What can the Boston Celtics do with their record-setting trade exception?

The Boston Celtics negotiated a sign-and-trade with the Charlotte Hornets to open up a massive trade exception. What can the Celtics do with that space?

The Charlotte Hornets officially have their man and the Boston Celtics suddenly find themselves in a prime position to add another star after the two teams successfully completed a sign-and-trade centered around former All-Star Gordon Hayward this past weekend. As a result, Boston received a $27.9 million trade exception, by far the largest in league history.

For the uninitiated, and without getting too bogged down into the minutiae, a trade exception allows teams to take on money that they otherwise would not have been allowed to given their salary cap situation. Essentially, teams can bring in a player with a contract they typically could not afford without having to match the outgoing salary. Trade exceptions do not have to be used in their entirety, though they can not be divided amongst multiple trades, and can not be used to sign free agents. They also expire after a given length of time with Boston’s set to expire one year from this past Sunday.

The “too long/didn’t read” version: Boston can technically trade for any player who is set to earn up to $27.9 million annually over the next two seasons. However, technically being able to and actually being able to are often two very different things.

Will the Boston Celtics actually find a deal where they can use their trade exception?

For starters, $27.9 million is a lot of money and there aren’t many teams that are currently willing or looking to trade players who earn that much as they are often regarded as All-Star caliber. Additionally, a chunk of the already small pool of players who are on the market and do make that much wouldn’t necessarily mesh that well with the Celtics and/or their current team would want much more in return than Boston is likely willing to part with. For example, Houston wants a king’s ransom in return for James Harden — a package that Boston would have difficulty producing without giving up key contributors — and trading for him would take the ball out of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown’s hands; Bradley Beal would be a more seamless fit in Boston and acquiring him would arguably make them the toughest team in the Eastern Conference, but what would be Washington’s incentive to make the Celtics better? The same argument goes for the Indiana Pacers with Myles Turner.

Boston is one of the few teams that find themselves set at nearly every position; the lineup of Walker-Smart-Brown-Tatum-Thompson is one of the stronger starting fives in the league and their bench is rife with contributors. However, that does not mean their roster is without a soft underbelly. An upgrade at center or one of the guard positions would likely help propel the Celtics fully into the battle for the number one seed in the East. Here are a few names that would fit in their new trade exception and may make sense to pursue.

Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

Gobert has one year, $25.7 million remaining on his contract, and swapping him in for Tristan Thompson would instantly make the Celtics the most fearsome defensive team in the NBA. His ability to excel in the pick-and-roll — 1.22 points per possession (79th percentile) last season – would make for a devastating pairing with Kemba Walker — 1.09 points per possession (93rd percentile) – and would open the floor considerably for Tatum and Brown. Acquiring the 7-foot-1 Frenchman would arguably transform the Celtics into the best regular-season team in the NBA.

But…the playoffs may be a different story. Western Conference teams have been able to limit Gobert’s effectiveness on both sides of the ball and at times force him off the court entirely over the past few post-seasons. However, the present and past playoff successes of Daniel Theis may help mitigate Gobert’s faults, at least to an extent.

LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs

Like Gobert, Aldridge only has one year remaining on his contract and he’s marginally cheaper at $24 million. Aldridge’s fit isn’t as perfect as Gobert’s, however, for myriad reasons. For starters, Aldridge is 35-years-old and doesn’t provide the same threat defensively or in the pick-and-roll (1.01 points per possession; 36th percentile). He is more perimeter-oriented than Gobert, though that is mostly just by technicality as Gobert is more-or-less a layups and dunks machine. Aldridge shot a career-high 3.0 3-point field goal attempts per game last season and converted 38.9 percent, but he much prefers mid-range jumpers and banging in the post. He’s not a bad player by any means and San Antonio has the incentive to trade him as he likely won’t re-sign with the club next offseason, but to what extent does he raise Boston’s ceiling? Arguably not much, if at all. The Celtics would probably rather just run with Tristan Thompson.

Blake Griffin, Detroit Pistons

Blake Griffin hasn’t been BLAKE GRIFFIN for some time, but he’s the perfect modern-day center…if he can stay healthy. Griffin has refined his outside shot over the last three seasons as his athleticism has started to wane due to repeated injuries and — last season notwithstanding — has become a slightly below league average shooter from deep. He’s likely best suited defending centers moving forward due to his declining lateral quickness and athleticism and possesses the strength and length to make a somewhat smooth transition. He hasn’t been much of a threat in the pick-and-roll since the 2017-18 season when he ranked in the 83rd percentile in 33 games with the Clippers (1.25 points per possession), but he also has not had weapons around him like Walker, Brown, and Tatum since that time either.

The biggest downside with Griffin is that his contract extends beyond the upcoming season; he’s due to make $36.5 million over the next two seasons. Would the Celtics really wish to bring him on if it is unlikely he will stay healthy?

Buddy Hield, Sacramento Kings

Hield is the only non-center on the list and the four-years remaining on his contract may be a non-starter for the Celtics. However, his skill set would fit extremely well in Boston. Hield is an elite outside shooter and one of the best in spot-up situations in the NBA (1.26 points per possession; 93rd percentile). He doesn’t need the ball in his hands to make an impact offensively, in fact, the less the ball is in his hands the better. The Celtics were an average 3-point shooting team last season; they ranked 13th in 3-point attempts (34.5) and 3-point percentage (36.4 percent). The addition of Hield alone would likely catapult them into the top 10 in both categories.

However, his defense leaves much to be desired and four-years, $94 million is a big contract for a player who may be best suited coming off the bench on a title-contending team. Hield would likely make the Celtics better, but not to the point where they’d be unquestioned title contenders.