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Taking stock of the Celtics’ summer so far

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

We’re only two days into the off season and the Celtics and Aron Baynes has already agreed on a reported two-year, $11M deal that will carry a player option for the second year and grant a no-trade clause to Baynes. With the off season heating up around the league, I had questions and comments for CelticsBlog cap master Keith Smith, as we discuss the Celtics circumstances as we head into Day 3.

Baynes Back

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Sam Sheehan: Let’s start with the most topical part of the Celtics off season, the Celtics seemingly utilizing the non-Bird Rights of Aron Baynes to bring him back to Boston on a two-year, $11M deal. At face value, this seems to be a good compromise between the Celtics and Baynes to keep a good thing going. By agreeing to his non-Bird Rights, Baynes allowed the Celtics to maintain their full mid-level and biannual exceptions. In turn, Baynes got a player option that gives him paycheck stability, but also allows him to return to free agency in 2019 when there might be more cap room available for bigger deals. What’s your knee jerk reaction to the deal?

Keith Smith: Love it for the Celtics and love it for Baynes. Could Baynes have gotten a bit more on the open market? Possibly. Teams love big, burly centers. Teams love centers that can shoot the three. Teams really love centers that combine both attributes. But Baynes is comfortable in Boston and knows he has a key role to play. And the Celtics got some necessary wiggle room with Baynes signing using his Non-Bird Rights, which will only help them down the line.

SS: With regards to Baynes’ player option, I think that was a smart bit of compromise work from both sides. Baynes gets a chance to wait out what could be a prickly market this off season, and gives himself some control over when he could return to free agency.

In contrast, the Celtics get their starting center back while they wait to see what comes of the “Robert Williams Maturity Gamble™” and Al Horford’s own decision on his player option in 2019. Baynes was one of the worst finishers of his size in the NBA last year, but everything else he brought to the table was so spectacular that it’s hard to see much downside with this deal.

KS: Agreed. I think people tend to look more at skill than at fit at this time of year, which is tough. Baynes’ fit in Boston is so good. He’s content with a bench role and the occasional start. He knows his job is to guard the Joel Embiid’s of the league. Those nights are when he’ll bring the most value. And Williams is at least a year away from any sort of meaningful contribution. Boston will largely play a three big rotation of Horford, Baynes and a healthy Daniel Theis.

The Smart Solution

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SS: The Celtics head into the rest of the offseason with only one available “big league” roster spot remaining. The partially guaranteed salary of Abdel Nader might be an obvious cut, should the Celtics need another spot, but right now, the fate of “Marcus Smart the Celtic” currently hangs in limbo. Smart’s restricted free agency gives the Celtics the opportunity to match on any offer sheet he might receive, so let’s start there. If you were the Celtics, what would be the highest offer for Smart you would match? Conversely, what would be the lowest offer you would consider as Smart before just taking the qualifying offer?

KS: I would match anything up to an average annual value of $15 million per year. I know that is super steep, but Smart brings so much to this team that is irreplaceable. Why is it irreplaceable? Mostly because it isn’t really quantifiable. How much is it worth to have a guy knock a ball loose, dive on the floor and tip it to an open teammate? What about snagging a key offensive rebound over much bigger players late in the game? It’s somewhat easy to put a value on the counting stats, or even on the shooting percentage stats. The intangibles and ability to get the crowd going are tough to quantify.

If I was Smart, anything under $10 million a year, I’m just signing the qualifying offer and hitting the market next year. That’s a sacrifice of about $3.5 million this year, but he could make that up in a big way in the summer of 2019.

SS: There are those out with the opinion that Smart taking the qualifying offer would be a mistake for him. Nerlens Noel, for example, probably wished that he had a time machine to go back and accept the big extension offer that he reportedly received. In some ways, I agree that it would be a gamble for Smart to take the qualifying offer. However, player value is depressed so greatly in restricted free agency, as the team that holds a player’s right has the opportunity to match any contract. It almost takes an albatross offer to actually get a player to switch teams, and many teams understand that it can be very inefficient path to team building. By having a healthy, high profile year on a contender in Boston. Marcus Smart could go into 2019 a unrestricted free agent with his highest value yet.

