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A Blockbuster Trade Proposal for the Hawks and Celtics

Atlanta and Boston have both disappointed this season, but not all hope is lost. Here is a deal that will get both teams out of the mud.

As two of this season’s most frustrating teams, the Celtics and Hawks have a couple of things in common: 1) they need some kind of change but 2) aren’t sure how audacious it should be. Both entered 2022 with high hopes, confident they could improve upon what they accomplished last year while aspiring to snatch a top-four seed. On paper, their rosters were molded for a deep playoff run: talented and versatile, built to play fast or slow, big and small. In reality, every night has been a guessing game.

Boston is 18–21 with the NBA’s 22nd-best offense and a palpable tension that’s hard to quantify but easy to see. Atlanta is 16–20 with the fifth-worst defense and an exhilarating attack that quivers in crunch time. (The Celtics and Hawks also have the third- and fourth-worst net ratings in the fourth quarter, respectively.)

A wave of injuries and COVID-19-related absences are undeniable, but consistency has eluded both clubs even when their main pieces are together. There’s a real chance neither makes the playoffs, and if they end this season stuck in mud a blockbuster deal may be necessary. Here’s one that will tempt both sides:

The Hawks get Jaylen Brown. The Celtics get De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter, Jalen Johnson and two unprotected first-round picks.

Pulling something this consequential off before the season ends is too financially complicated and irrevocable to actually happen—Huerter’s extension is a poison pill and both front offices should first explore other roads at next month’s trade deadline—but it has the potential of solving a few long- and short-term issues for each team.

Brown is 25 years old, on track to make his second All-Star appearance and—slow development as a playmaker aside—not to blame for Boston’s disappointment. Moving on from him at any point could easily qualify as a colossal mistake. He’s a tank of lamp oil who followed up a 50-point explosion against the Magic by dropping 30 on the Spurs on Wednesday night. (On Thursday, Brown went scoreless in the fourth quarter of another Celtics meltdown.)

But—this can’t be stressed enough—as a last resort, before he enters the final year of his contract (in 2024) on a team that seemingly can’t acquire another star without including him in the deal and has no obvious path back to NBA title contention, the Celtics should at least consider such a potentially beneficial opportunity.

In Atlanta, a flourishing talent like Brown is ideal. The Hawks would consolidate a roster their own general manager has apparently lost confidence in and land a legitimate second star who’s closer to Trae Young’s stature than any teammate he’s ever had. Brown, Young and John Collins become a positionally complementary trio, with Clint Capela, Cam Reddish, Onyeka Okongwu and Bogdan Bogdanović all filling important roles that may eventually grow. (Some double as desirable trade chips, too.)

In the short term, this trade makes the Hawks a title contender, even better equipped than they are for the rigors of postseason play with a battle-tested shotmaker on the wing. Brown can elevate an offense that dies without Young and lessen the star point guard’s burden to do pretty much everything else when they share the floor. His reliable three-point shot makes sense functioning off the ball during Young’s frequent pick-and-roll forays. He can get downhill, draw fouls, finish at the basket (he’s shooting a career-best 75% at the rim) and deliver the type of midrange uppercut that’s unguardable in a playoff series. Defensively, few are more versatile than Brown. He can’t single-handedly turn Atlanta’s misfortune on that end around but certainly won’t be part of the problem.

The deal isn’t without risk, though. Atlanta is losing depth and placing a massive bet on Young’s ability to mesh with someone whose usage is justifiably more than 30%. If the two can’t coexist, Brown becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2024 and watching him walk for nothing would be a disaster.

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Meanwhile, the Celtics are losing the best player in this trade, but gaining flexibility, tradable assets and, if Hunter can stay healthy, one of the NBA’s more appealing 24-year-old two-way wings. (Hunter had surgery on his right wrist in early November and two operations on his right knee last season.) If he hits and becomes the efficient 20-plus points-per-game scorer his tantalizing skill set suggests, this is a grand slam for Boston. If he ends up closer to Justise Winslow than Kawhi Leonard, not so much.

The 23-year-old Huerter doesn’t have the same ceiling but isn’t anything close to a throw-in. He doesn’t need the ball to impact winning and can do enough with it to justify major minutes and a consistent presence in any offense’s playbook—be it running off screens, playmaking out of a side pick-and-roll or bullying a mismatch whenever opponents think they’re hiding weaker defenders. Together, they can create a bit more space in Boston’s offense and lessen Jayson Tatum’s nightly load. The Celtics’ roster needs reliable rotation players. Here, they get two with upside.

The additional pair of first-round picks is steep but necessary given where Brown is in his career. Atlanta’s own timeline, coupled with the intriguing prospects already on its roster, makes the loss of future picks more palatable. The Hawks probably won’t be choosing in the top 10 and own a lottery-protected first from the Thunder in this year’s draft that will almost definitely become two second-rounders in 2023 and '24. Second-round picks from OKC aren’t anything to scoff at, especially in the hands of a Hawks front office that knows how to mine draft-day diamonds.

This trade allows Boston to straddle the fence between decent and pretty good in the short term without relying entirely on two young All-Stars who’ve struggled to lift everything around them. It’s a rebuild on the fly, with more possibilities and ways to center future decisions around Tatum’s best interests.

(They could theoretically participate in conversations for someone like Bradley Beal or Damian Lillard without pushing every single chip in. The Celtics have all their own picks, several win-now pieces on agreeable multiyear contracts—Robert Williams III, Marcus Smart and Josh Richardson) and O.K.-to-intriguing rookie-scale contributors.)

None of this guarantees a brighter future than the one they can still have with Brown and Tatum as dueling All-Star anchors. Wings who defend several positions with muscular, twitchy athleticism while also able to efficiently score on a high volume at all three levels do not appear out of thin air. In what feels like a past life, the Celtics held Brown out of negotiations that could’ve brought back Leonard, Jimmy Butler or Paul George.

But at the same time this type of trade isn’t made solely for the sake of change. It’s a preemptive way to protect themselves in case a crescendo led by their two best players doesn’t come. To move on from Brown this summer would say more about where the team sees itself—which is certainly not where they were in 2019—than how he has developed since then. He’s excellent. Any indictment should be directed toward Boston’s inability to surround him and Tatum with appropriate pieces.

Not all of what’s happened over the past two years is that front office’s fault, but the talent exodus is real: Kyrie Irving, Al Horford (temporarily, and then reacquired at the cost of a first-round pick), Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier, to name a few. (In the draft: Romeo Langford, Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard could be Desmond Bane, Saddiq Bey and Matisse Thybulle. Grant Williams is a keeper.)

If they indeed conclude that surrounding Tatum and Brown with the right supporting cast isn’t practical (i.e., somehow acquiring better shooters and a star-level point guard), the next best thing would be to take one step back so two steps forward can be possible. This deal may do that. In Atlanta, it would represent the massive leap forward they’ve been waiting more than 60 years for.

None of this is to say the Celtics and Hawks are entirely hopeless and unable to turn their seasons around. But if six months from now they’re stumbling through the same wilderness they’re lost in today, this trade could be the path out both have been searching for. 

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