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What will the Celtics do with their team option for Guerschon Yabusele?

Will the bear keep dancing in Boston beyond this season?

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Celtics find themselves at a bit of a crossroads with 2016 first round pick Guerschon Yabusele. Yabusele was drafted 16th overall and was immediately labeled one of the steals of that draft. He then spent a year overseas in China, before signing his rookie scale contract with Boston in the summer of 2017. This puts Yabusele on the Celtics books through 2021-22, with the final two seasons (2020-21 and 2021-22) being team options.

The Celtics roster has grown quite expensive, largely due to max contracts for Al Horford in 2016 and Gordon Hayward in 2017, along with acquiring Kyrie Irving in 2017. On top of that, Boston re-signed Marcus Smart to a four-year, $52 million contract and re-signed Aron Baynes to a two-year, $10.6 million contract. Add to that the salaries the team carries for Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, both of whom were drafted third overall, and you can see why the Boston books are becoming quite bloated.

Add it all up and you have a Celtics team that is not only way over the cap, but also across the luxury tax line for the first time in years. As it stands today, Boston is approximately $3.8 million over the tax line. That amount itself isn’t that big of a worry. Almost every championship contender pays the tax at some point. What is worrisome is the looming threat of the repeater tax.

The repeater tax is triggered when a team is over the tax for three consecutive seasons or for three out of four seasons. With Irving stating his intention to re-sign in Boston this coming July, likely on a max contract, the Celtics project to be flirting with being a tax team for the foreseeable future. That has led many to surmise that Danny Ainge will be looking to do what he can to dodge the tax in 2018-19, as it would delay the repeater tax for an additional year.

So, what does this have to do with Yabusele? More than it might seem at first glance. Some have suggested he’s the likely casualty to avoid the tax, assuming Boston could trade him without bringing any salary back this year. But that’s a little misguided.

Yabusele makes $2.7 million this season, which isn’t enough to get Boston under the tax. Packaging him in a trade with another player becomes tricky, as the Celtics are almost guaranteed to take back money in a 2-for-1 or similarly unbalanced trade.

While it doesn’t close the door entirely on trading Yabusele this year, it does make it less likely, at least as a tax avoidance maneuver. But look down the line just a little bit and Yabusele’s future in Boston becomes a lot murkier.

By October 31st, the Celtics have to decide if they are picking up their team option on the third year of Yabusele’s rookie scale deal. First round rookie scales deals are structured in the following way:

  • Year 1 – fully guaranteed
  • Year 2 – fully guaranteed
  • Year 3 – team option, must be exercised by 10/31 of the preceding year
  • Year 4 – team option – must be exercised by 10/31 of the preceding year
  • Year 5 – qualifying offer for restricted free agency

It is important to understand that rookie scale team options are rarely declined. The reason for this is that it often comes back to bite a team when they do decline a rookie scale option. In several instances, the player proves to be a late-bloomer. When that happens, his incumbent team is capped at paying him only up to the amount of the team option they declined. If the player gets a bigger offer elsewhere, his current team has no opportunity to match that offer or pay him more.

Generally, declining a rookie scale option has been reserved for players who suffer a serious injury and don’t project to make it back or for players who prove to be a complete bust and simply aren’t worth the guaranteed salary.

In the case of Yabusele, he’s been healthy and he’s far from a complete bust. You could even argue he might fit the late-bloomer category, as he’s yet to turn 23-years-old and shown flashes of his promise during this preseason. Unfortunately, there is a third reason teams decline rookie scale team options: cap/tax implications.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

While it doesn’t directly relate to Yabusele, Boston is going to want to either avoid the tax entirely this year or next, and he might get caught up in the ensuing swirl. In 2019-20, Yabusele would be on the books for $3.1 million. That’s a big enough number that the Celtics could clear it off the books and use those savings towards avoiding the tax, or at least lessening the hit.

What about on the court? While he hasn’t, and probably never will, live up to the “French Draymond Green” moniker he was tabbed with pre-draft, Yabusele isn’t a lost cause. As a rookie Yabusele appeared in 33 games (four starts) and played 7.1 minutes per contest. Essentially, he played garbage time. You can’t draw much from the 235 minutes he played last year. He took three-pointers, set screens and on occasion unleashed his bow and arrow dab to the delight of Celtics fans everywhere.

But if you dig a little deeper, you can find a lot of good in his game. With the Maine Red Claws in the NBAGL, He played almost 500 minutes over 14 games. He scored 20.3 points and grabbed 7.9 rebounds, while also handing out an impressive 2.7 assists per game. He didn’t just launch shots from the arc either, as he shot nearly 49 percent from the floor on almost 15 field goal attempts per competition. About two-thirds of those attempts came inside the paint. On those inside attempts, Yabusele shot almost 58 percent.

We’ve seen this “NBAGL All-Star” type of performance before, most notably with Abdel Nader. Nader dominated in his time with Maine, but never quite put it together with the Celtics. He was very much the NBA equivalent of a 4A player in Major League Baseball: too good for the minors, but not quite good enough for the majors. Yabusele feels a little different though.

For one, he wasn’t just putting the ball on the floor and getting by overmatched defenders. He was posting up and rolling to hoop inside for contested finishes. He was moving and passing the ball in a way that shows good feel. And he didn’t settle for launching three-pointers to entertain crowds at the end of blowouts.

Boston hoped Yabusele would build on that success at the 2018 NBA Summer League in Vegas, but he struggled. He was still active and moved the ball well, but his finishing inside tailed way off. That led many to write him off heading into this season. But in the preseason, he’s shown some flashes of potential.

In four games, Yabusele has played 59 minutes and only taken 4 three-pointers. His other 15 shots have come at or near the rim and he’s made ten of them. He’s also snagged 13 rebounds and blocked five shots. Overall, he’s looked more active and athletic than at any other point in his NBA career.

The next few weeks are going to be big for Yabusele’s future in the NBA. Sure, the fans have an attachment to the Dancing Bear, but that isn’t going to be enough to keep him in green. At $3.1 million for 2019-20, he’ll have to be more than a fan favorite. He’ll have to show he can be a rotation big Brad Stevens can count on. If not, the best course of action may be for Boston to cut their losses early and let the bear dance and dab elsewhere.

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