With Kemba Walker back in the rotation, the Celtics are almost whole. Jayson Tatum and Robert Williams should return this week from COVID-19 protocol, giving the club a healthy roster.
But a three-hour drive to the south, the Brooklyn Nets just ramped up their already star-studded roster by acquiring James Harden in a Pierce-Garnett like deal that cost them three first-round picks and four players in exchange.
With the Nets featuring Harden, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving, the Milwaukee Bucks with Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the Philadelphia 76ers playing better ball under Doc Rivers, the Celtics are hardly favored to win the Eastern Conference. What’s more, home-court advantage in the first round is not a given competing with those three teams and the Indiana Pacers.
The Celtics are likely to have a major addition in coming weeks, with a $28.5 million trade exception they are expected to use before the March 25 trade deadline.
It’s the largest exception in league history and the Celtics will have an opportunity to add an impact player and only give up a draft pick in return.
The Celtics can break the exception in parts and use it on multiple occasions, but they will have to be careful in using it.
They probably don’t want to use it to acquire a player on an expiring contract because essentially you’re trading the exception for a rental. The Celtics want to acquire a player whom they can control for a few years.
However, the more valuable a player the Celtics chase, the more that team will ask for in draft assets. Do the Celtics want to potentially sacrifice two first-round picks or a series of second-rounders for that coveted player? It depends on the player and how he fits into their equation.
President of basketball operations Danny Ainge is just going to have to go for it — as Nets GM Sean Marks did in Brooklyn — and move some of the team’s draft assets to win now. The Celtics have two of the top 15 players in the NBA in Tatum and Jaylen Brown and now a healthy Walker is back, with three more years left on his deal.
The Celtics essentially have three max players on their roster, so the time is now. Let’s take a look at some candidates for that trade exception.
Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
The Magic began the season 4-0 and appeared to be a sleeper to crack into the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference. They are 2-8 since and have lost six consecutive games. The Magic have been besieged by injuries to Markelle Fultz (season-ending), Jonathan Isaac (season-ending), Mo Bamba, and Evan Fournier. If the Magic decide to retool, they could offer Gordon, who is earning $18 million this season and $16 million next season.
Gordon is a high flyer and an engaged defender but he’s never reached his potential in Orlando and it could be time for a change.
Nikola Vucevic, Magic
He is coming off an All-Star season in 2019 but the Magic also drafted Isaac and Bamba to play center. Vucevic, 30, would be a major commitment because he has two years left on his deal, although both years descend in salary. He would be a legitimate center for the Celtics, who could pair him with Tristan Thompson and Daniel Theis for a formidable punch in the paint.
Harrison Barnes, Kings
Barnes will never reach superstardom but is a steady third or fourth option on an elite team. Do the Kings really need him? Well, he doesn’t impact winning. Sacramento is 5-9 with the worst defense in the NBA. The Kings have a roster that was expected to compete for a playoff spot but they’ve lost eight of their past 10 games and went 2-5 in a recent seven-game homestand. Barnes could be available at the trade deadline and like Vucevic, he has two additional years on his contract at descending money.
LaMarcus Aldridge, Spurs
Aldridge is 35 and having a poor year but he’s in the final year of his contract and provides a perimeter and post threat the Celtics don’t have. The Celtics could consider this season a statistical exception and take a flier on Aldridge. Also, he is unlikely to demand anything close to the $24 million he’s making this season, giving the Celtics a solid opportunity to bring him back, if they’re interested. Aldridge scored 49 points at TD Garden a few years ago and it’s uncertain whether his low scoring average and shooting percentage is age or fatigue with San Antonio’s system. He dropped 22 points in Monday’s win at Portland and scored a season-high 28 points against the Lakers Jan. 7, so the game is still there, it may not just come as often.
The Celtics will have options for this exception over the next several weeks and it’s crucial to find the right player who can make the biggest impact because now is the time to win.