One of the biggest surprises this offseason was when Gordon Hayward opted out of the final year of his contract with the Boston Celtics and joined the Charlotte Hornets on a four-year, $120 million deal. For all intents and purposes it was a free agent signing by the Hornets, but the two teams technically agreed to a sign-and-trade, which meant the Celtics were able to generate a $28.5 million Traded Player Exception (TPE).
We don’t need to get into all of the tedious cap details about how trade exceptions work, but the big thing to know is this: For one year after the Hayward deal was completed, the Celtics can trade for a player who makes $28.5 million or less without having to send back any players to match salaries.
That’s a pretty useful tool for a potential contender like the Celtics, and during a radio appearance on 98.5 The Sports Hub on Thursday, Danny Ainge said the “sweet spot” for using the exception will be toward the end of March. (The trade deadline is March 25.)
Here’s some further insight from Ainge on who the type of players the team is targeting:
“I would say maybe shooting, with size. There are a lot of different ways you can win in this league. We could use shooting, we could use passing. But you always need defense and our team is built on defense. We’ve been winning with defense the last few years. I know we haven’t won a championship, but we need defense.”
“It’s hard to find a shooter that can’t guard anybody and expect that person to come in and make a major change on our team. We’re looking for complete players. But I think that shooting at the big position is something we haven’t had.”
That makes a lot of sense given the Celtics are pretty deep at point guard and in the frontcourt, but are thin on the wing behind budding superstars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Unfortunately, big wings who can shoot and play defense are rare, and those who do possess those traits usually aren’t available via trade.
Still, there are a few options out there who could generally fit the mold that Ainge has in mind. Here’s a look at a five potential players that could help the Celtics:
Barnes has been something of an afterthought since he left the Golden State Warriors, but out in Sacramento he’s been quietly putting together one of the best seasons of his career. Through 21 games he’s averaging 17.2 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists, while shooting 49.8 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from 3-point land — both of which are career-best marks.
He’s not really someone you would think of as a pure shooter, nor is he a lockdown defender, but he’s capable in those areas and in terms of combining all the traits that Ainge is looking for, he might be the best fit. The big question with Barnes is if the Kings are still right in the playoff hunt by late March would they be willing to give up one of their best players?
The Magic are a bit of a mess this season, in large part because multiple key players have been injured, including Gordon himself. A severe ankle sprain will have him on the sidelines for four to six weeks, which means he’ll be returning just before the deadline. Assuming the Magic are still toiling at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, they could be sellers at the deadline — though any deal involving Gordon would assuredly be more involved than just dumping him into the Celtics’ trade exception.
If Gordon is available, he would be another player that generally checks all of the boxes. Though he was hitting at a career-high 36.9 percent from deep this season, he’s historically been a shakier shooter than Barnes, but is a much better defender and also offers more playmaking.
Ever since the Rockets started dismantling things, Tucker has been a prime trade target for contenders across the league. Tucker hasn’t accepted the extension offer that’s on the table, and would be open to a trade, according to The Athletic last month. Given those factors and everything else that’s gone on in Houston recently, it seems likely that Tucker will be on the move before the deadline.
Tucker isn’t the biggest wing, but he makes up for his lack of size with incredible strength and toughness that allows him to defend much bigger players. His mindset on that end of the floor would be exactly what the Celtics are looking for. Offensively he’s far less dynamic than some other options, but you can rely on him to hit open 3s.
With new head coach Billy Donovan and a number of interesting young players, the Bulls are a team that’s looking toward the future. As such, they could be inclined to move some of their veterans at the deadline. That includes Thaddeus Young, whose contract is only partially guaranteed for next season.
Again, it’s hard to find a player that brings shooting, size and defense, and Young is not really much of a 3-point threat — 26.3 percent this season and 33.2 percent for his career. But he would definitely provide the latter two aspects for the Celtics. In fact, they’d be hard-pressed to find a better defensive option than Young, who is one of the most versatile and underrated players on that side of the ball in the league.
One of the overlooked members of the four-team James Harden mega trade last month, Prince ended up on the Cavaliers. He’s shooting 37.8 percent from 3-point land this season and has the size and athleticism to be an impactful defender, though he hasn’t always proven it on that end of the floor.
He definitely won’t be the first option for the Celtics, but he could be worth considering if the price for someone like Barnes or Gordon gets too high. Though much better than many expected this season, the Cavaliers are still in the early stages of a long rebuild and would likely be willing to move Prince without requiring much of a return.