The Celtics have passed the trade deadline without making any roster changes. I’ll leave that topic to others (so, so many others). This post will look forward to the offseason and break down their salary cap position. It’s still possible that they’ll add a free agent but not in a way that will materially change things.
The league’s current 2017-18 salary cap projection is $102M. I will use that figure for all of this analysis, but also touch on how a change in that figure would impact team plans.
Who Makes Up the Core?
I currently see the Celtics as having only five core contracts that make up the majority of their cap position. Astute observers will notice some key players not on this list but the math behind that will become apparent.
Teams are required to account for 12 roster spots with contracts or cap holds. If team has less than 12 spots filled, they’re assessed an “Incomplete Roster Hold” for each of those open slots. The charge is equivalent to the league minimum, which increased in the last CBA, so with only five players in the “cap core” we have to add seven minimum contracts to determine the team’s cap space. Each player or hold we add from here will replace one of these holds.
What Does the Lottery Hold?
First round draft picks carry a cap hold to account for their future signing. As with incomplete roster charges, the new CBA increased these values. At this time, I’m going to add Ante Zizic but not Guerschon Yabusele. They will carry cap holds equivalent to that of the 2017 23rd and 16th picks, respectively.
Brooklyn has functionally locked up the worst record leaving Boston to plan for what each of the first four picks mean. From this point on, we’ll be building up our cap sheet for all four possible slots. The team would obviously love to land the top pick, but the difference in cap holds as you slide down makes a difference in where we land. The five players listed above plus the Nets pick and Zizic will be our “Core 7” contracts.
Will there be a Free Agent Splash?
Danny Ainge & Co. have been open about their desire to preserve their cap space for this summer. A troika of greats; Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and Chris Paul, will all technically be free agents eligible to make 35% of the cap. If KD or Steph decided to come to Boston the team would clear everything necessary to make that happen but I’m going to put that scenario aside. The likely max-worthy free agent targets are Blake Griffin and Gordon Hayward, who both fall into the 30% max tier. The decisions of those two players will set off a cascade of decisions and moves.
If no max-contract player joins, the front office will have to decide what to do with players like Kelly Olynyk, Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, and Tyler Zeller. The decisions become somewhat unmoored from pure cap considerations. In this scenario, Guerschon Yabusele almost certainly comes to the NBA; it’s feasible that 12 of the current 15 could return with only Zizic, Yabusele, and the Nets pick taking new slots.
Maybe more likely, the Celtics would move on from Amir, Zeller, Mickey, Young, and Green. At least one of Olynyk and Jerebko would be retained with at least three rookies coming in. That would leave flexibility to offer mid-tier unrestricted free agents like Taj Gibson, P.J. Tucker, or Zaza Pachulia the same type of “short-term overpay” deal that brough in Amir a few years ago.
The more challenging cap path is the one that includes a max-salary addition so from here on we’ll go through that. In order to complete our new signing, we must clear and preserve $30.6M in cap space.
Who Are We Keeping?
What About… Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko?
Both Amir and Jonas have cap holds above what they should be paid next season. If we were to keep one, the signing would be completed early to reclaim the difference between hold and contract. In this fantasy where we’re making a max signing, it’s safe to assume that neither will be back. There’s some chance that one may return for the Room Exception, but they would be renounced at this point and then signed as an unrestricted free agent later.
What About… Guerschon Yabusele?
In all cap exercises I assume that Yabusele was taken in part for his willingness to be stashed for a second season, if necessary. However, he has a right to a rookie scale contract. If he wants it this summer it would take up $1,431,865 in otherwise available space. It’s possible that the team would simply decide to trade Yabu for a future pick if he forced the team’s hand. With the 1st or 2nd pick, the Celtics could not clear max cap space with just the Core 7, Yabusele, and Avery Bradley. Even having renounced all free agents, waived Zeller and Mickey, and traded Rozier and Jackson you come up short of the max.
If they have a top-2 pick and Yabusele takes his contract and the team does not want to trade him, they would have to trade away Bradley and then decided between trading away Rozier OR renouncing Olynyk. If they kept Yabusele and Rozier, they could then also keep Jordan Mickey and Demetrius Jackson.
All of that is why I’m going to stick to the theory that Yabusele is willing to stay out of the NBA again, assume he does in this scenario, and move on.
What About… Avery Bradley?
Last month I took a look at the possible logjam of expensive guards the Celtics would have if they draft Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Dennis Smith Jr., or Malik Monk. For that reason, I left Avery out of the Core 7 contracts. You could include him and swap out Isaiah Thomas or Marcus Smart, but they both make less and are better. The Celtics could keep Bradley with their Core 7 but if they get a top-2 pick that would necessitate trading away Terry Rozier. At the 3rd or 4th pick they could keep Bradley and Rozier but only by letting everyone else with a decision left, including RFA Kelly Olynyk, walk.
If they draft Fultz at #1 I would be surprised to see Bradley finish his contract in Boston, and if they were to add Griffin or Hayward on top of that the logical move would be to trade Bradley in what could become a multi-step series of moves. If that theoretical Bradley trade returned no salary they would be best served keeping Rozier and Olynyk, or Zeller in a scenario I’ll get to.
