ORLANDO — It’s not that Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge wanted to facilitate LeBron James’s potential exit from Miami. But that may have been a byproduct of his actions on Wednesday.
Ainge wanted to help the Celtics by being the third team in a trade that enabled the Cavaliers to clear enough salary cap space to make a maximum offer to James, a former hometown hero.
James may or may not return to Cleveland. He met with Pat Riley and the Heat Wednesday afternoon in Las Vegas. The Celtics aren’t concerned about the destinations of James and fellow free agent Carmelo Anthony, but Ainge certainly will take advantage of teams making hasty deals to clear cap space.
To complete the trade with the Nets and Cavaliers, Ainge used the $10.3 million trade exception acquired from the Nets in the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett deal a year ago. Ainge held onto it to lure teams into a trade, and the Cavaliers sense that James is pondering a return home.
The Celtics sacrificed nothing but a conditional second-round pick Wednesday and in return acquired high-scoring bench player Marcus Thornton from the Nets, and 7-footer Tyler Zeller from the Cavaliers, giving Boston a legitimate center.
Thornton was part of the deal because of his $8.6 million contract, which expires after next season and could serve as a chip this summer or by the February trade deadline. Or the Celtics could simply allow it to expire, as they did with Kris Humphries’s contract this past season.
In addition, the Celtics netted a 2016 first-round pick from Cleveland. The Cavaliers are moving all of their expendable parts for a once-in-a-lifetime chance at James’s return.
It was an astute move by Ainge to wait for the perfect opportunity to use the trade exception, which generally are allowed to expire because of the small amount of value they carry. But a $10.3 million exception is rare, and Ainge was unquestionably going to use it, even if it was not to acquire Kevin Love.
What Wednesday’s trade did was create a wealth of financial freedom for the Celtics next summer. With the expiring contracts of Rajon Rondo, Thornton, Brandon Bass, and Joel Anthony, the Celtics will have nearly $33 million coming off the books, allowing them to become major players in the free agent market.
Celtics faithful realize it’s been decades since Boston has signed a major free agent in his prime, and there is debate if Xavier McDaniel (1992) or Dominique Wilkins (1994) fit in that category. But Wednesday’s trade underscores that the Celtics are looking to become major players in more than just the trade market, meaning they want to be factors in free agency. A bright young coach in Brad Stevens, an organization that emphasizes defense and development, and boatloads of money are considerable attractions.
And the summer is still young. Ainge acquired yet another draft pick to use as a trade piece, giving the Celtics eight first-rounders over the next four years, and potentially nine if the 76ers reach the playoffs next season.
That allows Ainge to again play the waiting game, seeking a team looking to dump salary, rebuild, and move a quality veteran player to call Boston for a potential deal.
Patience is the virtue here. While the Celtics and Ainge would like another Garnett/Ray Allen summer of 2007, that is not likely to happen. The organization’s resurgence is going to be a methodical process and Ainge has to hit on draft picks, be careful with free agent signings, and use his cachet and the team’s tradition to land a marquee player.
Days like these are significant for the Celtics. The Cavaliers and Nets were looking for a third team to join them in their quest to improve. The Nets wanted Jarrett Jack. The Cavaliers signed him to a four-year deal last year, then found his contract to be cap-clogging for their goal to acquire James.
The Cavaliers liked Zeller, but they had to make a commitment to getting better quickly. They also are said to be chasing Allen, who is mulling retirement, and Mike Miller, a former teammate of James’s. They are also making a play for Love, offering No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins, hoping a Love deal will entice James to sign.
All of those story lines are intriguing to the basketball community, but Ainge is indifferent. He saw Wednesday as a major opportunity to expedite the improvement process, and he seized it.
It’s been a successful offseason so far for the Celtics. They drafted two potential cornerstones. Avery Bradley re-signed for four more seasons, and the Celtics are setting themselves up for a intriguing summer in 2015.Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.