The Celtics were granted an $8.4 million disabled player exception once the NBA determined it was more likely than not that Gordon Hayward would be unable to return this season, which is a fancy way of saying they can now sign, trade for or claim off waivers any player for up to that value.
This gives the Celtics an overwhelming advantage in luring existing free agents, trade deadline salary dumps and potential late-season buyout candidates, because all other contenders are over the salary cap and unable to offer anything beyond the veteran minimum (about $2 million).
The only catch here is that the player can only be signed for the remainder of this season, which limits the talent pool on the trade market. Earlier in the season, there was some hope the Celtics could use the DPE on a player then, before trading his expiring contract as part of a package to acquire a better player later, but the deadline to make such a move has passed.
The deadline to use the DPE is March 10, and then it disappears. Use it now on a player whose Bird Rights transfer with him, and the Celtics could retain that player despite being over the salary cap for at least the next two seasons. They may not be afforded this luxury again soon.
And to answer two more questions: No, the Celtics cannot package the DPE with other players to acquire a more expensive player (i.e., Marcus Morris and the DPE for DeMarcus Cousins); and yes, Gordon Hayward is still eligible to return, regardless of whether the C’s use the DPE or not.
Here we are, approaching Christmas. The Celtics have this $8.4 million to spend, an open roster spot and a couple needs made more obvious by the Morris injury — scoring off the bench and/or frontcourt depth. (Think Morris might’ve helped as Kelly Olynyk and Michael Beasley torched them the past two nights?) So, I’ve made this holiday shopping list of 10 options for them …
10. Jared Sullinger, PF, Shenzhen Leopards
(32.1 PPG, 17.2 RPG, 3.5 APG, 3.3 BPG/SPG)
Maybe you hate Sullinger. Maybe you love him. But you know him. When healthy, he was a solid contributor for the Celtics on his rookie deal, averaging 12.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25.9 minutes, mostly as a starter, over three seasons for the post-KG/Pierce Celtics. He knows Brad Stevens’ system, and he’s as skilled around the basket as they come.
(If only he wouldn’t take so many damn 3’s.)
But he ate his way out of the league by age 24. Weight issues resulted in chronic back and foot problems, and those only get worse when you’re working on a 6-foot-9, 260-pound frame that was probably closer to three bills by the time the Celtics renounced their qualifying option in 2016. Sullinger signed a one-year, $5.6 million deal with the Raptors, missed half of last season due to foot surgery, got dumped in a trade to the Suns, and was subsequently waived.
Attempts to convince teams he’d changed his ways failed this summer, so Sullinger signed a deal in China, where he was signed to a full-year extension last month after his early success. He currently leads the Chinese Basketball Association in rebounding, while ranking third in steals and seventh in scoring. Of course, the list of ex-NBA players who are enjoying success in the CBA is long, including ex-Celtics MarShon Brooks, Shavlik Randolph and Von Wafer.
So, why would the Celtics be interested? Well, if Sullinger proves he can make it through a full professional season (he’s currently playing 40 minutes a night), then that might give them enough confidence he’s returned to his once-promising form. He’s still only 25 years old, and they’d only be relying on him for help off the bench for a couple months. Of course, this is all predicated on his Leopards failing to reach the CBA playoffs, which begin March 3, and they’re currently in second place with two-plus months to play, so this might be an exercise in futility.
(Other CBA options: Brandon Bass, Donatas Motiejunas, Terrence Jones.)
9. Gerald Green, SG/SF, free agent
Hey, you know this guy, too, and he knows Stevens, which is a leg up on most midseason acquisitions. The Celtics loved having him around last season, if only for the respect he commanded in the locker room, and that might be value enough for a 15th roster spot.
It’s sort of surprising Green doesn’t have an NBA job right now. He’s still only 31. Remember, he was only 19 when the Celtics drafted him out of high school with the 18th pick in the 2005 draft. The dude started seven playoff games for the C’s last year, winning the first five of them. He was the catalyst in their first-round turnaround against the Bulls, scoring 18 points in Game 3 and another in the series-clinching Game 5. You tell me he’s worthless eight months later?
