Cap jail is common in today’s NBA landscape. All you have to do is turn on ABC to see the Cavaliers, the league’s salary leader, held captive by J.R. Smith’s $13.7-million contract. It would have been fitting to photoshop a group of angry detractors chasing him toward half-court at the end of game one, while he gripped bags of money.
Splurging on contracts, a must in 2016’s cap landscape that landed Kevin Durant in Golden State and Al Horford in Boston, will handcuff many teams that want to hand an offer sheet to Marcus Smart. The premium for eating salary could supersede that of impactful players via trade. Gone are the days of the Timofey Mozgov cap dump and price-driving offer sheets to rival restricted free agents.
Boston’s largest concern is the luxury tax, but they are not free from the few rival contenders that could turn the fire up under them. Smart is so important to the Celtics that even though few teams can afford to tie up their cap for three days to push the price up on Smart, they’d probably match if one did.
“Bring back both,” Danny Ainge said, only half joking when asked about the possibility of picking between Smart and Terry Rozier this summer. He added in his exit interview that Boston would spend to win, within reason.
The Celts are out of cap space yet comfortable that it’s filled by Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving and Horford. By comparison the Wizards are jammed with $124-million between John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Ian Mahinmi and Marcin Gortat.
The NBA’s projection of the 2018-19 cap won’t veer too far from where it sat in the preseason. A $101 or 102-million cap would place Boston above at $107.4-million before signing Smart, Aron Baynes, Greg Monroe, Shane Larkin or Jabari Bird, all of whom enter free agency.
By retaining their cap holds of $11.3-million on Smart, $5.6-million on Baynes and $1.7-million on Larkin on their 2018-19 cap until they’re signed or renounced, Boston can bring back all of them above the cap. Monroe and Baynes could most reasonably return on ~$5-million non-Bird exceptions. The Celtics also have a one year, roughly $8-million mid-level exception if needed.
Eric Pincus reported the tax line will situate around $123-million this upcoming season. That hands the Celts a substantial advantage in landing Smart for at least 2018-19. The best compromise for both sides may be to sign Smart’s qualifying offer. That would bring Smart back at $6.1-million for 18-19, leaving approximately $16-million to bring back Baynes, sign a MLE and stay under the tax line. Then Smart would enter unrestricted free agency in 2019.
In a memo to teams, the NBA has NOT changed it's preseason salary cap projection, it remains at $101 mil for 2018-19 and 108 mil for 2019-20. Tax at $123 mil and $131 mil, respectively. Typically, there's variance in the pre/post projection but not this year— Eric Pincus (@EricPincus) April 16, 2018
The Cavs, Thunder, Warriors, Heat, Wizards, Pelicans, Bucks, Rockets, Pistons, Clippers, Trailblazers, Hornets, Raptors, Spurs, Grizzlies, Timberwolves, Nuggets, Knicks all cannot currently muster a competitive offer sheet of at least $12-14 million that Smart is reported to be pursuing on the open market.
All those teams either maintain salaries above the cap line, have cap holds on their own free agents that drive them above that point, or aren’t far enough below the cap to offer more than $10-million per year. That’s 19 teams including the Celts you can cross off right away from forcing Danny Ainge’s hand.
Since Smart is a restricted free agent, Ainge can match any offer up to about $15.6-million per year on him without crossing the luxury tax line. Bringing back Baynes reduces about $5-million off that figure.
Beyond current cap considerations, many teams have starting point guards or draft picks that will place over $1-million on top of their current salary situations. The Wolves and Clips are blown out of the running for Smart thanks to Jeff Teague’s $19-million deal, along with Andrew Wiggins’ extension kicking in, and two LAC first-rounders at $2-million each.
The Spurs — currently out of competitive standing for Smart at $98-million in salary — could see their roster shift substantially over the next month depending on how the Kawhi Leonard saga finalizes. That’s over $20-million in salary moving if he’s traded, but beyond him the potential opt-outs of Danny Green and Rudy Gay would slash $18-million off their 2019 payroll. It’s a stretch, but Smart’s game strikes as one that would appeal to Greg Popovich.
