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Resetting the Celtics salary cap as free agency rumors heat up

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The Celtics should have between $26 and $34 million to spend this summer in free agency.

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Free agency doesn’t officially start until 6:00 PM EST on Sunday June 30th (Yes, June 30th. Midnight on July 1st is a thing of the past. East Coasters rejoice!), but already rumors abound about players coming and going. The Boston Celtics aren’t immune to this and are arguably as impacted as any team in the NBA. With that in mind, let’s reset the Celtics cap sheet.

As it stands today, without any sort of transactions taking place (minus Boston shipping Aron Baynes and the 24th pick in the draft to Phoenix), the Celtics are way over the cap. About $60.7 million over as a matter of fact. This is primarily due to large cap holds for both Kyrie Irving and Al Horford. Here is what’s on the books for Boston:

Guaranteed Salaries (in millions)

· Jaylen Brown - $6.5

· Gordon Hayward - $32.7

· Marcus Smart - $12.5

· Jayson Tatum - $7.8

· Robert Williams - $1.9

· Guerschon Yabusele - $3.1

Non-Guaranteed Salaries (in millions)

· Semi Ojeleye - $1.6

Draft Pick Cap Holds (in millions)

· Romeo Langford – $3.5

· Grant Williams - $2.4

(No hold for Carsen Edwards or Tremont Waters, as second round picks have no cap hold)

Free Agent Cap Holds (in millions)

· P.J. Dozier - $1.4

· Jonathan Gibson - $1.9

· Al Horford - $38.2

· R.J. Hunter - $1.4

· Kyrie Irving - $30.1

· Shane Larkin - $1.6 (carryover from 2018)

· Marcus Morris - $10.2

· Terry Rozier - $9.2

· Daniel Theis - $1.8

· Brad Wanamaker - $1.6

Dead Money

· Demetrius Jackson - $92,857

Total - $169.7 million. That’s $60.7 million over the cap, which is currently projected at $109 million.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

But…I heard Kyrie Irving and Al Horford are leaving! Can we sign someone for what they made last year?

The short answer is no. Not really at least. Because the NBA operates under a soft cap, teams are allowed to exceed the cap line when re-signing their own players or using an exception to sign a player. If you are signing a free agent, you have to use cap space or an exception. In that case, you can’t just simply say “Horford made $30 million, sign a new guy for $30 million.” Because of the cap holds, it doesn’t work that way.

In order for Boston to create cap space this summer, they’ll have to renounce some free agents to get them off the books. Or this will automatically happen when these players sign with a new team. Assuming reports are accurate that both Irving and Horford are leaving Boston, here are the Celtics two most logical paths to cap space.

Path 1 – Clearing the decks

This direction means every free agent is renounced. That opens up approximately $34.1 million in cap space for the Celtics. That’s just enough to offer a player with 7-9 years of service a max deal starting at $32.7 million. Hey! That’s exactly where Kemba Walker falls! What a coincidence! Dallas News’ Brad Townsend reported on Wednesday that the Celtics are the frontrunners for Walker’s services with his former team, the Hornets, second and the Mavericks, Lakers, and Knicks still interested.

Now, to be clear, this path would cost Boston most, if not all, of their free agents. Let’s assume Irving is out the door anyway. But what about Horford? Could the Celtics then re-sign him after giving a max deal to someone like Walker? In theory, yes. But the max they could give Horford would be $4.76 million via the Room Exception.

The reason for this is that when you renounce a player to remove them from your books, you lose any form of Bird Rights you had for that player. Bird Rights are what give you the right to go over the cap to pay that player. In this example, Boston renounces everyone for space and that leaves them with precious little to retain Horford.

There is one other thing to consider here. The Celtics could keep Daniel Theis on the books with a qualifying offer and cap hold of $1.8 million and it would still open up max space to sign someone like Walker. Let’s say that’s the route Boston goes. That would leave them with:

· Ballhandlers – Walker, Smart, Edwards, Waters

· Wings – Brown, Tatum, Hayward, Ojeleye, Langford

· Bigs – Theis, R. Williams, Yabusele, G. Williams

Not bad, but definitely light on bigs and experienced ballhandlers. If they go this path, expect the Celtics to target experienced bigs and another ballhandler with their final two roster spots, using the Room Exception and/or veteran minimum contracts. For example, Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes reported that the Boston, along with the Lakers and Blazers, could be interested in bringing in Enes Kanter.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Path 2 – Keeping Rozier

This one is pretty simple. Let’s assume all the main free agents are again gone, but this time around the Celtics keep Rozier on the books. Let’s assume that Walker is a pipe-dream and not happening. That means the Celtics still need a point guard who can be a primary ballhandler. Despite the way fans might feel about Rozier at the moment, he could still be that guy. In addition, it would be very unlike Danny Ainge to simply let him walk.

In this scenario, Boston still clears all of their free agents, minus Rozier. With his $9.2 million cap hold, that leaves the Celtics with $25.8 million in cap space to spend. And they could spend all of that space then re-sign Rozier after they are done using his Bird Rights. That takes Boston out of the mix for a max free agent, but there are a lot of good players available that almost $26 million could be split up among to build out the roster.

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

So, it really comes down to keeping Rozier or not. The Athletic’s Shams Charania reports that if Rozier leaves, the Knicks will be interesting in signing him if they strike out on Irving, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard. The Celtics have yet to offer Rozier a qualifying offer, but that June 29th deadline is fast approaching.

Either way, Boston is looking at having a significant amount of cap space. You can do other permutations that see them retain Morris or Wanamaker or whoever. You could even work it up for the Celtics to waive Ojeleye (gasp!) or salary dump Yabusele (gasp again!). The main point is that with Irving and Horford likely walking away, Danny Ainge is going to have a large amount of very unexpected money to spend this summer. Options abound for who to spend that cap space on, but there are only a couple of ways to get there to be able to spend it.