He earned an invite to Bucks training camp, played a handful of preseason games and barely saw the floor before being waived. Last we saw him he was driving around his hometown of Houston looking for a boat to help rescue Hurricane victims. That’s a guy you want on your side.
(Other free agents: Anthony Morrow, Brandon Rush, Mike Dunleavy, Matt Barnes, Monta Ellis.)
8. Marco Belinelli, SG/SF, Atlanta Hawks
(11.5 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 2.2 APG)
The Hawks are putrid, evidenced by front-row fans lying down and throwing up on the sidelines, and they have no long-term use for Belinelli in their rebuild, so chances are the 31-year-old Italian sharpshooter will be traded or bought out of the remainder of his $6.6 million contract.
He won’t do anyone any favors defensively, but he survived three years in Spurs’ system that consistently ranked as a top-five unit, including their 2014 title campaign, so there’s reason to believe he could find similar success on that end under Stevens, a Gregg Popovich favorite.
But the Celtics wouldn’t be acquiring Belinelli for his defense. He would solely be a spot-up shooter off the bench, spacing the floor for Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart and their other playmakers to get to the rim, waiting in the corners to punish teams for collapsing on them. He’s shooting 38.3 percent from 3-point range (70 percent from the right corner), and he ranks just outside the NBA’s top-10 among spot-up shooters who get at least two opportunities a game.
7. Ersan Ilyasova, PF, Atlanta Hawks
(9.6 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 1.3 APG, 1.4 SPG/BPG)
Ilyasova is in the same boat as his fellow Mediterranean in Atlanta. He’s 30 years old, making $6 million, and he makes the Hawks better than they want to be on their tanking expedition. He’s had that effect on a handful of teams in his career, and for that others will come calling.
Ilyasova has been an above-average 3-point shooter for six years running now, and as a fairly athletic 6-foot-10 forward he provides the defensive versatility that Stevens prefers. His 7-foot-1 wingspan also serves him well defending around the rim. He won’t exactly stop LeBron James in his tracks (who does?), but you’ll like him, because he’s the guy on a lot of overperforming teams through the years about whom you’ve probably said, “Who’s that guy? He’s pretty good.”
6. Nerlens Noel, C, Dallas Mavericks
(4.0 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 1.2 BPG/SPG)
Once considered the premier big man in his draft class, Noel got lost in a crowded 76ers rotation and was dealt to the Mavericks for Andrew Bogut’s expiring contract, Justin Anderson and a pair of second-round picks — not much, considering he was just 22 years old and had shown flashes of being the rim-running and -protecting big man we all imagined him to be.
He was precisely that for the Mavs down the stretch of last season, when he averaged 8.5 points (57.5 FG%), 6.8 rebounds and 2.1 combined blocks and steals in 22 minutes a night.
Then, things got weird. He turned down a four-year, $70 million contract offer from the Mavs, fired his agent for not finding him more on the open market, and then settled for signing his $4.2 million qualifying offer in order to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. Yikes.
That makes him eligible for the DPE. It also means he effectively has a no-trade clause, although that may not be an issue, since the Celtics are the Everett native’s hometown team. His Bird Rights don’t transfer, either, so the Celtics can’t re-sign him without cap space (which they don’t have). Finally, it may have resulted in him entering the Mavericks’ doghouse.
After starting 11 of his last 12 games last season, he lost his starting job this year, and Mavs coach Rick Carlisle made it clear Noel wasn’t earning minutes over guys like Salah Mejri, which likely wouldn’t be the case had they been paying him $17 million. Noel was a healthy scratch from five straight games before deciding to grab a hot dog at halftime of a game in early December, and three days later the team announced he was undergoing surgery for a thumb injury on his non-shooting hand that probably wouldn’t sideline him if he were in the rotation.
Noel should be eligible to return sometime in January, which would give the lottery-bound Mavs just enough time before the Feb. 8 trade deadline to decide whether they want to re-sign him in the summer or dump him to recoup one of the second-round picks they dropped to obtain him.
(Other big trade targets: Alex Len, Brandan Wright, Mo Speights)
5. Lou Williams, SG, Los Angeles Clippers
(19.9 PPG, 4.9 APG, 2.8 RPG)
You do not get Williams for help defensively, either. You do get him for instant offense.
