Danny Ainge had got complacent after coming so close last year in the Eastern Conference Finals and effectively let forward Gordon Hayward go for nothing. Then the biggest traded player exception (TPE) in NBA history was brought about by Hayward’s move from the Boston Celtics to the Charlotte Hornets in free agency.
Hayward moved in a sign and trade deal worth an astonishing $120 million over four years. The Charlotte franchise also received unprotected 2023 and 2024 second-round draft picks and the Celtics got a top-55 protected 2022 Charlotte second-round pick.
How does this exception come about for the Celtics however?
When Hayward signed, the Hornets created the salary cap sufficient to work within the constraints of the new large contract. An exception of the same value to Hayward’s first year of his contract was awarded as no salary was therefore retrieved in the deal for Boston (the first year is said to have been evaluated at $28.5 million).
For the year after the exception was established, the Cs can trade for a player without having to fork out for a salary, like a coupon. Nonetheless, player salary cannot be added with an exception to create a larger contract. The Cs possess all of their picks and could expedite such in a multiple team trade that could see the other teams both receive picks from Boston if necessary to get a deal over the line. They can also send out younger players as an incentive in the deal, such as Aaron Nesmith or Romeo Langford.
The flip side to said situation is that both will look to play a bigger role this year with such lack of perimeter depth, and should they prove their worth, will be unlikely to be pushed out of the door.
Only around a maximum of $22 million can be utilised in a potential new signing this campaign due to the full usage of the mid-level exception to take on Tristan Thompson. With the Cs now hard capped, a decrease in personnel and salary at TD Garden will be required in order to reach the full usage of the $28.5 million this season. The full exception will be in usage going into next year’s lucrative free agency.
Even after the acquisition of Jeff Teague and experienced Thompson in free agency, with Kemba Walker and Langford likely to miss the opening month of the season and the desire for a shooting wingman, there are still some situations to consider. Here are some ideal selections that can address some gaps needed to be filled over the next twelve-month period, with Orlando vets in the crosshair in particular.
Abating the potential $30 million exception into smaller individual contracts is something allowed by the TPE and should be considered. Possessing a player with a reasonably low salary can still garner desirability in the trade market should the deal fall flat, while having a significant remainder of the exception left over for alternative use.
Derrick Rose ($7.5 million)
The Detroit Pistons guard is an interesting wildcard consideration, and is the cheapest of the bunch. Somewhat of a cult hero, adoring fans will one day hope he can contend for a chip that seemed to be destined for Rose in Chicago before a cruel ACL injury in 2012 stunted his rise to superstardom.
A star such as Derrick Rose would bring in perimeter buckets and he amassed an impressive 18.1 PPG last season. At 32, in tandem with a young core on the ascendancy, Rose can be of massive dressing room influence and of course bring with him over a decade of experience in the NBA in a perfect partnership to bring Boston to a competing level.
D-Rose was recently quoted as saying his willingness the adapt to the veteran role in his team now. According to Michael Scotto of HoopsHype, Detroit are aiming to trade Rose ahead of the NBA trade deadline in order to acquire an asset to add to their young core however.
George Hill ($9.6 million)
Kemba Walker’s knee injury, which he played through in the 2020 playoffs, will now keep him out of the opening weeks of the season.
Romeo Langford showing up to a recent press conference wrist-in-cast does not boast a lot of confidence ahead on the season start on December 22nd either.
George Hill is the epitome of a low risk, high reward scenario with such a light salary; the second season of which numbers $10 million but is not guaranteed and will be valuable in next year’s market.
While he may not be in it for the long haul (Hill will be 35 in May), Hill’s recent move the the Thunder means he will be a figurehead in a rebuilding side, quite the fall from a competing team in the Milwaukee Bucks where he led the league in shooting from deep off the bench (46%). After acquiring Hill in a four-team trade in the Jrue Holiday deal, the rebuild in Oklahoma could coax them into accepting draft picks and bring Hill back to a potentially competing side in Boston.
Spencer Dinwiddie ($11.5 million)
The James Harden saga continues. Step forward Boston.
