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Report: NBA sources think Harrison Barnes could land with Celtics

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The Celtics have been constantly attached to Harrison Barnes trade rumors with 15 days until the NBA trade deadline.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Harrison Barnes is the most popular name in Celtics trade rumors this season. He’s in the midst of the best season of his career at 29 years old and plays the wing, while boasting comparable skills and size to the recently-lost Gordon Hayward. At 29 years old, he’s signed for two more seasons beyond this year at decreasing salaries.

He fits snuggly into the $28 million traded player exception, just above Boston’s $19.8 million hard cap room, at $22.2 million, and plays for a Sacramento Kings team that lost 11-of-13 before the all star break. Various reports have connected the Celtics to Barnes and The Athletic’s Sam Amick reported on Wednesday “that so many front office folks around the league believe (Barnes to Boston) could be coming.”

Barnes is averaging 16.7 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 0.8 steals per game on 49.2% shooting, 39.2% from three and 82.6% at the free throw line. His eFG% is 6.1 percentage points above his career average of 50.6%, as he’s been a 45% career field goal shooter in nine seasons out of North Carolina. He won the 2015 championship as the fourth option on the Golden State Warriors at 22 and scored 24 points on 7-of-17 in a win over Boston in February.

“Sources say the Kings have (predictably) shifted to “seller” mode in recent weeks,” Amick wrote.

Our Keith Smith considers Barnes “available for the right price,” in between available and unavailable. That means Sacramento would have to be enticed by an offer, since Barnes is signed long-term and the team isn’t in a hurry to sell low on any of its pieces. The team may be wise in the loaded west to sell in a buyer’s market. That means they’ll pursue a suitable return.

What does that mean? It depends on what other teams get involved in the sweepstakes. The Celtics do not have to match salaries, giving them an advantage over every other team. Sacramento is well below the luxury tax, but dumping Barnes and taking little-to-no money back from Boston would position them as a team with some cap space this offseason and the potential to push that flexibility into future seasons.

If, for example, Boston traded Robert Williams and Aaron Nesmith ($5.49 million) and whatever necessary picks for Barnes and Richaun Holmes’ expiring contract, which perfectly fills the Enes Kanter trade exception in a separate deal (a TPE can only be used on one player), the deals would save Sacramento $12.99 million and give them over $28 million before the NBA Draft if the Kings renounce all their free agents.

That deal is done today if that’s on the table. Boston — for reasons obvious before the break — would prefer to keep its long-term center option in Williams. Bill Simmons and Zach Lowe, speculated about Barnes suitors this week, believing a team like the Denver Nuggets could beat Boston’s offer if interested. The Miami Heat could potentially join the race too.

“I think Barnes is going to draw a lot of interest,” Lowe said on his podcast. “I did not think about Denver for him, that’s not a bad name. For Boston, I think it’s a great fit. They know they need another 34 type, the only question is price, right? I think it takes more than just a young guy, I think it takes a young guy plus a first round pick, plus then you got to throw out salary and you’ve got to have an uncomfortable conversation with ownership, are we willing to go into the tax? ... are you willing to give up Nesmith and a top-10 protected first or something for Harrison Barnes? Is he that good? What happens when Marcus Smart comes back ... could you play Barnes at the five?”

Nesmith-for-Barnes would bring Sacramento to over $32 million in potential cap space next offseason. It is also impossible given Boston’s hard cap situation. The Celtics would be over $ 114,007 above the luxury tax apron, or “hard cap,” imposed by signing Tristan Thompson. That is easily remediated by adding anyone else on the roster aside from Tacko Fall and Tremont Waters.

Could the Heat or Nuggets potentially top a package like Nesmith, Carsen Edwards and a pick? The difficulty in them doing so goes back to matching Barnes’ salary. Meyers Leonard became a difficult player to move this week for off-court reasons, Kelly Olynyk is an expiring contract who brings little value beyond that. Avery Bradley (2 years), Olynyk and Kendrick Nunn sheds some salary for Sacramento and they have future first-rounders to offer.

Without plentiful Miami picks, that deal doesn’t carry the assets a Boston trade could. Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson are likely untouchable in this deal and Miami does owe future picks to other teams, starting this year to Phoenix for Goran Dragic.

The Nuggets have a TPE card of their own from the Jerami Grant sign-and-trade. It’s only $9.5 million and can’t be used to acquire Barnes. Denver can match easily and provide value with (Will Barton) or Gary Harris, Bol Bol and (RJ Hampton). That undoubtedly beats Boston’s package, with the picks involved a likely irrelevant toss-up, but would Denver do that? Probably not.

Harris and Bol work. Barton, Bol and either Facundo Campazzo or Isaiah Hartenstein match as salaries too. All players mentioned come on multi-year deals. Denver owes a 2023 first round pick to Oklahoma City, its 2021 second rounder to OKC and another in 2022 to Minnesota or Miami.

Sacramento would need to weigh the benefits of getting tangible pieces like Bol and a reliable starter in Harris against the cap flexibility Boston can provide. Then the Celtics need to ask themselves how far they’d extend for a reliable starter and enormous need in Barnes. The deal is reasonable now. If more teams get involved, the C’s may need to part with more difficult assets to swallow like Williams.

The question: is Barnes the right use of essentially the entire TPE, Boston’s last chance to improve the roster significantly in the Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown era. Boston seems to think so, if the terms are right.