It happened. No more needs to be said about what has been already agreed to, but where do we go from here?
The Celtics have, in my view, three (or four) options with how to proceed from here: continue to get young assets in exchange for also acquiring bad contracts (and/or shedding more of last year’s roster), trading the recently acquired draft picks and players for established stars, or standing pat with what has been done so far.
Option 1a: Acquire More Young Assets by Spending
One (in my opinion) overlooked aspect of the Celtics-Nets deal, as presently described, is that that Celtics have a lot of flexibility to take on additional payroll from a third team. As it presently stands, the Celtics are sending out approximately $33 million in payroll, while only receiving about $26.5 million in return for this upcoming season. The NBA trade rules actually allow the Celtics to take on 125% + $100,000 of the payroll the sent out, which comes to a little over $41 million. Accordingly, the Celtics can take on about $14.5 million more from a third or fourth team who gets involved in the deal, without that team having to take back any salary of their own. So let’s look at who some of those teams could be:
Dallas Mavericks – The Mavericks had been very widely rumored as willing give away their 2013 1st round pick to any team willing to take on Shawn Marion’s contract, so that they could have room to add Dwight Howard and other free agents. While that didn’t appear to happen last night, should the Mavericks come to terms with Howard, they could jump on board the Celtics-Nets deal and send along Shawn Marion, his $9.6 million salary, and give the Celtics the recently drafted Shane Larkin as a fee for the service. Perhaps the Celtics can reacquire one or both of the second-round picks they traded to the Mavericks last night as well. Unfortunately no future 1st round picks are available until 2020, as the Mavs owe Oklahoma City a first-round pick that is protected until 2018.
Golden State Warriors – Golden State is in a bit of a salary pickle, due to three mostly useless contracts on their books for next season – Andrew Bogut at $14 million, Richard Jefferson at $11 million, and Andris Biedrins at $9 million. This has pushed their salary well into the luxury tax threshold, which has several consequences. Firstly, they will be unable to use the full mid-level exception of $5.15 million to offer to free agents, nor the $2 million bi-annual exception, and will only have the $3.183 million taxpayer mid-level exception at their disposal. This will obviously make them less competitive on the free agent market. Secondly, as a team over the luxury tax apron, they are unable to acquire free agents through sign-and-trades, unless they end up below the threshold after the trade is completed, which is unlikely given their situation. Thirdly, a key player for them, Jarrett Jack, is a free agent. While he is likely to cost only $6-7 million to retain, and they have Bird rights to be able to re-sign him, such a salary could cost them an additional $12-15 million in luxury tax payments, which is probably too much. As a team looking to take the next step forward, losing Jack would instead be a step back. But if the Celtics were to take on one of the aforementioned contracts for one or two assets like Festus Ezeli, the rights to Nemanja Nedovic, or a future pick, depending up which contract they accepted, the Warriors could find themselves in a much better situation this year.
Chicago Bulls – Like the Warriors, the Bulls were a competitive team last year who are now well into luxury tax territory, creating little flexibility to make any additional steps forward. Unlike the Warriors, the Bulls’ worst contract belongs to Carlos Boozer, who, while very overpaid at $15.3 million this upcoming season, was still a productive player. Still, by sending Shavlik Randolph back to the Bulls in this deal, the Celtics could take on Boozer’s contract, freeing the Bulls to add other players to the roster, while also creating a trade exception of approximately $14.2 million. While it’s true that the Bulls can simply amnesty Boozer to avoid the cap penalties, Jerry Reinsdorf is notoriously cheap, and may be unwilling to pay Boozer 8 figures in each of the next two seasons to play for another team. The prize for the Celtics would have to be the 1st round pick from the perennially lowly Charlotte Bobcats (Hornets?) that is completely unprotected as early as 2016, but that could be quite a prize.
Oklahoma City Thunder– Like the Bulls and Warriors, the Thunder also find themselves in a fight with the new luxury tax rules. While they are presently below the cap, they are only just below, and desire to bring back Kevin Martin, who will send them into the same position that the Bulls and Warriors are currently in. The problem contract? A name very familiar to Celtics fans: Kendrick Perkins. Perk is owed about $18.6 million over the next two seasons. While the Thunder can amnesty him, they’d also prefer not to for reasons similar to the Bulls. Perhaps the Celtics can acquire the pick they are owed from the Mavericks. In fact, by sending the Thunder and Mavericks a combination of the (mostly) non-guaranteed contracts of Terrence Williams, D.J White, and Shavlik Randolph, they could acquire both Perkins and Marion. Perhaps in the process, they could get the Mavs to drop the protection on that pick, should they acquire it.
Option 1b: Continue the Roster Overhaul
If the Celtics decide to go full-steam ahead in pursuit of the #1 overall pick next year, they can continue to trade their valuable pieces for more picks and young players. In my opinion, this is best done in concert with Option 1a, if they’re going that route at all. Rondo could fit very well in either Utah, perhaps getting back Trey Burke and future pick(s), or Orlando. Jeff Green’s strong second half should have increased his trade value. And Avery Bradley, who seems to be often coveted, is either due for a considerable raise next season, or will hit free agency, so now might be the time to cash in his chips.
Option 2: Flip For New Stars
Danny Ainge has been after Josh Smith for years. Rondo and Smith are best buds since high school. Smith said Boston fans are better than Atlanta fans. Atlanta has no intention of re-signing Smith, and Smith has no intention of staying. It certainly seems like things are lining up!
Assuming the Hawks lose out on Dwight Howard, they will probably enter the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes. In that case, they will need to add payroll just to meet the minimum salary requirements. Certainly Humphries and some other reasonable asset should be enough to bring Smith to Boston in a sign-and-trade.
But why stop there? Adding Smith will certainly help, but it’s a cluttered roster that now has Gerald Wallace, Jeff Green, and Josh Smith for the next three seasons. With Rondo, that’s a playoff team, but one that quickly runs into the problems currently experienced by Chicago, OKC, and Golden State that we talked about above. Instead, why not pursue Al Horford with Josh Smith. Horford is signed to a reasonable contract for the next three years. Could Atlanta really say no if we offered them three firsts, Brooks, Sullinger, and the salaries from Brooklyn for Horford and Smith? Depending on the contract given to Smith, that could also leave room to S&T for a shooter like J.J. Redick at not much extra cost of assets, since his salary could fit into the same trade. Swapping out KG, Pierce, and Terry for Smith, Horford, and Redick could turn this team around without skipping a beat.
Option 3: Call It a Day
In the last week, the Celtics have gained four unprotected first round picks, a decent young player in Brooks, and have dropped their payroll below the luxury tax level, which is an important place to be if you’re not a contending team. Meanwhile, how much worse have they truly gotten? Brooks gives them the bench scoring threat that Jason Terry failed to be. Humphries isn’t spectacular, but he’s serviceable. And prior to this year, Gerald Wallace was a pretty good basketball player. If Wallace can have a bounceback year, the Celtics could be have a very solid lineup, especially with a healthy Rondo and Sullinger. It’s certainly a playoff team, and once you’re in the playoffs in the East, who knows what will happen.
While it’s painful to imagine the Celtics without Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, Ainge has done a good job of positioning the team for future negotiations. They have the pieces to either bring in more young players and future picks, or to bring in established stars, while not needing to commit to either one. Accordingly they can stand firm in the trade talks they will undoubtedly continue to have for the next two weeks. Who knows what the team will look like come July 10th? I don’t, but I’m excited!