The Boston Celtics have spent much of the 2020-21 NBA season just keeping their heads above water. Boston currently sits fourth in the Eastern Conference, with an 11-9 record. Depending on who you ask, the Celtics have either been encouragingly competent amid a rash of missed games due to injury and COVID-19 safety protocols or a woeful disappointment, unable to separate themselves from the pack despite an incredible start to the year from both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
The truth – as always – likely lives somewhere between the two extremes, but the notion that Tatum and Brown are good enough to be the primary pieces on a title contender certainly appears to hold plenty of water. Patience may be prudent.
It’s entirely possible that Kemba Walker will round into form after returning from injury just as Marcus Smart and Payton Pritchard recover from ailments of their own. We haven’t seen the fully actualized version of the Celtics yet this year. They may be good enough to make serious postseason noise as is, but there is a dissonance between that thought and their middling record, and it’s made all the more noticeable by the massive Traded Player Exception (TPE) Boston has burning a hole in its pocket.
For those unfamiliar with the TPE, it is essentially $28.5 million of roster-building flexibility to be used in trades with other teams. There are a lot of nuances and details to how the TPE can be utilized – for more detail read here – but essentially it gives the Celtics an opportunity to add one or multiple big salaries to their books without having to send matching salary back.
It’s a useful tool, but it is also one that will expire at some point in the upcoming offseason. Some have speculated that Boston will wait until then to seek out a deal, but there is a sound argument to be made that now is the time to strike. The Celtics need depth, particularly on the wing and in the backcourt, to both weather a spate of injuries and to provide a bit of additional talent for head coach Brad Stevens to work with when the playoffs roll around.
Timing is relevant, but ultimately Boston should set its pace according to when it thinks it can gin up the best return. It is the question of what is “best” that is the thorny one. There are a lot of variables in play in assessing value in any deal, and they’re particularly complicated given the Celtics’ situation.
The TPE is probably Boston’s best chance to add a significant piece to its roster to play alongside the Tatum and Brown core, at least until Walker’s contract runs out. If they nail the right transaction, the Celtics could win a championship. Get it wrong, and they may be kicking themselves for never quite getting the right mix of players. Let’s use an example to help frame our thinking.
Say Boston trades Romeo Langford and two first-round picks for Harrison Barnes. “That’s a lot for Harrison Barnes,” you may be saying. But what if Barnes turns out to be just enough for the Celtics to win a championship this season? If it generates such an outcome then a bird in the hand would very much be worth three in the bush.
Let’s complicate things a bit further and say that Langford blossoms, the Kings (unexpectedly) knock both picks out of the park, and all three become perennial All-Stars. Is the deal still worth it from Boston’s perspective? If they won a championship along the way, then the answer is pretty clearly yes, but what if the Celtics went to the Finals a couple of times and never won? Then the trade probably gets looked at as a failure.
All of these things are extreme outcomes, but they need to be cooked into the decision-making process. Boston is undoubtedly thinking about each component of any potential trade as a spectrum of probabilities. Assessing a deal generally comes down to expected outcomes for individual players, but the Celtics have enough talent on their roster that they need to be evaluating on multiple axes, with a primary concern of how much anyone they bring on increases their likelihood to win a championship.
That’s a different kind of math than most teams are dealing with, and it may make losing a trade in a vacuum a winning proposition. Let’s return to our example.
In trading a young player and two picks for Barnes, Boston would be punting on one player and several opportunities to add players who might be better bets to blossom into stars. But the Celtics don’t need future stars. They need wing-sized players who can dribble, pass, shoot, and defend better than Semi Ojeleye, Grant Williams, and Jeff Teague.
Try not to get to stuck on Barnes specifically. He’s meant to be an avatar for any player (or perhaps combination of players) the Celtics think are solid and not worth giving up a ton of future assets for independent of context. The point here is that Boston might be good enough that those kind of players really matter in a way that eschews how trade inputs are traditionally valued.
Using the TPE on 1-2 players who just aren’t liabilities on either end of the court isn’t a sexy application of this particular roster building tool, but it may be exactly what the Celtics need.