It boils down to whether or not San Antonio would bank on committing over $16-million longterm to Smart with one of Green or Gay departing, and Pau Gasol signed two more years at $16-million.
The Jazz could sign Smart to a similar figure, especially if they see him as a more reliable backup to fellow 2014 draftee Dante Exum, who is a RFA too. Smart would mesh instantly in Utah’s defensively-intense environment, but he’d be a clear backup to Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell.
Both teams are certainly still in play for a supporting cast if they land their big dogs, but also intend on developing Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz at this moment. Philadelphia in particular would become even more spacing-adverse by adding Smart and his shooting woes alongside Fultz and Ben Simmons.
That’s the top 22 teams in salary off the board already if Smart would only leave Boston for big money and a starting job. Then how much would the bottom-tier of the league sacrifice valuable cap space going forward to add Smart to their ongoing rebuilds?
The Mavericks would love to bring him home to Texas on the surface. Their payroll clocks in at $59.8-million next year, plus $3.8-million for the fifth overall pick. They could use some impactful guard play alongside Dennis Smith Jr., but that would likely take Smart off the ball in a losing situation for years to come. Bigger longterm interests probably prevail on both ends.
The exact Mad Libs could be filled for the Bulls with Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, should he return, the Suns and their array of Devon Booker-led guards; D’Angelo Russell and the Nets trio of impactful back court players that will return Jeremy Lin with them; De’Aaron Fox in Sacramento and Dennis Schroder who has been signed as the Hawk’s long-term point man. Those teams all will insert top-tier draft prospects to their ground-zero restarts, Nets not included.
Unless Brooklyn wants to stick it to Boston as they finally escape that infamous trade, Smart’s probably not leaving for any of the losers. The only team he definitively starts on is the Magic, and they have Aaron Gordon’s free agency on their hands.
One glaring threat could hurt the Celtics in more than one way if they pursued Smart.
The Pacers showcased the incredible fortitude of Victor Oladipo, took James seven games in the first round this season, have plenty of cap space and need point guard assistance.
Smart would fit alongside Oladipo in Indiana’s starting lineup, make sense as a longterm signing given their needs and possibly propels them close to Boston given the subtraction Smart’s loss would pull from the Celtics’ power in the conference.
The Pacers hold $75-million in contracts for 2018-19. On top of that they will drop $10-million by opting out of Al Jefferson’s contract and bringing back Lance Stephenson will only cost them a hair above $4-million. Their 23rd pick in June’s draft costs $1.4-million.
Indiana will boast over $30-million to bring back Thad Young, who could opt in to his $13-million player option or re-sign for more. He’s indicated his willingness to return already, and they’d still have plenty of room to make a run at Smart.
Darren Collison returns in the last year of his contract at $10-million. Even though he ranked 13th in point guard player efficiency rating compared to Smart’s 66th, the defensive impact of the latter could land him in the starting lineup, especially in years beyond 2019.
A window of opportunity faces Oladipo, Myles Turner and the Pacers as much as it does for the Celts. Both battled Cleveland hard and are poised to build on the talent with which they did so. If Indiana wants to aggressively force a tough decision on Boston’s management for the sake of a competitive advantage they can.
Anything over $16-million, which Indiana could easily offer, would land the Celtics in the luxury tax a year earlier than they want to. That’s no big deal for the moment, matching to retain Smart would incur $1.50 per dollar spent over the tax line within $5-million. That would be worth it for his value to an inevitable title contender.
Longterm, with contract negotiations looming for Kyrie Irving, Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum over the next few years plus possible lottery selections (via Kings and Grizzlies), a substantial roster and salary crunch would guarantee Boston ends up in the repeater tax by being above the tax line in 2019, 2020 and 2021.
The repeater tax, which increases payment multipliers to the $2-4 dollar per money spent over range, would multiply Boston’s payroll to a higher degree depending on how far above the line they are in 2022 or 2023. If they can stay under this year, it’d be kicked back to ‘23.
Ending up $5-million over the line by matching Smart at $16-18 million now may not be a big deal, but that contract could wreak havoc on re-signing Brown and/or Tatum in a few years. Boston’s revenue stream and other future factors that could increase the NBA’s cap and tax levels matter here, but there is a number Boston would balk at.