Ainge Collects More Assets in Steal of a Deal

ORLANDO – Danny Ainge has spent the last year collecting assets in the form of promising young players and draft picks. He continued his collection on Thursday by acquiring a combination of the two.

The Celtics, Cavaliers and Nets completed a three-team trade that landed talented young big man Tyler Zeller, Marcus Thornton and a 2016 first-round pick in Boston. As part of the deal, the Celtics sent a heavily protected second-rounder to Cleveland and used their entire trade exception that was acquired in the Nets trade last July.

In a way, Thursday’s deal is just a continuation of that blockbuster deal that sent Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn. By turning the trade exception from last year’s trade into Zeller, Thornton and a first-rounder, the Celtics have now essentially yielded four first-round picks (with the option to switch with Brooklyn on a fifth) and a slew of quality players in exchange for Pierce, Garnett and Jason Terry.

This was the goal all along. Boston molded last year’s trade in a way that would give them an enormous trade exception, which is a valuable commodity come this time of the year. Whenever a team needs to clear salary from its books without taking back guaranteed money, that team looks for a trade partner that owns a trade exception. Cleveland was looking to do exactly that and it looked in Boston’s direction.

The Celtics possessed one of the largest trade exceptions in the league and it was set to expire on Monday. They had leverage in trade negotiations because they knew what Cleveland’s goals were and the Cavs were up against the clock.

That leverage allowed Boston to pry two valuable assets away from the Cavaliers, as well as another from the Nets, essentially for free. The Celtics simply used their trade exception and sent out a top-55-protected second-round pick. So unless the C’s are a top-five team next season, they got Zeller, Thornton and a first-rounder in exchange for a trade exception. Brilliant.

In Zeller, the Celtics acquire a skilled, 7-foot big man who was the 17th overall pick in 2012. He started 55 games as a rookie while averaging 7.9 points per game and 5.7 rebounds per game. His raw numbers dropped this past season, but his per-36 numbers increased from 10.8 PPG and 7.8 RPG as a rookie to 13.7 PPG and 9.7 RPG as a sophomore. He also increased his field goal percentage from 43.8 percent in year one to 53.8 percent in year two.

Zeller’s growth over his first two seasons indicates that he has the potential to be a very good player in this league. He has displayed a solid shooting touch and strong rebounding ability when he has been given the opportunity to play consistent minutes. Expect those skills to be on display next season with Boston.

There’s no question that Zeller garners the most attention in this deal, but don’t allow yourself to glaze over the addition of Marcus Thornton. This guy can fill it up and he’s also only 27 years old.

Thornton arrives in Boston with a career scoring average of 13.4 points per game. He averaged 21.3 PPG for the Kings in 2010-11 after being acquired at the trade deadline, then averaged 18.7 PPG the following season.

Thornton also became a key part of Brooklyn’s turnaround last season after the Nets acquired him around the trade deadline. He came off the bench to average 12.3 PPG for the Nets and shot 38.0 percent from long range.

There’s no question that Zeller and Thornton are legitimate players in this league. They’ve already proven that they can make a difference when give the opportunity. Now they have a fresh start in Boston and they’ll be expected to contribute right away.

Call Ainge a thief. He stole away Zeller, Thornton and a first-round pick on Thursday. Ainge added two young, quality players and another first round pick to his arsenal of assets, and he basically did it all for free. That’s a heck of a collection.

The assets continue to pile up, and the Nets trade continues to pay off. It’s a good day for the Celtics.

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