There are plenty of paths that keep Bradley in green for the long-run, but they may involve drafting Josh Jackson instead of Fultz/Ball, not reeling in a max free agent, and/or making a trade involving a different guard. These paths are more likely than the ideal scenarios we’re playing with, but are not the preferred outcome.
What About… Kelly Olynyk?
Those ideal scenarios with a max free agent and top-2 pick probably come down to Bradley or Olynyk+Rozier. The guard-heavy roster makes it a difficult decision unless the team is signing Griffin instead of Hayward, and picking someone like Josh Jackson instead of a guard.
The complication with Olynyk is that he’ll be a restricted free agent. If the team is still talking with a max free agent and Kelly signs an offer sheet with another team, Ainge would have to make the decision to match without complete information. Hopefully it doesn’t come to that, but under the circumstances he would probably just let Olynyk go. It’s also possible that a different team will offer him more than Boston is willing to pay.
What About… Terry Rozier?
Tito’s spot seems to be secure unless the team gets a top-2 pick AND signs a max free agent AND decide to keep Avery Bradley (or Yabusele demands his contract). This team has the potential to be very talented but also very expensive down the line, so a cheap but capable backup who can grow into a bigger role is quite valuable. If he’s not playing for the Celtics next season it would probably be via a trade for value, not cap maneuvering.
What About… Jordan Mickey and Demetrius Jackson and James Young?
If Mickey is on the team next season it means there were no fireworks. All logical paths through a top-2 pick and max signing include waving Jordan and his fully non-guaranteed deal. If the pick falls it could be possible to keep him even with a max signing but even then I doubt it. If no major free agent signs, the roster gets full very quickly and Mickey could be on the chopping block anyway.
Jackson is more likely to make it than Mickey. One thing to note is that he has a $650k guarantee next season. The difference between his full contract and his guarantee is more than the value of a minimum contract so waiving him actually costs cap space, or clears very little if you stretch it. The “best case scenario” paths require every ounce of cap space and so would include trading Jackson instead of waiving him. If the team picks anything other than #1, I think he could make the team even if they sign a max free agent.
Having declined the option on James Young, the team is now limited to paying him what he would have earned in that option season if they want to keep him (and he wants to re-sign). James has shown flashes recently but is now back to mop-up duty with Bradley returning. He’s so young that just those few flashes hopefully get him a new contract, but I can’t see it being in Boston.
What About… Tyler Zeller?
The only way I can see Zeller being a Celtic is if they don’t sign a max free agent and he has blackmail material on Ainge. The other slim chance is that the team decides to move Bradley to clear space, see negotiations with Griffin or Hayward drag out, lose Olynyk in the process, and are left able to keep Zeller. Why would they keep Zeller? Well…
Are Three Moves Better than Two?
If Boston hits the dream scenario of a high pick and a max free agent they’ll be threading an interesting needle. The temptation will be to trade the new draftee and “go for it” but I seriously doubt they go that route if they’ve selected Fultz. Maybe if, similar to 2007, they slide down to 3 or 4 they dangle the promise of a pick trade to attract that free agent.
If Fultz, Ball, and Jackson are as good as advertised it’s probably not necessary to trade them to go for a title. Elite players often make a near-immediate impact. If Fultz is a Derrick Rose-level prospect then in year two or three he could be an All Star. Prospects of this caliber don’t take five years to break out if they live up to the billing. In the 2017 draftee’s third season, Thomas, Hayward, and Crowder would all be younger than Ray Allen was when Boston traded for him. The roster could have a wonderful gradient of experience with Hayward, Thomas, Crowder, Olynyk, Smart, Rozier, Brown, the 2017 pick, 2018 Nets pick, and the 2019 Grizzlies pick giving them ten players crossing ten consecutive drafts. Add in a 23 year old Zizic and maybe a 34 year old Horford and that’s an amazing age profile in 2020.
Do They Go Back to the Well?
I would be surprised if at least one of Jimmy Butler and Paul George aren’t really on the market this summer. The problem is that if you have Isaiah Thomas, Gordon Hayward, Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart there’s a case of diminishing returns in trading for Jimmy Butler. The team simply can’t trade for Paul George if they believe he’ll be off for Los Anageles in a year. If you’ve signed Blake Griffin instead of Hayward it makes far more sense to move for Butler, but that seems much less likely.
Both Butler and George have “old cap” salaries that make it straightforward to match contracts; it’s value, fit, and development curve that makes it hard. My best guess is that the Celtics would re-engage with the Bulls if they do not get the #1 pick and do not sign Gordon Hayward. If they do either one of those things a Butler trade might be off the table.
What is Love? (Baby Don’t Hurt Me)
A target that could make more sense is old favorite Kevin Love. If Cleveland finds that the Warriors’ addition of Kevin Durant makes the Love/Thompson front-court unplayable (if they even meet and KD is playing) they would have to consider making a change. Adding Love to Thomas, Hayward, and Horford would mean scoring and conceding a ton of points while solidifying a spot near the top of the East. For Cleveland, who are focused on winning now-now, they would not be looking for the 2017 draftee in return.
