications and massive tax hikes coming with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum’s extensions this summer. Derrick White and Payton Pritchard need new deals too, so Boston can’t offer him something like money or a starting job to smooth things over. Brogdon previously expressed his desire to sacrifice to win, and that unfinished business will have to drive him into next year. If it doesn’t, that’s where problems begin.
Following this season, a trade to a destination where he can start and star feels more feasible. For now, missing him when it matters hurt this team. Having him here costs $24.7-million in tax and doesn’t push Boston above the apron. Negotiating with teams like the Clippers who crossed that line gets tricky, as they need to match salaries exactly (110% max returning salary this year, dollar-for-dollar next). Finding a partner under the cap next summer works better for relief.
“Everything revolves around what our roster looks like and how you maximize that,” Mazzulla said in June. “You have to be able to do whatever makes the most sense for your roster. Adding (Porziņģis) gives us a dimension where we can do a couple of different things. So it’s how do we fit him in, and also, how do we continue to build off of what made us really good last year?”
Despite flashes from Pritchard, height and shooting inconsistency would likely prevent him from matching Brogdon’s output in smaller lineups this year. Boston could account for that by playing two big men with its second units and spacing out the floor. That’s why Buddy Hield’s trade availability raised eyebrows this week. The all-time sharpshooter hit 42.5% of his threes on 8.5 attempts per game last year. His $19.3-million cap hit matches Brogdon’s, expires after this season and would clear $22.5-million, plus tax, off Boston’s books next year.
That’s at the cost of an offensive downgrade. Hield averages 2.6 assists per game for his career while posting a negative net rating in each season of his career. Boston outscored opponents by 5.1 points per 100 possessions during Brogdon’s minutes last regular season, and 6.4 in the playoffs even considering his injured minutes and relatively worse defensive stats than Hield’s. That’s before considering the importance of Brogdon’s voice returning with Smart, Blake Griffin and Grant Williams gone as some of the team’s most outspoken players.
The Boston Globe reported on Thursday that the Celtics are no longer considering Brogdon trades and while his salary could come into play if larger deals emerge league-wide that present opportunities to upgrade, Boston shouldn’t downgrade or dump his salary entering such a critical year. Players like Tim Hardaway Jr. and Norman Powell match Brogdon’s salary in a deal while making less money, but don’t match the width of his impact.
While Boston might have a bench scoring problem, they can address it by staggering lineups and challenging its depth wings to step up. And despite reasonable concerns following the slighted guard into camp, he stayed involved enough this summer to hold workouts with Al Horford in Atlanta, according to Jay Scrubb.
“(Joe Mazzulla) was in Atlanta coming to watch Malcolm and Al workout,” Scrubb told CelticsBlog’s Adam Taylor. “I just happened to bump into him workout out where Malcolm and Al work out. I got to have a conversation with him, I didn’t really get to see the intensity level yet, but I can’t wait.”