In what has been one of the most turbulent seasons of recent history for the Celtics, the off-season will come with its own drama. The Celtics have Marcus Smart’s restricted free agency and will most likely need to make a decision between whether they want to keep Smart or Terry Rozier long-term. Rozier becomes an RFA the following summer in 2019.
If you’re asking why this decision has to happen this year when Rozier is not a free agent until the previous year the answer is simple: You always try to sell when the value is inflated. In this case, Rozier is rising like Bitcoin in December. In the 11 games Rozier has started this season he averaged 18.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 4.8 apg, and 1.5 spg (as of April 3rd) while shooting 42.7% from three on 8.1 attempts.
Rozier has been able to maintain his tenacious on-ball defense and breathtaking rebounding ability while upping his usage rate and becoming a legitimate triple-double threat every night. His shot selection screams Moreyball with 48% of his attempts coming from three with his looks coming from a steady mix of catch and shoot and pull-up three’s (hitting 37.5% of those pull-up attempts in the month of March).
Overall, the picture is clear. Rozier looks like a legitimate starting point guard and at the tender age of 24 is still a few years away from his prime. Whether you’re a mid-level team looking for another young piece or a lottery team looking for a legitimate young player, Rozier provides the perfect blend of upside, tangible production, and experience that any team in need of an upgrade at point guard needs.
On the flip side, the story on Marcus Smart is one that barely needs to be told but is important in order to understand the Celtics’ position. Smart is one of the best defenders in the league and absent a recent string of unfortunate injuries, would probably be in the running for not just a first-team all-defender, but a dark horse candidate for defensive player of the year. He has drawn the scorn of bigs across the league for his willingness to bulldoze all screen attempts and leads the team in deflections, charges drawn, and is second in contested 3-point shots.
But beyond the numbers, there’s just a certain level of energy and passion that Smart brings to the game that no other Celtic is really able to replicate. Giving your all no matter what you’re asked to do rubs off on the rest of the team and you can almost feel the uplifting of competitive spirit whenever Marcus Smart checks into a game. He’s Boston’s one-man handyman and his versatility gives Coach Stevens a lot of flexibility in crafting lineups.
The Achilles heel with Smart is anything that has to do with putting the ball in the hoop. He’s surprisingly a solid free-throw shooter, 75.6% for his career, but he has continued to struggle shooting from range ranking in the 18th percentile in three-point shooting among guards and doubling down with an 18th percentile ranking at finishing at the rim, (those two areas make up 68% of his shot attempts). Smart hasn’t even been able to utilize some of his magic in the post where he finished in the 81.1 percentile last season mustering up a 52.7 FG%. This year? he’s down to the 19th percentile, shooting a 32.3 FG%. The saving grace that keeps Smart from being a 6’3 Andre Roberson is his passing ability and offensive IQ. He’s an effective ball-mover who is able to navigate in the PnR and has a strong understanding of how to draw extra defenders to him despite being a virtual non-threat to score.
The combination of defense and high basketball IQ has made Smart an effective player, but when projecting his current upside it’s hard to ignore that his production shows that he’s the same player that he was last year. There’s obviously nothing wrong with who he is now, but being a stagnated 24-year old could be problematic for Smart’s ability to attract a big contract.
The Boston Celtics as of today aren’t a luxury tax team, but could be as soon as next year. I won’t bore you with all the specifics, so here’s the Cliff Notes: if you’ve been a tax team for 3 out 4 years you pay a hefty repeaters tax. The Celtics are going to eventually be that team once Kyrie opts out in 2019 and receives his max, followed by having to re-up Horford and eventually Brown.
As it stands this off-season, the Celtics will be about $16 million under the luxury tax without including Greg Monroe, Shane Larkin, Aron Baynes, Smart, and the Lakers pick which doesn’t look like it will be conveying. You probably want to bring one of Baynes or Monroe back, but here’s where things get interesting. Before Gordon Hayward went down with his injury, he not only was the teams starting forward, but he was also being groomed to be a lead ball-handler in Boston’s second unit. But with his absence, things have changed, specifically for Terry Rozier, who came into this season with questions of whether he could actually run an offense and is now putting up numbers as a starter that are on par with Kyle Lowry.
On top of that, Shane Larkin has been a huge lift to the Celtics. He waits his turn and every time he gets into the game he makes stuff happen. A second unit of Larkin-Rozier-Hayward-Morris-Theis is probably already one of the best in the league. Bring back Baynes and you probably already have a pretty strong team that’s under the luxury tax at least for this year, buying the Celtics an extra season before the repeater clock starts.
