The season is only six games old but after the initial daze from Gordon Hayward’s injury we’re already seeing some things come back into focus.
The league has granted the Celtics’ request for a disabled player exception (DPE) and, Hayward excluded, the team is near to returning to full health. Jayson Tatum is a positive NBA player already and looks worthy of a top-3 (or top-1) pick, which substantially impacts the franchise’s ceiling. Jaylen Brown has shown brighter flashes than last year but it still a wildcard. A set of inexperienced players look like viable NBA role fillers.
The team has some decisions to make that could happen shortly or stretch out into early March when the DPE expires. The direction they go will be shaped by how the front office views this season’s team without Hayward and what their real budget limitations are down the road.
Using the DPE
The rules around a disabled player exception have been covered by numerous outlets, including here, so I’m not going to get too far into that. Suffice to say, the exception can be used to acquire one player in the final year of their contract, or for signing a one season deal with a free agent, for up to $8.4M. It cannot be combined with any other players to increase that amount. It expires on March 10, or the day Hayward returns if that miraculously happens before then.
The common wisdom is that, barring a very good trade offer coming in sooner, the Celtics will wait for a pool of players to be bought out just after the trade deadline and then use the DPE to outbid other playoff teams for one of them. I agree that that’s a possible outcome, but am not sure what the real upside of that is. Acquisitions like that rarely make much of a difference (there’s a reason the players get bought out) and the Celtics are not one buyout candidate away from reaching their goals, unless Hayward progresses well ahead of schedule and the Warriors suffer some injuries.
The popular trade questions around the DPE are in two former Philadelphia draft picks. Nerlens Noel is languishing in Dallas but if he gets traded his Bird Rights convert into Non-Bird Rights, making it very unlikely that Boston would be able to re-sign him. For that reason he has a no-trade clause that he might not even waive if Boston came in with an offer that Dallas accepted.
Jahlil Okafor could fit into the DPE but only if Philadelphia first declined his option for next season, though I’ll put forward a different proposal a few paragraphs down. That decision is due by Tuesday, October 31, and no one is really sure what they’ll do if they can’t find a trade partner before that. That would apply to any player drafted in 2014 or 2015 who hasn’t already had their option decided.
The “one season contract” provision in the DPE limits a team like the Celtics that is capped out and has to plan for long-term tax implications. If you don’t think you’re one player away from a notable achievement, and retaining the player you pick up is unlikely, then it’s worth thinking about using the available tools to spin forward a longer-term asset.
When the Celtics traded Avery Bradley for Morris he looked like a two-season veteran commitment who could help a team with high aspirations deal with LeBron James. The injury to Hayward and impressive debut from Tatum has changed that somewhat. The Celtics certainly could keep Morris through his contract but if the front office doesn’t think this team can go deep in the playoffs without Hayward, and they reach a point where Hayward has 100% been ruled out for the year, Morris starts to look like a one season player instead of two.
The Celtics are unlikely to re-sign Morris when his current contract ends because Hayward, Tatum, and Brown will be filling his position and cheaper depth will be needed, which you generally don’t get by signing someone like Morris. If you have one year with Morris where you think you can reach your goals, and you reach a level of comfort with Tatum and Ojeleye in the first half of this season, a smart franchise like the Celtics would consider flipping Morris in trade.
If they do that, there will be multiple teams interested in him. Whereas Boston may see him as a one playoff run stopgap and then a one season role player, other franchises in a different position could see him as a two season role player who could be retained longer-term. His trade value wouldn’t be huge, but the Celtics would be in a strong position to move him.
Marcus Morris + DPE
Combining these two limited opportunities into one package starts to open up some more interesting possibilities. If the Celtics look to trade Morris for the type of low cost, long range asset that they’ll need to manage their tax planning, they may be able to use their DPE to absorb a contract that matches Morris, converting his contract into a more flexible exception while picking up a pick or recent draftee.
NOTE: This next section is just an example of what I’m proposing. Please do not spend your time telling me that it’s a stupid trade that one or both sides would never do in a million years. The trade deadline is a long way away and we don’t know the exact opportunities that will present themselves.
As an example, let’s imagine that the Minnesota Timberwolves decide that they need another wing defender to take some pressure off Jimmy Butler and to allow the team to play more small-ball around Karl Towns. Morris fits the bill and his contract means they could walk away after two years if the team is too expensive to keep together. However, if Jimmy Butler leaves in 2019 free agency, Morris could be re-signed as a fallback as they’ll still want to be competitive with Towns and Andrew Wiggins. The T-Wolves need to start making the playoffs, and their GM is also their coach. They’re the type of team that could find Morris an attractive trade target.