Not to necessarily take on the eight time All-Star, despite recent rumours. Boston can help facilitate a three-team trade and help the Nets make some salary space for the potential incoming of Harden, welcoming Spencer Dinwiddie and his reasonable wage in the process.
Admittedly it is unlikely circumstances, but some capable cover for Kemba Walker for both the short term and long is in order. The guard is heavily tipped to take Sixth Man of the Year award in rotation with the likes of Kyrie Irving and Caris LeVert at the Barclays Center.
Not exactly in the same build of Walker, Dinwiddie does bring his playmaking acumen with just .4 less assists than the former. It may be a long shot, with Houston wanting to take the Nets for everything they have for their star, but a move that would at the very least benefit Boston.
Terrence Ross ($13.5 million)
Terrence Ross is on a contract subsiding in value for the upcoming three NBA seasons and will turn 30 the other side of Christmas.
His offensive output last season is a slight concern with a drop of 2% below career average in three-point percentage to 35.1%, but played in a system that didn’t see the ball in his hands. Ross’ fade away three-point style has seen him attempt seven a game in successive seasons.
He will hope to regain the form of two seasons past that put him in discussion for the Sixth Man of the Year. He has nonetheless reached the playoffs in 5 of his 9 seasons north of the border in Toronto and also in Orlando, and boasts a 16.9 PPG average against the Cs in the last two seasons. The cheap nature of Ross and the previous three mentioned could tempt Danny Ainge to make not one but multiple purchases with the exception.
Some ‘Magic’ can be found when moving up in the wage estimations to the range of $14 to $19 million, in order to compensate for Hayward’s absence and rotation for the Cs star duo in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
Dejounte Murray ($14.3 million)
Firstly, the former UConn guard in Texas presents a viable loanee style-recourse while Walker’s health is in limbo.
He would be unlikely to unseat Smart in the long term but would be an enviable rotation option. At 24 years old and 6-foot-4, it is Murray’s shrewdness when defending that can pose an issue for many in the NBA (Murray made All-Defence in his sophomore NBA season). He can play on the wings but will not take the ball off of the likes of Tatum, Walker and Brown.
Drawing him away from San Antonio may prove tricky, with the Spurs reluctant to relinquish such a talent but will be stuck in a rock and a hard place when letting him go could free up some cap space ahead of next year’s free agency.
Evan Fournier ($17.2 million)
As Evan Fournier exercised his player option this upcoming season, the Magic would be wise to try and get something for the 28 year old, preferably a first-round pick rather than precious little when he could leave as a free agent.
Whether Boston want to giveaway such for what could effectively be a season at TD Garden, is another dilemma.
The Celtics themselves would be getting a great fit in a swingman who could help out offensively, notching 18.5 PPG last year, shooting 40% from beyond the three point line with a 16.4 player efficiency rating. Defence does remain an issue with his game and hasn’t necessarily performed at peak levels in consecutive playoffs against the Raptors and the Bucks.
Aaron Gordon ($18.1 million)
Orlando, as a means to progress from scraping playoffs and mediocre seasons, could consider a change of direction, with Aaron Gordon a possible departure.
The contending issue for Danny Ainge would be what to send out for Gordon in return for the 25-year-old. The Magic reportedly rejected similar assets to those used in the Robert Covington trade to Portland (two first round picks from the Trail Blazers along with Trevor Ariza).
Gordon is still viewed as a player with potential that hasn’t been fully utilised in Florida. Not a fantastic shooter from deep, Gordon’s driving to the rim is similar to that of his departing namesake and will only be aided by Brad Stevens coaching to spread the defence. At the other end of the court, Gordon is versatile at the three or four and has strong rebound numbers (7.7 average last season).
Break the bank
This is where things become a bit difficult and less attainable for the boys in green. The previously mentioned $16- 22 million flexibility before reaching the NBA tax apron was put in upon completion of the signing of Tristan Thompson’s mid-level exception.
It’s not impossible, younger players and draft picks from the current roster can be shifted elsewhere in the move along with the exception. Moving in for a lucrative contract can be tantalisingly teasing for a franchise that has ambitions to get out of the East, and equally will now have to potentially compete with the likes of James Harden to a refurbished Brooklyn Nets or Philadelphia 76ers, on top of last year’s competition. Some of these picks can, with a fully fit roster, boost the Celtics to the narrow upper echelon of title favourites.
