Reviewing the Evan Fournier Trade
The Celtics traded very little for Evan Fournier and I didn't like it so in this post I will try to explain why. Before we get to that, here is context:
I am not a seer. I don't know that this won't work out and anyone who says that they're sure that something like this will or won't isn't worth listening to (not to say that I am, either). There certainly are ways that it could, which I'll go through. I simply believe that the upside is limited and relatively unlikely to be borne out; while the downside is significant and more likely.
The Good Outcomes
My primary problem with the acquisition is that Fournier is on an expiring contract. If the team were in serious title contention that would be fine, so we can start there.
I was high on this team to start the season, expecting a slow start that would pick up after about twenty games. It's possible that a contending-level team is still lurking beneath the surface, waiting for difficult recoveries from COVID and injury to play out, and exacerbated by a difficult first half schedule. If that contender emerges then obviously adding a player like Fournier for this low price will look great. They're aided by an easy remaining schedule, many teams suffering significant injuries, and limits on numbers of fans possibly diminishing the value of home court advantage.
On the other side of the expiring/non-contender equation, Fournier is extension eligible. There has been no indication that this is coming, but if he surprises everyone and inks a 2/$30M extension then the team would have traded a tiny price for the exact type of contract that they need and so my opinion of the deal would change completely.
More likely, Fournier goes to free agency. It's possible that he plays well enough for the Celtics to want him back but that major offers for him don't materialize. If the team can retain him on team-friendly terms that would also obviously be good. I think that number would still have to be no higher than 3/$45M though, which seems unlikely.
If ownership is willing to pay $50+M tax bills for the foreseeable future, it's also much easier to like the trade. I won't believe that until I actually see it, but again my belief about what they'll spend could simply be incorrect.
One unquestioned upside is that Fournier is an elite Poster.
The Complicated Semi-positive
I would also consider it a good outcome if the team uses the remaining TPE to acquire a player in a specific way while Fournier leaves in free agency. Larry Nance is a player I thought was a good trade target and fits this so I'll use him as the example, though there are other possibilities (Maxi Kleber, for one).
It's possible that the team tried to trade for Nance and were told he'd cost two first round picks. To do that now, the team would have to protect their pick this year and then trade their 2023 pick, also protected, with both possibly rolling forward. That could limit their pick trade option for years to come. However, if they make that trade at the draft they could make the 2021 pick for Cleveland and then send that player with their 2022 pick on top of that. It's also possible that Nance's price comes down with one fewer playoff run on his deal and can be picked up for a player and single pick.
By doing that, they will have used the entire TPE, which is not the end of the world due to probable budget constraints, to functionally acquire a hybrid of Fournier for a year and Nance for two in a way that expended slightly more draft capital but in a more beneficial manner.
This is less ideal than just trading for Nance now (depending on how much the price drops) because part of the value in doing that would be the possibility of re-trading him this offseason as part of a larger acquisition, but in total it would amount to a positive outcome because of how much smaller the opportunity cost would have been for the rest of the TPE and budget space.
Things That Will Be Sold As Good Outcomes But Aren't
Winning enough games to get into the 4/5 series and winning one round is not a positive outcome if Fournier then leaves in free agency.
Fournier leaving and the team turning it into a TPE-generating sign-and-trade is not a good outcome.
The Bad Outcomes
If Fournier walks in free agency after the team makes it to anything less than the Conference Finals it was a waste of time that carried an opportunity cost.
I didn't expect the Hayward TPE to turn into anything amazing if it went to the offseason, but it's possible that it could be an important part of trading Kemba out, if the team decides that's the right way forward. As a hypothetical, if they moved Walker to LA for Patrick Beverly, Luke Kennard, and Terance Mann, those players could go into the Hayward TPE creating a new one for all of Walker's salary. That could then be used with all of the Celtics picks into the distant future for someone like Brad Beal. That team would be enormously expensive without other parts moving around, but it greases the skids on bigger moves. Because you can't combine exceptions, a set of medium sized TPEs are not nearly as helpful in achieving that type of goal.
It's also possible they could have used it to pick up a Harrison Barnes-type, who I think causes some budget questions to be asked but is a better fit and would be on the team for more seasons that don't look already lost.
A more likely bad outcome is simply that Fournier re-signs for an overpriced contract. When Kyrie Irving left the team signed a worse facsimile in Walker to what quickly deteriorated into a bad contract. They could be repeating that in slow motion, watching Gordon Hayward leave and then be replaced by a worse facsimile who eventually signs a bad value contract.
