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Celtics roster reset and cap/tax picture

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Brad Stevens’ first set of deals gave Boston some needed flexibility

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Over the last week and a half, the Boston Celtics 2021-22 roster picture has come into focus. The process started in mid-June when new President of Basketball Operations traded Kemba Walker and the 16th pick in the 2021 NBA Draft to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Al Horford and Moses Brown.

Stevens then traded Brown to the Dallas Mavericks for Josh Richardson. This move used up the majority of the remaining $11 million of the Gordon Hayward trade exception.

“Trader” Brad then made his third swap of the offseason by sending Tristan Thompson to the Sacramento Kings as part of a three-team deal with the Atlanta Hawks. Boston acquired Kris Dunn, Bruno Fernando and a 2023 second round pick (from the Portland Trail Blazers via Atlanta) in the trade. The Hawks got Delon Wright from the Kings.

Boston will soon complete the signing of Enes Kanter to what is reportedly a veteran minimum contract. That signing will take the Celtics to 15 players on standard contracts (14 fully guaranteed, 1 non-guaranteed). Boston will also reportedly sign Sam Hauser, which will fill one of the team’s two open Two-Way spots.

A simplistic way to look at “players in vs players out” is:

· Al Horford – Tristan Thompson

· Josh Richardson – Evan Fournier

· Kris Dunn – Kemba Walker

· Enes Kanter – Luke Kornet

· Bruno Fernando – Semi Ojeleye

After completing the Kanter and Hauser signings, the Celtics will likely fill out the roster (teams are allowed to carry up to 20 players in the offseason) with some camp signings. The team may see who pops in Summer League and/or camp before deciding on how to fill the open Two-Way spot.

On its face, these moves seem to be an upgrade in the frontcourt. Horford is better, and a better a fit, than Thompson, as is Kanter over Kornet. The wing and backcourt are both downgrades, as Fournier and Walker are better than both Richardson and Dunn. Fernando for Ojeleye is essentially a wash of end-of-the-bench players.

Yet, as things rarely are, it’s not quite that simple. As mentioned above, this series of moves was made to give Boston flexibility both this upcoming season and for future seasons. Was that accomplished? Let’s take a look.

The Celtics were facing a large tax bill for 2021-22, had they kept Walker and re-signed Fournier. Initially, it looked as if the Walker for Horford swap had given the Celtics the necessary wiggle room to re-sign Fournier without going too deep into the luxury tax. Add the Thompson for Dunn/Fernando trade and it looked like Boston might be able to re-sign Fournier and keep the looming tax bill even lower.

However, it seems the Celtics had good intel that Fournier had a bigger and longer offer than they were willing to entertain. Boston also had an expiring TPE from the Hayward sign-and-trade in 2020. Brad Stevens chose to put that to use by acquiring Richardson. In a flash, all of that tax flexibility for 2021-22 was gone.

Furthermore, once Kanter is signed, the Celtics will be slightly over the luxury tax line by just over $700,000.

Now, it’s fair to point out that Boston tried to move Dunn or Fernando by expanding the deal with the Hawks and Kings. It’s still possible that either, or both, could be moved along in an additional trade. If the Celtics were able to do this without taking back additional salary, or if they waived Jabari Parker from his non-guaranteed contract, they’d dip back under the tax line.

What’s the importance of, and urgency to, getting back under the tax? It fees up the Celtics to do a few things.

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As it stands right now, Boston cannot use the entirety of the Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level exception of $9.5 million. That would hard cap the team and using the full amount would take them over the tax apron/hard cap. That limits the Celtics to using the Taxpayer MLE of $5.9 million. That’s still a good chunk of spending power this late in free agency, but not enough to make an overly impactful move.

Why might the Celtics want to free themselves up to use the full Non-Taxpayer MLE of $9.5 million? The team is rumored to be considering adding veteran point guard Dennis Schroder. Schroder’s free agency options have all but dried up both salary and roster-spot wise. There are very few teams who have a starting or primary backup point guard spot available, and no team (outside of rebuilding Oklahoma City) has cap space available.

If Boston can get to a point where they can offer Schroder the full MLE, that puts them in the running to land the mercurial lead guard. It’s not the long-term, $20+ million per season deal that Schroder wanted, but it’s likely more money than anyone else is offering. More importantly: there is a role to play big minutes on a playoff team.

It’s fair to point out that clearing space to sign Schroder would likely push Boston right back into the tax. And that seems to be a barrier of sorts at the moment. While Celtics ownership has consistently said they’ll pay the tax for a championship contender, this roster seems to be shy of that at the moment. It’s a “bridge” year of sorts for Boston. There’s too much talent to bottom out, especially led by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. But there’s not quite enough to break into the Finals contender tier either.

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That begs the question: Why go into the tax for Schroder or anyone else? There are a few ways to look at that. Assuming Boston can clear the space to use the full MLE, they won’t be taking on a massive tax bill. They’d likely only be somewhere between $5-$7 million into the tax.

It’s important to note here that the luxury tax hit is calculated at the end of the season. So, the Celtics would have up until the trade deadline in mid-February to clear salary and dip back under the tax, if necessary. That small of an amount to shed puts them in range to make that happen.

The next fair question: Should the tax in 2021-22 even be a concern? It depends on where you fall and if you’re the one signing the checks. Yes, the luxury tax, and the harsher penalties for being a tax repeater, can cause roster-building issues. But those are down-the-line things to worry about. It’s fair to keep the repeater tax in mind, but at this point, it’s unlikely to come into play. So, for now, it’s about ownership being willing to spend a little more to make the team at least a little better for this upcoming season.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Atlanta Hawks v Milwaukee Bucks

And that’s where we come full circle. Is the team set up better for 2021-22 than their disappointing 2020-21 season? That’s probably questionable. There’s still somewhat of a hole at point guard. Marcus Smart and Payton Pritchard both look fine there, but some veteran help would be welcomed. Thus, the rumored Schroder interest.

On the wing, the team is hoping for Richardson to bounce back after disappointing seasons in Philadelphia and Dallas the last two years. Better health for Dunn would add a defensive element to the wing rotation, as well. And, of course, internal development of former lottery picks Romeo Langford and Aaron Nesmith would go a long way towards easing concerns about wing depth.

Will Dunn or Richardson contribute at playoff-caliber levels? Does Horford have enough left in the tank to play a big role? Can Robert Williams stay healthy and play major minutes? Those are all unknowns.

In the end, if Tatum uses the Olympics and missing All-NBA (and a considerable amount of money) as a launchpad to a huge season, and Brown builds on his All-Star season, Boston doesn’t need a positive answer to all of their questions. And, hopefully, better health than last season’s nightmare of illnesses and injuries, will go a long way towards a better year too.

In a future article, we’ll examine the long-term impacts of Brad Stevens’ first set of deals. We’ll look at how things are set up for the Celtics to make a major splash in the 2022 offseason, and how extensions for Marcus Smart or Robert Williams could impact those plans.