Is Celtics trade a precursor to bigger deal with Bulls for Jimmy Butler?

Chicago Bulls' Jimmy Butler, right, talks with Boston Celtics' Jae Crowder (99) before a season opening NBA basketball game against the Boston Celtics Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)
AP Photo/Matt Marton

Trying to place yourself inside the mind of Boston Celtics president Danny Ainge is an exhausting exercise, but that’s what NBA nuts will do this week (or longer, if the Celtics simply stand pat and make their pick at No. 3).

Do the Celtics just not see much of a difference between Markelle Fultz and Josh Jackson/Jayson Tatum? Perhaps, and if that’s the case, it makes perfect sense to move down and pick up a valuable asset. Or, are the Celtics trying to accumulate as many picks as possible in order to make a big trade — perhaps for Jimmy Butler, or Paul George, or maybe even Anthony Davis?

There has been some speculation that Ainge is maneuvering to make a run at George or Butler — likely Butler, since he is locked into his contract until 2020. Count me as a skeptic, despite this tweet:

From a Bulls perspective, is a Butler-to-Boston deal more or less enticing after the 76ers trade? I’ll go with less — if the Celtics’ endgame was to trade for Butler. Of course, we don’t know what GarPax would want for Butler. For all we know, this could be accurate:

Back to the point: If the Celtics’ goal was to get Butler, and they were willing to trade the No. 1 pick to do it… why go through the motions with Philadelphia? Fultz plus matching salaries plus, perhaps, one more first-rounder would seem to appease both sides … if Butler was Ainge’s target. Now, there are plenty of combinations that could make a trade with Chicago work: this year’s No. 3 pick; next year’s Brooklyn pick; and the protected Lakers pick that could morph into a 2019 Sacramento pick. I’m not sure the 76ers’ trade makes Boston’s package more tantalizing than one involving Fultz would, but it’s tantalizing nonetheless.

A deal could still happen, but for those connecting the dots from the Philly trade to a potential Chicago trade, I’m not sure I see it. Then again, all of this would hinge on what GarPax wants. Unfortunately for them, Boston doesn’t have any players as bad as Cameron Payne. Back to the drawing board.

From Boston’s perspective, it felt like the team’s path toward becoming the best version of themselves was to do the following: Draft Fultz at No. 1, and try to sign either Gordon Hayward or Blake Griffin. An Isaiah Thomas, Al Horford, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Fultz, Hayward/Griffin top eight would be lethal, and could potentially serve as a real threat to the Cavaliers – if not next season, then in the next few.

The other downside of a Butler trade before free agency: The Celtics wouldn’t be able to sign Hayward or Griffin without using a good amount of salary, and — as a result — a key contributor or two. While Butler is a welcome addition to any team, a pre-draft deal doesn’t appear to make sense based on the Hayward/Griffin factor.

My hypothesis: Boston is a little lower on Fultz than everyone else, a little higher on Jackson or Tatum than everyone else, and wanted to push off its assets a little further to chase a trade for someone bigger than Butler or George at a later date — such as Davis. He’s not available right now, but if the Pelicans play as we expect them to next season, he could be on the market sooner than we think. Maybe the Knicks will be miserable again next season and Kristaps Porzingis becomes available. Who knows?

By delaying their trade assets, the Celtics buy themselves some time, and can aim higher than Butler or George. While those guys are stars, you probably need superstars to beat Cleveland or Golden State.

Again, the mind of Danny Ainge is an exhausting place. So is the mind (singular) of GarPax — but for entirely different reasons. If Butler ends up in Boston, at least we’ll know what the Bulls thought of Fultz.

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