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Post-game Reactions

As an unquestionably entertaining and successful Celtics season comes to an end, attention quickly shifts to yet another “big” summer. As Bill Belichick said after winning the Super Bowl, going deep in the playoffs means you start the offseason behind schedule.

This post will cover the cap math, player expectations, and obvious options. A follow-up with my own thoughts on the team’s direction, and some bolder ideas, will come in a second part.

Roster and Cap Basics

Boston hits June with what could be a very settled roster coming off a 53-win season. Only three of the ten players to log over 1,000 minutes, Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, and Kelly Olynyk, are free agents. For many franchises that just won a division title and trip to the Conference Finals, the instinct would be to keep the band together. However, that seems unlikely for the Celtics as they have options for improving the team’s long-term outlook that they would like to exploit.

Salary Cap and the New CBA

The current salary cap projection is for $101M, up from $94.1M in 2016-17. Back when the new Collective Bargaining Agreement was announced I wrote a review of the relevant changes. I also wrote a piece with cap arithmetic that largely still applies just after the trade deadline, though the league’s cap projection has decreased by $1M since then.

Existing Contracts

The Celtics have seven players (Horford, Bradley, Crowder, Thomas, Brown, Smart, Rozier) with fully guaranteed contracts totaling $61M. Demetrius Jackson has $650k of his 2017-18 deal guaranteed. Tyler Zeller has $8M fully non-guaranteed; the Celtics would have to waive him by June 30 to clear his deal through waivers before it locks in. Jordan Mickey’s minimum salary contract guarantees on July 15.

Unrestricted Free Agents

Along with Johnson and Jerebko, Gerald Green and James Young will be unrestricted this offseason. It’s possible that one of Amir or Jonas could return, but it would likely be via a cap exception later in the summer and not as an early July re-signing. Both of them probably have a market rate around the Room Exception ($4.3M) or Mini Mid-level ($5.2M). Gerald Green is in a similar position where, under certain circumstances, I could see the team bringing him back on a minimum contract. By virtue of declining his fourth year rookie option, the Celtics cannot offer Young more than $2.8M next season; the expectation is that he’ll be fighting for a spot on a different team’s roster and could be out of the NBA next season.

Restricted Free Agents

Kelly Olynyk is the team’s sole RFA. The Celtics will almost certainly extend him a qualifying offer for $4.3M, knowing that he won’t accept it. Extending this offer and holding his Bird Rights will result in a $7.7M cap hold on the Celtics’ books, but the team can unilaterally rescind that offer through the early portion of free agency if they need to. It’s very hard to judge the market for restricted free agents. Speculation on his next contract ranges from $10-$16M, but we’ve seen RFAs in the past get seemingly ridiculous offers on the high end or wait too long and have the market for their position collapse entirely.

2016 Draftees

Boston holds the rights to three previous draftees who could join the team for next season. Guerschon Yabusele was the 16th pick last season and has the right to a $2.2M contract for 2017-18. The decision of if he’s coming over, which he primarily controls, could have significant implications on other players that we’ll get to. Ante Zizic, coming off a very strong season in Croatia and Turkey, is expected to be on the team making $1.6M.

Abdel Nader, the 58th pick, does not have the same right to a guaranteed contract as 1st round picks do. The team will have to extend him a non-guaranteed minimum contract, which ultimately has no cap implications. Having played will in the NBDL at a position of need across the league, I’m sure everyone involved would like to have him at least competing for an NBA spot in preseason.

2017 Draft Rights

The Celtics, by way of Brooklyn, have the #1 pick in the draft. If they make the pick, the player (FULTZ FULTZ FULTZ) will make $7M next season. The new CBA changed the way draft rights are accounted for. In the past, the rookie scale amount was counted until the player signed their actual contract, which could be for 80-120% of that scale amount. With almost every player signing for 120%, rookies now count for their max contract amount instead of scale.

The 37th, 53rd, and 56th picks are all also owned by Boston. It’s unlikely that those players will find space on the full NBA roster but they don’t carry cap holds, can be useful trade pieces, and could be used to stash foreign players or fill out the D-League (sorry, Gatorade-League) roster in Maine.

