Starting at point guard for the Boston Celtics from the University of Wall Street, Cap Flexibility!
Dreams of adding a big name free agent or swinging for an impact player this offseason seem to be dwindling by the moment. It appears that the Celtics have decided to keep the powder dry with an eye towards cap flexibility for next offseason. That’s not to say that the Celtics have made the wrong choice, just that it is an interesting and very deliberate one.
Let’s take a look at this from the 100,000 feet level. The Celtics have two “foundational” star players in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. All energy should be focused on building a team around them. There are many ways to build around two stars. One option would be to surround them with support players that excel in their roles. Another would be to look for a third star and do your best to fill out the remaining roster. Both options carry risk.
If the Celtics wanted to focus on adding support players to Tatum and Brown this offseason, they could have outbid New York’s offer to Evan Fournier and used exceptions to add more free agents. The risk there is that the team would be capped out, well into the tax, and left with limited options going forward to improve the team.
There’s always the draft and trades, but free agency would be very limited. That’s not necessarily a bad plan. In fact, it might be the safer plan of the two I mentioned. But it isn’t without risk. Many teams have gone this route and found their building plan stuck in neutral for way too long. Look at the current Blazers situation or the state New Orleans was in before they traded Anthony Davis. If you play it safe, you may never get the chance to play for the title, pay a lot of tax money, and you could end up losing your stars in the end anyway. To some extent, that might be where Boston sits now with a bench littered with first round picks that haven’t exactly worked out yet.
On the flipside is the route that the Celtics appear to be taking. Maintaining flexibility in order to obtain the next star player that either forces their way out or becomes available via free agency. Depending on how the rest of the offseason goes and what decisions the team makes on extensions and team options, the team would likely still need to do some work to get to max cap space next season. But there’s a path to get there, in particular if you are sure there’s a guy ready to sign. That’s why you hear about this being “cap flexibility” instead of “max cap space.”
I know the name on everyone’s mind is Bradley Beal, and there’s every reason to believe that he and Jayson Tatum may have been concocting a super-secret long term plan for years. But that’s not the only option open to the team in the future. There’s other pending free agents (Zach LaVine comes to mind) and there’s also the option of taking back more salary in trades (how long before Karl Anthony-Towns is looking for a new home?). Barring major changes, the Celtics will head into the season with a number of players on expiring contracts and all their own future first rounders.
Again, that’s not a plan without risk. You obviously can’t count on things working out for you in the end especially in the ever-changing landscape of the NBA. We’ve seen this plan play out with Anthony Davis who steered his way to Los Angeles, spurning the Celtics in the process. Or even when it worked out and the Celtics landed Al Horford, Gordon Hayward, and Kyrie Irving, things didn’t exactly pan out as they hoped. On a micro scale, you could say the same for the Kemba Walker signing. Ideally, he would have been a nice 3rd star to pair with the Jays, but injuries ended that dream.
Building a roster is never a binary choice either. I’m way oversimplifying the choices before Brad Stevens. If anything, this is like a complex read-and-react decision, a playing style that Stevens employed as a head caoch. You have a general plan heading into the play, but the variables are endless and you need to be able to react to each one.
So will Brad Stevens be able to react to the variables and build a title team around Tatum and Brown? I guess we’ll have to wait and see (and obsessively debate it for the next 12 months or so).