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What should the Celtics do with the Gordon Hayward trade exception?

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Figuring out on who, and when, to use their $28.5 million trade chip is Danny Ainge’s next big quandary.

Memphis Grizzlies v Boston Celtics Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

As November came to a conclusion, Gordon Hayward officially became a member of the Charlotte Hornets. The hold-up around this announcement came from the decisions facing the Hornets front office, determining how to offload salary, and rework their cap structure to accommodate their marquee signing. Danny Ainge and the Celtics remained heavily involved in these discussions, working to make this a sign-and-trade deal to get some form of compensation for Hayward’s departure.

On Sunday, the two sides came to a deal, agreeing to a sign-and-trade that created a $28.5 million Traded Player Exception (TPE) that the Celtics will be able to use for the next year. In order to entice the Hornets to facilitate the creation of such a large exception, Boston sent two future second-round picks to Charlotte. CelticsBlog’s resident capologist Keith Smith broke down the machinations of the deal in great detail, though it boils down to this: Ainge has in his arsenal a unique tool to trade for a player or players that can help them compete this season and next.

How unique of a tool is this? The $28.5 million TPE is the largest in league history. While it expires exactly one year after the trade becomes official, there’s no doubt that Ainge will use it in some fashion.

While staying out of the minutia around TPE’s, there are some limitations to consider when zeroing in on potential targets. As things currently stand, the Celtics are hard-capped and only $21.8 million away from their financial ceiling. In order to acquire a player whose salary is above that line, they’d have to send out some salary to stay beneath the hard cap. Beyond the numerical restraints, the Celtics will see a massive surge in their salary next year once Jayson Tatum’s extension kicks in. Acquiring a player signed to a hefty contract for multiple years would certainly push Boston deep into the luxury tax eventually.

Mindful of these constraints, Ainge now has to turn his attention to targets and planning how to best utilize such a massive trade chip.

Before figuring out who the Celtics should target, we have to figure out when they’ll look to make their acquisition. The likely first date would be before this year’s trade deadline, if the Celtics are true contenders and the right contract is available that meshes with the short-term need to duck the luxury tax and long-term spikes in salary. There’s some sensibility in waiting until after the season, when the Celtics can avoid severe repeater tax penalties and potentially get involved in offseason movement on what’s expected to be a turbulent offseason filled with player movement. If I were a betting man, I’d put money down on this being their course of action.

If they do opt to use the TPE during the upcoming season, there are a few names that make sense. While the possibility exists of splitting the TPE for multiple players, depth isn’t a major issue with the Celtics. Adding one more high-impact piece would push the team into legitimate contention.

The qualifications for such a piece are simple: veteran players with salary matches who gel with the Celtics’ core and currently play on teams who might be looking to sell. That last piece is the key to all of this. Ainge is hoping to use this piece without giving up a starting-caliber player. The only teams who would give one up without taking one back are non-playoff squads hoping to stockpile draft picks. There’s little sense in dreaming about trading for guys who are unlikely to be sent away as part of a teardown. Here’s a short list:

Boston Celtics v Houston Rockets Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Eric Gordon, Houston Rockets

It’s hard to believe, but next season will be Eric Gordon’s 13th in the NBA. He’ll be 32 on Christmas Day and is signed through his 35th birthday. The contract is fairly hefty on first glance: $16.87 million this season, $18.2 million next year, $19.56 million in ‘22-’23, and $20.9 million in ‘23-’24. That amount of money to a guy in his mid-30’s doesn’t sound appealing, but the final year of his deal is non-guaranteed.

The Rockets are looking to cut costs at every turn, so unloading multiple years of Gordon’s deal could be really appealing to their restructured front office. That could mean less of a price to pay for the Celtics in order to land the microwave scorer. His salary would keep Boston beneath the hard cap this year, too.

On the court, Gordon provides a scoring off the bench and a reliable shooting option. He’s played in a switching scheme with the Rockets and had mild success on that end; he’s not a defensive liability but isn’t a net-positive. Still, Gordon averaged 17.3 points in the playoffs this year, is a career 37% 3-point shooter, and respectable playmaker. He may not top the list, though it wouldn’t be a disappointment to see him in green.

Harrison Barnes, Sacramento Kings

It wasn’t long ago that Harrison Barnes was a vital cog in the postseason success of the Golden State Warriors. He’s bounced between Dallas and Sacramento since then and hasn’t gotten the respect he deserves as a scorer. In the four years outside the shadow of Steph and Klay, Barnes has averaged 17.3 points and shot 37.4% from 3. He’s a true 6’8”, has been an impactful wing defender, and is only 28 years old.

