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Breaking down the Celtics, Nuggets and Spurs three-team trade from the Boston side

Brad Stevens is positioned to dodge the luxury tax after this salary-clearing trade

Boston Celtics Introduce Ime Udoka Press Conference Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

We have a trade! No, it’s not earth-shaking, but it does send some signals about what the Boston Celtics approach to the trade deadline and the remainder of the 2021-22 season might be.

Here are the particulars:

· Boston trades Juancho Hernangomez. Boston acquires Bol Bol and P.J. Dozier.

· Denver trades Bol Bol, P.J. Dozier and a 2028 second-round pick. Denver acquires Bryn Forbes.

· San Antonio trades Bryn Forbes. San Antonio acquires Juancho Hernangomez.

The Celtics part of this deal seems simple enough: They put themselves in range of avoiding the luxury tax. But it’s a little more complex than that. So, let’s break it down.

2021 Las Vegas Summer League - Boston Celtics v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The Players

It would be disingenuous to start this analysis without acknowledging there is a good chance we never see Bol Bol or P.J. Dozier in a Celtics uniform. Well... again for Dozier, since he was with the team during the 2018-19 season on a Two-Way contract.

Dozier is out for the season due to a torn left ACL suffered in late-November. He’s an unrestricted free agent following this season. Should Boston keep Dozier throughout the rest of this season, they’ll have full Bird rights on him.

It’s questionable on what having full Bird rights on a 25-year-old is really worth. Dozier had blossomed into a rotation player while with the Denver Nuggets, but he’ll likely be out into the start of next season. In the end, Dozier’s Bird rights could be useful in a sign-and-trade transaction where Boston uses him as salary-matching in a bigger trade.

Bol’s situation is even more complicated than Dozier’s. Just last week, Bol was traded to the Detroit Pistons. That deal was voided a few days later and on Tuesday, it was announced that Bol was undergoing foot surgery and would miss 8-12 weeks. That means it’s unlikely he’ll return to play this season. Following this year, Bol can be made a restricted free agent with a small $2.7 million qualifying offer. Like Dozier, Boston would have full Bird rights for Bol.

The Celtics clearly don’t care that Bol is going to be out for a while, and possibly the season. They aren’t necessarily acquiring him as a flyer of a basketball player, as the Pistons were, but more of a line-item on the cap sheet.

Boston can get a look at Bol while he rehabs and make a decision down the line on how he could fit in the future. There is tantalizing potential there with a 7’2’’ player who can handle the ball some and shoot with range. Coming off injury, Bol’s next deal should come cheap enough that the Celtics could take a flyer this summer. And, like Dozier, Bol could be a part of a sign-and-trade this summer.

Boston Celtics Introduce Ime Udoka Press Conference Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

The Mechanics

If the Celtics are smart about how they put this trade together, they’ll come out of it with a shiny new Traded Player Exception (TPE). And since Mike Zarren is involved, you can be assured Boston will put this trade together in the most beneficial way possible.

Here’s how it will likely break down: Boston will absorb the salaries of both Bol Bol and P.J. Dozier into the approximately $5 million TPE they have from trading Kemba Walker over the summer. That will create a new TPE for Boston of $6,907,815 for Juancho Hernangomez.

That new TPE for Hernangomez will be good for one year after the trade is official. That’s a nice chunk of exception to acquire a helpful player down the line, without involving the pesky salary-matching rules.

If Boston structures the trade this way, they’ll still have two large TPEs beyond the new Hernangomez one. The Celtics have a $17.1 million TPE from the Evan Fournier sign-and-trade this past summer and a $9.7 million TPE from moving Tristan Thompson in the offseason. Both of those TPEs are good into this offseason for Boston.

Rolling over TPEs isn’t the most exciting thing in the world…until it is! This is smart management of tools to make trades for a roster that is capped out for the next few years.

As for the roster spots, Boston had created an open spot when they waived Jabari Parker earlier in January. That allowed them to do a 2-for-1 deal. If the team decides not to keep Bol or Dozier, either can be waived at minimal cost, re-opening that roster spot for a future addition.