In this instance, we run into a problem of salary matching. The trade should be built around Crowder but to get to a legal trade Boston would have to include Smart. For a team looking to beat Golden State (and control a tax bill) that would be a very strong return. We’re going to have to lose Avery Bradley too, so the smart thing to do would be to trade him to a different team first, getting future draft capital, then hold onto Tyler Zeller (an Olynyk S&T does not work due to the base year compensation rule) and Terry Rozier at the time of signing Hayward. You could then trade Zeller, Crowder, and Smart for Love without giving up Jaylen Brown or the new draftee. With the #1 pick, this scenario fits under a $102M cap by less than $7k.
This is a fun theoretical, but I don’t think it actually makes Boston better. If the goal is to win it in 2020, would you rather have Kevin Love or Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, and either Avery Bradley or Kelly Olynyk? Love would be 32 and past his current contract in 2020.
Are there Other Trade Targets?
If not Butler or George or Love, will any trade be worth making? Possibly not. If the Clippers were to break up, the same proposal for Love would work for DeAndre Jordan but a rebuilding Clippers team would want different parts that Boston shouldn’t be willing to give. Even if the team signs Hayward and moves Crowder to the bench, Jae is better than anyone who could hit the trade block in his salary range.
A more promising path could be keeping Bradley until the max signing is complete and then using him to get a veteran at a different position. Nik Vucevic, Derrick Favors, Kenneth Faried, and Robin Lopez could all be available at salaries the Celtics could possibly swing (Jonas Valanciunas might get salary dumped but is just out of contract reach). If the Celtics get the #1 pick and want to keep Rozier, they could still trade Bradley for a future pick and then package that pick with Zeller for a trade target.
This type of roster re-balancing trade might make the most sense, especially if Olynyk gets offers higher than they’re willing to match. Boston doesn’t need another 2018 draft pick so leveraging Bradley and Zeller into one acquisition after all other business is done could work. An issue with trying to use Zeller this way is that he might have to move back his guarantee date like Johnson and Jerebko did, but not seeing a way for him to actual get that $8M I don’t know why he would; a team taking him might have to keep him. The fact that this is even on the table was probably worth passing on cashing in the big chips at the deadline, or even using Zeller to acquire a few months of Andrew Bogut.
Can You Simplify This?
The Celtics goal is to sign a max free agent, most likely Gordon Hayward or Blake Griffin. If they cannot do that, they have the flexibility to play in the lower tiers of free agency but would probably try to recreate the Amir Johnson signing of a good player with a soft market on a short deal, not play for someone like Paul Millsap. They could also roll basically the same team back, replacing parts of the roster with younger, more talented pieces.
If they do sign a max salary free agent, they will have to make choices defined by their draft pick. If the pick is 1 or 2, they cannot keep both Avery Bradley and Terry Rozier at a $102M cap. The best course of action looks to be keeping Rozier and trading Bradley for future picks. Those picks could be kept with Kelly Olynyk re-signing, or traded with Tyler Zeller for a new player making up to $13M and Olynyk leaving via free agency.
If the pick is 3 or 4 there is enough space to keep Bradley and Rozier. Due to poor roster balance the team might still prefer trading AB and going the same route as the 1 or 2 pick presents, but there is enough cap space to keep both. Regardless of where the pick is, they could try to package multiple players, including Crowder and/or Smart, in a trade for an additional star. This seems unlikely based on what the team needs would be, but it is manageable under the cap.
Alternatively, they could choose to trade Bradley, let both Olynyk and Zeller go, and bring over Yabusele while keeping Rozier and probably Jackson.
The team’s ability to develop an elite group of young players while also advancing in the playoffs is unchanged. This is a unique position in the league and rare in NBA history.
What if the Cap Changes?
Any increase in the cap is helpful. In pursuit of a max contract, remember that they gain 70% of any cap increase in flexibility as the other 30% goes into an increase in the max salary. If the cap jumps up to $104M, for example, it becomes easier to retain Avery (even if for the purpose of trading) while signing the draft pick and max free agent. A further drop in the cap squeezes the team in the same way.
Why Wait Until 2020?
Realistically, this franchise is not going to win the title right now. They can compete at a high level but Curry-Durant-Klay-Draymond isn’t going to become any less formidable until they log some more miles and maybe start to have ego battles while the cap and tax take their toll. The Celtics have the opportunity to build on an already good team with mid-career players who can usher young stars into the league. The problem with many youth movements is that they never advance. Only two #1 overall picks have won the title without leaving their drafting team in the entire lottery era. Many of those players have been fantastic, but they join terrible teams who don’t know how to get better.
A player like Fultz coming into the league with Thomas, Hayward, Horford, Crowder, Smart, and Brown on the roster and (in the case of everyone but Horford) still expecting to be in their prime through his entire rookie contract would be ideal. The last time a team had a better situation for a #1 pick it was Tim Duncan and that led to pretty good things. Duncan was a different level and type of prospect, but the environment matters.
I’m sure it was enticing to make a big move at the deadline and will be again this summer. This franchise has too bright a past, present, and future to think short-term.