The 2015 draft was supposed to be when the Celtics made their big move. They had four picks, and three in the top 33. It seemed inconceivable that they would keep all four selections with an already deep roster, and there were rumblings that Danny Ainge was working the phones like a madman (though that's nothing new).
Ainge wasn't able to move up, but it certainly wasn't for a lack of effort. He reportedly offered six picks (including four potential first rounders) in an attempt to move up to the ninth pick to select Justise Winslow. Ainge almost offered as many picks as slots he was trying to move up in the first round. To top it all off, the Hornets refused because they were enamored with, of all players, Frank Kaminsky. The Celtics hopes for the future and banner 18 have been pegged mainly on the boatload of draft picks they own the rights to. If six picks couldn't move the Celtics up seven slots, it seemed those hopes were doomed for failure.
Not so fast my friend. Those picks may not have been enough to move up in the 2015 draft, but with the way the NBA landscape is changing, it could have been a blessing in disguise that the Hornets rebuffed that gargantuan offer.
As we have all heard by now, the cap is set for a meteoric rise thanks to the huge TV deal. This year, the cap came in higher than initial projections and will be at $70 million. Next year, projections are for the cap to be at around $89 million. Then, for the 2016-17 season, the cap could rise all the way up to the area of $108 million.
Why is this relevant when talking about draft picks? That's because as the cap rises, the rookie scale will stay the same. As Michael Schwartz writes on ESPN:
But while maximum contracts rise along with the cap in the coming years, and the middle class along with it, the rookie contracts for recently drafted players will put them under team control at under market rates through the 2018-19 season...Thus the rookies who make an impact on the court will be the best bargains in the NBA.
The Rookie Scale
The rookie scale in the NBA is the designated salary slot that each draft pick can be signed to after the draft. Let's use Terry Rozier's number 16 draft slot as an example (use table for reference).
The 16th pick's slotted salary for this season is $1,520,300. Rookie scale contracts can be negotiated down to 80% of the scale or up to 120%, but the Celtics almost always give their picks the full 120%. So for this year, Rozier will be making $1,824,360. Next year, with the full 120%, Rozier will come in at $1,906,440. In 2016-17, $1,988,520.
The scale is a little higher for the 2016 draft picks, but it is not a proportional rise along with the cap. For example, the 16th pick next year, with the 120%, will make $1,888,200 in year one, $1,973,160 in year two, and $2,058,120 in year three.
The 16th pick in the 2017 draft won't make much more, coming in at $1,954,320 in year one, $2,042,160 in year two, and $2,130,120 in year three.
(Note: as Schwartz says, there is a chance the rookie scale could be negotiated if either side opts out of the CBA after the 2016-17 season. However, draft picks would not be represented at those talks, so it's unlikely the scale will be changed).
Remember, these numbers are all in the context of a rising cap. Since 2005-06, the cap has come in each year between $58 million and $66 million. When Rozier is in his 3rd year in the league, the cap will be at a whopping $108 million. He'll be taking up less than 2% of the cap!
There were already several big money deals this past offseason that looked like headscratchers, but that is thinking under the parameters of the old cap. Similarly, the rookie scale was built in the context of the old cap. In just a few years, just as many of those headscratchers could turn into great value signings, these dirt-cheap rookie contracts will hold increased value as well.
Lowe and Cuban
If you won't take my word for it, take that of two of the smartest around the NBA.
In the July 29th version of the Lowe Post, Mark Cuban and Zach Lowe were discussing the value of draft picks moving forward. Lowe classified the picks as, "cost-controlled super-cheap contracts that don't rise proportionally with the cap."
Cuban said, "The only certainty is that the value of draft picks is going to go through the roof...It could freeze the trade market because no one will give them up. On the other hand, it could open it up because if you do give them up, you'll get a better player for them."
Good thing Cuban didn't realize that before shipping a first rounder to Boston for Rajon Rondo.
In all seriousness, this is what the Celtics have been waiting for. They have stockpiled draft picks at every turn waiting for the right opportunity to pounce. That chance may be coming. If teams start hoarding picks, as Cuban suggests could happen, the Celtics would theoretically be able to trade their assets for a higher value.
Cuban is known for his forward thinking, and it is no surprise he is ahead of the curve on this as well. That progressive thinking has produced mixed results (multiple times he has cleared salary space for a superstar and come up short), but he is undoubtedly a very intelligent NBA mind and does have championship under his belt. Hopefully, the league will come to the same conclusion he has on draft picks in the near future.
The Final Word
It was hard not to be disappointed on draft night this year with rumors of blockbusters and thoughts of high lottery picks joining the Celtics roster. However, trading six picks for one would have been selling extremely low. Teams fall in love with specific players around the draft, and it would take a fortune to change their minds. The Hornets and Kaminsky were no exception, and a fortune wasn't even enough to get a deal done. It would be great to have Justise Winslow manning the ‘3' position this year, but not at that price.
The Celtics now have three prospects on the roster in Rozier, R.J. Hunter and Jordan Mickey. If they can emerge as legitimate contributors, they will be inexpensive roster-fillers - be it for the Celtics or another team. In addition, the Celtics have the opportunity for the Brooklyn picks, the Dallas pick, and the Memphis pick to turn into lottery picks (click here for a full breakdown of the Celtics picks over the next few years). It isn't the worst outcome to have all those options over putting all their stock into just one player in the form of Winslow.
The cap will soon reach heights never before seen in the NBA. In just two years, the cap will be $45 million more than it was for the 2014-15 season. Contracts for everyone in the league will increase - except rookies. No one knows how the trade market will react, but Cuban and others are convinced draft picks will hold a great deal of value. The Celtics are banking on the fact that other teams will refuse to give up their own picks, making the ones Ainge has stockpiled more valuable than they were as recently as this June.
We have definitely heard this story before. The Celtics have wanted to make a big move for years and have had all these assets but haven't found a willing trade partner. However, we are entering a groundbreaking scenario in the league where things should be different. Hopefully, the combination of the rising cap and the set rookie scale will be what finally makes it possible for Trader Danny to pull off a blockbuster.
Info from http://basketball.realgm.com/nba/info/rookie_scale/ was used in this post.