Calculating Cap Space

The basic “cap space” calculation is relatively straight-forward:

[Salary Cap] – [Player Contracts] – [Holds for Free Agent Rights] – [Holds for Exceptions] – [Holds for Draft Rights] – [Empty Roster Charges] = [Cap Space]

If the team wanted to, they could operate as an over-the-cap team and basically bring the same squad back. This is extremely unlikely to happen, as they also have the ability to create a significant amount of cap space. If they were to only renounce their unrestricted free agents, before actually signing Kelly Olynyk to a new deal they would already have over $10M in cap space.

Getting to Max Space

It’s widely assumed that the team will be making a play for a max free agent. The clearest paths to that all require making sacrifices, most directly impacting Bradley, Olynyk, Zeller, and Yabusele. In all these scenarios I’m waiving Jordan Mickey because he’s not playing and cheaper alternatives for the end of the bench will exist. Waiving Demetrius Jackson costs cap space in most instances because of his $650k guarantee, so where necessary I assume he’d be tradable. Worst case, you could stretch the $650k down to $217k.

The max contract for Gordon Hayward and Blake Griffin starts at $30.3M. In the extremely unlikely event that Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, or Chris Paul is a target, you would have to clear an additional $5M in space.

This table was updated on 5/31 to account for a mistake in counting Roster Charges in Options 2 and 6

What if we don’t need max space?

The Celtics will likely set up the path to max space by waiving Tyler Zeller (if they can’t trade him first) and having the Yabusele decision settled. They will extend the qualifying offer to Olynyk but not agree on a deal unless/until their free agent targets make a decision, or the deadline for unilateral recision arrives. It’s possible that they will decide to trade one of the mid-sized contracts (Bradley, Smart, Crowder, Isaiah) at the draft but if not, all have positive trade value and so could be moved after Hayward (or alternative target) decides.

All of that means that, if no improvement can be made via free agency, Zeller will likely already be out but Olynyk and all the players on guaranteed contracts could still return.

In that scenario, the team still may have ~$20M in space at their disposal. That could be used to acquire a star via trade, like going after Jimmy Butler or Paul George once they know they can’t sign Hayward “for free,” or sign a lower-tier free agent. If they do go for a different free agent, I would guess it’s someone more like Amir Johnson was a few years ago than a higher profile player wanting longer years.

Tax Concerns

Let’s set some conservative but semi-reasonable future deals for players and see what happens down the line…

  • Isaiah Thomas: 3 years / $101M / Rising
  • Avery Bradley: 4 years / $80M / Flat
  • Marcus Smart: 4 years / $56M / Rising
  • Kelly Olynyk: 4 years / $48M / Flat

Now let’s add in that the Celtics get the 4th and 27th picks after next season and put together ballpark figures.

Our baseline salary structure, if you assume the addition of Hayward, extension for Smart, 3-year max extension for Thomas, and addition of draft picks, has the team in the tax by 2018-19. That may be fine, but the scary number is that if you add a reasonable Kelly Olynyk re-signing the tax bill starts to get out of control. If you keep Bradley instead of Olynyk, the bill skyrockets to $70M more in salaries and tax than any team has ever paid in a single season. That increases in 2019-20, then in 2020-21 Hayward will be able to opt-out and the team would enter the repeater tax. At that point you start calculating $350M salary and tax bills, which are obviously ridiculous and not going to happen.

In short, it is not viable for the Celtics to add Gordon Hayward, extend Isaiah Thomas, and keep even just all of the players that could mathematically fit under the cap this year. If Hayward signs, it seems far more likely that only one, or maximum two, of Thomas, Bradley, Olynyk, and Smart are still on the team at the end of 2019.

Jimmy Butler / Paul George

This spiraling tax problem is why I don’t believe the franchise can reasonably add Hayward and Butler or George. The assets are still there to put together a trade package, but a team with an extended Thomas, Hayward, Horford, and (let’s just pick) Jimmy Butler would have you near the luxury tax for just those four players in 2019-20. The following season you could remove Al Horford but you need to replace him and fill out ten other roster spots, at least.

