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The Celtics are getting a max free agent this summer...maybe

Getting a max free agent isn’t as cut and dry for Boston as it seems

Taco Bell Skills Challenge 2017 Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Part I dealt with the idea that Cleveland and Golden State are unbeatable. Part II handled the NBA Draft and whether or not the Nets pick is a lock to deliver a superstar.

We’ve handled that the Cavs and Warriors are not guaranteed to meet in the Finals. We also looked at the Draft not being a lock to deliver a superstar. Now we move forward to the summer. The Celtics are a good, but not great team this year. They have a pick that is going to be very high, probably no lower than third or fourth in a good draft. They have a terrific All-Star talent in Isaiah Thomas and several good to great role players surrounding him. They have talented players stashed overseas and in the NBA D-League. And they have an uncommon amount of salary cap flexibility for a good team, due to having three starters (Thomas, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder) locked in to contracts that are far under market value.

That brings us to fallacy number three. It is widely assumed that Boston will land the number one pick in the draft and, playing the optimist, let’s run with that. The leaves the Celtics with a cap picture of the following for the summer of 2017:

Boston Celtics 2017 Cap Sheet
Keith P. Smith

That leaves Boston over the projected salary cap of $102 million by almost $18 million dollars. The Celtics can get to a maximum of just over $36 million in cap space, but that would mean renouncing all free agents, waiving Demetrius Jackson, Jordan Mickey and Tyler Zeller and agreeing to not sign any of the draft picks. That is an extremely unlikely scenario.

What then is a is likely scenario for the Celtics, considering the assumed desire of adding a max free agent this summer, Gordon Hayward perhaps? That leads us straight to that pesky third fallacy.

It is presumed that Hayward is the Celtics number one target in free agency, and making the link to having played for Brad Stevens previously and the fact that Hayward tried to leave Utah once, it might not be off base. However, Hayward’s starting salary as a max player, and he will be a max player no matter who he signs with, is $30.6 million dollars (assuming a cap of $102 million). How do the Celtics get to the point where they can offer Hayward that starting salary?

First, they renounce all their free agents. Gerald Green and James Young are probably not an issue. Boston already has as good, if not better, options on the roster. Jonas Jerebko and Amir Johnson both need to go too. And so does Kelly Olynyk, which might be the most unlikely of all the free agents given Boston’s investment in him to this point in his career.

Then the Celtics have to waive Jackson (eating the $650K guaranteed), Mickey and Zeller. Not the biggest issue there either, as none are regular contributors.

The next tricky part is that they have to get Guerschon Yabusele to agree in writing that he’s not going to sign an NBA contract in 2017-2018 and will stay overseas for another year. That could certainly happen, as he could use another year of seasoning and can draw a good paycheck in China or elsewhere for the year.

Make all those moves and the Celtics are still shy of the $30.6 million it would take to sign Hayward by about $1.4 million. Before you say the math is off, remember that you have to add what is called an Empty Roster Charge for every spot unfilled by a Player or Cap Hold under 12. The above scenario puts the Celtics at three Empty Roster Charges at a total of almost $2.5 million.

And therein lies fallacy number three. Even with making every move possible, Boston can’t get to the max number for Hayward. Even if Boston traded Terry Rozier without taking any salary back (let’s say for a future lottery protected first round pick), which is made possible by drafting his replacement with the Nets pick, the Celtics still fall about $300K short of the space needed to make Hayward a max offer. Starting to see why adding Hayward isn’t the slam dunk many assume it to be? And don’t even bother bringing up trading for George or Butler and passing on Hayward, because that makes the cap situation even more untenable for adding talent in the summer, as George or Butler would, in effect, be the big salary addition. And the Celtics would no longer have the benefit or trading expiring contracts like Johnson or Jerebko to get either All-Star, which further depletes the roster of talent.

The other option is to move Avery Bradley out in trade. This seems like the next most logical move. It would free up considerably more cap space than trade Rozier would, but it would also put a bigger hole in the rotation. Given Boston’s affinity for Bradley, it seems unlikely he’s going to the one who moves on somewhere else, but it is certainly possible. He’s due a big pay day in a year and it would make it far easier to bring in a max free agent this summer. Definitely something to watch moving forward.

