At first glance, the Boston Celtics seem gridlocked in their
ability to bring an NBA Finals contender over the top for next
season. The Celtics will likely reside as a luxury tax-paying team,
meaning they're already out of room to sign players aside from a
modest $6.3 million mid-level exception, and their entire main
rotation is under contract for next season.
So what can Celtics president of basketball operations Brad
Stevens do in his role as lead team-builder? Stevens has a few more
cards to play in the form of Traded Player Exceptions, commonly
abbreviated as TPEs.
Boston has been a TPE merchant in recent seasons, and the
franchise's salary-cap dexterity has allowed it to make impactful
moves on the fly without raw cap space. The Celtics are Exhibit A
of how these exceptions can keep contenders flexible. With well
over two-thirds of the league filled to the salary-cap brim this
summer, TPEs are like a secret staircase for teams as they try to
ascend to NBA glory.
So how exactly do they work, and which squads can take advantage
Trades in the NBA don't go down with perfectly balanced salary
scales. So if one team sends out more salary, under the collective
bargaining agreement, the difference becomes a Traded Player
Exception. Teams can then absorb future player salaries from future
trades into the exception, bypassing any constraints from the
salary cap boundaries.
NBA.com's Steve Aschburner
compares the TPE to a gift card. The simile tracks in that TPEs can
sort of "buy" player salaries, but they also expire one year after
the trade initally creates them.
Here's a current example: Boston completed a sign-and-trade with
the New York Knicks on July 18 of last summer, sending Evan
Fournier to New York with a second-round pick in exchange for cash
considerations. Because Boston traded Fournier's salary and
received only the bag of cash back, it created a TPE that Spotrac
values at around $17.1 million. The Celtics can now absorb a player
(or multiple players) into that TPE via trade until July 18.
Seems like a smart move, right? Well, it is, but a TPE isn't
just hacking the CBA. Rules and consequences exist. Here are some
important ones (and check out a larger breakdown from Eric Pincus:
- Teams cannot stack TPEs. For example, if the Celtics want to
trade for LeBron James, they cannot combine all of their various
exceptions into one super-TPE to absorb his salary. There is one
trade exception per player salary.
- TPEs do not supersede the hard cap (tax apron). This will
particularly affect the Celtics because they are already
approaching the hard cap, and might make the Fournier TPE, for
example, less valuable than it's worth.
Though not a rule or a certainty, teams seeking to create a
trade exception likely have to trade additional pieces to create
it. The Knicks weren't going to simply let Boston make a TPE, so
they managed to pick up an additional draft pick. Similarly, when
Boston dealt Gordon Hayward to the Charlotte Hornets and created a
massive, $28.5 million TPE, Charlotte also swiped two
second-rounders from the Celtics.
Sometimes, trade exceptions are a natural byproduct of a deal.
In other cases, they're the prize. Dozens of trade exceptions are
littered around the league, but most are too small to be a
realistic sponge for any player contract.
Here are the teams with exceptions valued at over $5 million
(figures provided by Spotrac), which could theoretically net a
So we've discussed the Celtics a bit already, but returning to
the Fournier TPE, it's unlikely they use up the full $17.1 million
(Matt John elaborated on this at
Heavy.com). It could still add a rotation player who fulfills
needs such as movement shooting, center depth and bench scoring.
The Celtics also hold TPEs valued at $6.9 million (from trading
Juancho Hernangomez to San Antonio) and $5.9 million (from trading
Dennis Schroder to Houston).
Boston pulled this stunt last summer where it traded Tristan
Thompson for Kris Dunn in a three-way trade with the Sacramento
Kings and Atlanta Hawks. The Celtics used a $5 million TPE to
absorb Dunn's salary, thus creating a larger TPE from Thompson,
which they then used to absorb Daniel Theis' salary.
That's one example of them finessing the system. But again, when
you're up against the tax apron, your options become limited.
