We are entering an NBA season with the Celtics in familiar territory, roster-wise. For the third year in a row, they’re holding on to a significant traded-player exception—two, in fact. The ones they have in hand now are worth $6.9 million from the Juan Hernangomez trade, expiring on January 19, 2023, and $5.9 million, from the Dennis Schroder trade, expiring on February 10. Those are dwarfed by the previous two major TPEs the Celtics had, two years ago from the Gordon Hayward sign-and-trade ($28.5 million) and last year from the Evan Fournier sign-and-trade ($17.1 million).
Now, a reminder: The Celtics can’t combine the two exceptions in a $12.8 million exception. They have to be used separately, and the Celtics do not need to send out matching salaries to other teams in a TPE trade. They might need to trade out a draft asset or a young player to give the other team some incentive to do a deal in the first place, but with the top 10 spots in their rotation pretty much set, it’s doubtful they’d send out more than a second-round pick or two just to fill spot No. 11.
Still, the Celtics’ roster has a pretty clear hole in the frontcourt, with few big-man options behind starters Al Horford and Robert Williams III. Both will need to be treated with care during the regular season, Horford because he is 37 and Williams because of the dodgy left knee that has bothered him for much of his career and required surgery (on his meniscus) last March.
The Celtics need a third big guy, and as of now, sixth-year journeyman Luke Kornet has the inside track on the role.
Boston could, perhaps, do better. The pool of players who can be acquired with a $6.9 million exception is limited, and the Celtics could ultimately use the exceptions to get non-centers. But that is their need now, so Heavy Sports asked a pair of assistant coaches, one from the East and one from the West, how some of the big-man options might fit with the Celtics.
Realistic Big-Man Options
Alex Len, Kings. Salary: $3.9 million. 2021-22 stats: 6.0 points, 4.1 rebounds, 53.4% shooting.
West assistant coach: “He struggled a lot last year. But he really has struggled to make an impact for a lot of his career and I think part of the problem is he plays for these bad teams, he has an inconsistent role and he is not really going full bore because there isn’t much reason to. He had a good year when he was with Washington and they were playing for the postseason but that’s the only decent team he has been on. You get him into a role for Boston where he can be consistent, and that could be a good fit. Especially for the money, it’s the best value, potentially. Tell him he might start for Rob Williams some games, he might be the big body they use against (Joel) Embiid and things like that, and he could give them what they need cheap.”
Mike Muscala, Thunder. Salary: Two years, $7 million. (Can’t be traded until December 15 and can veto a deal; second year of contract is non-guaranteed.) 2021-22 stats: 8.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, 42.9% 3-point shooting.
West assistant coach: “He had trouble staying healthy there last year, the last couple years really, with the ankle surgery. I think the Celtics want a bit more of a big body in there for their third big guy, and Muscala is more of the stretch-5 type so, that may be one where Ime (Udoka) wouldn’t play him much. But he can shoot. He knocks down 3s on the wings. If you’re having a sluggish game offensively, he can change things with a couple of makes. Definitely a guy they could get if they’re looking to build on that shooting dimension, just not sure he’s Ime’s type from a defensive standpoint.”
Tony Bradley, Bulls. Salary: $2 million. 2021-22 stats: 3.0 points, 3.4 rebounds.
East assistant coach: “He might be their best option because the Bulls will probably just be glad to be rid of him, get him off the books and use that money somewhere else, even though it’s not a ton of money. He just did not play well at all last year, he was not the guy he was in Utah where he was a decent backup. They’ve got (Nikola) Vucevic and (Andre) Drummond, there won’t be a lot of minutes for Bradley anyway. So the Celtics won’t have to send much of anything the Bulls’ way, just get him out of Chicago. He can do some things on the defensive end, he is massive and he gives you an option when you have Horford or Rob Williams on the bench. But he’s a big negative on the offensive end. I am not sure that is a big concern for the Celtics, they can work around it. But it is the reason he can be had in a trade for nothing in the first place.”
