The Celtics should try to trade for Aaron Gordon

(Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)

The hardest part of playing the trade game at the deadline is that we have so little actual information. There are a million leaked reports, but many of those are driven by agenda or worse, and every year there are moves that come out of the blue. Beyond that, we simply don’t know the motivations and internal deliberations of the teams. A general consensus often forms around specific teams and players, but that’s just fuel for conversation; it doesn’t necessarily have any connection to what a specific team really thinks.

While that makes it hard to predict what will actually happen, it does free us as fans (and bloggers and sometimes media people of every stripe) to have fun and wildly speculate. There’s no punishment for being wrong, after all. With that in mind…

I think the Boston Celtics should be negotiating with the Orlando Magic to trade for Aaron Gordon.

This assertion assumes a few things that, again, I cannot say with any certainty are true. They are:

  1. The Celtics are positioning to make a trade offer for Anthony Davis, most likely in 2019, and getting him is the most direct path to upper-echelon title contention;
  2. The Celtics are not going to be a tax team this season, but that their budget in future seasons in roughly $10 million above the tax line;
  3. The Celtics believe that the trend towards smaller, higher-skilled teams will continue for the foreseeable future;
  4. The Celtics are at best unsure of their ability to re-sign Marcus Smart, having failed to agree on an extension and now possibly having new off-court concerns with him;
  5. The Magic are engaged in a long-term rebuild under new management;
  6. The Magic view both Gordon and Jonathan Isaac as a power forward or possibly center;
  7. The Magic are likely to have a top-5 pick in the coming draft, and have a number of center/power forwards near the top of their rankings.

However, if those things are true, it makes the Celtics and Magic very interesting trade partners.

The athletic 22-year-old already averages 18.4 points per game in just his fourth NBA season. At 6-foot-9, he’s a versatile piece in the frontcourt who rebounds well and can now spread the floor adequately with his outside shooting. The combination of youth and potential make him one of the more appealing names in the league that could be available at the trade deadline.

For this season, Gordon doesn’t make a ton of sense for Boston. The team needs shot creation so targeting a low-usage finisher instead of high-usage creator seems counter-productive. They also have more wings than almost anyone plus Gordon Hayward scheduled to return for the start of next season, at the latest. This season isn’t really the Celtics’ main focus. The team is good and should be a top two seed in the East, but no one in the front office really believes this group is hanging a banner. With a fully healthy Hayward, some people could convince themselves otherwise but even then I don’t think Danny Ainge and the rest of the decision-makers would be there. It’s hard when the opponent is the best team ever assembled, even when you have consistently played them well.

The Anthony Davis Factor

That’s why Anthony Davis is never far from the thoughts of the Celtics. No one expects that he’s available right now, or even that he will be this summer. However, there’s a reasonable chance that in 2019, when faced with signing a long designated veteran extension and committing to New Orleans or playing out his deal and going to free agency, that he’ll go for the latter and put the Pelicans in a difficult position. Just the possibility of that happening is enough for the Celtics to plan for how to be the top trade partner at that time.

Greg Cooper/USA Today Sports

We saw this past summer that executing the big trade requires a mix of assets. Victor Oladipo’s potential and contract were attractive to Indiana, no matter what the general consensus of the move was at the time. Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn played the same role in getting Jimmy Butler; it wasn’t just draft picks. The Celtics got Kyrie Irving for a combination of players and picks. If the Celtics want to be positioned for Davis, they need to have a player with the contract to make that work. From the current roster that would most likely be Al Horford, but he wouldn’t be super attractive to a team about to rebuild, which would mean roping a third team in, and he could conceivably (though doubtfully) opt-out before being traded if he saw that on the horizon.

The most direct solution for that problem on the current roster is Smart, but for all his positive attributes, it’s doubtful he would be a highly attractive trade piece for Davis. That would be doubly so if he were on an eight-figure salary, and it’s unclear that Boston is planning on re-signing him at all. As an over-the-cap team there are limited alternative options for building up large amounts of tradable salary. Trading for and then re-signing Gordon would be a direct path to doing that. Other options like Rodney Hood and Julius Randle could be used for the same purpose, but most teams would prefer Gordon.

This can’t be all about Davis, though. While they consider him in their plans, it’s still far more likely that he never plays for the Celtics. If that’s the case, would you rather have Aaron Gordon for $20-25 million a year, or Smart for $10-15 million? I don’t think that’s as clear a choice as it seems, unless the rumors of off-court concerns are real, but the upside on Gordon is certainly higher and in the reckoning of a title-or-bust franchise, that’s what really matters.

If the team is “stuck” with a highly paid Gordon after Davis signs an extension with the Pelicans, what would that even look like? Boston already has Hayward, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum as their primary wings moving forward. How does Gordon fit? I would make the case that winning the title involves taking risks and being foresighted, and an opportunity to do that still exists here.

Gordon is taller than Draymond Green and Kevin Love. He’s as tall as Al Horford, no matter what the official measurements say. Boston recently closed out a victory with Semi Ojeleye at center. Gordon hasn’t been a great rebounder or shot blocker, but he has the physical tools to get the job done. We know Brad Stevens wants versatility and skill over specialization and bulk. You wouldn’t want someone Gordon’s size defending Joel Embiid or DeMarcus Cousins for 48 minutes, but Stevens has shown flexibility in dealing with specific challenges and in recent playoffs small has been able to run big off the court.

Is a Kyrie/Brown/Hayward/Tatum/Gordon lineup a crazy thing to project for the post-Horford years? If they add another high profile young player via the LaKings pick is it a bad thing to have “too many wings” in a league where the general consensus is you can’t have too many wings? Is it folly or foresight to think Gordon could be a playoff killer as the de facto center for stretches on a Brad Stevens squad?