One last note: Bol and Dozier can’t be re-aggregated in a deal before the deadline. They can each be traded individually, but their salaries can’t be combined with any other salaries to increase the incoming salary for the Celtics in a trade.

Boston Celtics Introduce Ime Udoka Press Conference Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

The Finances

Boston was a shade under $7 million below the luxury tax before this trade. The Celtics are now roughly $2.8 million under the tax. Because Jaylen Brown has about $1.9 million in incentives that look like they’ll flip from “likely” to “unlikely”, Boston will really be about $850,000 above the tax.

Even if Brown hits some of his incentives, which is unlikely, Boston is one more salary-clearing trade away from dodging the tax entirely.

It’s fair to question if the Celtics should be so concerned about the tax. They aren’t in danger of being a tax repeater (which is when penalties get very harsh), so why does it matter? It matters because ownership has apparently deemed it matters.

The Celtics owners have repeatedly said they have no problem paying the tax for a title contender. Boston is not a title contender this season. There’s no reason to pay the tax for a team that is fighting for a playoff spot. That’s just throwing good money after bad, in a sense.

Plus, any money Brad Stevens saves ownership now is something he can bring up in the future when Boston will invariably cross the tax line to build a title contender. “Hey Wyc, remember when I saved you like $10 million last year? About that...”

In the past it looked like avoiding the tax was an “at all costs” barrier. This isn’t that. The Celtics are now likely to avoid the tax at almost no cost. They’ll probably send a pick and some cash off to Sam Presti and the Oklahoma City Thunder to eat another small salary at the deadline. That, combined with clearing Hernangomez, will get Boston out of the tax and, hopefully, free them up to make bigger moves in future seasons.

One last thing: It’s possible the Celtics still have their eyes on a deal or two that adds salary this season. If so, they’ll be over the tax. This deal may have been made as a way to lessen that burden at virtually no cost. It’s less likely than avoiding the tax entirely, but it still matters.

Boston Celtics Introduce Ime Udoka Press Conference Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

What’s does this trade really mean?

We covered above that this deal isn’t really about Bol Bol and P.J. Dozier as basketball players. It’s financially motivated more than anything related to the on-court product. At least for the moment.

Juancho Hernangomez had no role in Boston. He had a few chances when the roster was decimated with absences and didn’t take advantage. He hasn’t even played in the last few games where Ime Udoka has emptied the bench.

Hernangomez was $6.9 million of valuable salary-matching in a trade or he was a salary-clearing piece to avoid the luxury tax. Presumably, Brad Stevens had an idea the first wasn’t coming to fruition and he moved onto the second.

Does this end dreams of Boston making a big swing before the deadline to plus-up the roster? No, not really. Does it dent those dreams a bit? Sure.

The Celtics could have stacked together some salaries by including Hernangomez and others in a deal, but that always seemed unlikely. Any major trade was almost assuredly coming this offseason and not before the deadline.

If Boston wants to make a big deal now, they’ll likely do that by moving Al Horford or Marcus Smart or Josh Richardson. Dennis Schroder’s expiring $5.9 million salary could be added to any of those three to increase how much money the Celtics could bring back in a trade.

What’s more likely is a few more moves around the edges like this trade was. The Celtics will almost assuredly make at least one more trade to get under the tax line. That’ll probably see Bruno Fernando, or even the newly acquired Bol or Dozier, on the move. It could even be Schroder, as we’ve written about before in our Trade Deadline Primer. His deal was always set up to be easily tradable.

A blockbuster trade isn’t out of the picture entirely. It’s just that an unlikely proposition that became even less likely by salary-clearing Hernangomez. The next big trade the Celtics make will likely come this summer. But it’s seemingly minor deals like this one that set up the big ones.

So far, Brad Stevens has made a series of deals that have all inched things forward for Boston’s roster and cap sheet. When the time is right, Stevens is now positioned to make the kind of deal that skips inches and feet and picks up chunks of yards as the Celtics chase Banner 18.