Marquese Chriss, Rockets. Salary: $2 million. 2021-22 stats: 4.5 points, 3.0 rebounds.
East assistant coach: “Good athlete, very fluid and, you watch him, you just keep expecting a little more than what he gives you. He gets lost in the shuffle too much defensively, where he could be a pretty good rim protector with his athleticism. But he does not have that feel for the game, and I always thought he was a guy who should have gone back to college when he decided to come out (as a freshman in 2016). He runs the floor and is OK offensively, but he should develop a 3-point shot if he wants to stick in the league. Doubt that he has a future in Houston, I’d have to figure they would move him. He is in that Tatum-Brown age range (26) and is better than (Noah) Vonleh or (Bruno) Caboclo who they’re going to look at, but he might be too inconsistent for the role they want him to play.”
Boban Marjanovic, Rockets. Salary: $3.5 million. Stats: 4.3 points, 1.7 rebounds.
West assistant coach: “The Celtics could do worse than getting Boban. He’s huge (7-foot-4). He has some experience with Ime, he is a pretty solid veteran, he is used to playing in weird spurts, then sitting for a long time. He is a total pro, and really good in the locker room. You are not going to use him a lot and probably not at all in the playoffs, but he is a really good guy to have at the end of the bench when you need to cover big-guy minutes in November and December and January. That’s what they need. Houston has said they want to keep him but really, as time goes on, they would give him away cheap, they don’t need him, they need to cut down the roster.”
Longshot Big-Man Options
Jeff Green, Nuggets. Salary: $4.5 million. 2021-22 stats: 10.3 points, 3.1 rebounds, 31.5% 3-point shooting.
West assistant coach: “I can’t see the Nuggets letting him go. He has settled in there pretty nicely. If there is a setback with (Jamal) Murray or some injury to someone else and they try to dump some guys, maybe then he is on the market. I think he’d do well in Boston if he went back, he can play a lot of positions for you. He’s a different player now than when he was there 10 years ago, and it’d be full circle for him. He is too small to be the backup big they want, but he can play some 5 in today’s game, he has become an outstanding finisher at the rim. He did not shoot it well last year (from the 3-point line) but that was probably a one-off—he is 35-36, though, so you worry about him just hitting the skids. This is his 15th year, I mean.”
Bismack Biyombo, Suns. Salary: $2.9 million (Can’t be traded until December 15 and can veto a deal.) 2021-22 stats: 5.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 59% shooting.
Western Conference coach: “Biyombo did exactly what they wanted from him last year, and that was the reason they let (JaVale) McGee go. They kept Ayton so you can expect they’ll go into the year with Biyombo as their No. 2 center—so I’d be really surprised if they go out and look to trade him. But he is the kind of find that the Celtics could really use in that hole, a guy who blocks some shots, plays good defense and holds down the fort off the bench. If Phoenix has some injuries and is really disappointing, maybe he winds up on the market but they really like what he did for them last year.”
Khem Birch, Raptors. Salary: Two years, $13.6 million. 2021-22 stats: 4.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, 48.5% shooting.
East assistant coach: “Not sure what Toronto does with him going forward. Still a guy who needs some polish but has good upside. I’d think they’d be willing to move him but they do not have a lot of other options at center, other than going small and that is probably what they will wind up doing a lot of. They played Precious (Achiuwa) there, they played Pascal (Siakam) but I think the idea is to have Birch start and play 20, 25 minutes. The problem is, he really looked lost offensively, he took too many midrange jumpers and he was not the same forceful rim protector he’d been in other years. He wasn’t healthy. If he is at 100%, he’d be a great get for Boston but the Raptors are not going to give him away and I can’t imagine they want to give him to the best team in the East, anyway. So if you’re the Celtics and you have this TPE, Birch would be the ideal guy but Toronto is going to want a first-rounder. I can’t see Boston giving that up for a third big man. Can’t hurt to ask, though.”