David Richard/USA Today Sports

I think Stevens could make that work. If not, Gordon would likely be tradable even on a bigger deal and there’s no guarantee that the all of the existing wing trio will pan out, be healthy, and stay in Boston. Regardless, without finding a trade for someone the caliber of Davis, having Tatum develop into an MVP candidate or nailing a future pick, this team will remain in the pseudo-contender tier so the exactly perfect fit is somewhat of a moot point.

The potential framework of a Gordon trade

There are two obvious challenges in this, beyond just determining if Orlando has any interest in moving Gordon. What would the Celtics have to give in trade, and what will Gordon cost in restricted free agency?

The trade cost is hard to figure out, but I would say Boston would not cross the “Memphis Pick” line. Gordon is entering free agency and past trades of players about to be an RFA (albeit less talented ones) have not returned a huge ransom. Trading a pick that could become the unprotected one of a bad team trending in the downward direction would probably be too much.

However, I can imagine creative pick constructions like “the best of the Memphis pick, Clippers pick, or Celtics own pick but only in 2019.” That would give Orlando the upside of the late lottery and the downside of a late-1st. The NBA changed the rules last season to allow teams to protect picks they own from other teams, giving options like this that previously didn’t exist.

Alternatively, Boston could give multiple less valuable picks, or even structure things to take back a middling salary dump like Terrance Ross, using some cap chicanery involving the disabled player exception that I won’t get deeply into, plus a player like Smart or Marcus Morris. Again, this is predicated on Orlando being open to trading him out of concerns about fit alongside their other building blocks, and the size of his next contract on a bad team.

Kim Klement/USA Today Sports

If that were their position, starting the framework of a trade with the DPE, or a matching salary like one of the Marcuses, plus the Celtics’ 2018 pick and the 2019 protected Clippers pick would make sense. From there, both teams could add smaller pieces to get the exact balance right. Adding Ross as a salary dump gets more complicated as it would put Boston over the luxury tax, which both makes trade matching restrictions harder to navigate and isn’t something the Celtics will want to do, but some set-up moves could make it possible. Adding DJ Augustin would be easier from a salary matching perspective but causes budget issues down the line and would result in the Celtics giving up another asset at some point to dump him.

These are all very manageable hurdles if both teams are interested. The Celtics have the pieces to make this work if Orlando is interested; Gordon’s small salary to close his rookie deal is easy to match salaries on.

Maneuvering the Celtics’ salary cap

From there, Boston has to ask if they’re willing to match a max offer sheet for Gordon. A few seasons ago it would have been a lock for him to receive that, but maybe not in the current cap environment. Still, he would at least get close to it, I think, and the Celtics couldn’t make the trade if they weren’t willing to match. Again, this is a high-risk play being made in part because we want to build up tradable salary for Davis, so I think it’s possible that they would go for it. If they do, managing the 2018-19 budget does get difficult.

Hayward, Horford, Irving, Gordon, Brown, Tatum, Terry Rozier, Semi Ojeleye, and Daniel Theis would have you functionally at the tax line. This decision-making process assumes Smart is not going to be re-signed. Marcus Morris would be very expendable and easily moved on an expiring contract. If you have to eat a salary like Ross to make this happen, you’re already at your budget with five roster spots to fill, so the team would have to pay someone to take him, or hope he provides enough the rest of this season where someone takes his expiring contract for nothing. Of course, ownership could just pay more money, but I’m trying to be reasonable with budgeting because it is a real thing.

With nine spots filled and ~$10M left in the budget, we have decisions left. If the Lakers pick conveys, that takes up most of what remains. Add the Celtics own pick, if it isn’t part of the trade, and we’re at either 10 or 11 spots with little wiggle room. Maybe a part of the non-taxpayer MLE can be used on an Aron Baynes-like (or Baynes-exactly) bruiser, especially if the Lakers pick rolls over to Sacramento. The rest is minimum contracts; the fate of The Dancing Bear and Abdel Nader would depend on final roster construction. If you can leverage Gordon’s restricted status to get him for $20M instead of the max, things loosen up.

The budget would be a struggle next season but it’s the one after that gets very hard to manage. If a Davis trade develops (imagine Gordon + Brown + Kings pick) it clears some salary. If not, ownership would either have to eat what I think is an unreasonable tax bill for what is still likely not a title team (again, this is without Davis), so Rozier doesn’t get re-signed at the very least and some other tough calls may have to be made. With rookie signings and needing a veteran center, you quickly slide into very deep tax waters where giving away Horford, or even stretching him, is not hard to imagine (though I would expect him to still have good trade value 18 months from now on an expiring contract).

After that, assuming nothing like giving Horford away a season early happens, Al’s contract clears but the rookie deals continue to come up for extensions and you simply can’t keep as many players as Boston would have a desire to. Potentially difficult decisions multiple years down the road, compounded by “repeater” tax status, can’t completely paralyze the team today, though. The roster building challenges are significant but not impossible to navigate, so I think the team would be willing to commit to Gordon even at the max.

Making a run at Gordon is not without risk, but the reward is there. The cost would likely be high for a pending free agent at a position of questionable current fit, but the payoff either in future trade machinations or league trends might be huge. It would require a number of hard decisions in other areas, including another year of roster turnover, but this front office has shown that they are more willing to make those decisions than almost anyone. Aaron Gordon isn’t the perfect trade target, but he might be the right one for this particular team, at this particular time.

This was a special guest column for BSJ by salary cap savant Ryan Bernardoni, who is also the editor-in-chief at CelticsHub. You can (should) follow him on Twitter @dangercart