A case can be made for trading for Butler or George, if you’re almost certain you can re-sign them long-term, if Hayward doesn’t sign via free agency. It would be remarkably expensive to get one AND Hayward. Even if the Celtics could do that, I don’t know if they would ever enter a season as title favorites, in part because of significant skills overlaps. If the team were to sign Blake Griffin instead of Hayward it would clear some of the skill overlap, but still be financially untenable within 18 months.

The non-Hayward Future

If the Celtics don’t sign Gordon Hayward, there are still potentially tax concerns looming. In that scenario it would be possible to re-sign Olynyk, Thomas, Bradley, and Smart over the next two summers. If the team were to do that, it would still be going significantly into the tax, in that case for a team very unlikely to win a title.

It may be that the Celtics have to make a decision to move on from Olynyk and one of the guards regardless of what Gordon Hayward, or any other significant free agents, decide to do. The current salary obligation for the franchise is under $100M; to go to $160M for functionally the same team plus draft picks seems unreasonable.

Priorities

Ultimately, this comes down to how focused the team is to winning the NBA title. In reality, we are playing in an era where super teams were allowed to form and then a new CBA was put in place to close the super team door behind them. Adding Gordon Hayward, Markelle Fultz, and Ante Zizic to the existing roster in place of Avery Bradley, Amir Johnson, and Jonas Jerebko is not going to make Boston a title team.

There are three realistic ways to get the duck boats rolling:

  1. Markelle Fultz, or whoever the team drafts next season, becomes an MVP candidate
  2. A trade opportunity is out there that does not seem possible
  3. Sign a top-5 player in free agency despite there being none seemingly available

It’s not impossible to win the title with none of these things happening, but it is very unlikely in the NBA. Looking at that list, it’s hard to ignore that none of the options seem to require more than one of Isaiah Thomas, Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford.

With that in mind, while I think the most obvious, clearest, and cost-feasible path is to try to sign Hayward while flipping Avery Bradley and adding Markelle Fultz, I’ll be following this post in the near future with another focusing on bolder, more risky ideas.

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Ryan Bernardoni

Ryan Bernardoni came to Celtics Hub following a bloody coup that ousted him from his previous position as overlord of Celtics Reddit. His blogging focuses on the salary cap and team planning but every once in a while he lets it slip that he actually freaks out during every game.
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  • George Colantuoni

    Trade thomas and kelly for a 10/10 power foward who is a rim protector..

    • Ronald Abrams

      The Celtics aren’t going anywhere without a rim protector and defensive rebounder; I don’t care if you have Hayward AND Butler. It won’t help. The Celtic offense under Stevens is keyed off the defense. If you can’t rim protect and control the defensive boards, you can’t beat elite teams. Wall and Kyrie will slice right through you, not to mention LeBron. No one, not even Bradley and Smart, can consistently stop the great guards from getting to the rim. You MUST have interior defense and good defensive rebounding. The Celtics have neither. Hayward helps with the shooting, but doesn’t solve the fundamental problems. Isiah should be traded–he is too much of a defensive liability (and, despite his obvious talents, the offense slows down with him at the point) and the Celtics should never sign him to a max contract. Smart and Rozier can fill the gap until Fultz is ready. Trade for a big man to rim protect. (Don’t know if Zizic can help at all.) Move Horford to PF with Olynyk still coming off the bench. (Can’t see Amir Johnson in Celtics’ future.) Ideally, you get Hayward and a good big man. Bradley and Rozier back up Smart and Hayward (nice rotation, all good defensively). Brown & Jerebko back up Crowder. This team could possibly challenge the Cavs.

      • Bdiddy

        George and Butler are elite defenders when they are locked in so i have no idea what you are talking about. In the East, it is indisputable that the only 2 guys that can really compete with Lebron are George and Butler.

