The Boston Celtics have had a disappointing start to the regular season as they sit at 18-17. Coming off an Eastern Conference finals berth and with two All-Stars in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown on their roster, however, they are still acting as ambitiously as ever to try to improve their roster. That has meant, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic, targeting two big names to supplement their two young stars: Jerami Grant and Nikola Vucevic.
The cost to acquire either would likely be significant. Vucevic, the Orlando Magic’s versatile big man, was just selected to his second All-Star Game and has two years remaining on a relatively team-friendly deal that will pay him only $46 million combined in the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons. Grant didn’t quite earn All-Star status, but he became a surprising candidate after signing with the Detroit Pistons, and like Vucevic, has a fairly affordable contract that will pay him roughly $41 million over the next two seasons.
Boston can afford to absorb either of those deals outright. By signing-and-trading Gordon Hayward to the Charlotte Hornets this offseason, the Celtics gained a trade exception that could be used to absorb any player making $28.5 million or less. Grant and Vucevic both fit the bill. The Celtics are hard-capped at the $138.9 million apron by virtue of using the non-taxpayer mid-level exception this offseason. They currently have roughly $19 million in space beneath that line, so they would have to send out a bit of salary to make a deal legal, but their ability to absorb significantly more money than they send out would be appealing to sellers at the deadline.
Orlando and Detroit both figure to fit into that category. The Pistons have the worst record in the Eastern Conference at 10-25, and the Magic are only slightly better at 13-23. Of the two, Orlando seems likelier to cooperate on a blockbuster. Vucevic is 30 and has spent most of his career on losing Magic teams. Grant is 26 and only just signed with Detroit this past offseason. That youth makes it likelier that Detroit would be able to rebuild in time for Grant’s prime than Orlando would be able to do so for Vucevic’s.
The counterpoint is that Grant’s age makes him more attractive to Boston. Tatum is 23, Brown is 24 and Marcus Smart is 26, so adding a core 26-year-old piece would fit easily into their timeline. The Celtics have historically prioritized wings over all else, using multiple top-three picks on Brown and Tatum while also signing Hayward to a max deal. Grant would fit into that lineage, allowing the Celtics to play smaller, more versatile lineups that could switch defensively and take advantage of shot creation all over the floor. Vucevic would be something of a departure for a Celtics team that not only rarely prioritizes centers, but is also seeing the risks of investing in older players through Kemba Walker’s up-and-down season. Still, while the Celtics have a number of big men across the age spectrum, none have stood out as long-term starters. Vucevic would be a meaningful upgrade over what they have.
For the first time in ages, Boston does not own a single first-round pick originally belonging to another team to offer in a deal. The Celtics have only their own picks to deal, but they have all of them, so they’re hardly asset-strapped. They also have the young players those outside picks yielded over the years. Romeo Langford, Aaron Nesmith, Robert Williams, Grant Williams and Payton Pritchard would likely appeal to rebuilding teams in trades.
The Celtics are notorious for exploring every conceivable avenue at the trade deadline without actually pulling the trigger. Their interest in Grant and Vucevic, in that sense, is unlikely to produce a trade. But the Hayward trade exception expires this offseason. If the Celtics don’t use it, they’ll lose it. If this is who they’re targeting, it suggests that they’ve set their sights extremely high with that exception. They want to add a core piece, and if they’re willing to pay the price, they might just land one.