Gordon Hayward's season-ending knee injury suffered on opening has depressed a rather excited Celtics fanbase. Despite his absence, the C's are hanging tough, with a lot of good young players and a coach that knows what buttons to push to make things right. With such a core and the previous commitment to winning now made by ownership and GM Danny Ainge, the Celtics won't look to regress from their expectations and will hope to bring Banner 18 to Boston nonetheless.
One of the facets of the NBA's salary cap mechanisms and intricacies allows the Celtics to apply for essentially a mulligan for the rest of the season due to a hardship suffered by a season-ending injury. Such a hardship turns into a credit, called a Disabled Player Exception (DPE). The NBA league offices just approved such an exception for the Celts this past week.
Like any token from the league though, there are rules attached. Teams don't just get a redo on their roster and any player to add through trade or free agency. The relevant rules portion of the Disabled Player Exception are as follows:
Currently the Celtics are a safe $9.4 million below the luxury tax, so the fifth bullet point won't discourage them from using the full DPE. That said, using almost all of it would get them closer to the luxury tax threshold if they were to decide to make other moves. The first four points are the meat and potatoes of the rule... this exception is worth $8.4 million and only players that will be a free agent in July 2018 can be acquired.
Before the name "Nerlens Noel" even comes up, the nature of Noel's qualifying offer with Dallas works is that if the Mavs trade him, the acquiring team loses his Bird rights. They have no incentive then to trade for a player who they gain no advantage in signing this summer. For Boston, acting as an over-the-cap team into the next couple of summers, that is key. The compensation required to get Noel isn't worth a true three-month rental.
So what names are around and how might the Celtics best utilize this? Does it behoove them to wait until December 15th, when any player who signed a new contract this July becomes tradeable? Timing, teams looking to sell and the lack of marquee free agents worth the value that the DPE has in absorbing larger salary make it difficult to predict, but there are a few players that the Celtics could and should target...
PF Ed Davis or PF Noah Vonleh, Portland Trail Blazers
Portland has two big men that could help the Celtics with their interior presence, an area that the team lacked before the Hayward injury. Vonleh, a restricted free agent come year's end, would be an enticing piece due to his somewhat untapped potential, his ability to shoot the ball from distance and their ability to get a quality young player for a cheap price. Davis, a more experienced veteran, would be likely more available (or at least available cheaper).
Portland could get to the point where they require their young bigs space to play, so clearing one big in favor of another guard might be the way to go. If that's the case, Boston could offer up the right package to get the Blazers below the tax. From a pure financial perspective, these two teams seem like a match made in heaven, where a guy like Shane Larkin would head back to Portland in return.
PF Ersan Ilyasova or SG Marco Belinelli, Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks are rebuilding, so they have little incentive to retain either of these guys long-term. Both on expiring deals, Atlanta will want to play them early and maximize what they can get out of them on the trade market.
Boston could take either as a way of adding a little veteran experience and shooting before the postseason. Ilyasova is a stretch-shooting big man that struggles to defend on the perimeter and doesn't have a ton of "switchability" across matchups. That makes him a conceptually poor fit in Boston. Belinelli is a little better as a wing, but the price for acquiring him would be higher.
Realistically both these guys are backup options for the Celtics and will likely not become major targets until closer to the trade deadline.
SF Corey Brewer, Los Angeles Lakers
If we're thinking of only salary and position, then Brewer is a fit. A wing on an expiring deal that will likely get muscled out of the lineup in Los Angeles, the price of acquisition would be low for Brewer, too. That said, calling him decisively better than cheaper options on the free agent market is a stretch. Just because they have the DPE up to $8.4 million doesn't mean the Celtics need to spend all of it. They'll target the best player they can on this deal.
SG Wayne Ellington, Miami Heat
Miami has little incentive to move Ellington, but his salary and contract is a fit on the Celtics end. The Heat have a ton of players that are young and talented on the wings, many of whom may surpass Ellington in the rotation by the middle of the season. If that is the case, look for the Celts to be involved on the Philadelphia native for his hot-handed shooting.
F Trevor Ariza, Houston Rockets
Hear me out on this one, because it could be plausible if certain dominos fall...
The Rockets are in dire need of another backcourt option. Chris Paul is banged up, and it's really just he, James Harden and Eric Gordon consistently back there. With the strong play of PJ Tucker and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute early in the season (on both ends of the ball) something may have to give in Houston to acquire quality backcourt play. Combine that with a slow start to the season for Ariza (shooting 22 percent only five-games in) and Houston may naturally supplant him anyway from their starting rotation.
Ariza, with a large salary and an expiring deal, may be a piece they end up moving. Houston is up against the luxury tax, something they'll badly want to dodge this season before they re-sign Chris Paul and the Harden mega-max extension kicks in. Eric Gordon won't get moved based on their roster needs, and Ryan Anderson is a contract too difficult to move. Ariza then would become the best shot they have at trimming costs while giving away a player worth a damn.
The deal with the Celtics would likely be a three-team deal, with Ariza going to Boston, the C's sending a future-second round pick to one other team and them sending a backup guard to the Rockets on a longer but less financially-burdensome contract (players like J.J. Barea or Shelvin Mack make sense).
Ariza would be a stretch-four for Boston that helps with their defense and corner shooting. They'd then have his Bird rights and be able to keep him as a backup on the cheap, adding to their wing depth moving forward.
F Gerald Green, free agent
Should the Celtics strike out on the trade market or decide continuity is best, Gerald Green would come in and be a solid free agent signing. Green was with the C's last year and did a good job as a change-of-pace scoring wing off the bench. Whenever he played, Green was attentive and a good veteran presence within the Boston locker room.
When used to lure in free agents, this DPE will be attractive since the Celts can offer more than the minimum, which most above-the-cap teams (as most who are in the playoff race usually are) are bound by. Green might desire a return to Boston, so there would be interest both ways, but certainly the Celtics would be foolish not to hang onto the exception a little longer and see if a higher-quality player is indeed available.
I'd be shocked to see Boston use this before December 15th. Even January 10th sounds like a reasonable date to wait until, as that's the date non-guaranteed contracts become fully guaranteed. If the Celts wait to see what guys get trimmed from rosters, they may find a more enticing option off the free agent market.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).