You won’t find Courtney Lee‘s name listed among the great guards in the NBA. He’s not going to make an All-Star team or an All-NBA team. He’s not the first, second or even third option in anyone’s offense. Instead, Lee is a connoisseur’s player. A pro’s pro, if you will.
What Lee does is make teams better. In seven of his eight most frequent lineups with the Rockets last season, Houston had a positive point differential. He’s a shooting guard who doesn’t need to score, but when he does shoot he is very effective, especially from 3-point range and particularly from the corner where he made 49 percent of his attempts last season, second only to Ray Allen. He is also an excellent cutter who rarely turns the ball over.
Lee is not the all-around offensive threat that Allen is — or was — but he is a much-better defender and even capable of sliding over the wing forward spot in certain lineup combinations. He’s also younger and healthier than Allen. With Avery Bradley’s status uncertain to start the season after undergoing two shoulder surgeries, Lee could slide right into the starting lineup and combine with Rajon Rondo and Jason Terry to form a strong three-man backcourt.
All around Orlando and Las Vegas where the Celtics were competing in summer league, scouts and executives all offered the same appraisal of the possibility of Lee joining the C’s: “perfect fit.”
The only question was whether the Celtics’ offer of E’Twaun Moore, Sean Williams and JaJuan Johnson, plus a second-round draft pick would be enough to make a sign-and-trade deal possible and there was some skepticism that it would. As talks went deep into the night on Thursday, it was still uncertain but seemed headed in the right direction.
Moore and Williams have non-guaranteed contracts, which makes them useful for cap math purposes. Johnson has just over $1 million guaranteed on the second-year of his rookie deal, but the Rockets have a surplus of big forwards and sources in Johnson’s camp expressed unease about adding his name to the list. The proposed deal needed a third team to help facilitate the moving parts and the Herald reported that Blazers stepped in with Sasha Pavlovic‘s name thrown into the mix.
If the Celtics can pull it off, it would be the equivalent of turning tap water into a fine Cabernet. If the current parameters hold, Danny Ainge would have traded four non-rotation players for a starting guard, which happened to be their biggest offseason need.
Williams has done little to impress in his short time in Boston and Johnson has clearly fallen behind rookie Jared Sullinger this summer. Moore has been one of the Celtics’ best summer league performers, but he is not nearly the same finished product as Lee and Pavlovic wasn’t likely to return to Boston in any event. (The trade would be a setback for Moore whose contract becomes guaranteed if he’s not waived by midnight on Sunday. If Moore is waived, the Celtics would not be able to re-sign him until after the one-year anniversary of the trade.)
The process is important because the Celtics are creeping ever closer to the magical hard cap line of $74.3 million and by acquiring Lee, they will be left with few options to complete the rest of the roster. Second-round pick Kris Joseph, as well as summer league stalwarts Dionte Christmas and Jamar Smith could be the lucky beneficiaries of the Celtics’ tight cap situation, but if they add another big man it would have to be for the veteran minimum.
None of that should detract from the fact that the Celtics are on the verge of solving their biggest offseason puzzle and for a capped out team with few assets, acquiring Lee is the equivalent of a corner 3-pointer with the shot clock near zero, which just happens to be his specialty.