As the Celtics enter the All-Star break, the biggest question around the team — despite a disastrous stretch, broken by a three-game winning streak — is whether Danny Ainge will utilize the team’s record $28.5 million traded player exception (TPE) before the deadline.
Ainge has claimed he might kick the can to the offseason, so we address that here as well as we take a look at some pros and cons of trading for five of the most often-discussed players by fans and analysts.
Nikola Vucevic, Orlando
The case for: This is one of the simplest ones: Vucevic is a really good offensive player. He isn’t as good a passer as Al Horford proved to be during his Celtics tenure, but he would give Boston a major piece it doesn’t currently have. His contract descends slightly in structure and ends at $22 million in 2023. A small amount of salary would have to go out, but presumably Orlando would demand players who would mostly make up the difference anyway.
The case against: The Magic would probably need to be wowed. Lots of teams will have interest, so the Celtics would probably have to beat other offers, which would probably require plenty of picks. How far down the line are you willing to mortgage the future for a big man, especially with Robert Williams already on the roster? Williams’ play recently suggests he will need fewer big men in front of him in the rotation, not more.
Harrison Barnes, Sacramento
The case for: Barnes is one of the more popular potential Celtics targets. He’s a veteran who has won a title as a starter, and he seems to be a great citizen even on the rebuilding Kings. He’s also having a solid season overall — 16.6 points per game, 40.3 percent 3-point shooting — and has rebounded from a recent cold stretch. If Walker’s recent surge is real and sustainable for the rest of the year, another big wing who can shoot, create a little and defend makes a ton of sense for the Celtics. Barnes’ contract declines over the next two years and finishes at a relatively friendly $18.5 million at age 30.
Meanwhile, Sacramento has fallen off a cliff, losing nine of its last 10. The Kings might be willing to sell soon.
The case against: Barnes’ deal would eat almost all of Boston’s TPE. Are the Celtics confident Barnes would solve all their issues? On paper, he makes a ton of sense but his timeline isn’t perfect alongside Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. That isn’t the end of the world if he helps turn the Celtics into a contender, but if Danny Ainge has bigger goals this summer, Barnes might not fit what he’s looking to do.
Aaron Gordon, Orlando
The case for: The Magic seem to like Gordon’s defense — he’s versatile with great athleticism and a 7-foot wingspan. Offensively, he is shooting a career-high 36.9 percent from 3-point range and has hit 46.7 percent of his catch-and-shoot triples, per the NBA’s stat site. Gordon is 25, just a year older than Jaylen Brown, so he fits Boston’s timeline better than Harrison Barnes.
Meanwhile, his contract descends year by year and fits comfortably within the Celtics’ TPE. In theory, Boston wouldn’t even need to trade a player to make it work, although Orlando — of course — would demand players in return for Gordon).
The case against: Gordon might be back in the lineup by the time the trade deadline rolls around after suffering a 4-to-6 week ankle injury on Feb. 1, but the Celtics would want to be confident in his health before the playoffs roll around. Orlando’s demand would likely be high as well — hyper-athletic, versatile forwards don’t come cheap.
Also, how confident are the Celtics that Gordon’s shooting numbers are real? Before this year, he never shot 35 percent from deep and had a couple disastrous seasons (last year’s 30.8 mark is nerve-wracking).
Thaddeus Young, Chicago
The case for: Want a reliable veteran? They don’t get much more reliable than 32-year-old Thad Young, who has been everywhere and seen everything. Young isn’t a floor spacer, but he is shooting 60 percent from the floor this season with a variety of hooks and odd shots in the paint, and he’s a reliable slasher. Interestingly, at forward he averages 4.4 assists and just 1.9 turnovers per game. Defensively, he can cover multiple positions.
Young makes about $13.5 million, so he fits comfortably into Boston’s TPE and could be part of a multi-move deadline. His contract is partially guaranteed at $6 million next season.
The case against: Do the Celtics need more? Certainly, getting Marcus Smart back will help quite a bit, but trading Gordon Hayward for a year or two of Thad Young would feel like a major loss for the Celtics, and Danny Ainge seems to think a little bigger, and Young might be too far outside the Celtics’ timeline.
Larry Nance Jr., Cleveland
The case for: Nance is another rangy forward who can defend multiple positions well and is a smart, opportunistic scorer who likely would not have much trouble fitting in alongside a trio of high-usage stars. He’s shooting 38.1 percent from 3-point range and just under 66 percent around the rim.
The case against: Nance is a weirdly bad free-throw shooter — this season, he’s making 57.1 percent of his attempts.
Realistically, the only other case against Nance is that he probably isn’t a make-or-break prospect. He helps in a lot of little ways, but the 18-17 Celtics feel like they need someone who helps in big ways. If Boston could find a way to acquire Nance and another impact player, he would be a solid addition.
The case for: Are the Celtics a trade away from becoming a contender this year? If not, the player they acquire would need to help them improve now and still be a good acquisition in the future as they continue team building. Will a player like that be available before the deadline?
The case against: As Ryan Bernardoni has pointed out, the trade market might dry out quickly this summer, and trading now ensures an extra postseason with that player on the roster. If the player is expiring, trading for them now is the only way to get them on the roster. The Celtics also will lose their TPE if they don’t use it this summer. Other teams might look to take advantage.
This is your reminder that Danny Ainge almost always seems to have outside-the-box ideas and that any list of players often seems to miss his actual target. The Celtics will almost certainly find some use for the TPE, but expect the unexpected.
The trade deadline arrives on March 25.
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