Does the Thornton-Zeller trade help with acquiring Love? Answering important questions about the deal

With the shot clock down to three (days) to use the $10.3 million trade exception from the Pierce/KG deal last summer, Danny Ainge finally utilized one of his most underrated assets this morning, dealing the exception and a future second round pick to Cleveland, and acquiring Tyler Zeller and a future first from the Cavs, and Marcus Thornton from the Nets.

Overall, the deal breaks down like this:

Boston trades: Trade exception, protected second round pick

Boston receives: Zeller, Thornton, 2016 1st from Cleveland (Top 10 protected in 2016-2018, unprotected in 2019)

Cleveland trades: Jarrett Jack (to BKN), Sergey Karasev (to BKN), Zeller, 2016 1st

Cleveland receives: Ilkan Karaman, Christian Drejer, Edin Bavcic (all three from BKN, all three currently in Europe), trade exception

Brooklyn trades: Thornton, Karaman, Drejer, Bavcic

Brooklyn receives: Jack, Karasev

Bottom-line: The Celtics received a decent young center in Zeller (6.9 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 0.7 BPG in 21 MPG over two seasons), and yet another first round pick in exchange for taking back Thornton's expiring deal ($8.575 million in 2014-15). They lose no assets, they gain several assets.

But that's far too simple for me, so let's break it down a little further, shall we?

Question #1: Who are Thornton and Zeller?

While this deal isn't necessarily about the players the Celtics acquired as much as further asset stock-piling, both Thornton and Zeller are rotation guys.

Thornton is a poor man's Jamal Crawford, providing instant offense off the bench with absolutely no shooting conscience. He averaged an impressive 12.3 points in just 23.8 minutes per game (18.6 per 36 minutes), shooting 41.4% from the floor and 38% from three last year. For his career he has a 15.9 PER, just above league average, and a true shooting percentage of 53.8%, again, just above average.

While he's unlikely to be a long-term fixture in Boston, he's a good player and because of his skill-set and expiring contract, could become a trade asset at mid-season for a contender looking for bench punch.

Zeller is a little more intriguing, despite his pedestrian NBA career to this point. He's a legit 7-footer (woah, the Celtics have a center), and cost-controlled for the next two seasons for a total of $4 million.

For some reason Mike Brown buried Zeller last season, dropping his playing time from 26.4 minutes per game as a rookie, down to just 15 MPG last year. This despite the fact that Zeller showed major improvements when he was on the floor. Check it out:

Zeller, 2012-13 (all stats per-36 minutes): 10.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 44% FG, 11 PER

Zeller, 2013-14 (all stats per-36 minutes): 13.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, 54% FG, 15.4 PER

So, Zeller became a better, more efficient player, yet saw his minutes nearly cut in half. Mike Brown everybody!

Zeller joins Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk in a nice, young big man core. No stars in the group, but all of them are cost-controlled and have complementary skill-sets.

Question #2: How this impacts the Celtics salary situation

Here is the updated Celtics salary situation for 2014-15:

Rajon Rondo - $12,909,091
Gerald Wallace - $10,105,855
Jeff Green - $9,200,000
Marcus Thornton - $8,575,000
Avery Bradley - $8,000,000
Brandon Bass - $6,900,000
Keith Bogans - $5,285,817 (team option)
Joel Anthony - $3,800,000
Marcus Smart - $2,736,100
Vitor Faverani - $2,090,000
Kelly Olynyk - $2,075,760
Tyler Zeller - $1,703,760
Jared Sullinger - $1,424,520
James Young - $1,395,400
Chris Johnson - $915,243 (team option)
Phil Pressey - $816,482 (team option)
Chris Babb - $816,482 (team option)

All inclusive total: $78,749,510 (17 players)

Non Bogans/Babb total: $72,647,211 (15 players)

2014-15 NBA salary cap: $63,200,000

2014-15 Luxury tax: $77,000,000

So the Celtics take on $10 million in salary, and now have 13 players with guaranteed contracts for 2014-15. If you think they'll keep Phil Pressey and Chris Johnson, that gives them a full roster for $72.65 million, well over the cap and about $4.35 million below the luxury tax.

Basically, the Celtics are not going to be very active in free agency. They likely want to give themselves a cushion below the tax in case a deal goes down that could bring them a superstar (or just more assets), so staying $4-5 million below the tax makes sense. They also now have a full roster, so guys like Colton Iverson and Mike Moser will likely have to beat out Johnson to make the team.

While the deal takes up basically all of their 2014-15 space, it really doesn't impact their future cap space much. Zeller has a $2.6 million option that will likely be picked up (Celtics need to make a decision by October), but the Celtics maintain a ton of flexibility for next summer. Take a look:

Wallace - $10,105,855
Green - $9,200,000
Bradley - $8,000,000
Smart (approx) - $3,100,000
Zeller (option) - $2,616,975
Sullinger (option) - $2,269,260
Olynyk (option) - $2,165,160
Young (approx) - $1,600,000
Pressey (option): $947,276

Total (9 players): $40,004,526

Obviously there are some approximations and some options, but I'd imagine nearly all of those guys will be back, mostly because the Cs need to make decisions on Zeller, Sully and Olynyk by the start of the season, and it's rare to decline a cheap option for a guy on a rookie contract.