        • Ronald Abrams

          It doesn’t matter if you have elite defenders on the perimeter. Bradley, Smart and Crowder are elite defenders? Did that stop LeBron and Kyrie? Did it stop Wall and Beal? Do elite defenders stop Curry and Thompson. No, they don’t. And Butler and George won’t, either. I repeat: You MUST have rim protection and defensive rebounding to compete with the elite teams, especially a team like the Celtics that doesn’t have shooters like Curry and Thompson and Irving and Wall. Hayward would certainly help with the shooting, but he doesn’t provide interior defense. Ainge should try to trade IT and some draft picks for a good big man? If Ainge can do that and sign Hayward, then the Celtics can compete with the Cavs.

  • Leroy Cox

    Olynik and Smart need not be here. Rosier and Fultz and Bradley will be an offensive upgrade for sure instead of playing Smart. I’m not sure how they can have Crowder, Hawyard/George AND Jaylen Brown, as these are all small forwards. I’d clean out all of the big men except Horford and match Zizic with a rebounder at 10-12 million per year. Rosier play instead of Smart who is a problem on offense. Let Fultz grow 1st season while you have Thomas and Bradley for low price in 2017-2018, then decide. You have room to sign/trade for an all star this summer.

  • WarpFactor3

    The Celtics need to stay young and think long-term. The coming season should be dedicated to player development, not the acquisition of a good- but not super-star. The Finals will show that we’re even farther from contention than the ECF indicated, and there is no reason to go all-in before the team is fully developed. The Celtics are only starting to assimilate the talent it drafted last year, and will be selecting a foundational player in a few weeks. Trading assets for a doomed attempt to win now is plainly counterproductive.

    For any Celtics fan who is frustrated at the slow pace of the current rebuild, I suggest a change of adjective: call our progress inexorable, unstoppable, or relentless. That’s probably how our rival GMs are looking at it as they watch us reach the ECF and see what our rookie #3 pick can do, knowing that’s just the tip of our draft iceberg.

    • thehumburger

      So much for thinking long-term. They gave up the future for a me-first iso scorer with a lousy attitude. The Celtics rebuild is over, time to look forward to next decade.

  • Murry E Baskerville

    I don’t understand why you don’t talk about trading IT in here? He was 2nd Team All NBA, so we could try to trade him and Jae to NY for the Unicorn and our and Memphis picks next year. It saves us money, makes us better and relieves some of the tax stress paying a 5’9 guy 30 mill per year when he is a defensive liability. I love the little guy, but I’m tired of seeing each team in the playoffs run pick and roll so they get him matched up on a guy who easily shoots over him. Also, the injury makes teams not want to trade for him, but we all know he is the worst All NBA player and cannot be traded straight up for anyone on the all NBA Team. This also gets us under the cap to pay Hayward the max. We will draft Fultz who will be ready in year 2 or 3 to start so we can have Smart start next year to maximize his trade value or let Rozier actually show his promise and take the reigns. He and Fultz could play together well. This way our team would like this Smart or Rozier, Bradley, Hayward, Unicorn, Horford, Ante, Fultz, Smart or Rozier, Jaylen, Ante, Yabusele. Then if Jaylen and Fultz are ready to start by the trade deadline, you trade Bradley and Smart for picks or a young player. Then you have solved the cap and get better long term as well. It’s not rocket science, but you have to make smart moves and find other teams who value your players who will trade with Danny as he is nicknamed Trader Danny for a reason!

    • Brian Fleming

      I can’t see any scenario where the Knicks trade Porzingis. Why would they do that? He’s the only player they have that is worth building around. The Knicks are so stupid that they expect Boston to cough up the super cheap and effective Crowder for the right to take on the Carmelo problem. Really, Phil? Thanks, but go suck a you-know-what. As much as Isaiah is a defensive liability, Smart is even more so an offensive liability. He’s one of the worst shooters in NBA history. He’s Tony Allen, but with better passing. If I’m Ainge, I move two of Smart, Crowder, and Bradley this offseason, hopefully for someone in the front court that can actually rebound and defend the paint.

