Boston Celtics Can Change the Landscape of the East at the Trade Deadline

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2021

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, center, looks to pass the ball while pressured by Utah Jazz center Donovan Mitchell, left, and forward Bojan Bogdanovic, right, during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, March 16, 2021, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Following a 117-109 loss to the Utah Jazz on Tuesday, the Boston Celtics are now in sixth place and a half game behind old teammate Gordon Hayward and the Charlotte Hornets in the Eastern Conference.

Back when Boston worked a sign-and-trade to send Hayward to Charlotte in November, few could have imagined this is where the two teams would be in March.

In FiveThirtyEight's first statistical projection of the season, it had Boston at a 98 percent chance to make the playoffs and a 15 percent chance to win the title. Charlotte was at eight percent for the postseason and less than one percent for the championship.

Maybe these results should have been expected after trading a starter (and the team's second-highest paid player) for no immediate returns, but Celtics fans were understandably confident in their rising star duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

And that confidence has proved warranted, at least as it related to those two individually. Brown and Tatum are both All-Stars this season. On Tuesday, they combined for 57 of Boston's 109 points against Utah. On the year, they're averaging 49.4.

But without Hayward, and with Kemba Walker missing a significant portion of the season recovering from an injury, the Celtics' supporting cast hasn't looked title-worthy.

Good thing that Hayward trade came with the possibility of some delayed gratification.

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

The mechanics of that move gave Boston a $28.5 million trade exception, the largest in NBA history. In layman's terms, that means the Celtics can simply absorb the salary of a player (or players) into that $28.5 million cushion.

And with all of their own future first-round picks in hand, they approach the March 25 trade deadline in a truly unprecedented situation.

There are only 33 players in the NBA making more than $28.5 million this season, and though the rest of the league's individual players obviously aren't all available, a first-round pick (or multiple firsts) can be enticing.

Boston president Danny Ainge recently told 98.5 The Sports Hub that he'd "most likely" wait for the offseason to use the exception, but it's hard to imagine he's not doing his due diligence.

Tatum and Brown haven't even reached their primes, but you could still argue that this is a "strike while the iron is hot" moment. If lingering injuries to the likes of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving or Joel Embiid resurface in the playoffs, a reinforced Celtics squad could make a Finals push.

But who might that reinforcement be?

"Another player of interest for the Celtics: Hawks big man John Collins," Stadium and The Athletic's Shams Charania wrote. "Atlanta's asking price has been steep for Collins, however: A high-level first-round draft pick and/or a talented young player."

Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

There are some hurdles here, to be sure. Boston isn't where it wanted to be this season, but it's still almost certain to avoid the lottery. That means a "high-level first-round draft pick" really isn't in play. And two firsts for a player on the eve of restricted free agency feels risky.

But as a pure talent play, adding Collins makes a lot of sense.

Basketball Reference pegs Semi Ojeleye and Grant Williams as the Celtics' nominal power forwards. Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson have shared the floor for plenty of dual-big minutes, as well. Collins would give Boston the best of both worlds.

He can stretch the floor and switch on defense like Ojeleye without sacrificing size and rebounding. Over his last two seasons, the 6'9" Collins has averaged 19.8 points and 9.0 rebounds, while shooting 38.8 percent from three, in just 31.9 minutes.

Do the Celtics want that kind of production and the potential headache of restricted free agency, or the mystery of mid first-round picks? Over the last five years, Robert Williams is the only player Boston has picked (and kept) from outside the top 10 who has a positive box plus/minus.

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

One more fringe benefit with the Collins scenario is the fact that his $4.1 million salary doesn't even come close to exhausting the trade exception. In fact, Boston could acquire him with another exception worth $4.76 million that was created by trading Enes Kanter to the Portland Trail Blazers. That, of course, would leave the massive exception on the table for other options.

At some point, though, Boston might have to think of the long-term cost of adding Collins. If it spent multiple firsts to acquire him, it might feel obligated to match a monster offer in restricted free agency. And the Celtics already have $89.8 million guaranteed to Tatum, Brown and Walker next season.

Charania also noted that, "Sacramento Kings forward Harrison Barnes appears to be a more logical and likely target for the Celtics." It's perhaps a less glamorous move, Barnes' time with the Golden State Warriors dynasty notwithstanding. But it would still move the needle and likely cost less over the next few years.

Barnes' salary declines in each of the next two seasons, finishing at $18.4 million in 2022-23. And though his numbers aren't quite as gaudy as Collins', he's been above average from three in each of his last three seasons, fits as one-third of a positionless trio with Brown and Tatum and adds significantly more experience than Collins would.

Boston has also been linked to Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic and Detroit Pistons forward Jerami Grant, but those possibilities feel more far-fetched. Both are on losing teams, but they're clearly the best players for their respective franchises. The asking prices there could be prohibitive.

Atlanta, meanwhile, seems motivated to move Collins. And with Sacramento in obvious need of a shakeup, it's hard to imagine anyone not named De'Aaron Fox or Tyrese Haliburton being off limits.

Ultimately, Boston needs to do something.

For years, we've read stories about how close the Celtics were on various deals after those trades were already completed by other teams.

When you have two top 15-20 players as Boston arguably does, you have a shot to do something special. But this season has shown something is missing. And the Celtics should use the biggest trade exception the league has ever seen to fill that need.