So the Cs have $40 million in commitments for nine guys, and the cap is set at around $66.5 million. Obviously, this does not include Rajon Rondo, who is a free agent next summer, nor does it include their two 2015 first rounders. Pushing this exercise a little further, let's give Rondo a $16 million salary, and allot $5 million to two first round picks (around what the Celts will pay Smart/Young this year). We now have:

Rondo (estimate) - $16,000,000
Wallace - $10,105,855
Green - $9,200,000
Bradley - $8,000,000
Two 2015 1sts (estimate) - $5,000,000
Smart (approx) - $3,100,000
Zeller (option) - $2,616,975
Sullinger (option) - $2,269,260
Olynyk (option) - $2,165,160
Young (approx) - $1,600,000
Pressey (option): $947,276

Total (12 players): $61,004,526

The Celtics would suddenly have a roster with seven guys on their rookie deals, an average age of 24, a superstar in Rondo, and about $5 million in cap space. But that cap space could grow if Green declines his player option (somewhat likely to get a longer tern deal), or they move him. Suddenly the Celtics would have about $15 million in cap space for what is a loaded 2015 free agent class. And if they stretch Gerald Wallace -- lowering his cap hit from $10.1 to $3.3 million -- the Celtics would have about $21 million in space.

So, realistically, the Celtics could have:

Two 2015 first round picks
$21 million in cap space
Three #1s in 2016
Right to flip with the Nets in 2017
Two 2018 #1s

And notice, I did absolutely nothing ridiculous. Simply re-signed Rondo to a very fair deal (something like 5/85), stretched Wallace next summer, and dumped Green between now and then. That's it.

So yes, the Celtics suddenly would have a very intriguing young roster, a star to attract free agents, and oodles of cap space. Which leads us to this..

Question #3: Is Ainge going after a max level guy in 2015? 

From our own Matt Richissin, here is a solid look at the 2015 free agent class:

Point Guards:

Goran Dragic, Rajon Rondo, Kemba Walker

Shooting Guards:

Arron Afflalo (PO), Monta Ellis (PO), Eric Gordon (PO), Danny Green, Wes Matthews, Klay Thompson, Lou Williams

Small Forwards:

Jimmy Butler, Wilson Chandler, Jeff Green, Kawhi Leonard

Power Forwards:

LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul Millsap, Thad Young (PO), Kenneth Faried, Kevin Love (PO), Tristan Thompson


Omer Asik, DeAndre Jordan, Marc Gasol, Roy Hibbert (PO), Al Jefferson (PO), Brook Lopez (PO), Robin Lopez, Nikola Vucevic

Obviously Love is the name everyone will be drawn to, but take a look at those centers. You can make the argument that five of the top eight centers in basketball hit free agency next year, and the Celtics will have all the cap space necessary to make them a big offer.

And the best part about signing a guy as opposed to trading for him: the asset chest remains untouched. Meaning the Celtics could have Rondo, Star X, AND a bunch of good young players and a ton of draft picks. If they can sign a second stud, trading for a third one becomes a viable possibility.

Now there's a whole bunch of projecting going on right now, but almost all of it is realistic. The assets have been acquired, the cap space is coming, and the Celtics most likely have a serious eye on 2015 right now.

Does that mean we're in for another tough season? Most likely. But if the Celtics are zeroing in on making major splashes in 2015, that means Rondo is sticking around. And a healthy Rondo, plus the addition of two exciting rookies would already make the upcoming season more exciting than last year. But obviously the team is not a contender, and likely won't be a playoff team. So this (potential) plan requires a bit more patience from Celtics fans. Just know that the Celtics could be a very exciting, young team with a ton of cap space a year from now. Isn't that better than trading everything they have for one star right now?

We'll see how this develops, but it looks like Ainge continues to carry out his plan of stockpiling assets before making major moves. That move could come as soon as later this summer, but it's looking more and more like 2015 could be when the Celtics strike. And they have the ability to strike big.

Bonus Question!! -- Does this deal help the Celtics in trading for Kevin Love?

Ok, so after I wrote this I noticed something on the twitter-sphere: This idea that this trade gives the Celtics a better shot at trading for Kevin Love. I just don't see it. They acquired a decent, young center and a bench scorer, plus what will likely be a late first round pick in 2016 if LeBron signs in Cleveland. The Celtics still do not have a star to dangle for Love, which is what Minny wants, and they've already offered up a combination of solid players and a ton of draft picks. Is a 2016 late first really enough to tip the scales for the Wolves? No chance.

Now, does this give them a little more ammo to acquire a very good player to flip to Flip (see what I did there?) -- sure. But it doesn't move the meter much, and really doesn't seem like the reasoning for this deal. So, to answer the question: it slightly helps, but in no way should be seen as a pre-cursor to acquiring Love.

End of bonus question.


Celtics acquire Tyler Zeller and Marcus Thornton in three-team trade

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