He’s a perennial Sixth Man of the Year contender, winning the award for Toronto in 2015, because he’s been getting buckets professionally for a decade now. He’s never been super efficient, but his 3-point percentage (38.5 percent) is the highest it’s ever been, and he’s averaged more than 15 points off the bench per game for four years running now.
The Clippers are sinking fast in the West without Blake Griffin to keep them afloat, and they’re probably going to start throwing excess weight overboard soon. The Rockets traded a first-round pick for Williams last season, but he still had another year left on his deal (which they used to flip him to the Clips for Chris Paul), so he might be had for a second-round pick or two this season. Maybe Doc Rivers will do Ainge a solid on his way out the door in L.A. (Or not.)
But remember how Stevens turned Jordan Crawford into not only an actual NBA player, but the Eastern Conference Player of the Week and trade chip worth three second-round picks? Well, Williams is Crawford on steroids, and that could be an awfully fun weapon in your arsenal.
The question with Williams is where his minutes come from. The Celtics are playing Irving, Smart and Terry Rozier a combined 83 minutes per game, leaving only 13 minutes a night if you’re playing traditional two-guard lineups. Do you go after Williams if you’re only going to give him Shane Larkin’s 11 minutes a night? Or maybe he takes a few minutes from Rozier, and Stevens finds him a few more in those three- or four-guard lineups he seems to like, and suddenly you’re giving him the 20 minutes a night he needs to heat up your second unit.
4. Boris Diaw, PF/C, Levallois Metropolitans
(12.3 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 5.1 APG, 1.1 BPG/SPG)
Diaw has exquisite taste in coffee, wine and basketball, which is reason enough to sign the Frenchmen. He’s an accomplished photographer, rode a Segway to games, wrote children’s books about exotic animals and sang at karaoke bars. Bill Walton once described Diaw thusly:
“When you talk to Boris Diaw, what a classical human being he is. It was 201 years ago today, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, which escorted in the age of romanticism, and when I look at Boris Diaw, I think of Beethoven and the age of the Romantics. This guy has got it all.”
Seriously, get this man, by any means.
On the other hand, Diaw is 35 years old now. Once an athletic wing, he rose to prominence on the seven-seconds-or-less Suns last decade, and then enjoyed a renaissance on the Spurs, serving as one of the five points on the star that was their beautiful brand of basketball, rotating through space at speeds LeBron and his Heat couldn’t even compete with in the 2014 Finals.
He’s Al Horford Lite, even as he battles weight issues, and his numbers back in France — a 12-7-5 line nightly with a 48 3-point percentage to boot — reflect that. Of course, he returned to his home country because he wasn’t the player for the Jazz last year that he’d been for the Spurs in his four-plus previous seasons (although he did start nine playoff games in Utah).
Still, he did include an NBA opt-out clause in his European contract, so he could be had at the right price. The question is which version of Diaw you’re getting. Either way, it’s an adventure.
3. Tyreke Evans, SG/SF, Memphis Grizzlies
(18.3 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 4.1 APG, 1.4 BPG/SPG)
Ranking the former Rookie of the Year on any list of coveted trade acquisitions would’ve been blasphemy before this season. He was in steady decline on his rookie contract in Sacramento when the Pelicans gave him a four-year, $44 million deal in 2013. And he was, for the most part, even worse in New Orleans, where his paycheck exacerbated his inefficiency and carelessness.
He served only as an expiring contract when he was tossed into the deal for DeMarcus Cousins that sent Evans back to Northern California. He played out the season for the Kings and was worth no more than a $3.3 million bi-annual exception from the Grizzlies on the open market.
That’s how little he was thought of a few months ago. Now, though, he’s a legit Sixth Man of the Year candidate, averaging an 18-5-4 while shooting 41 percent on five 3-point attempts a game. He’s worked mostly off the bench, until injury forced Mike Conley out of the Memphis lineup.
