Both Boston Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge suggested this week that the team might be better off waiting until the summer to utilize a $28.5 million traded player exception.
That’s a curious suggestion for a team that entered the year with championship aspirations but now sits two games under .500 and outside the top eight in the Eastern Conference, all while at a loss for answers for how to pull itself out of a prolonged funk.
So much of the conversation around the Celtics this season has been about whether Ainge could parlay the biggest traded player exception (TPE) in league history into impact talent that could aid Boston’s title hunt, both this season and beyond.
Is the sudden shift in suggesting the team could wait until the summer simply posturing given a market thin on obvious deadline sellers? Or is Boston brass greasing the skids for the possibility of punting on immediate activity given the many question marks surrounding this team and a weird pandemic season?
“What I would say is the timing is important and we would use that trade exception if the right deal came along. But what Wyc is probably saying is, because we’ve talked about this a lot internally, the most likely scenario of a deal that we would want would come along in the offseason, as opposed to here and now," Ainge said during his weekly radio appearance on 98.5 The Sports Hub's “Toucher and Rich” program on Thursday. “Doesn’t mean we couldn’t use portions of it at this point but that might prevent something bigger in the offseason."
Ainge isn’t wrong about there being obstacles to a big in-season splash. Here’s just a few of the areas complicating matters:
1. THE HARD CAP
By inking Tristan Thompson to the full value of the non-taxpayer midlevel exception, the Celtics hard-capped themselves. The team cannot, even temporarily, exceed the $138.9 million hard cap. Based on Boston’s current salary commitment, the team can only take back roughly $19 million in salary -- though that number increases with every bit of outgoing salary the team might send out. It really doesn’t matter because ...
2. THE LUXURY TAX
Asked this week if his team is willing to spend into the tax to field a championship team, Grousbeck hinted that, given the absence of fans over the past year, the team would prefer to stay out of the tax this season. That’s somewhat understandable as it would afford the Celtics some additional flexibility in splurging in future years by avoiding stiff repeater penalties.
But the tax threshold is $132.6 million -- $6 million less than the hard cap -- which means that, once any in-season roster shuffling is complete, the team could only take on roughly $13 million in additional salary. Again, they could target, say, a $22 million salary like that of Harrison Barnes but would also have to send out $9 million in order to ensure they land below the tax after all the movement.
3. SELLERS' MARKET
This weird pandemic season has left an unusually large number of teams hovering near .500. And, with the addition of the play-in tournament that will give two more teams in each conference a chance to make the postseason, there are simply fewer teams that are surefire sellers before the March 25 trade deadline. Which means that the teams willing to sell off pieces are in prime position to raise prices among all the bidders looking to fortify their rosters.
4. LACK OF TRADE ASSETS
The Celtics’ treasure trove of future draft assets is empty and that makes it harder for Boston to make a big-splash move. The C's has only their own future first-round picks to deal, though the team’s recent rough patch could make its 2021 pick slightly more intriguing. Boston also doesn’t have a true gem of a young player to put in a deal, though there’s certainly some value in players like Payton Pritchard, Aaron Nesmith (especially based on recent returns) and Romeo Langford (despite his injury woes).
But the real question here is whether making a move will actually be any easier this offseason, and is the reward of a greater prize worth both the wait and the risk of a more harrowing deadline?
Yes, the market of available players could be a bit more robust, albeit at a time when numerous deep-pocketed suitors -- including teams with far more alluring draft assets and young players -- could be desperate for impact additions. Yes, the Celtics could be less hindered by cap constraints, at least if they don’t take back a player via sign-and-trade, which would hard cap them yet again and immediately thin the number of available additions.
We’ve been of the ilk that Ainge simply cannot wait. Even with all that’s gone wrong the past month -- especially the past three games -- the window for competing for a title is open based on the development of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and every moment should be maximized, even if the team ultimately falls short of its goal.
Waiting until the summer feels like a dangerous tight rope, and one where sellers know the Celtics must utilize the exception before it vaporizes. This would seemingly only drive prices higher. This is why we’re suspicious that Ainge is using the benefit of time as leverage in any potential deals now.
We’ve said it repeatedly: The Celtics should not make a deal just to make a deal. But this roster, by Ainge’s own admission, clearly needs an infusion of talent -- if only to ensure the Jays don’t get frustrated by the youth around them. Then, with a healthier Marcus Smart and Kemba Walker, this team might not be as far off from getting back on track as the past few games have suggested.
There is, of course, a bit of a middle ground in all this.
The Celtics have another fairly valuable trade exception of $4.8 million generated by delivering Enes Kanter to Portland. A few days ago we wondered if the Pelicans might be willing to move Josh Hart for draft assets, particularly given his impending restricted free-agent status. The Celtics might be able to concoct a deal with New Orleans that adds some of what ails them -- size, grit on the glass, defensive versatility -- and either use the lower TPE or send back some combination of young players and draft picks. Alas, the Pelicans are quietly shuffling into the play-in conversation.
But there will be deals of that nature that could be available. Restricted free agency is rarely a good gamble but it might be worth the risk for these Celtics. Boston would be well served to de-clutter its roster by potentially moving out some recent draftees and bringing back an upgrade at the 4 spot (or someone who might be able to combine the individual talents of players like Semi Ojeleye and Grant Williams, while allowing the Celtics to more often lean on familiar smallball lineups).
No in-season upgrade truly matters unless everyone on the roster does their part. Tatum and Brown need to continue to grow into leadership roles and accept the challenges that come with being the faces of the franchise with no veteran shields like they've had in the past.
Kemba Walker needs to get his knee healthy and modify his game while embracing being more of a playmaker and someone who can thrive in catch-and-shoot situations as the Celtics put the ball in the hands of the Jays more.
Marcus Smart needs to get healthy and restore order on the defensive end. Let’s remember that quartet has played only 28 minutes together this season. It could help, too, if the team would unleash Robert Williams for more minutes.
But it feels vital to infuse some additional talent onto this roster before the deadline. Ainge missed the mark with his veteran offseason additions. Maybe Thompson ramps it up but this team needs more pieces it can lean on in an eight- or nine-man rotation. Heck, they might need more impact talent just to survive the brutal second-half schedule then figure out their playoff rotation based on what they saw.
Could a better option exist in the offseason? Sure. But there’s no guarantees. And time is of the essence with the Jays. Ainge needs to operate with an urgency to embrace the now and not get blinded by the potential of what could be in a league where it’s impossible to predict the future.