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Celtics Offseason Preview Series: The big free agent: Evan Fournier

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Boston has a big decision to make on re-signing Evan Fournier this summer

Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets - Game One Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

When the Boston Celtics acquired Evan Fournier from the Orlando Magic at the 2021 trade deadline, it felt like a move made out of necessity. Boston needed depth, Orlando was rebuilding, and the Celtics gave up very little (two future second-round picks) in the deal. On the flip side, the Celtics invested over half of the Gordon Hayward traded player exception to get Fournier, and he was only guaranteed to be on the team for a few months.

Now, Fournier is a free agent and it’s uncertain if he’ll be back in Boston or not.

The good news is that Fournier seemed to enjoy his time with the Celtics, contracting coronavirus aside. Despite missing two weeks due to COVID-19, Fournier played well with the Celtics, despite a very different role than the one he had with the Magic. He also spoke highly of the organization and his experience in Boston.

Fournier averaged 13 points on 44.8% shooting overall, including a whopping 46.3% from behind the arc with the Celtics. He also grabbed 3.3 rebounds per game, which isn’t an eye-popping number, but is more than he averaged at any other point in his career. And his assist numbers remained about the same, at 3.1 dimes per game.

Shots like this were commonplace for Fournier while with Boston:

Overall, 30.2% of all Fournier’s attempts with the Celtics were catch-and-shoot three-pointers. On those shots, he hit 51.9%, which is excellent. For reference, that mark is better than Joe Harris’ catch-and-shoot percentage, and Harris is one of the best shooters in the NBA.

Somewhat oddly, Fournier’s finishing at the rim fell way off during his time with the Celtics. He got to the rim less with Boston than he has for the rest of his career (10.5% of all of his attempts vs. 15-20% with Orlando). When he did get into the basket, Fournier was unable to finish. He shot just 44.4% at the bucket with the Celtics vs. regularly being in the mid-to-high 60% range with the Magic.

Some of this can be attributed to Fournier maybe not having the same explosion after missing so much time due to COVID. Another contributing factor is Fournier’s role in Boston’s offense being drastically different than what was asked of him with Orlando. With the Celtics, Fournier was primarily a spot-up shooter or a pull-up shooter. With the Magic, Fournier was able to get downhill far more. This could be related to teams being reluctant to leave Nikola Vucevic inside, while Boston didn’t have the same interior presence to draw the defense.

Factoring in that his role in Boston will likely be the same, what’s a fair contract for Fournier? That’s a question that market factors will answer almost as much as the Celtics and Fournier will.

Fournier made $17.45 million last season. He’ll be 29 years old around the start of the 2021-22 season. The age-30 barrier isn’t what it once was, but it certainly remains a factor.

Most around the NBA have Fournier pegged as somewhere between $15 and $20 million as a starting salary next season. That seems reasonable, given his previous salary, skillset and age. In general, most seem to have him right around $17-18 million.

Where would that leave the Celtics if that’s the starting point? Right now, Boston is about $7.9 million under the luxury tax. Retaining Fournier at, say, $17.5 million, without shedding any other salary, will push the Celtics about $9.6 million over the tax line. Filling out the roster with minimum signings will see Boston about $10-12 million over the tax. That’s roughly expected to be the top-end amount Celtics ownership will give Brad Stevens the greenlight to exceed the tax by.

If Boston wants to keep Fournier, and he wants to stay in Boston, the tax shouldn’t be a barrier to getting a deal done. However, those pesky market factors may be.

The 2021 free agent class is devoid of stars. However, the teams with cap space have to spend that money on someone. That usually leads to second and third-tier players like Fournier getting overpaid. As it stands today, somewhere between six and eight teams project to have at least $20 million in cap space this summer.

Normally, that wouldn’t be overly scary for the Celtics opportunity to retain Fournier. This summer, however, that gets a little hairier. Of the those projected to have cap space, multiple teams could use a player like Fournier. He’s a better shooter than many of the free agent wing creators and he’s a better creator than many of the free agent wing shooters. In other words: Fournier’s skillset is in demand.

Working against Fournier is that the 2022 and 2023 free agent classes project to be deep with top-end talent. Will a team want to tie up $15-20 million per season in Fournier, when they could go star-chasing a year from now?

Oddly enough, this applies to the Celtics as well. When Stevens traded away Kemba Walker for Al Horford, he freed up considerable financial flexibility for Boston. This includes the prospect of having considerable cap space in either 2022 or 2023. It’s also important to remember that Stevens didn’t trade for Fournier. That was a Danny Ainge trade. We’ll get a sense of how much Stevens values Fournier based on the contract offer he makes.

If Stevens sees the best path forward to keep the cap sheet clean, he’ll let Fournier walk this summer. That will free up playing time for both Romeo Langford and Aaron Nesmith, as well as a possible free agent addition to replace Fournier.

If Fournier walks, Boston will open up the ability to use the entirety of the Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception of about $9.5 million. If they retain Fournier on a contract of at least $15 million, they’ll be over the tax apron and limited to the Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception of about $5.9 million. That’s a big difference in spending power.

So, where does this leave the Celtics and Fournier? In a bit of a complicated spot. He’s a good player and a good fit with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown because he’s good playing off-ball. Based off the Walker trade, and Stevens and Ime Udoka’s initial comments, Boston is building everything around Tatum and Brown. That means finding good off-ball players to complement them. Fournier fits that bill.

Fournier can also scale up if necessary. With another short offseason, and Tatum coming off a Team USA summer and Brown off wrist surgery, Boston may need to fill some minutes on the wing. Fournier can do that, because he’s had extensive experience as a primary creator.

2021 Play-In Tournament - Wizards v Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

In a sense, the Celtics will be prioritizing the short-term comfort of having Fournier against long-term flexibility and the hopes of adding a third star alongside Tatum and Brown.

That’s where another team could swoop in. If Boston gets too cute with an offer for Fournier, someone like the New York Knicks could come in and say “How’s $20 million plus for one season sound?”. That’s one of the dangers of trying to low-ball a player who fits so many places.

The Celtics should do what they can to re-sign Fournier. Ideally, they’d structure the contract so that the 2021-22 salary is higher and then declines from there. Something around four-years, $63-66 million could be a good middle ground. Fournier would start between $18 and $19 million in the first year, while the salary would decline each year.

That sort of contract would protect the Celtics by keeping Fournier on a tradable contract. It’s probably a touch higher than Boston wants to pay in first-year salary, but there some factors to consider there.

First, this keeps the Celtics from losing Fournier to a big one or two-year overpay by another team. That’s a real threat, considering teams would love to land Fournier, while maintaining flexibility for 2022 and 2023.

Second, Boston only has a couple of roster spots to fill. They don’t have to spread money around this summer. Most of it can go to Fournier.

Third, Fournier immediately becomes an attractive trade chip on this of contract. Teams love declining contracts for productive players, and Fournier should remain that into his early-30s.

Lastly, the Celtics have ways to get around a rising tax bill. They could waive Jabari Parker or Moses Brown. They also have a lot of players on moveable contracts that could bring back less money in a deal.

Overall, keeping Evan Fournier should be priority number one, now that Stevens has already hired Udoka and traded Walker. If Boston plays their cards right, they can keep a productive player who proved to be a good fit, while also maintaining some level of flexibility for this season and beyond.