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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Markelle Fultz, or whoever the team drafts next season, becomes an MVP candidate
- A trade opportunity is out there that does not seem possible
- 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.