Sunday, June 4, 2017

Boston Celtics: The NBA's Next 'Super Team?'

I will be the first to admit it; I have doubted virtually every move Danny Ainge and the Celtics have made over the last 18 months. From the 2015 NBA Draft (the offseason of 'fireworks'), to the signing of Al Horford.

Ainge and the Celtics seemed to be holding back and plotting a course for nowhere fast. This 'no action is the best action' broke most die-hards into two distinct camps;

1 - The "Why are we wasting these assets and doing nothing?!”


2 - The “Just wait it out and build through the draft” camp.

To be clear, I was in group one, with no reserve or desire to be in the latter….until last week.

After the Celtics season coming to a close, I decided to take a closer look at the possibilities that were ahead for the C’s and realized something I have missed for almost two years. Boston has had a detailed plan all along, and it doesn’t conform to either frame of thought that almost all Celtics fans have been clinging to.

In fact, it seems as if major media, fans, and even most analysts have missed the bigger picture altogether. Simply put, the Celtics aren’t trying to duplicate the 'old Big Three' structure…they’re working to assemble the Eastern Conferences first 'Big Four' with the most impressive supporting cast in recent memory.

Here’s how:

Signing a 'Max' level contract player this summer
  • Once Boston allows its free agents to be (Kelly Olynyk, Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, Gerald Green, and James Young) to hit the market along with releasing Tyler Zeller from his non-guaranteed $8 million contract, the Celtics will have roughly $64 million against the 2017-18 salary cap. With the most recent cap increase to $101 million for next season, Boston will be left with approximately $37 million to spend in the free agent market. 
  • This massive amount of cap flexibility will allow the Celtics to easily splurge on any of the top players in this summer’s free agent class with many believing Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward being the primary target. Assuming this deal is completed for the anticipated numbers; Hayward (or any max deal) would cost about $30.5 million against the cap, obviously fitting comfortably within the Celtics budget… now they just need to actually sign the player. 
Draft and keep the No. 1 overall pick from the 2017 NBA Draft 
  • Boston will have a number of suitors to trade the top pick in this month’s NBA draft but expect Danny Ainge to make the pick. Expect him to do so for a multitude of reasons but possibly none more important than the simple fact that a top pick (i.e. Markelle Fultz) is only going to cost approximately $7 million against the cap annually.  
Do NOT extend anyone
  • Much of the 2016-17 season has been a debate about if Isaiah Thomas is a max contract level player in the NBA and when to extend the “Little Guy." I am here to tell you, DO NOT extend him. Ainge has waited this long for a reason and if he extends Bradley, Thomas, or Smart he would be undoing everything. While it is risky, Boston will be allowing for those players to hit the market in the summer of 2018 (Smart would be restricted if offered a qualifying offer) and the possibility of losing them is distinct but this would be a risk Ainge and the Celtics would need to take in order to…
Sign a third max contract in the summer of 2018 
  • The ability to add a third max contract will rely entirely on Boston’s ability to maintain flexibility with its current contracts and not adding any additional players to its 2018-19 roster that haven’t been mentioned above. Most NBA executives project the salary cap to be close to $108 million for 2018 free agency which when coupled with the convenience of having only an anticipated $86 million against the cap for 2018-19, the Celtics should be in the clear to add a third max deal if they clear space by moving Jae Crowder and his $7.3 million as well as an additional $5.9 million by trading or not picking up options on Terry Rozier, Demetrius Jackson and Jordan Mickey... but we're not done yet.  
Here’s the tricky part, the Celtics still hold the Nets 2018 first round draft pick, which many believe will be at the top of the draft lottery yet again. If this is the case and Boston likes the idea of adding a third consecutive top-five pick to it's roster they will need to find a way to make room for said player. Boston will need to clear approximately another $7 million if the pick is in the top spot or a few hundred thousand less for each slot the pick slides.

The good news is that Boston will be able to move the pick fairly easily if they don’t want it or feel the draft doesn’t have the quality they desire. Needless to say, there are a ton of moving pieces regardless of the Celtics keeping the Nets 2018 first round pick or not.

Re-sign Isaiah Thomas and/or Avery Bradley at market value
  • Once Boston has signed it's two max players they will be in the neighborhood of $108 million against the cap (this would be the case if they keep or trade the Nets first rounder in 2018) and this will signify the moment where Boston will officially be bound to normal cap constraints. At this point, the Celtics will have the chance to re-sign it's own to-be free agents in Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley while exceeding the anticipated $108 million cap ceiling. Boston will then need to debate just how much over that cap they are willing to go to return two of it's most loyal stars with the current squad. 
  • Now for the elephant in the room, a cap hold, which simply means the Celtics will need to maintain the current value of the final year of the pending free agent deals in order to keep the Bird's Rights over them. Thomas' number will stand at $6.2 million while Bradley will be in the region of $8.8 million, making the longest tenured Celtic the more difficult to retain. Boston will need to find around $3 million to make it all happen, but it can be done. 
  • With the current tax kicker set at $121 million the Celtics would be blowing past that in this scenario regardless of who they signed out of the two players. Even with a modest increase to $130 million, Boston would be looking at an almost dollar for dollar tax rate for each dollar over the tax threshold... So, how bad do they want it?
While this may seem a bit far-fetched to some, the evidence that this may be an ideal situation that Boston is looking at executing is there. The Celtics have been in sole position to make a multitude of deals in the last two seasons but have refused to lose cap flexibility for this seemingly impossible reason. Well, the real reason is that Boston might just be able to load up with four 'max level' contracts AND have three top-five picks all playing on the same team for the 2019-20 season.

An additional piece of evidence that this might be something that has been discussed was revealed when Boston’s second team All-NBA point guard Isaiah Thomas was quoted saying he would be “willing to wait” for his big contract if the Celtics could add talent prior to his contract expiring. Even players who love where they play, like to make money and unless you show them a way to get that money and improve the team, you don’t normally hear them speak in such terms.

Ultimately, Boston could be the next 'Super Team' with a lineup that would boast Al Horford, Isaiah Thomas, two other All-Star level players via free agency, three top-five picks from 2016, 2017 and 2018 drafts respectively, and should have a realistic shot at keeping/adding a combination of Ante Zizic, Guershon Yabusele, Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, and Avery Bradley.

I know it sounds crazy, but Boston might be the most appealing spot in the NBA after next year’s Finals....did I mention the Celtics have future first round picks from Memphis and the L.A. Clippers coming between 2018 and 2020?

It’s good to be Danny Ainge

Zach Peloquin

Photo used courtesy of Getty Images

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