February hasn’t been kind to the Boston Celtics. They are 2-4 in games this month, including rough losses to the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards. This recent stretch is not representative of this Celtics team, though. They are missing All-Defender Marcus Smart, and Kemba Walker is still getting reintegrated. They won’t lose as many games they’re supposed to win once their core is 100 percent.
While their inevitable All-Stars, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, have generated plenty of scoring at ease, they’re having a rough time getting points from anyone else, particularly off the bench.
The Celtics also don’t seem to have a definitive answer at center. While their center-by-committee has worked between Tristan Thompson, Daniel Theis, and Robert Williams, no one has particularly stuck out. This could be problematic when they face elite big men in the playoffs.
Boston gave up two second-round draft picks to the Charlotte Hornets to convince them to acquire Gordon Hayward through a sign-and-trade, rather than signing him outright. This allowed the Celtics to generate a $28.5 million traded player exception (TPE). As time goes on, it’s becoming harder to see the Celtics using it on a player as good as Hayward. What makes a deal even more difficult is their lack of assets. The Celtics went from having multiple first-round picks in the last several drafts to just having their own from here on out.
They could make a case to save the TPE until the upcoming offseason for a potential sign-and-trade for a top free agent. That would be difficult, however, as acquiring a free agent via sign-and-trade would hard cap them. With Tatum’s extension set to kick in, they’re already projected to be very close to the hard cap. They would need to get off a lot of salary to make a sign-and-trade feasible, which could further decimate their already lacking depth. The best time for them to use the TPE is now before the March 25 trade deadline.
Here are some players the Celtics could pursue with their TPE:
Nikola Vucevic (Orlando)
The Orlando Magic are in basketball purgatory. They’re not bad enough to bottom-out for a top lottery pick but they’re not good enough to contend when fully healthy. In 12th place in the East with a 11-18 record, the Magic could opt to trade their veterans for draft picks and young players, then head into next season building around a healthy Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz, Cole Anthony, and their lottery pick.
Nikola Vucevic is currently having a career-best season where he’s now averaging 2.7 three-pointers per game on 43 percent shooting. Vucevic would be a perfect addition to the Celtics and undoubtedly improve them significantly. His $26 million salary would fit into the TPE, and the Celtics were interested in pursuing Vucevic with their maximum cap space in 2019, according to Shams Charania.
Do the Celtics have the assets to get a Vucevic deal done? If he becomes available, there are probably several teams that can make a more compelling offer. A deal might have to include both Romeo Langford and Aaron Nesmith, two recent lottery picks who could have a great opportunity in Orlando where they don’t have any long-term answer at the wing. Boston may also have to include one or two future first-round picks to get it done.
It’s important to note that the Celtics are currently just under $20 million below the hard cap. If they acquire with the TPE a player such as Vucevic who earns $20 million or more, they’d need to send out salary to stay below the hard cap.
Harrison Barnes (Sacramento)
If you were told in 2019 that Harrison Barnes‘ contract would be a better value than Buddy Hield’s, you might not believe it. With the way both players are currently playing, it seems like Barnes’ contract is more tradeable, especially since it decreases in salary each season.
Barnes isn’t as productive as Gordon Hayward, but he can fit into that role and be the Celtics fourth scorer. According to Sam Amick, the Celtics are monitoring Barnes but the Kings are currently uninterested in trading him. He isn’t untradeable as Sacramento is currently sitting with a 12-15 record in 11th place in the West. There’s no guarantee Barnes continues this level of play over the length of his contract, making now an excellent time to get a lot of value for him in a trade. The Celtics could offer a future first-round pick and one young player on their rookie-scale contract while fitting Barnes into their TPE.
Kelly Oubre (Golden State)
Kelly Oubre has struggled this season with the Warriors, although he has improved his shooting recently. The Warriors and Pelicans had discussed a trade involving Oubre, according to Shams Charania. This could indicate that the Warriors may have already decided they don’t intend on re-signing him, though there’s still plenty of time for them to make the fit work.
If Oubre is truly available, the Celtics could easily acquire him with their TPE without needing to send back any salary. The Warriors traded their top-20 protected 2020 first-round pick to get Oubre. Perhaps recouping a first-round pick and one young player could be enough for Oubre. The Warriors could also look to offload more salary into the Celtics TPE for additional luxury tax savings.
Al Horford (Oklahoma City)
This might be a stretch given their recent history, but the fit is unquestionably there. The Thunder would probably love to get a first-round pick while creating an additional $27.5 million TPE for Al Horford. The Celtics would have to send out salary to remain under the hard cap, which could be solved by sending back Tristan Thompson. Having Horford would expedite the integration process of bringing in a new player since he already has experience playing under Brad Stevens.
Davis Bertans (Washington)
The Celtics were interested in acquiring Davis Bertans during the offseason, according to Chase Hughes of NBC Sports. The Wizards re-signed Bertans to a five-year $80 million deal that pays him an average of $16 million annually. That annual salary range is now the rate for sharpshooters such as him and Joe Harris, but Bertans has struggled with his shot so far this season. If the Wizards want to create more flexibility for next season, they could look to unload Bertans. He could be an interesting buy-low target for the Celtics who lack a three-point specialist after Walker.
Another three-point specialist who has been mentioned as a trade target is JJ Redick, who can fit in the TPE while keeping the Celtics below the luxury tax.
Eric Gordon (Houston)
The Rockets finally have some flexibility after trading James Harden with the ability to generate over $20 million in cap space this offseason. They could look to get off Eric Gordon, who has two guaranteed years left worth $37.8 million. Doing so could double the Rockets’ 2021 cap space, allowing them to take on more unwanted salary with draft picks attached. Gordon is having a bounceback season with strong efficiency all across the board. He would instantly provide much-needed scoring off the bench.
Thaddeus Young is playing extremely well and he might be the most sought-after player in the trade market among contenders. His contract and position-fluidity makes him an instant fit on any team. The Celtics could use him in their closing lineups and could be a small-ball center if they want more offense.
Tomas Satoransky could also be included in the Celtics TPE. Getting off both Young ($6 million guaranteed in 2021-22) and Satoransky ($5 million guaranteed in 2021-22) would open up an additional $11 million in 2021 cap space for the Bulls.
Role players George Hill and Trevor Ariza are probably not who the Celtics ideally would like to use a huge TPE on, but if they need to “use it or lose it”, they could acquire them Both players would bring stability to the Celtics bench.