Monday, December 21, 2020

6 Potential Targets for Celtics Traded Player Exception

The Celtics hold the largest traded player exception in NBA history at $28.5 million following the sign-and-trade of Gordon Hayward to the Charlotte Hornets.

President of basketball operations Danny Ainge was able to turn what seemed like a loss of the former All-Star forward for nothing and created a traded player exception. While the exception can be used in a trade for a player of equal or lesser value than the first year of Hayward's Hornets contract, it does have an expiration date of 12 months.

With this exception available to Ainge and the Celtics, we ask the next logical question. Who will they trade for?
Here are six options the Celtics may investigate with their trade exception:

1. Nikola Vucevic: Orlando Magic- Center

How can it happen?
Vucevic is due $26 million in 2020-21 and will fit nicely inside the Celtics TPE. Boston will need to clear $6.5 million to use the exception in full and return the Magic big man and could do this several ways. The simplest would be cutting Javonte Green ($1.5 million) and trading Daniel Theis ($5 million). 

While losing the greatly improved Theis wouldn’t be ideal, the return of Vucevic would help ease the pain. 

Why could it happen? 

For Orlando, it is simple, it will creates cap room. Vucevic is the largest contract they have on the books over the next three seasons at $26 million, $24 million, and $22 million over the next three years. If they are looking to get serious in the free agent market in the summer of 2021, dumping Vucevic’s contract is a must. With recent rumors of them trying to pry James Harden loose from Houston, this could be something they offer to Harden, a chance to choose his running mate(s) in the 2021 free agent market. 

Boston’s goal would be simple. Bring back an All-Star caliber center. Vucevic would instantly be the teams fourth scorer and can offensively bring everything a Brad Stevens system would be looking for. The Orlando big man isn’t a star on the defensive end but the ability to add a rebounder and scoring threat of his skill level would be too good to pass up. 

Will it happen? 

Unlikely. Unless Orlando has totally sold out on the current roster and wants to blow it up, a move for Boston’s minimal assets likely wouldn’t be incredibly appealing for a player they have on a good contract for the next three years. 

Ainge’s admiration for the big man has been leaked in the past but an offer of a couple of unprotected first round picks and some young whippersnappers like Robert Williams III, Romeo Langford, or Aaron Nesmith isn’t likely going to be enough. The only hope the Celtics would have is if Orlando has a master plan to bring in Harden and clear the roster. The scenario would be Orlando looking to dump all salary past 2020-21 and liking the idea of bringing in an exception they could use after getting Harden and his hand-picked running mate in place. They could then come back and use a $26 million trade exception to add a third star to its roster, again letting Harden choose his own “big three” built in Disney. Long shot…but possible.

2. Aaron Gordon: Orlando Magic- Forward

How can it happen? 

Boston can trade its current exception for Gordon with virtually no roster manipulation. They would need to make a corresponding move to fit the forward on their roster, but it would be as simple as cutting Javonte Green. 

Why could it happen?
Once again, for Orlando,  it comes down to having cap room…feels like we’ve been here before. Another periphery reason for the Magic to deal Gordon would be that they simply don’t love him. While Aaron Gordon has been a good to very good player at times for the Magic, his value to the team and throughout the league isn’t incredibly high. If rumors are to be believed, Orlando has shopped the forward on several occasions the last two years and would part with him for a deal they found appealing. 

The Celtics would be interested for a number of reasons, but none less than the ability to get their hands on a quality 25 year-old forward who can drop into the current lineup with minimal interruption to the current stars' growth patterns. Gordon is an excellent fourth scoring option to replace Gordon Hayward with a more prototypical power forward skill set on the defensive end and rebounding the ball. 

The only question here would be how he takes to being fourth banana most nights behind Celtics current stars Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker. 

Will it happen?
Possibly. While the numbers work well for Boston and the Magic don’t seem to love Gordon, the asking price will be high. Would Ainge be willing to send multiple unprotected picks to pry the forward loose? The Celtics would need to consider it to make Orlando think about sending off a quality player with two more years of $18 million and $16 million respectively. 

