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Celtics’ trade deadline showed not all negotiations are created equal

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Other teams acquired pieces for packages Danny Ainge could seemingly match, but trading isn’t simply a question of “beating” other offers.

Boston Celtics Introduce Kemba Walker Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

The second most surprising deal (behind a trade that sent D’Angelo Russell to Minnesota) of yesterday’s NBA trade deadline landed the Cavaliers their third big man. Long a target of Celtics fans, Andre Drummond instead joined Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love — a trio reminiscent of Stan Van Gundy’s attempts to fuse him with Greg Monroe and Josh Smith between 2013-15.

Poor Drummond.

On the surface, the value of Brandon Knight, John Henson and a 2023 second-rounder would’ve been easy to match. However, the Celtics would’ve been hard pressed to match Drummond’s $27.1 million salary in a trade without including Marcus Smart or Gordon Hayward. Compiling $25.3 million of salary like Cleveland did would’ve made little sense for Danny Ainge. As CelticsBlog’s Keith Smith said when we talked yesterday, you can’t turn the salary cap off.

Detroit needed to release Tim Frazier to accept two contracts (valued at $15.6 and $9.7 million, both expiring) from the Cavs. For the Celtics to match the money that Cleveland sent, they would’ve needed to deal either Hayward alone, or Smart with Daniel Theis, Enes Kanter, Romeo Langford and Vincent Poirier. Those are the only two ways the money would’ve worked with the fewest possible rostered players.

That made it difficult for Ainge to find a partner. Any deal Boston could’ve made required salary-matching. Different teams trade with different ends in mind. With the Pistons likely looking to offload salary for this summer, taking on Hayward with a player option or Smart with Theis and Kanter with potential second years as well might not have been appealing.

It really doesn’t matter because Boston would not have considered either deal. It only shows the difficult position the Celtics stood in compared to other teams. They have an untouchable top-five rotation locked up for multiple seasons as its only significant salary. That itself lessened the urgency for a deal. It also filled the bottom of the roster with minuscule salaries tied to unproven players or ones that lacked value.

Boston’s situation doesn’t excuse Ainge’s inactivity because he made this bed, creating this inflexible situation by not trading a player like Terry Rozier last year and collecting some middle class contracts. Then he signed Kemba Walker and extended Jaylen Brown to create a roster that’s half contention-worthy and half geared toward 2023.

It’s worked so far. Through nagging injuries, Brad Stevens has used Grant Williams, Tremont Waters, Javonte Green and Semi Ojeleye as key rotation players to win games this past month. Instead of toiling in the middle as the Pacers have through injuries and the 76ers have through consistency issues, Boston has flourished with one of the youngest rosters in the league and could still potentially claim the #2 seed. That’s even with the Heat aggressively acquiring Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder.

Orlando Magic v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Brad Stevens said the Celtics wouldn’t trade without improving and Ainge didn’t find any good trades. Clint Capela emerged, then the Rockets moved him to acquire Robert Covington. Boston couldn’t help them do that, as the Nuggets and Hawks did through offering significant salaries. Sacramento and Washington sat on other Boston targets.

This may read like a laundry list of excuses, but it’s meant to explain why the Celtics couldn’t make a move when 40 players switched teams around the NBA. Even teams with bad contracts like Dion Waiters, Andrew Wiggins, and Evan Turner moved them without paying through the nose to do so because of the NBA’s matching rules.

However, keeping three first-round picks is as puzzling as any takeaway from Thursday. Boston could’ve gotten into the action, as I wrote for CLNS Media, through consolidating. That worked against them too though. Other teams needed roster spots they didn’t have to acquire multiple Celtics. Looking down the road, Boston now needs to create its own if they want to enter the buyout market.

Ainge’s last midseason trade occurred in 2015 and it drastically improved that team. The Marc Gasol deal one year ago created a champion. For a team that hasn’t won a championship since 2008 and has a chance to this year, Ainge isn’t free from criticism for not improving the bench, but there’s also context to understand why he did not. For years, Ainge has had a war chest of assets that’s included quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies. This year, however, you can’t blame him for not wanting to break a $100 bill or other teams for not wanting a handful of change.

“You cant just say ‘I need to make this deal and do whatever it possibly takes to make it,’” Ainge said on 98.5 the Sports Hub. “That’s not how it works.”