I see a lot of comments in a lot of places about our cap space and the free agents we could pursue. Those comments are usually followed by the standard back-and-forth on if the player would fit; if they would fit into the "Celtics Way" and if they would fit with Rondo or Sully, or into coach Stevens's system. The problem is that I don't see enough discussion on if they would fit into our cap space. Which is a problem, because we aren't going to have any cap space. I mean that... we aren't going to have ANY cap space.
It's easy to look at the contracts we have next season and do some quick math and think we could maybe get enough space to make a run at Gordon Hayward. From there you can make the leap to putting together an offer for Carmelo Anthony. Hey, maybe he'd take a slight discount if we got Kevin Love first and... no. Those things are not happening. The moves we make this offseason will be via the draft and/or via trade. It's extremely unlikely that there will be any free agents signed for more than $5,305,000.
Let's do some math (math is fun) to figure out why:
The salary cap for next season is estimated to be about $62 million dollars. It won't be exactly that but in the end a few dollars isn't going to matter so let's take that. We'll also say we're going to have the fifth worst record in the league and the Nets will send us the 18th pick in the draft.
That right there is the lowest we can get our salary commitments without giving away draft picks to get another team to take a player, paying someone to not play for us and hurting our cap sheet in future, or convincing Joel Anthony to pull a "Ryan Dempster" and go on sabbatical for unknown reasons. Now, you may look at that and think "GREAT!" we've got $18 million in cap space. Unfortunately it's not that easy.
Roster Cap Holds
At the bare minimum, the league makes you fill twelve roster spots on your cap sheet. We only have eight players in the above list so even if we get rid of every one of our other assets and obligations, which I'll get to in a minute, the league would add four "roster holds" of $507k each. That would drop our theoretical caps space from $17.3M down to $15.3M. People might throw out the fanciful idea of Melo taking $14M to play in Miami; he not's taking an $8M/year discount to come to Boston.
Free Agent Cap Holds
To even get to $15.3M in space we'd have to renounce our free agents, too. We have a big pile of cap holds from long-gone players (I'm looking at you, Roshown McLeod) that we could renounce with no consequences but it might not be that easy when it comes to Avery Bradley and Jerryd Bayless. Renouncing a player means you don't have their Bird Rights and you can't play the sign-and-trade game with them. If we're opening cap space to use on a bigger player, it's a good bet renouncing these players means they're gone.
For Bradley we could always extend a qualifying offer and rescind it if we want the cap space but if someone else comes in and makes him an offer that option comes off the table. Any sign-and-trade would be to a team over the cap (a team under wouldn't need our help) so we'd have to take back salary in that move, too.
Basically, getting to even $15.3M in space means letting both our established shooting guards walk, but so be it.
You may have noticed the table up above doesn't have Phil Pressey or Chris Johnson. Waiving them only clears us about $700k in cap space because they get replaced by those roster holds but if we're going to do this, let's go all out and let them walk.
Now it's going to get difficult. First round draft picks are assigned a cap hold for the rookie scale amount. A team with the fifth worst record will have an average cap hold of $3,187,692 (multiply the odds of each possible draft slot by the scale amount and add them together) and the 18th pick has a hold of $1,325,600. In order to get rid of those holds we would have to trade those picks for NOTHING this year. Trading for players just adds their salaries and trading for different picks adds those holds. We'd have to trade high picks in this draft for unknown picks in future ones. This isn't happening. These holds equal about $4.5M so let's cut our theoretical cap space down to $11.8M, even with letting AB, Bayless, Pressey and Johnson walk for nothing.
That figure is the MOST we could easily get to without just giving away assets that are clearly ours. You can dump the Nets pick if you want but you only get to around $13M in that scenario. What are we doing with $11-13M in cap space? Are we really going to chase after Gordon Hayward if it means walking away from any hope of brining back AB or playing in a sign-and-trade and also cutting Johnson and Pressey loose? Maybe you can make an offer in the $11M range and keep CJ and Phil but, well, why? What does an $11M free agent do for this team? We've been trying to dump Green and his contract is "only" for $9M/season. None of the Heatles are coming here and we aren't getting Melo for anything like what we can open up so why even start down this path, especially when there are further costs of doing it...
To even get to that $11-13M range we'd have to ditch our trade exceptions. We currently have three trade exceptions worth about $12.6M in total. These count against the cap. In order to free up cap space we would have to renounce them. The Pierce exception expires a few days into free agency but if we were to use it the player we bring in (Omer Asik is still the most likely use) would count against the cap and eat up the majority of that space. The Courtney Lee TPE extends well into next season and would have to be renounced, too. TPEs are not as big a deal as some people make them out to be (Bill Simmons) because they usually just expire but they do have some value and we'd have to give them up.
That $11-13M also means waiving Keith Bogans. The Cavs traded $6M in waivable contract named Andrew Bynum to Chicago and got Luol Deng! Now, Deng isn't a world beater but he's a legit starter on even a very good team. Keith Bogans is a more flexible version of that Bynum contract. You can package him with any player, which you can't do with a TPE, or just sell him outright for a draft pick to a team looking to dump salary. As soon as this season ends his contract is an actual, valuable asset in the crazy world of the NBA CBA.
The MLE and BAE
A team that goes under the cap for even a minute loses the Mid-level Exception (MLE) and Bi-annual Exception (BAE). Instead they get the smaller Room Mid-level (RME) if they end up going back above the salary cap. That's a trade-off of about $5M in cap flexibility
To re-cap, for the Celtics to make even enough cap space to make an offer to just Gordon Hayward (forget the guys that even matter in this league) that Utah probably wouldn't match we'd have to:
- Give up our rights to Avery Bradley, including the chance to sign-and-trade him
- Give up our rights to Jerryd Bayless
- Give up our trade exceptions for Paul Pierce, Courtney Lee, and the tiny one for Fab Melo
- Give up the flexible trade chip that is Keith Bogans's super-expiring contract
- Convert the MLE ($5.305M) plus the BAE ($2.077M) into just the RME (2.732M)
- Possibly waive Phil Pressey and Chris Johnson
- Possibly sell the Nets pick for some future pick(s)
And then we'd have to pay that player on a long-term contract and figure out a way to fill in the rest of the roster with just the RME and minimum contracts to work with.
This would be a ridiculous thing to do. It makes much more sense to intentionally stay above the cap. We would maintain the flexibility of our useful contracts (AB's RFA and Bogans waivable), our TPEs and our contract exceptions. Playing in the trade market makes much, much, MUCH more sense than even thinking about free agency, even after making a big trade.
And that's why we're going to trade Sullinger, Bass, Bogans and picks for Kevin Love then take Omer Asik into our TPE, not worry about Melo or Hayward and go win the Atlantic Division next season before pushing on for greater things in 2016 when cap space (and more good draft picks) are both really in play. It's that or just make our pick and roll forward as-is.