Creating the biggest trade exception ($28.5 million) in NBA history was the easy part for the Celtics after Gordon Hayward elected to join the Charlotte Hornets at the start of NBA Free Agency. Boston finalized the deal on Sunday by paying the Hornets off with two unprotected second-round picks (2023 and 2024) in order to facilitate the creation of a $28.5 million trade exception for Boston. Given the alternative (Hayward walking in free agency for no compensation), using draft capital to ensure a trade exception would be in play for the next season was a no-brainer for Boston.
Now comes the tough part for Danny Ainge and the Celtics front office: How exactly should the Celtics use their trade exception? When should they use the trade exception? There are lots of possibilities in play since over 90 percent of the NBA can fit into a $28.5 million trade exception (since they are making less than that amount).
For that reason, you’ll hear countless names in the coming weeks about hypothetical trade targets. Some names will be realistic but many will not. To help you sort through that noise as well as the limitations that the Celtics will be managing as they weigh how to use this team-building tool, let’s go through some of the realistic possibilities in play.
FINANCIAL LIMITATIONS FOR THIS CURRENT SEASON
The trade exception will last for a full NBA calendar year (about three weeks into the beginning of NBA free agency in 2021) so there will be plenty of time for the Celtics to use the $28.5 million to acquire a single player or multiple players that earn up to $28.5 million.
However, the Celtics will be dealing with some cap restrictions of their own during this season that will impact just how much of the exception they can use without doing some additional salary clearing of their own.
1. The Celtics will be dealing with a hard cap this season: By giving Tristan Thompson the full mid-level exception in free agency ($9.2 million), that automatically triggers the ‘apron’ which is a hard salary cap that is $6 million higher than the luxury tax line ($132 million). Currently, the Celtics are well short of that apron line (roughly $22-23 million) even after they officially sign Thompson and point guard Jeff Teague (making the current payroll about $117 million) but some quick math shows that bringing aboard any player making $21 million or more using the trade exception won’t be doable as the roster currently stands since it would put Boston over the hard cap.
There are ways for the Celtics to get around this hard cap issue if a target emerges in that higher salary range since player(s) could be traded in a salary dump to clear the necessary cap space but there’s very little expendable money on the team’s roster beyond the team’s core. If the Celtics wait until next offseason (August) to use the exception, they will have access to the full $28 millionexception without having to dump other salaries since the apron limitation will be lifted once the 2020-21 season concludes.
2. The Celtics (probably) want to stay out of the luxury tax this season: We covered the benefits of such a move last week for the Celtics. Staying out of the tax is far from a necessity for Boston this year but the benefits of avoiding the tax would have to be weighed against the potential upside of a player in the present. A key point of interest here is probably the health of Kemba Walker during this upcoming season. If he (or another key player) suffers a major injury or is limited, making an addition that puts the team into the luxury tax wouldn’t make a lot of sense given the long-term ramifications of repeater tax penalities. Currently, the Celtics are about $17 million below the tax line.
So using those two parameters as a guideline, we get a better idea of the kind of players the Celtics are looking at for the current season ($10-20 million range). Now, let's start examining some names that could be available for Boston to inquire on.
Larry Nance Jr, PF/C
Salary: $11.7 million (three years/30 million left)
Overview: The Cavs have way too many bigs and Nance Jr. is a good value contract on a rebuilding team so he holds pretty good value around the league especially after adding a decent 3-point shot (35 percent in 2019-20) in the last couple of seasons. The Celtics were high on him during draft night back in 2015 at No. 28 (he went one pick earlier to the Lakers) according to a league source so we know the front office likes him. Another big probably isn’t a big need right now after the team signed Tristan Thompson but the cost control here would be appealing for Boston long-term since Nance Jr. is a movable salary in his prime.
Evan Fournier, SG
Salary: $17 million (expiring contract)
Analysis: Not sure Fournier would be happy in a bench role after starting every game for the last five years in Orlando but he would be a strong fit from a scoring creation standpoint if Teague ends up being over the hill. He’s probably not worth giving up more than a late first round pick and a younger player for, given his ability to walk in free agency at the end of the season. Despite all that, he's still one of the best pure scorers that could conceivably be available. If Fournier is looking to win over getting another big payday in his next contract, getting his Bird Rights could be useful for Boston to retain him as a top reserve or even a starter at shooting guard if Smart comes off the bench.
Aaron Gordon, F/C
$18.1 million (two years remaining)
Analysis: Given his contract and defensive versatility, he’s one of the best veterans who could conceivably be available on the trade market this offseason. He’s also a potential closing five option for the C’s at center. Orlando is caught in no man’s land between being a borderline playoff team and having a bunch of guys that make a little bit too much money and don’t fit together. The goal here for the Celtics would be hoping that the Magic struggle early this season and become more interested in dumping salary/tanking due to the pandemic and a very talented 2021 draft class than putting together another first round exit in the postseason. The price would be relatively high here for Boston to acquire Gordon compared to other guys on this list (multiple first round picks and/or talented players on rookie deals) but the potential upside of the fit here is very real.
Terrence Ross, SG/SF
Salary: $13.5 million (3 years left)
Analysis: A sharpshooter with good team control in place. The Celtics probably hope that Aaron Nesmith turns into a cheaper version of him in the next couple of years but it’s never a bad idea to have as many wings that can shoot as possible coming off the bench as we saw in Miami last postseason. Given how long his deal is, he would be a target that makes sense as a bench boost if one or both of Langford/Nesmith don’t end up panning out in the short term.
Thaddeus Young, SF/PF
Salary: $12.9 million (2 years left)
Analysis: Useful, albeit overpaid bench player who is coming off a down year in Chicago. The new Bulls front office probably wouldn’t