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Shrinking free agent market means Celtics likely retain Marcus Smart

The Bulls fell off the board of potential Marcus Smart suitors Friday night after matching an offer sheet for Zach Lavine made by the Kings and the latest report finds Smart unafraid to bet on himself. With both sides at a standstill, accepting the qualifying offer seems like the only solution to this stalemate.

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NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Marcus Smart has spent this summer waiting. As the restricted free agent market shrinks with every passing day, Smart could see the blood, sweat, and tears he’s poured into the last four years in Boston not pay off — at least in the short term.

In a maddening twist, it got even worse Friday night. The Kings stunned the basketball landscape once again by offering a four-year, $78-million offer sheet to restricted free agent Zach LaVine. He became the first of the 2014 NBA Draft class to break through the restricted free agency wall, and in doing so took away one of the few teams with cap space capable of forcing Boston’s hand with a significant offer to Smart.

That would be the Bulls, who will now commit over $19-million in salary to LaVine next season with Adrian Wojnarowski reporting they’ll match the Sacramento offer. That essentially takes them out of the running for Smart’s services whether they intended to pursue him or not.

Sacramento became the first team to attempt to sign a RFA to an offer sheet this summer, one who is engulfed in future uncertainty given his recent knee injury and porous defensive statistics.

The move struck a devastating blow to Smart’s already-thin market. Three teams entered Friday with the ability to nudge the C’s with over $10-million in cap space to field a competitive offer. If the Bulls, Kings, or Hawks pushed that much money his way, they’d force Danny Ainge to match which would thrust his team over the $123-million luxury tax threshold for the 2018-19 season.

The Bulls maintain $15.7 million in cap if they renounce their rights to Noah Vonleh and David Nwaba so they could still push serious cash Smart’s way, though it’s unlikely they’d commit double figure salary to another raw guard talent after the LaVine signing.

That leaves the Hawks as the largest remaining threat with up to $22.3 million in space if they renounce Damion Lee and Malcolm Delaney. With rumors circulating about their interest in dumping Dennis Schröder, it’d be perplexing if they brought in a guard on similar money to his $15 million.

That leaves the Kings, clearly willing to sling the dough, with over $10 million to spare should they renounce Vince Carter and Bruno Caboclo. There is no predicting that team’s motives, so watch closely there.

The Mavericks round out the four teams remaining with substantial cap space. They have Luca Doncic, Dennis Smith Jr. and J.J. Barea on the roster so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Smart’s hometown team enters the picture, but the Celtics could comfortably match the roughly $12 million Dallas can offer. They would offset the luxury tax with corresponding salary dumps of roughly $2-3 million.

That’s the market as the Spurs, 76ers, Nets, Pacers, Magic, and Suns recently exceeded the salary cap. The Lakers hold $543,000. It’s one of the tightest summers for money in recent NBA history and RFA like Jabari Parker and Smart are feeling the suffocation.

From Boston’s perspective there’s only slight incentive to jump the gun on extending anything beyond the $6-million qualifying offer Smart’s way. While it’s a criminally low figure for a top-six rotation player, it’s leverage the team needs as it attempts to kick back repeater tax payments to 2024 by bypassing another year under the tax line.

Several reports this week articulated Smart’s frustration with the organization’s low-key attitude toward the contract negotiation but it’s the nature of restricted free agency in the post-2016 world. Nerlens Noel similarly battled with the Mavericks last off season before settling for his qualifying offer.

Now Smart could do the same. With little market out there for him, a potential NBA Finals team to pad his value on and a more-substantial $6-million boost in the salary cap for 2019, he could postpone his free agency to next year by signing the QO. It’s a risk but one he’s willing to take according to a source:

With the way the landscape has unfolded, Smart could ultimately decide to sign his one-year qualifying offer of $6.1 million, a league source said. The source said Smart is “not afraid” to bet on himself, believing that a strong season could set him up for a bigger payday one year from now from another team.

If Smart returns on that figure, he inherently risks the regression or injury potential that landed Noel a two-year deal worth just around $2-million annually. He also lands in a massive class of free agents that signed to one-year contracts in hopes of cashing in on the expansive cap figure next year. He also receives a no-trade clause and unrestricted free agent status next July. While the outcome of this waiting game remains uncertain, the chances of Smart playing for Boston in 18-19 creep toward certainty.