As mentioned, it sounds like the Magic are on the cusp of trying to make some things happen so if they find more draft assets and a trade exception or a couple young Celtics appealing, this could absolutely happen.

3. DeMar DeRozan: San Antonio Spurs- Guard/Forward

How can it happen?
Boston would need to cut loose $8.2 million to pull this off. Meaning, Ainge would likely need to: trade Daniel Theis ($5 million), Semi Ojeleye ($1.7 million) and cut Javonte Green ($1.5 million).

Why could it happen?
San Antonio wants to avoiding losing DeRozan for nothing. Coach/GM Gregg "Pop" Popovich has had a tough go since the messy break-up with Kawhi Leonard and is on the cusp of losing two of his most important players of his middling Spurs squad next offseason. DeRozan is in the final year of his 5-year, $139 million (then) mega-deal and a return of a couple first rounders, a young player or two and a sizable trade exception wouldn’t be a terrible return.
The Celtics would be getting back a former All-Star and elite scorer. DeRozen would challenge both Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown as the Celtics second scoring option but still likely slot in somewhere behind Jayson Tatum. The veteran guard also brings a solid defensive skill set that would fit right into Brad Stevens strong perimeter defending squad.
DeRozan has struggled shooting it from the perimeter the last couple years but in a team that could benefit from his iso-scoring skills, it may not be a huge issue. 

Will it happen?
Again, possible. The driver here will be the other teams who try to get in on DeRozan. This coupled with how well San Antonio plays out of the gate. If they struggle and don’t have a good look at a playoff spot, expect him to be available for trade.
The market for DeRozan will be competitive but the combination of trade exception, young players, and picks should keep the Celtics in the running. The key here will be putting a generous package together early and not negotiating too much if they want to get it done. The only consideration on the Boston side of things will be how much they are willing to pay to get their hands on what could possibly be only a rental.

4. LaMarcus Aldridge: San Antonio Spurs- Forward/Center

How can it happen?
Aldridge is due $24 million and would require the Celtics opening $4.5 million of its trade exception. The most straight forward move would be trading Daniel Theis.
Why could it happen? 

Same reason as DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio doesn’t want to let him walk for nothing next summer. Aldridge is now 35 years old but has remained productive into his mid-thirties. Coming off a season where he scored just under 18 points per game and pulled down about 8 rebounds, the former second overall pick is still a steady contributor. Again, Coach/GM Pop will want to avoid loosing the veteran for no return and would likely be enticed by a nice package of young players and picks along with a good sized trade exception. 

The Celtics would be in on Aldridge for the obvious, a big who can contribute inside and out on the offensive end while being a sturdy defensive presence. 

The concern? He’s a 35 year old in his 14th season with over 1000 NBA games on his legs. At some point, the cliff will show up, it is just a matter of when. That said, he has also seen his production decline in successive seasons leading into this year. This is one that Ainge would be wise to keep tabs on and see if the player can still produce on a high level.
Will it happen?
If Boston wants to. As mentioned, Aldridge is likely in the twilight of his productive years in the NBA. While he is still a vast improvement on the current bigs on the Celtics roster, he would be a rental and short-term option to get them over the hump in 2021 to the NBA Finals. If Aldridge can still be a productive fourth option and set the tone in the Boston front-court, could be a great addition to help support the current group of Celtics stars as well.

5. Otto Porter Jr: Chicago Bulls- Forward

How can it happen?
Boston would need to essentially unlock the entirety of its exception by dealing away $9 million in salary. They would likely need to deal away Theis, Ojeleye, and Carson Edwards while also cutting Javonte Green.
Why could it happen? 

I know, it sounds ridiculous. Boston deals away three players and cutting a fourth to add one of the most over-paid players in the NBA who has only played in 69 NBA game in the last two years. But before we write it off, let us look at this a little closer.
The immediate thing that may catch the Celtics’ eye, Otto Porter Jr is the NBA leader in three point shooting off movement since 2013 (yes, you read that right). Shooting over 40% from the arc since coming into the league, Porter’s skills from the outside immediately make him a good fit for Boston’s three heavy system. His efficiency from the floor is also an impressive 53% during his career. 

