BOSTON – When Gordon Hayward turned down his $34.1 million player option this past fall, the Boston Celtics knew there was a good chance they would lose him and get nothing in return.
The struggling 14-13 Celtics have lost 10 of their last 16 games, and they have limited financial flexibility since they're already over the salary cap. But the TPE gives them the potential to add a difference-maker via trade without having to ship out players or matching salaries.
"We're having conversations like always this time of year," Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge tells Bleacher Report. "So we'll have to wait and see. But I'm evaluating my own team, my own players and at the same time watching the rest of the league and how they're doing. We'll see if there's something there that fits."
According to multiple league executives, it isn't a matter of if the Celtics will use their TPE but on whom.
"Of course with Danny Ainge, you never know for sure what he's going to do or not do," said an Eastern Conference executive who has had low-level trade conversations with the Celtics this season. "But look where they are record-wise, look at their roster. ... I can't see how Danny can keep them as they are and not make some kind of a change."
The executive added, "And with the [trade] exception from the Hayward deal, Danny can add a pretty good player and keep his team together, which I know if he had his way, he would do."
But adding even with the massive trade exception, it won't be easy for the Celtics to add talent with increased competition leading up to the March 25 trade deadline.
The defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers may look to add another piece to help spell a now-sidelined Anthony Davis, who had an MRI performed on Feb. 15 that showed he had a calf strain that will keep him out for at least two weeks.
Cleveland is reportedly looking to move on from Andre Drummond, but his hefty $28.8 million salary will prove difficult for any team to acquire via trade. But if Drummond reached a buyout with the Cavs, he'd become a highly sought-after player for several teams looking to add size, including Boston.
Other players league executives envision as potential Celtics targets include Sacramento's Harrison Barnes, LaMarcus Aldridge of San Antonio, P.J. Tucker in Houston, Aaron Gordon in Orlando, New Orleans' JJ Redick and Atlanta's John Collins. Other lower-cost possibilities mentioned include OKC's George Hill and Terrence Ross in Orlando.
Injuries and health-and-safety protocols have limited the Celtics' projected starting five from seeing much court time together, which may sway Ainge to keep the team intact and ride out this season.
Boston's projected starting five was supposed to be a perimeter trio of Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown joined by Jayson Tatum and Tristan Thompson in the frontcourt. According to NBA.com, that group has played a total of seven minutes together this season, and it hasn't been pretty.
"I hate to use those excuses," Ainge said. "Every team has COVID issues, every team has injury issues. And really, at the same time, we haven't seen our starting lineup that was penciled in at the beginning of the season very much at all this season. But again, this [current play by the team] ... is unacceptable. I just hope every player feels the same way and I think they do. I'm confident that each one of them knows they can do more and play better and play harder."
Getting healthier and playing harder can only do so much. The Celtics could use another rotation piece, but a rival executive in the East pointed out what may throw a monkey wrench into their plans of using the unprecedented TPE to bolster their roster.
"They have the trade exception, but if a team can add talent, maybe a good pick or picks in a deal, will that beat a trade exception from Boston?" the league executive said. "For some teams, maybe."
With the Celtics' record hovering around the .500 mark this late in the season for the first time since their 2014-15 campaign, Ainge knows there will be increased scrutiny on how he addresses the team's struggles.
Figuring out the kind of player that Boston seeks is one of the great unknowns right now in the NBA.
"Is it a big man? Is it a wing? Depending on the day of the week, that might be your answer," said the latter Eastern Conference executive. "They're in this really unusual spot where they are a very good team but have more than one clear area that needs to be shored up."
While there's no disputing the Celtics' need for improved play, a Western Conference scout dismissed the argument that Boston needs to add more scoring punch from the perimeter.
"If you really take a close look at their numbers, you'll see the problem isn't that they have bad shooters," he said. "It's that the shooters they have aren't shooting enough."
The Celtics are shooting 37.8 percent from beyond the three-point line, which ranks ninth leaguewide. However, their 12.5 made threes and 33.0 three-point attempts per game rank 18th and 22nd, respectively.
Indeed, the shift toward taking more two-pointers than threes has been years in the making for Boston.
The Celtics are ranked ninth in two-pointers taken per game this season. Boston's two-point-attempt ranking has gone up every year since the 2016-17 season, when it was 29th. Meanwhile, Boston has dropped in the league standings in three-point attempts in three of the last four seasons.
And while a lot of attention will be paid to the record-setting $28.5 million TPE and how they use it, the Celtics did other deals during the offseason that generated a pair of additional TPEs—a $4.8 million TPE when Enes Kanter went to Portland and a $2.6 million TPE when they sent Vincent Poirier to Oklahoma City (the Thunder would later trade him to his current team, the Philadelphia 76ers).
Those are nice assets, for sure.
But for the Celtics to add a player of significant impact and do so without disrupting their core group, it'll take finding the right team as a trade partner, the right player who fits their needs, not to mention some if not all of their $28.5 million trade exception to get it done.
Stats up to date through games played on Tuesday, Feb. 16.