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Unpacking the Celtics’ trade deadline

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Evan Fournier and an uncluttered rotation improved the Celtics in the short term, but the long term value remains to be seen.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The dust has finally settled on the 2021 NBA Trade Deadline, and, mercifully, the Celtics have made some moves in an attempt to spark their inconsistent roster. Out are Daniel Theis, Jeff Teague, Javonte Green and two second round picks, and in their place come Magic wing Evan Fournier, Wizards center Moritz Wagner and Bulls center Luke Kornet. As the trades become finalized, let’s dig into the details we have and make sense of all the action.

Boston’s key acquisition, obviously, was Fournier. The ninth-year forward’s fit on this roster should be pretty seamless, providing a legitimate scoring punch on the wing for bench units that have often struggled on the offensive end of the floor. He’s hovered around 20 points per game over each of the past two seasons on solid efficiency, and acquiring a player like that without spending a first round pick or one of their young players is a clear win.

The Celtics ultimately fell short in the Aaron Gordon sweepstakes, and considering what the Nuggets’ package ended up being, that’s probably for the best. We know the Magic had a strong interest in Marcus Smart, and with Denver elevating their offer to Gary Harris, rookie R.J. Hampton and a first, including Smart was probably the only way Boston was going to outbid them.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

This would have been a mistake. Gordon is an intriguing player, seemingly very much a “needs a change of scenery” kind of guy. But based on what we’ve seen from him seven years into his career, trading someone with Smart’s pedigree just doesn’t make sense. The Celtics entered this trade deadline looking to bolster their depth, as their lack of a viable supporting cast behind the top end of their roster has been one of the biggest concerns with this team. In this equation, Smart is one of the pieces that should be added to, not exchanged, and a trade for Gordon would likely be a lateral move at best.

The second piece of today’s action is a little more complicated. Financially, the Daniel Theis trade makes sense. The Celtics avoided the luxury tax in an underwhelming season, delaying repeater penalties down the road by at least a year. They also simplified their rotation, scrapping the double-big lineups that never seemed to fully pan out this season. More minutes for Robert Williams seem to be in the cards, and they’ve cleared a roster spot to potentially add another contributor in the buyout market.

It’s the pathway that led to the Theis trade that sours the deal somewhat. Functionally, the Celtics offloaded their starting center to pay the cost for their poor offseason this past fall. The Tristan Thompson and Jeff Teague signings have both failed to pan out as hoped, and this deal addressed both issues. Teague was shipped off to Orlando and promptly waived, and the rotation is now better suited for Thompson, since he no longer has to share the court with another big man (Wagner and Kornet, it should be mentioned, are unlikely to be meaningful contributors on this team).

Boston Celtics v Washington Wizards Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

This is more or less an unavoidable consequence of those previous decisions, and in a vacuum, it’s a concise solution. But it’s also an instance of the Celtics playing from behind. As mentioned above, if this team is going to improve this season, they need to be adding to the talent they already had. Theis has been a productive contributor in the rotation all season long, and shipping him off in what amounts to a salary dump (the deal also helps the Celtics avoid the luxury tax this season) is a tough pill to swallow.

Looking at the long term, the effects of this trade deadline appear murky. Fournier will help for the remainder of this season, but unlike some of the other potential targets on Boston’s radar, his contract expires once this season concludes and he becomes an unrestricted free agent. This is a noteworthy issue, because if he walks in free agency, the Celtics still do not gain any actual cap space.

This leaves Boston in an eerily familiar position to where they were last offseason with Gordon Hayward. The ideal outcome is just to re-sign him; they hold Fournier’s Bird rights and can go over the cap to do so. But if he decides to move on, the best they can hope to recoup from it is probably another Traded Player Exception like the one they used to acquire him to begin with. A player with another year or two remaining on their contracts might have been a valuable asset to facilitate further trades down the line. Instead, the Celtics remain perilously short on pathways to improve the roster externally.

So the long term consequences remain to be seen, as the Celtics have quite a few more tough decisions to make moving forward. But, for now, this is probably about as well as the Celtics could have handled this deadline, as much for the moves they didn’t make as the ones they did. Whether or not this current iteration of the team can come together and accomplish something this season remains to be seen, but they’ve at least given themselves a fighting chance to do so with a good addition in Fournier and a sensible restructuring of the rotation.