Boston Celtics’ Brad Stevens Facing A Traded-Player Exception Dilemma

If there was one question Celtics fans, still licking their wounds after losing six games in the NBA Finals to the Warriors, wanted to ask team president Brad Stevens when he met with the media via Zoom the other day, it was Delivered by Jay King of the Athletic: With the Celtics almost certain they will be a team above the luxury tax threshold next season, will the team’s ownership group give the green light for more spending?

Stevens’ response, delivered with uncharacteristically terseness (Stevens is adept at providing lengthy answers without actually saying anything succinct), had to encourage Celtic supporters.

“We have the OK to do whatever we have to do,” Stevens said. Next question.

This is particularly relevant as the Celtics have a handful of traded player exemptions available this offseason, allowing them to expand their roster while also pushing further into luxury tax territory. The most significant of those exceptions is that from the Evan Fournier trade, which allows the Celtics to absorb salary in a trade of up to $17.1 million. There are two other worthwhile exceptions (the Celtics have eight total, but most will go unused) that make up salaries of $6.9 million and $5.9 million and don’t expire until winter 2023, but the Fournier exception is the one that will serve as an example of the owner’s willingness to spend. Or not.

That puts Stevens in a difficult position. Using a trade exception isn’t as simple as plucking talent from a pool of willing players – it’s not a free hand. A TPE requires a different trade, thus requiring the cooperation of a team wishing to offload a player. The Fournier exemption expires July 18 and there is a strong expectation the Celtics will use it to bring someone in (anyone!), who can help a banking unit exposed for its lack of depth against Golden State. At the same time, using a trade exception can be tricky as the Celtics won’t be willing to send much in return to opposing teams.

Aaron Nesmith maybe, but Stevens still likes his potential. Grant Williams or Payton Pritchard? Unlikely.

draft picks? Just as unlikely. Stevens has already pawned the Celtics’ last two first-rounders and mailed the 2021 pick as part of the deal that brought back Al Horford and the 2022 pick for Derrick White. Both deals got Boston to the finals, but Stevens is touchy about the fact that he’s had to sit out the first round of the draft for the past two years. And most of the Celtics’ second-rounders are accounted for — they have two picks in the draft next year but owe their second-rounders elsewhere in 2023, 2024, 2025 and 2027.

Celtics have to take back a bad contract

This means that if the Celtics want to use their TPEs, they have to get something for free. They have to bring in players whose teams they no longer want because their contracts take up more space than the player is worth. For example, the Hawks’ Kevin Huerter might sound like a nice idea, but can Cap Space and Aaron Nesmith really be enough incentive for Atlanta to dump him?

More likely, the Celtics are eyeing players like Nerlens Noel or the Knicks’ Alec Burks, guys whose teams would just like to disappear from their books. There are possibilities like maybe Kyle Kuzma from Wizards or Terrence Ross from Magic. TJ McConnell of the Pacers? Davis Bertans of the Mavs? Luke Kennard of the Clippers?

They’re certainly all NBA players, and Stevens could likely have any of them with a limited outlay of assets in return. But something else that Stevens said in his media session stands out, which boils down to him saying the Celtics won’t issue the trade exemptions just for the sake of issuing the trade exemptions.

“The trade exception, there’s a reason most trade exceptions go unused,” Stevens said. “We have one that expires, obviously the big one expires in July. We have a few that expire later. Those are reasonable amounts to pick up good players with, so weigh that against the cost you have to pay, you’re going to get someone to add and not necessarily take away, which you obviously don’t want. So it’s still a matter of being thoughtful and prudent about what the deal is. We go through the whole list and try to find people who fit our needs.”

Part of that is bringing in players who aren’t just situation players, the kind of guys who didn’t get much run under Ime Udoka last season. Noel could help the Celtics off the bench defensively, but he would be an offensive liability. Kennard goes the other way – great shooter, but a player team would aim defensively. Stevens could get such a player, but to what end? So that Udoka doesn’t play it while the team gets deep into tax territory?

Still, there are expectations. If the Celtics don’t use the exemption, fans will assume the ownership group is cheaper. But circumstances could dictate that Stevens can’t bring back the kind of player that actually puts the Celtics forward. Or as he put it, “Just look for things that make sense in your group.”

It may be that in the end nothing makes sense for this group except. This will be difficult to explain to the fans, however.

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