Celtics trade deadline preview: How Boston can make it back into Eastern Conference's top tier

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Danny Ainge is in uncharted waters this season, at least relative to the position he’s used to leading the Boston Celtics from. For the first time since 2013, the Celtics are pick-neutral in the first round. Typically, that term describes teams that have long-owed first-round picks to other teams and are finally escaping draft purgatory. Boston’s situation is unique. For almost a decade, the Celtics were the asset kings of the NBA. They owned one of the most impressive collections of picks acquired from other teams in NBA history, and on some level, they squandered it. The Celtics do not own a single first-round pick from an opposing team now. Their war chest has been emptied. 

What do they have to show for it? Two stars in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, yes, but hardly the superteam that was supposed to flank them. No third star has emerged from their draft surplus. Their big trade expenditure, Kyrie Irving, bolted out of town at his first chance, and free-agent splashes Al Horford and Gordon Hayward followed. 

It puts the Celtics in the same position as their competition. For the first time of that Tatum-Brown era, their decisions have consequences. They can’t afford to offer four first-rounders for Justise Winslow anymore because there isn’t an endless supply of picks available to correct such mistakes. They have to be careful, but they also have to be aggressive. The team they have right now, in all likelihood, is not enough to win the 2021 championship, and without a meaningful upgrade somewhere, might not be good enough to do so in 2022 or 2023 either. Here’s how they could go about changing that. 

Needs

  • Ball movement: The Celtics rank 22nd in total passes, but that doesn’t properly convey how stiff and mechanical their offense gets. They rank 29th in both potential assists and secondary assists and 21st in total offensive movement, according to NBA.com tracking data. This becomes especially problematic in crunch time, when the offense often devolves into four players standing around and hoping that Tatum can generate a shot. 
  • Size: Bam Adebayo embarrassed Daniel Theis in the Eastern Conference finals. Tristan Thompson hasn’t been much better. Robert Williams might be the long-term solution, but if the Celtics trusted him that much, he’d be playing more than 16.1 minutes per game. Ainge has so far hesitated to make a hefty investment in a big man, infamously turning down Myles Turner for Hayward in the offseason, and the Celtics might simply decide to close playoff games with small lineups. But they have no answer for the Adebayos of the world at this moment, and that has to change. 
  • Shooting: Is Brad Stevens letting the NBA pass him by? The Celtics averaged 33.4 3-point attempts per game during the 2016-17 season. They haven’t reached 35 on the high-end since then, nor have they dipped below 30 on the low-end, but they ranked third in attempts during that 2016-17 season and rank 22nd now on their 32.9 attempts per game. Boston picked Aaron Nesmith in the lottery hoping to correct that, but he has struggled so far. The Celtics have plenty of effective shooters, but their offense simply hasn’t generated clean looks from behind the arc. Some of that relates to those issues moving the ball. Some of it is based on personnel. The Celtics need someone willing to fire away. 

Assets

Cap notes

  • Boston has three trade exceptions. The biggest is a $28.5 million exception acquired through the Gordon Hayward sign-and-trade, and is responsible for the bulk of the trade rumors Boston is involved in. Boston can use it to absorb all but the 33 most expensive players in the NBA (the list of which can be found here). The others are considerably smaller: a $4.8 million exception that came from the Enes Kanter trade and a $2.5 million exception from the Vincent Poirier trade. 
  • The Celtics still have their bi-annual exception (which started at $3.6 million but prorates by the day). That can only be used to sign a free agent. 
  • By virtue of using the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (on Thompson), the Celtics are hard-capped at the apron ($138.928 million). They cannot exceed that amount for any reason. At this moment, though, they have roughly $24 million beneath that line with which to operate. 
  • The Celtics are currently below the luxury tax line. They have roughly $18 million in space beneath that line. 

Expiring contracts

  • Daniel Theis and Semi Ojeleye are unrestricted free agents with full Bird rights. The Celtics can offer either anything up to the max in order to retain them. 
  • Javonte Green is a restricted free agent with Early Bird rights. That technically subjects him to the Gilbert Arenas Provision, which is explained in more detail here. This is unlikely to come into play, though, as Green probably won’t receive an offer anywhere close to the non-taxpayer mid-level exception. 
  • Jeff Teague is an unrestricted free agent with Non-Bird rights. The Celtics can offer him up to 120 percent of his 2020-21 salary without dipping into their cap exceptions. 

Possible trade targets

Low-end — Thaddeus Young: We’re really stretching the term “low-end” here to mean “compared to Boston’s other targets.” Young has thrived as a small-ball point-center off the bench for Chicago, a role he could effectively duplicate in Boston. Unlike the other wings the Celtics might pursue, Young is at least plausible at center, and the playmaking he would introduce to their offense would be welcome. He may be a bit old for Boston’s timeline at 32, but the Celtics could acquire him without touching their trade exception by building a package around Thompson and picks. That would allow them to upgrade immediately and save for their big swing for the offseason, when more players are likely to be available. 

Medium-end — Harrison Barnes: Is Barnes’ jump as a playmaker real? If so, he’s worth a hefty trade package at the trade deadline. Barnes would be a welcome infusion of shooting into Boston’s offense, and his defensive switchability fits in well with Boston’s other wings. He’s not quite as good as Hayward, but he’s a sensible replacement given his cheaper price tag and relative youth. 

High-end — Jerami GrantThe dream scenario here would be the rebuilding Pistons selling high on Grant. Will they do so? Unlikely, but it’s worth noting that Grant will only have two years remaining on his deal after this one and the Pistons are still far away from contention. If they at all doubt his commitment to the rebuild, cashing out on him now could provide sorely needed assets, help keep Detroit at the bottom of the standings as they look for a franchise player, and furnish the Celtics with the third star they’ve spent years searching for. 

Possible buyout targets

Guard — Gerald Green: An unorthodox solution to Boston’s shooting issues. Green hasn’t played since the 2018-19 season, but is presumably healthy and thrived under Stevens during his last Celtics stint. 

Forward — Darius Miller: Another injury-prone pure shooter, Miller offers the advantage of having actually played this season. Still, the Thunder just traded for Svi Mykhailiuk to help surround their youngsters with more shooting. Are they really going to rush to get rid of one of the few other shooters they have? 

Center — Gorgui DiengThe Celtics like their big men to shoot, and Dieng has hit almost 48 percent of his 3-point attempts this season. If he can recapture the shot-blocking he displayed earlier in his career? Then all the better. 

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