On the other side, Nemanja Bjelica has been making shots this year but Thibs hasn’t previously trusted him; he might trust Morris. In this theoretical, the Celtics swap Morris for Bjelica and the OKC 1st round pick that Minnesota owns this year.
From the Wolves perspective this is a straightforward deal: Marcus Morris for Bjelica and a low 1st. For the Celtics, Bjelica would go into the DPE slot leaving Morris to be traded for just the pick. That would create a new Traded Player Exception for the size of Morris’s contract ($5M) that lasts for another year and is not limited to players in the final year of their contract, though it can’t be used to sign free agents to one year deals.
The Celtics come out of it with a downgrade at Morris’s position for this year, and lose him next year, but have Tatum, Ojeleye, and the returning Hayward to fill the spot. We’ve also seen that Horford can still hold up well at PF and so doesn’t need to spend a large majority of his minutes at C. In exchange, they add another pick, which they would probably want to Eurostash or package with their own pick in a trade up. The team will need cheap young talent to contain future tax bills, so rolling picks forward is important. Bjelica could also find a home in Brad Stevens’s rotation and become an affordable re-signing using his Bird Rights. This the the type of move they could afford to make if they don’t believe they can make real noise without Hayward.
The TPE they could create would potentially have a lot of uses in a league where cap space is getting scarce and a lot of teams broke the chain of rolling forward exceptions when they went under the cap in 2015 or 2016, just like the Celtics did. They could even expand this to a multi-team trade and functionally use it as it’s created. For example, if Philly can’t find an immediate trade for Okafor but choose to pick up his option, making him ineligible for the DPE, he would be eligible for the theoretical TPE this creates. I’m not an Okafor fan (at all) but he’s a great example of the increased flexibility a TPE provides.
There are way more players for a TPE than DPE, even downgrading from $8.4M to $5M, because it stays open through multiple windows of heavy activity and can be used on more players.
The Celtics front office has a long track record of creating intelligent trade constructions. They often find ways to roll expiring assets forward if there isn’t an immediate opportunity for use. Pairing a player trade with the DPE use would fit that pattern.
The same exercise done above with Marcus Morris could also be done with Marcus Smart if the team were to decide that they can’t/won’t re-sign him. We’ve seen that the trade value for expiring rookie contracts is very low in recent years, though. He also seems to have a more clear path to staying with the team and maintaining a role than Morris.
Two-way Players / Jabari Bird
Brad Stevens raised some eyebrows when he gave Jabari Bird run against Philadelphia in the Celtics’ third game. He’s only played three minutes since then as Smart returned. He’s now burned 6-7 NBA days from his 45 day allotment as travel and practice days count. There appear to be a bunch of tricks a team could do to stretch those 45 days out (things like sending the player back-and-forth to Maine on off days) but Boston hasn’t done that yet.
I don’t believe there’s any real path for Bird to get converted to an NBA deal this season. If they do that, he takes up a roster spot from the 15 full NBA slots. It also changes his qualifying offer this summer from another Two-way deal to a guaranteed one season NBA deal, which he would probably grab. For that reason, making him a full NBA player could directly lead to losing him in the summer, or being stuck with him with no spot on the roster.
My guess is that Bird and Kadeem Allen have both been promised the full 45 days on the NBA roster so they can get paid as much as possible, but that neither have a real chance at getting promoted.
All of Australia has been impressive this season and looks like a perfect fit as a defensive enforcer and high efficiency/low usage role player. The risk here is that he significantly outperforms his $4M deal and so gets multi-year offers in free agency that the Celtics can’t really afford. He seems to enjoy it here so hopefully he continues to play well enough to get strong offers to leave but decides to stay for whatever the Celtics can fit into the “post Kyrie re-signing” budget.
I bring up the luxury tax a lot which bothers some people because they just want the team to have an unlimited budget. That’s not realistic and, so while I have no idea what their exact budget will be in future years, I always try to consider how expensive this team is going to get. One place that immediately factors is that the team will not end this season over the tax line. That would trigger repeater status a year earlier down the line.
End of the Bench
Semi Ojeleye and Daniel Theis already look like locks to be here for more than one season, despite their second years being only partially guaranteed. That’s assuming they aren’t needed to grease a trade, of course.