Let's say he signs for 4/$80M. That contract will immediately be viewed as at best neutral value. There's minimal room for it to exceed that, and a large downside. The league's structures are set up to force overpays of upper middle class players. The Hawks are learning this with a similar player, Bogdan Bogdanovic, right now. On top of that, unless the team has a significantly larger budget than I expect, it would cascade down to other cost-cutting moves. In short order it could cost you Marcus Smart or force a situation where Kemba is being moved purely for cost-savings in a way that would spend additional draft capital while returning less talent than might otherwise be possible.
We can set up that contract with 8% annual raises, hoping that a post-COVID smoothing cap spike comes to limit some of the pain, starting at $17.9M in 2021-22. If Jayson Tatum doesn't make All NBA this year and Boston picks at #20 in the draft and then fills out the roster with veteran minimum contracts, they would project to have a $44M tax bill and the highest total spend, expressed as a percentage of the cap, of any Celtics team ever.
That could be cut down some by trading Tristan Thompson for little or no salary but it cost trading back and out of the last two drafts to move Aron Baynes and Enes Kanter in similar situations. The Celtics don't have extra picks now and Thompson makes more than either of them did. What is the team going to give up now to get off more bad money? Even if they do that, they'll then have to add some spending back to have a viable center rotation. Through all this, we also still haven't resolved the problem of not having the additional big wing the team probably requires to contend and that's not a position where players come cheap.
Ask yourself this question: will the Celtics ownership group set a new spending record for a team that just finished in the middle of the East playoff standings and that no one really believes is a top-level contender? If the answer is no, it means either Fournier is not re-signing or serious cost-cutting is coming, probably in the form of Smart or Walker. If it's Smart, then the trade is really Smart for Fournier. If it's Walker, you're going to have to spend draft capital to do it in a way that clears money and while Fournier may be a better fit on this team it's hard to argue that he has a higher ceiling as a player.
I would classify this as one of the more likely outcomes: The team plays better for the rest of this season, aided by an easy schedule, and then lose in Round 1 or 2. Fournier re-signs for at least what he's making now for 3-4 years. Either Smart or Walker is traded, in either case in a way where cost-cutting is as big a consideration as the on-court value being returned. Fournier plays well enough to not be an albatross contract but not so well as to establish major trade value. The remainder Jaylen Brown's current deal plays out with the team consistently in a financial bind and never quite good enough to contend or with enough assets to get in on the best trade targets, short of offering Brown himself.
Other Opportunity Costs
Before the deadline I was advocating that it was time for the Celtics to make a decision. Is this core good enough to win with? If Ainge's answer is a real "yes" it was worth investing long-term assets in long-term players that fit the need and budget. The need was "big wing" and the budget seems like it is "less than I would like it to be."
Admittedly, not many players fit this profile. It's why making an approach for Jerami Grant made sense and why I had ruminated on the idea of offering a boatload for OG Anunoby. Larry Nance is the one player from a lower tier who seems to check both boxes before you get into the Aaron Gordon conversation that isn't a perfect fit but would be worth it, if you're a believer. Even trying to acquire the longer deal of Terrence Ross instead of Fournier, while working to retain the TPE, would have indicated some larger plan without jumping 100% in. There's also the consideration that those "buy" plays might set you up to be in a better trading position over the next year.
If Ainge isn't a believer, this was probably the last opportunity to sell and reset with enough time to build back up before these contracts for Brown and Tatum are done or up for extending. It would be painful, but trading Smart for future assets would be part of that conversation. Trading Theis for some kind of future asset instead of just cash in Wyc Grousbeck's pocket would certainly have been part of that plan. If it were feasible, getting off Thompson or Walker while it's an option instead of a certainty would be reasonable, too.
Also, tanking would be a consideration. It might not be possible to do that effectively with the easy schedule and play-in games, but there is a reality that the weirdness of the COVID season paired with a loaded top-end of the draft class makes for an opportunity. Doing that two years from now might have a serious impact on the "next contract" decisions for Jaylen and Jayson but does anyone really believe that half a season of that three years in advance of those decisions would be a deciding factor in what they do next? Do you think Toronto is crying about this lost season, knowing that they currently have a 32% chance at a top-4 pick and will be resetting next year with at least Siakam, VanVleet, and Anunoby?
What the front office did was just punt on the difficult decisions. The problem is that the clock is running. Making those decisions now gives you time to work everything out before Jaylen and Jayson hit their real primes. If you haven't achieved your goals but do believe in the core in a few years, the budget and asset pressure may make it impossible (or, unacceptable to ownership) to do anything about it. If you find that you don't believe in the core at that time, it's just too late.
It was time to make a commitment to a direction. Trading for an expiring Evan Fournier is closing your eyes and hoping that one gets made for you.