Just for fun, let’s say Hayward says “I’m good with leaving $300K on the table to play for Coach Stevens and to play in Boston” and the Celtics move forward. That would give them a roster of:

PG – Isaiah Thomas/Marcus Smart/Markelle Fultz (assumes he is the pick)

SG – Avery Bradley/Jaylen Brown/2nd Round Pick

SF – Gordon Hayward/Jae Crowder/Abdel Nader

PF – Veteran signed with Room Exception/Veteran Minimum Signing/2nd Round Pick

C – Al Horford/Ante Zizic/Veteran Minimum Signing

That is a team that is very deep on the wing and has questionable depth up front. Let’s say the Veteran signed with the Room Exception is someone like old friend Jerebko or Johnson, who we know the Celtics are comfortable with, you are still pretty shallow up front and probably have to play small quite often with Jae Crowder at the four.

Let’s flip it forward to the summer of 2018. The roster looks largely the same, except you replace a couple of the Veteran Minimum Signings or the 2nd Round Picks with Guerschon Yabusele and the 2018 Nets pick. And likely another Veteran signed with an Exception. The Celtics could use their own pick in the 2018 draft to stash another player or could cut another 2nd Round Pick or Veteran Minimum Signing to bring in additional rookie.

In 2018, because Boston is already limited cap-wise from signing Horford in 2016 and Hayward in 2017, you are probably looking at them trying to retain their own free agents in Thomas, Bradley and Smart. It is safe to assume that all three will be looking at contracts at, or north of, $20 million. In Thomas’ case, you are probably looking at a max or near max contract, assuming he doesn’t fall way off in production over the next year. And that pushes the Celtics way over the Luxury Tax. Millions upon millions over the tax line.

That leaves Boston with a 2018-2019 roster of (assuming the youngster develop as hoped for):

PG – Isaiah Thomas/Marcus Smart/Markelle Fultz

SG – Jaylen Brown/Avery Bradley/2018 Draft Pick

SF – Gordon Hayward/Jae Crowder/Abdel Nader

PF – Al Horford/Veteran signed with an Exception/Guerschon Yabusele

C – Ante Zizic/2018 Draft Pick/2nd Round Pick from 2017

Once again, that is a good, but probably not great team. Golden State and possibly Cleveland are still title contenders, but the Celtics could battle them.

Zach Lowe put it best on a recent episode of The Lowe Post podcast exclaiming “The Celtics are trying to have their cake and eat it too. But what happens if there is no cake?”

That quote is a very real scenario for Boston. What if Cleveland or Golden State or both prove beatable in 2017? What if the Nets pick doesn’t land in the top three? What if the Celtics can’t work the cap gymnastics to bring in Gordon Hayward or Hayward simply chooses to stay in Utah? Those are all very real scenarios, even if the Cavs/Warriors seems like the most unrealistic of all.

But let’s say all plays out as expected. Cleveland and Golden State meet in the 2017 NBA Finals, proving everyone right that there was no point going all in this year. The balls bounce the Celtics way at the Draft Lottery and they pick Markelle Fultz (or Lonzo Ball if you prefer). Then Gordon Hayward leaves money on the table (or the cap bumps up slightly) and he joins the Celtics. Ante Zizic comes over and is ready to contribute right out of the gate. And Boston retains just about everyone else. Is that 2017-18 team or the following team in 2018-19 competing for the NBA title?

That brings us the biggest “fallacy of the predetermined outcome” of all. Nothing is locked in for Boston. Even if that all plays out, they’ll be counting on young players to be better than expected earlier than expected. They’ll be counting on Danny Ainge to maybe swing another big trade where he consolidates some of those role players to bring in another star to pair with Thomas, Hayward and Horford.

Acquiring George or Butler wasn’t a clear path, but none of the others are any clearer. There aren’t right or wrong answers here, no matter how many people scream from one side or the other. We’ve never seen an NBA team navigate these waters before. Remembering that there are no predetermined outcomes is key for Celtics fans to keep their sanity, as the next few years may not play out exactly as many are expecting them to.