Conley’s absence has coincided with the Grizzlies losing 18 of their last 20 games and dropping out any playoff consideration. They’re ownership is transition, and the franchise is losing money. Do they want to make Evans, still only 28 years old, part of their long-term plans? Or do they want to sell high before he walks for a healthy raise in free agency? What will it take to get him? These are the questions Danny Ainge will be asking when he puts in a call to the Grizz.
(Other wing trade targets: Corey Brewer, James Ennis.)
2. Greg Monroe, C, Phoenix Suns
(10.1 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 1.9 APG)
The last of the $17.9 million Monroe is owed this season must be bought out before the Celtics can pitch the big man they call Moose, but both he and the Suns have hinted this is an option.
Suns GM Ryan McDonough said immediately upon trading Eric Bledsoe for Monroe and draft picks in early November, “We’re open to Greg potentially joining our team, exploring possible trade scenarios and the final option is a potential buyout, but that’s further down the list.”
Monroe countered days later, “I just told them I understand the plan they have in place and how they want to approach the season. I told them, ‘If you want me to play I’ll always play. I’ll never be one not to want to play. If not we’ll just work together and find the best option for everyone.’”
“I understand the plan they have in place” is code for: The Suns are tanking, and I’m probably too good for them to keep me around, so I’m totally cool with them trading me or buying me out.
Ainge was not high on Monroe when he was a free agent in 2015, according to a source, partly because Moose’s game — not much defense and even less outside shooting — is less and less valuable in today’s game, but also because his price tag would’ve eaten up the cap space they used to sign Al Horford a year later. Some folks figured Monroe would’ve been a nice fit for the three-year, $51 million deal he signed with Milwaukee, but Ainge saw several steps ahead.
At a lower price tag? Now, that might be something Ainge would be interested in. The Celtics know better than most teams how bruising Monroe can be in the post, and he’s averaged a double-double per 36 minutes every year of his career. That’s not a bad tool to have in your bag, especially if the Georgetown product can be a quick study in Stevens’ defensive system.
(Other potential buyout options: Zach Randolph, Jared Dudley, Tyson Chandler, Brook Lopez.)
1. Julius Randle, PF/C, Los Angeles Lakers
(12.5 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.3 BPG/APG)
There’s been some question about whether the Celtics can use the DPE to acquire a player who will be a restricted free agent this summer, since they would still be able to extend a qualifying offer and match any contract offer that player receives from another team. But, “the qualifying offer is not an existing contract year,” a team source said, which means the DPE still applies.
Which means Randle could be had for the DPE and whatever pick it would take to get him.
Now, why would the Lakers want to send him to the Celtics? Well, they’ve got bigger plans this summer, and they’ve been fairly open about their intent to shed salary. In order to clear space for two max contracts in 2018, they’ll have to let Randle walk. The Lakers would like to attach Randle’s $4 million salary to the $54 million left on Luol Deng’s deal in a larger cap-clearing move before the deadline, but the Celtics won’t do that, and neither would any other sane team.
So, maybe Magic Johnson is so convinced that he’s going to lure LeBron and Paul George to the Lakers this summer that he’s desperate enough to pawn Randle’s rights off to his rival.
Ainge wasn’t too enamored with him during the 2014 draft process, but there is some belief that Randle coasted through his workout in hopes of landing on the Lakers. Ainge instead drafted Smart one spot ahead of Randle, and would so again, I’m sure. But that’s no knock on Randle.
He averaged a double-double in what was essentially his rookie campaign (he broke his leg in his debut) and has been fairly consistent each season since, even in fewer minutes (22.3 per game) as a bench contributor this year. He’s had a few triple-doubles in his career, and when engaged, he can be a monster on both ends. And we know Stevens will maximize his strengths.
Better yet, the C’s would have right of first refusal on Randle this summer, so he could be one more chip, either in a sign-and-trade or, if they’re enamored with him, as another young piece. Oh, and the Lakers would be worse without him, which only increases the likelihood their pick falls into the 2-5 range in the 2018 draft and transfers to the Celtics. Merry Christmas to all.
(Other RFAs: Jabari Parker [tough get], Elfrid Payton, Doug McDermott, Luke Babbitt.)
[Also from me this week at Yahoo Sports: Anthony Davis wonders if the Pelicans “have my back” as the Celtics lurk.]