Barnes would be an ideal big, switchable wing whose collective wingspan with Tatum and Jaylen Brown at the 2 thru 4 could disrupt any postseason opponent. He’s a good enough shooter to make it work, though he loves mismatch post-ups and elbow isolations, two areas he wouldn’t be likely to get a lot of touches in Boston.

The Kings are on the cusp of playoff contention, though likely get leapfrogged by the likes of the Warriors and Phoenix Suns this year. If the deadline approaches and the Kings want turn to a mini-rebuild, Barnes’ $22.2 million contract would fit inside the TPE and, if the Celtics send one player back to the Kings, could keep the team beneath the hard cap. Harrison has two additional years left on the deal, though the salary decreases each year in a team-friendly way. A Barnes arrival in Beantown would be for at least two years.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

The subject of rumors involving the Celtics for months, Myles Turner might be the odd man out for a Pacers team with two starting-caliber centers. After they inked Domantas Sabonis to an extension and he became an All-Star, Turner’s future in Indy is uncertain. He’ll earn $18 million a year for the next three seasons, a steep price to pay a potential backup.

Turner is only 24 years old, so getting another young piece whose timeline is in sync with Tatum and Brown gives Boston a great long-term pairing. He’s an upgrade over Daniel Theis as a starting center, has drilled nearly 36% of his career triples and lead the NBA in blocks two years ago. He’s a high-volume 3-point threat that would unlock the offense and, with the room to still improve at his age, there may be no better “buy low” candidate on the market. I’ve long been a Turner believer and think his combination of rim protection, stretch offense, and underrated mobility would be perfect in Boston’s system.

The difficulty in projecting Turner here is that the Celtics had the opportunity to get him in an outright sign-and-trade for Hayward and seemingly refused. Why would they give up two second-round picks for a TPE, and then whatever the cost of acquiring Turner is beyond this, when they could’ve had him two weeks ago? As much as I’d advocate for Turner, the maneuvering of transactions and reading between the lines may mean this ship has sailed.

Brooklyn at Orlando Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic, or Evan Fournier, Orlando Magic

One of the most fascinating teams of the next 18 months, the Magic have stagnated in that purgatory of being good enough to make the playoffs but never good enough to win a series. The season-ending injury to Jonathan Isaac may prevent them from taking a step forward, meaning after the year is up (or with a surprisingly poor start), a shake up could be necessary.

All of Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic, and Evan Fournier would be on the block and frequent trade targets as a result. All three would address different areas for the Celtics. Gordon is an athletic 4-man and underrated facilitator who would bolster the defensive acumen of this group. He’s only due $16.4 million next year before becoming a free agent in 2022, a modest contract to take on. Vucevic is a walking double-double, a much-improved defender, and a sturdy shooter (35% from deep the last two seasons). He’d bring an All-Star pedigree, though his $26 million salary in 2020-21 muddies the path to getting him. Of all three Magic players, the asking price in return for Vooch will certainly be highest.

The unique name here is Fournier, who exercised a $17 million player option to return to Orlando only two weeks ago. He’ll be a free agent at the end of the season, so the Celtics would have to move on him at the trade deadline. Any acquisition would come with the understanding that the 28-year-old Frenchman would stay in Boston on a new, less expensive deal. He shot a hair under 40% from 3 last year, is a lanky 6’7” and is the perfect offensive fit with this team without being a defensive liability. If Ainge feels comfortable with Fournier’s high asking price for his next contract and an agreement seems fair for both sides, he’d be a good get for Boston.

LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs

The biggest swing-for-the-fences, win-now name on this list, 35-year-old LaMarcus Aldridge would be acquired before the trade deadline since he is on an expiring $24 million deal, though he has a 15% trade kicker that would bring the Celtics payments up to $27.6 million. Is that a realistic payment for such an old player who isn’t a great defender at the 5 and whose best days are behind him?

If the Celtics can manage to shed $5.8 million in the deal, then they’d stay under the hard cap and get a big man whose offensive prowess and experience could help propel them atop the league this year. At Aldridge’s age, the idea would be to re-sign him next summer on the cheap, knowing he’d finish out his career in Boston as a backup. The idea that Aldridge is a poor defender has been pummeled to death, and his late-career move to the 5 makes him functional in the right scheme. It’s not an ideal pairing, but would be an aggressive win-now move that lacks long-term financial ramifications.