This season that was filled with great expectations has turned into a bit of a slog for the Celtics. They are just 21-23, and the teams atop the Eastern Conference are no longer really in reach. So when Thursday’s trade deadline arrived, there was a sense that even if the Celtics were unable to make a seismic splash, they would need to do something.
President of basketball operations Danny Ainge completed a pair of deals that led to notable if not sweeping changes. In the end, the Celtics acquired wing Evan Fournier from the Magic and center Moe Wagner and forward Luke Kornet from the Bulls while giving up center Daniel Theis, guard Jeff Teague, forward Javonte Green, and two second-round draft picks.
The addition of Fournier is the most significant. The Celtics used $17 million of their $28.5 million Gordon Hayward trade exception and also sent Teague and the draft picks to Orlando for the sharpshooting guard, according to a league source. Fournier, 28, is averaging a career-high 19.7 points per game this season and will give Boston a fourth high-powered scorer to join Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker.
But Fournier’s contract would have pushed the Celtics over the luxury-tax threshold. Ownership has made it clear that it is willing to pay the tax, and it will do so next season when Tatum’s maximum-salary extension kicks in. But if the Celtics entered the tax this year it would have soon been subject to the costlier repeater tax, too, which is activated when a team is above the tax threshold in three out of four years.
So the Celtics ultimately sent Theis and Green to the Bulls for Kornet and Wagner, who had been acquired by Chicago from Washington earlier in the day. Shedding Theis’s $5 million salary was enough to push Boston back below the tax.
Theis became a dependable piece of the Celtics’ starting group. This season, he is averaging 9.5 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. But in addition to the tax concerns, the emergence of Robert Williams, the looming return of Tristan Thompson, and the fact that Theis will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end all factored into the decision, according to a league source. Theis’s final shot in a Celtics uniform was his missed potential winning 3-pointer during Wednesday’s loss to the Bucks.
There had been some suggestion that perhaps the Fournier acquisition would be part of a larger trade involving Magic forward Aaron Gordon, the main prize of this free agent market, but a source said Boston and Orlando were never close to an agreement. Gordon was ultimately traded to the Nuggets in a deal centered on Gary Harris. The Celtics, a league source said, had offered a young player and a first-round pick, and were prepared to offer another draft pick to sweeten the deal, but the Magic moved on before that was possible.
This season, Fournier is shooting 38.8 percent from beyond the 3-point line. He is in the final year of a five-year, $85 million contract and will become an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. But Ainge has stated his reluctance to make a deal for a rental player, so if the Celtics likely have confidence that they will be able to re-sign Fournier.
Fournier seemed to confirm that he was Boston-bound on his own just after noon on Thursday. Well, sort of. He posted on Twitter: “Hi Celtics fans, if you’re not familiar with me, please Google my last name. You’re welcome.” Then he added a shamrock emoji to the end of his message.
Fournier has made this joke on Twitter before, a reference to a rare form of gangrene that goes by the same name.
The Celtics are hopeful that the 6-foot-11-inch Wagner, meanwhile, can provide a jolt of toughness. He averaged 7.1 points and 2.9 rebounds per game for the Wizards this season.
The Celtics did move on from perhaps their top asset, though, the massive Hayward trade exception. Because the Celtics are hard-capped this year they were unable to use the entire $28.5 million exception now, but it would have been unlocked if they had waited until the summer. Now, they will have about $11.5 million of the exception remaining during the offseason.
The Celtics’ lack of depth has been glaring, particularly with its their players so often sidelined because of injuries, illnesses or rest. But the team is almost fully healthy, with Thompson and Romeo Langford expected to return from COVID-19 protocols soon. And Fournier will be a significant upgrade over some of the younger bench options.
Fournier could slide into the starting lineup and push Marcus Smart back to the sixth-man role in which he has thrived during much of his career. Smart has struggled mightily on offense in fourth quarters this season, making just 8 percent of his 3-pointers. So in games when the Celtics are in need of late scoring punch, Fournier could capably fill that role.