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Do you think, given the Celtics history in maintaining salary trade flexibility, that a shorter, compromise deal could be in the cards for both sides? Perhaps two-year, $24M deal with a non-guarantee on the second year a la Jonas Jerebko, Amir Johnson, and Tyler Zeller. That way the Celtics acquire some movable money for salary matching, should a top target become available in trade. This would allow them to make trades without sending out mid-level salaries like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. On the other side, Smart gets more money this year, but still gets to return to free agency in 2019 or 2020. Do you think something like that could be possible?

KS: I suppose it is possible. I’d be surprised if Smart went for anything like that, only because it benefits the Celtics far more than it does him. I don’t know that anything short of really lowballing him will get Smart on the market again next year. If the Celtics come with something fair, it will be a three to four year offer. Maybe Boston saves a little money by giving Smart a player option on the final year.

Roster Improvements

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SS: Thanks to Baynes accepting a deal for at the level of his non-Bird Rights, the Celtics will have the full “non-taxpayer” mid-level exception to offer free agents should Marcus Smart leave, a consolidation trade occur, or the Celtics were to waive someone on the current roster. These leaves the Celtics in a bit of a predicament because they’ve only seen this complete team play about five minutes total. It’s hard to know what holes the team might have that need shoring up if you haven’t seen them play. A Marcus Smart departure might make that more clear, as the Celtics would need a capable defender. If you were the Celtics, would you explore using the MLE this off season, or save it for future use?

KS: If Smart leaves, that gives the team a bunch of room under the potential hard cap that would be triggered by using the full Non-Taxpayer MLE. and I would do just that. If he’s still available, I’d call old friend Avery Bradley and offer him the entirety of the MLE for at least one year. Ideally, you could get him to take the MLE for a 1+1 or 2+1 contract. He’d be an ideal fit as a Smart replacement as a defender, despite the inability to defend bigs like Smart can. And he’d instantly be the most reliable shooter off the bench. Plus, I just love AB and would love to have him back.

If Smart re-signs, I’d use a chunk of the MLE to give Jabari Bird more than the minimum and more than a one or two-year contract. I’d then save the rest and see what develops. Unless an unexpected veteran big or wing wants to come to Boston on the cheap, best to just hold on to it as a tool for use later in the season.

SS: This is pretty similar to my thinking as well. Smart is such a unique player that there isn’t really a “one stop shop” solution to replacing him. Avery Bradley, as you mentioned, would provide the perimeter defense, but not the size or contested rebounding. Someone like James Ennis might provide a steadying wing presence but doesn’t have the electric fire that Smart might have. The guy I would consider looking at is a restricted free agent is David Nwaba. The Bulls would likely match an offer sheet, given the amount of cap room that they have, but Nwaba is a big, meaty guard who provides some of that hefty switchability. The Celtics could also monitor Derrick Favors contract situation and make an MLE offer sheet to Dante Exum in a high level gamble.

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Would you consider dealing Marcus Morris to provide more guard depth, in a situation where Smart doesn’t return?

KS: I love the idea of James Ennis. What sunk the Celtics last year was a lack of shooting. In many ways, that is what ended last season one game short of the NBA Finals. Ennis could go a long way towards cleaning that up.

As for dealing Morris, I think it is something they can look at. But on the flipside, Boston doesn’t really have another player like him on the roster. The bigs are all more traditional bigs. Tatum can play the 3 and the 4, but who else on the roster can? It’s really just Morris. Hayward can play a little 4, but it needs to be the right matchup. When Brad Stevens talks about his “swings”, especially between wing and big, Morris is almost the ideal example. I know we all get frustrated with his shot selection at times, but Morris is someone the team needs. He won a couple of games himself with his offense. Even when his shot was off, he rarely lost the team a game. That’s a pretty valuable player.