The obvious issue with that scenario is letting Marcus Smart walk. Smart has arguably been the 5th most important Celtic and regardless of how you feel about his upside, you know Ainge isn’t a fan of giving up assets of that caliber for nothing. To avoid this scenario, Ainge could give him a deal that balances the Celtics desire to stay under the luxury tax with Smart’s desire to be paid.
Boston’s cap sheet is unique in that they have no “filler” contracts outside of Marcus Morris. Guys are either max players (Irving, Horford, Hayward) or they’re on rookie or super cheap deals. This makes it very difficult for the team to match salaries in any big potential trade. A compromise could be to pay Smart a bloated contract similar to Amir Johnson ($12-13mil/year) with the second year being non-guaranteed. From there, C’s could bring back one of Baynes or Monroe using part of the MLE and let Larkin walk which would allow them to stay under the luxury tax line as well. The Celtics front office is all about maintaining flexibility and being able to have this trade chip could go along way when it comes to bidding for the next star. For arguments sake, let’s say Boston chooses this path.
We’re now in the 2019 off-season. Irving needs to be paid, Rozier is RFA, Brown is looking for a rookie extension, Morris will be a UFA, and Horford is at the end of the road of his contract. Celtics will obviously bring back Irving and Horford while also heavily considering the extension of Jaylen who is a guy they want to build around long-term. But unlike Smart who enters free agency when only five teams project to have cap space and has a unique game that’s value depends more on the team constructed around him than his individual skill-set, Rozier will be a RFA about to head into his prime and looking like a guy who can be a legitimate fringe All Star.
The chances of Rozier being overlooked are slim and his suitors will come after him hard. Opposing GM’s will know that the Celtics will be juggling the contracts of three key members of their core and bet that Danny Ainge won’t be prioritizing re-signing Rozier. If you’re asking why can’t the Celtics just re-sign him or match him, it’s because unlike Smart, his market is most likely going to be so robust that the Celtics will be priced out.
From a basketball standpoint, maxing out Irving and Brown, while keeping Smart around makes Rozier a great commodity, but also, just a commodity. There’s no path for him to become the starter on the team and as the team is constructed, neither him nor Smart would consistently be guys to close out games. Paying big bucks for a guy that is overqualified for the role you’re paying him for makes little sense and the team knows it. Can the Celtics survive losing Rozier? Yes. Does Ainge ever like to let assets walk out the door like that? No chance.
Sell, Sell, Sell
This is when the idea of trading him this summer becomes appealing. Teams may not have cap space this upcoming off-season, but they have matching salaries and picks. The chance of getting a guy like Rozier, who looks like he’s about to be the next best thing, before other teams have a chance to start recruiting him could be a pretty enticing proposition. Frpm Boston’s point of view, they probably want either a young player under team control with a few years and/or a draft pick. Here’s a possibility:
Boston Celtics Receives: Jawun Evans, DET first round pick (12th)
Los Angeles Clippers Receive: Terry Rozier
For those of you unfamiliar with Evans, he’s an undersized guard who was one of the best pick and roll point guards in college basketball. He has mostly been buried in depth for the Clippers before he suffered a season-ending sport hernia injury, but he got on the court he proved to be a strong and pesky defender. With a real opportunity to get some rotation minutes he could provide the C’s with solid contribution right off the bat.
With the lottery pick, the Celtics will be in ball park to potentially get a big like Robert Williams from Texas A&M or Mitchell Robinson. Obviously these guys don’t bring the immediate production as Rozier has in his third season, but they’re on long-term team friendly deals and fit in better with the long-term plans of Boston.
The other option for Rozier part of a package for a superstar player such as Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis, but those are a lot more harder to predict because there’s so many variables that have to go right in deals like that.
There will be no easy decisions for the Celtics in the next two summers and fan favorites will definitely end up in other uniforms. Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier are not only great contributors to the program built by Stevens, but they were also Danny’s guys who brought his identity to the parquet in ways no other Celtics have. But this is a business, and smart money says that one of them has to go. Based on projected markets and cap situations, that player seems to most likley be Rozier. This league is fluid and teams are using 30 different strategies to get to one goal of winning a championship. However, one thing we can bet on for sure is Ainge will not be shy pulling the trigger, and he won’t wait untilhis back is against the wall.