Harrison Barnes ($22.2 million)
The debate around acquiring Harrison Barnes since the TPE announcement has been extensive, and for good measure. Shooting 46% from the field and 38.9% from downtown over the past two seasons are attention-commanding numbers for someone large and flexible enough to play at both forward positions.
Barnes’ would therefore provide compensation for Hayward and add depth for Tatum and Brown, able to take on and guard the league’s bigs in the process with a 6 foot 8 inch height and 6 foot 11 inch wingspan. Barnes’ influence extends to off the court as well, with a championship with the Golden State Warriors under his belt, his mentoring of players like De’Aaron Fox in Sacramento could be employed well with the likes of Jaylen Brown.
The Kings themselves could look to build around Fox and Buddy Hield and make some cap space with no view to challenge any time in the near future, with their eyes on some of Boston’s younger talent and picks. With two seasons remaining on a declining contract after this season’s $22.2 million payout, such figures would put the Cs in the danger zone of the tax. Such wage structure could nonetheless make Barnes an increasingly tradeable asset if Boston would discontinue their association with the Kings forward.
Nikola Vucevic ($26 million)
These latter two picks really make a competitor out of Boston. Rising from the ashes of a disappointing few years in Orlando, which saw the franchise miss out on the likes of drafting Donovan Mitchell, Nikola Vucevic is still the best player on the roster.
His All-Star status was secured in 2019, but has been if anything stunted by his poor defensive ability, particularly when guarding pacey backcourts in the perimeter. Along with a declining yet pricey contract, it may not be looking great for the Montenegrin thus far.
Nevertheless, the perennial Magic big is the ultimate stretch-5 option and possibly the league’s best offensive center. Using his massive frame in the post, Vooch attained a 41% three-point percentage in the bubble. An incredible 28.0 points, 11.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists in the season restart, not to mention his potential as a ball handler and play maker. The big would be aided by greater talent around him in Boston, with potential defensive progression under Stevens’ coaching.
Rudy Gobert ($26.5 million)
Moving from extreme offense to extreme defence, this would simply be a game changer for the Celtics, offering much more value than what Myles Turner could offer even at a cheaper price.
Critics could argue a move for the 28 year old, which along with the TPE would likely cost Daniel Theis and a first rounder, could be at the behest of a long term vision. Averaging a double-double (15.1 points, 13.7 rebounds), 6.6 fewer points were conceded per 100 possessions when he took to the court for Utah last season. On the offensive end Rudy Gobert was only beaten by Dwight Howard and Mitchell Robinson in the league’s True Shooting Percentage.
The two-time Defensive Player of the Year’s contract is up in the air and trouble seemed to be brewing with the Jazz’s other star in Donovan Mitchell earlier on in the year, possibly allowing for a perfect storm for Boston. Gobert for a year, and a year only due to the Frenchman looking to cash in with a max contract in free agency next year, would eliminate any deliberation at the 5 and put the Celtics in the conversation not only as conference favourites, but challengers to the crown of the old rivals in Hollywood.
Alternatively, the waiting game…
When speaking on 98.5 The Sport’s Hub Toucher and Rich, Danny Ainge commented on the situation, saying: “We’re not going to go do anything right now, let’s see how this season goes, where we are. We’ll have the ability to improve our team at the trade deadline, and next offseason if not.”
Putting a deal on ice until what will be an historic 2021 free agency market is another viable option for Danny Ainge. Of course, this will typically come at a hefty price; possibly all of the exception, and may require add-ons like younger players to help the recipients rebuild for their lost star and keep Boston below the cap.
The free agent class of 2021, which includes the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard and the previously mentioned Rudy Gobert, may also force the hand of other franchises to clear some space in a bid to draw some of the NBA’s biggest free agents.
This particular scenario could allow for big non-free agent names with even bigger contracts to arrive in Boston and a few draft picks. Leaving the TPE until the last minute runs a huge risk, but with Ainge giving away draft picks in order to get the exception, it’s highly probable the $28.5 million luxury will be brought into play. Well, Bostonians can dream…