(The following comes from the paranoid mind of a life-long Celtics fan. Instead of gearing up for an exciting playoff series, this tortured soul spent the previous night toiling over the intricacies of the NBA Salary Cap. It reads more like a David Foster Wallace novel and if you have any hope the Celtics will be active in the free agent market, feel free to refrain from reading.)
As I watched the Celtics dispatch the Heat in the first round of 2010 NBA playoffs, I could not help but keep one eye (or at least my mind’s eye) on the impending offseason- and the potential drama that may ensue.
If there is a GM in the league willing to take some big risks with big moves, it is the Celtics’ Danny Ainge. Remember, this is the same guy who traded away Boston fan-favorite Antoine Walker, brought in league pariah Vin Baker, and took flyers on personal busts favorites Jiri Welsch, Marcus Banks, and Yi Jianlian (well, almost anyway). While Ainge is not so proudly remembered for making these moves early in his General Managerial career, he also deserves credit for the moves he orchestrated that eventually led the Celtics to hang their 17th Championship banner.
The bottom line: when it comes to Danny Ainge and the Celtics, you cannot always count on the conventional.
As it stands now, the Celtics will have little wiggle room when it comes to shopping for free agents. Next year the Celtics have roughly 63 million dollars committed to six players (assuming Paul Pierce exercises his 21 million dollar player option). The most recent salary cap projection for next season is 56.1 million dollars. Now I am no math genius, but I think it’s safe to say the Celtics are going to have a little trouble filling out the rest of their roster with warm bodies.
What complicates this situation even more is the fact that a year ago Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck said that the Celtics would be in a position to offer a max contract in the 2010 offseason. This prompted Brian Robb to channel his inner Arnold Jackson (no relation) and ask the relevant question, “What you talkin’ ‘bout Wyc?”
Assuming this quote was not made up, misheard, or taken out of context, the question still stands: just what was Wyc talking about?
Given this statement, the first and most obvious needs to happen: Pierce needs to not exercise his player option. There are quite a few ramifications for this proposition. First, if Pierce does not exercise his player option, than does he renegotiate a new contract for less money? Does he sign somewhere else? Does he retire?
Zach Lowe has a hard time believing Pierce would just not exercise his option and his logic is simple and justified. Who leaves 21 million in guaranteed money on the table just to help out his team? I’m not even sure Gandhi leaves that kind of money on the table.
Let’s just assume for Wyc’s sake that Pierce does not exercise his player option and becomes a free agent. That leaves the Celtics with a team salary of around 41.8 million, which theoretically leaves enough cap space to offer a player a maximum contract. I will admit that my knowledge of the NBA Salary Cap is limited to cursory looks at the Larry Coon Bible but there are a few things-I think- I know:
If the C’s were to sign a max player- for say 16.83 million a year- and their Bird Rights’ free agents, they still only have 10 people on the roster: Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace, Glen Davis, Kendrick Perkins, Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Tony Allen, Brian Scalabrine, Max Player, Mid-level Exception player. Even at two contracts at the veteran minimum, how can the Celtics get to 12 players without going over the salary cap?
The answer would appear to be simple: they can’t. Unless all Nine planets in our solar system (I’m still holding out for Pluto) aligned and somehow both Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace voluntarily retired from the league. If they were to retire and Pierce decides to not exercise his option, the Celtics 2010-2011 team salary would be a paltry 16.6 million doled out among Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, and Glen Davis. The Celtics would then have around 40 million to complete the roster plus exceptions. They could theoretically offer two maximum contracts and then still have enough money to round out their roster with some solid players.
Now that you have read all that nonsense- factual, but nonsense- I will explain what will most likely happen.
The Celtics will attempt to get Pierce to not exercise his player option and renegotiate cheaper deals for both Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. Each contract will most likely be for around 3 years to give Pierce and Allen some security. The Celtics will attempt mend the bridge they burned last offseason when they were undecided as to whether or not they would waive Tony Allen and attempt to resign him. The Celtics will have virtually the same team for the next three seasons, ending the era of the Big Three and frustrating budding star Rajon Rondo.
If the Celtics have a team next year that is nearly the same squad they are fielding this year, then they have not solved any of their roster problems. They still need a back up point guard, they still need a back up swingman, and they still need an active/athletic big man. Finding serviceable and playoff-tested veterans for these positions- at the right prices, mind you- is not a likely scenario. This is probably the reason why the Celtics essentially “called dibs” on Tony Gaffney and Oliver Lafayette- an athletic/ active big man and a back up point guard and two guys they can get on the cheap.
The feeling that the Celtics have a good chance to sign their own free agents, let alone other teams’ free agents, may be a bit premature in and of itself. Who says Ray Allen’s services would not be requested by another team? Every time I watch a Thunder vs. Lakers game, I can not help but think of how much better they would be if Thabo Sefolosha could put the ball in the bucket. Ray Allen could solve a huge issue with the Thunder and spread the floor enough for Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant to go to work.
In conclusion, enjoy the playoffs while they last because unless the Celtics have some crafty accountants working for them, I do not see the potential for growth and contention in the seasons to come.