The Nets have two plausible TPEs to use. One is an $11.3 million
TPE in the fallout of the James Harden blockbuster. Brooklyn also
holds a $6.3 million TPE created when they dealt DeAndre Jordan to
Brooklyn has some time to use the Harden TPE; it expires in
February 2023. But the Jordan TPE perishes on Aug. 19.
Obviously, Brooklyn's roster situation is in flux with the
rumors flying around Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Should the Nets
extend Irving, they'll likely be hard-capped out, and won't be able
to maximize these exceptions. Sean Marks and the front office
cap-crunching team have their work cut out for them.
Chicago has one trade exception, valued at $5 million, from when
it sent Daniel Theis to the Rockets. It's unlikely this TPE becomes
an asset of significance, but if the Bulls want to use it, they
must do so by July 7.
By trading Josh Richardson to Boston last summer, Dallas created
a trade exception worth just under $10.9 million. That could be a
helpful tool for the Mavericks, but it's literally expiring today!
The Mavericks are flirting with being a hard-capped team, so unless
something changes within minutes of writing this, the TPE will not
yield a player.
Detroit is going to, very briefly, hold a $9.2 million TPE by
trading Jerami Grant to the Trail Blazers, according to ESPN's Bobby
Marks. However, Marks reports that Kemba Walker,
acquired in the draft-night move that also landed Jalen Duren, will
have his salary absorbed into that TPE before being bought out.
That's some quick maneuvering by the Pistons to acquire an exciting
lottery talent in Duren.
Here's an interesting case. The Pacers have two notable TPEs in
their holster: a $10.5 million exception from trading Jeremy Lamb
to Sacramento, and a $7.3 million exception from trading Doug
McDermott to San Antonio. Indiana is projected to be a rare team
with significant cap space this offseason, and as a
will-they-won't-they rebuilding squad, they could take several
pathways with these exceptions.
Perhaps Indiana sees an opportunity to add two rotation players
to the roster and make a push for the postseason. The playoffs feel
unlikely with the current 2022-23 roster, but you never know, and
Indiana does have a reputation for being stubbornly
Or — maybe the Pacers have a long-term vision and use these
exceptions to take players on undesirable contracts, attached with
draft picks or young players. It's a way for Indiana to build its
draft chest without sacrificing flexibility. The McDermott
exception expires on July 7, while the Lamb TPE poofs away in
February 2023. I expect at least one, if not both, to be used.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
The Clippers are another franchise that is essentially
hard-capped out. But they do have two TPEs worth monitoring. One is
a $9.7 million exception created in the Serge Ibaka deal this past
February. The other comes from sending Rajon Rondo to the Memphis
Grizzlies and is worth $8.3 million. Again, I'm skeptical of these
being used, but they are worth mentioning for a playoff contender
that won't be players in free agency for a while.
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
The Pelicans created a $17 million trade exception last
offseason when they sent Steven Adams to the Grizzlies. They've
already reaped the rewards with their acquisition of Larry Nance
Jr. New Orleans absorbed his $10.7 million salary into the TPE when
it traded for him this past season. There's still about $6.4
million remaining, though, so the team could use it to add another
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
In acquiring Jerami Grant on his $20 million salary, Portland
maximized its large TPE from the CJ McCollum trade. The Blazers
still have one more $6.9 million exception that could be of use.
They're projected to have some cap space to work with, so it might
be an opportunity to take extra advantage.
The Raptors have a few smaller exceptions, with the most notable
being a $5.2 million TPE stemming from the Goran Dragic trade.
Toronto is over the salary cap, but might be able to squeeze in a
player with these constraints while staying under the luxury tax
Trading Joe Ingles to Portland gave Utah a $9.7 million trade
exception. Given that they need to find a spark after yet another
disappointing playoff exit, the Jazz should find a way to use this
exception, ideally on a perimeter defender or frontcourt player
behind Rudy Gobert.
Washington owns three trade exceptions ranging between $3-6
million. While they can't stack them, the Wizards could use the
$5.2 million TPE (created in dealing Montrezl Harrell to Charlotte)
to add some guard or wing depth. As long as Bradley Beal is around,
this franchise is hunting the playoffs, and the TPEs can help them