    • Ryan Bernardoni

      >With that in mind, while I think the most obvious, clearest, and cost-feasible path is to try to sign Hayward while flipping Avery Bradley and adding Markelle Fultz, I’ll be following this post in the near future with another focusing on bolder, more risky ideas.

      We’ll get to that, and other ideas.

  • Mr Curet

    Great article! 👍 If they play their cards right they can build a contender for now and the future while staying around the salary cap. I’d say: draft Fultz, let Olynyk GO! try to sign Hayward in FA, try to trade Bradley, Crowder and Brown for PG13 (if he agrees to sign long term) or Butler, and fill the end of the roster with minimum salaries (i.e. Gerald Green) and the 2nd rounders. Then next summer they can let IT4 walk (since I don’t think they’ll give him a max deal) and let Fultz take over as the starting PG.

    • Kostas Camus

      So why don’t we trade IT right now, instead of letting him go for nothing next season? This way we can save Smart which seems to be progressing impressively.

      • Mr Curet

        They could do that too. I’d actually trade Smart instead of Brown tbh though. I don’t think I’d be willing to pay $15 mil to a guy that can’t shoot. Plus they still have Rozier, who can play and can actually shoot. The reason I say keep IT is so they can challenge the Cavs next season and Fultz can learn under him, but they can’t pay everybody, especially if they can get PG13 or Butler.

  • Bdiddy

    I would think that if Fultz “pops” in his rookie season and Danny has indeed been able to acquired Hayward and George that the path would lead to letting IT walk in 2018. We would move forward with a Big 3 of Hayward, George and Horford on max contracts supplemented by Brown, Fultz, Smart, Zizic, Yabu (4 of which still on rookie deals) and whatever other veteran 4/5 minimum guys that Danny could sign.

  • swissflix

    Man, i am glad to see so many comments here. Celticshub used to have such an active community back in the day. I also miss the players’ grades after every game btw. That used to be a great section. All those F- for James Young, lol.

  • Kostas Camus

    How about trading IT, Bradley, Crowder and next year’s pick for Anthony Davis?
    Think New Orleans could possibly accept that?
    Fultz,Smart, Hayward, Horford, Davis and on the bench Brown, Zizic, Yabusele and two min contract veterans
    This team can be preserved through 2018-19, without going above the luxury tax.
    And hoping that Smart and Fultz pull their weight, it is a team with a future (besides Horford) and a team that can take down Cleveland.

  • Jim Dickson

    Upon reflection it becomes obvious that the Celtics should let Olynk, Johnson, Jerabkop, Green, and Zeller go, add Hayward or Griffin and bring in the 2 stashes to replace those 5 outgoing front-court players, draft Fultz, if possible trade a guard for future compensation or play with all 5 of Thomas, Bradley, Smart, Rozier, and Fultz for one year for a little tax, then let Thomas, Bradley, and Smart go and play 2018 with Rozier, Fultz, and 2018 #4 overall draft pick as their top 3 guards with Nader and Jackson as depth, and replace Rozier and add gaurds with the 3 2019 first round picks. This is all they can afford without triggering the luxury tax, it gives them a good shot next year to duplicate this year and by bringing in Hayward you respect the unique opportunity of having IT on a rookie deal, and then the rebuild starts in earnest while still contending for a playoff spot each year. Yes it is entirely unreasonable to think of the Celtics competing for a title in 2018-2019 and 2019-2020, and they probably won’t in 2017-2018 as the gap to GSW, CLE, SAS, HOU, LAC, and TOR is just too big – don’t let the 2016-2017 over achievement cloud your judgement. But for 2020-2021 with Horford then a FA, and many 1st round draft picks on rookie contracts, there will be plenty of cap room to add the needed pieces to compete if a couple of those 1st round picks become all stars.

  • MrDoushebag

    whatever happens, i would yank brown off the trading block unless it involved someone like anthony davis. keep jalen brown, celts! he’s a rich man’s jimmy butler!!!!