While Porter isn’t a perfect rebounder for his size or a playmaker of note, his ability to knock down shots at an efficient level would give the Celtics back a threat from all over the floor in the form of as good a shooter as the NBA may have to offer (outside of Golden State). 

Porter is also a good defender with length to disrupt passing lanes. Adding him to the current Celtics mix wouldn’t hurt anything or perceptually disrupt anything they do within Brad Stevens system on either end of the court. 

Now, why would Chicago dump him? Simple, they don’t want a $28 million dollar albatross of a contract on its books. The term “luxury we can’t afford” comes to mind. Porter is a good player for any team he suits up for but the Bulls would be willing to cut him lose for a positive gain on their books. Would a $28.4 million dollar trade exception be enough? Maybe a pick? Seems like a very fair price for a player they would be unlikely to keep past this season. 

The kicker for Boston? They are the only team in the NBA that could take the contract in 2020-21 without moving a star player to make it happen. 

Will it happen? 

If Boston wants him, absolutely. Porter is unlikely to have a big market and the Celtics can make it easy on Chicago to dump his salary with a positive return to boot. The two factors Ainge would need to weigh in: 1- Can Porter stay healthy and contribute all year long? 2- Would you risk him walking at the end of the year? 

The good news is that Boston would likely be able to get him back for a reasonable short-term deal because of his age and injury history. It wouldn’t be a total stretch to get him back on a 1-year deal with a player option for something around $15 million a year to make the stay a bit longer. Ultimately, the option of adding Otto Porter Jr. is appealing if he can stay on the court and contribute like he is capable (even though I have totally shot this down in the past…oops).

6. Al Horford: OKC Thunder- Forward/Center

How can it happen? 

Boston would need to cut $8 million. Trade Daniel Theis ($5 million), Semi Ojeleye ($1.7 million), cut Javonte Green ($1.5 million).

Why could it happen?
From OKC’s perspective, why would they want an overpaid 34 year old big man who has three more years on his contract at $27.5 million, $27 million, and $26.5 million respectively? The answer? They really don’t. The Thunder took on this monstrosity of contract to get more picks and control the NBA draft for the next four years. It is highly unlikely the Thunder want the contract on their books and another pick would be appealing to dump the biggest (and worst) contract on their books.
Now, why would Ainge and the Celtics want to get that player? A couple of reasons. 

First, comfort with the player. Through the contract is outrageous by any unit of measurement, Boston would be adding a player they have extreme comfort with. A player who is a veteran presence and has played with the current group of stars (minus Kemba Walker) with a reasonably high level of success (see 2017-18 ECF run).

Second, Horford’s return would be one that comes with decreased expectation for his production. Average Al would be able to return and slot into a comfortable role in Boston as an elder statesman who is simply there to facilitate, knock down open shots, and defend at a plus level. It doesn’t seem out of his league to be a fourth or fifth option on any given night.
Lastly, experience and leadership…and a sense of urgency. At 34 years old, Horford’s useful NBA years are set to expire shortly and with the young stars in green, he could come back as a steady hand that helps push as well as guide when needed.
Will it happen?
Another possible option. The OKC end of things seems like a given. For them to jettison a contract that doesn’t make them much better and takes them out of some free agency running, while adding a pick and significant trade exception OR a couple young players like Robert Williams or Romeo Langford, one would assume it is a no-brainer for the Thunder.
For Boston, it becomes a very tricky balancing act. Danny Ainge would need to project just HOW bad this contract is in a year or two or if Horford can maintain his current production into his aged 36 season. The reasonable expectation would be that Horford can absolutely offer similar production to his latter Boston days for the next season or possibly two but by year three, the drop off could be painful. The evidence of that drop off was on display much of the season in Philadelphia last season. That said, could it have been the team around him helping make him worse? Possibly.

Zach Peloquin

Photo used is courtesy of The Associated Press

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