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Not extending Grant Williams is risky for the Celtics

Williams will be eligible for restricted free agency in July after not inking a new deal

Boston Celtics v Toronto Raptors Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

The Boston Celtics and Grant Williams had until 6:00 PM on Monday, October 17 to reach an agreement on a rookie scale extension. No agreement was reached, and Williams will now play out the final year of his rookie scale contract before free agency in July.

We don’t know how big the gap was between Boston’s offer and Williams’ desired deal, but sources told CelticsBlog that the two sides were far apart. Given there were never even reports of things being close between Williams and the Celtics, that intel was probably accurate.

So, what happens now? First off, Williams is locked in for this season. Nothing changes there. He’s under contract for $4.3 million for the 2022-23 season.

After this year, the Celtics can make Williams a restricted free agent by tendering him a qualifying offer for $6.2 million. That would allow Boston to retain the right to match an offer sheet Williams might sign with another team.

Yes, the Celtics still have control. If they tender Williams a qualifying offer, his options are very limited. He can do one of four things:

· Re-sign with the Celtics

· Sign an offer sheet with another team and leave if the Celtics don’t match, or return if Boston matches the offer sheet

· Sign the qualifying offer and become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2024

· Leave the NBA and play elsewhere (Boston can’t match non-NBA contract offers)

We can take the last option off the table. Williams isn’t leaving the NBA. Not after establishing himself as a high-end rotation player. The first three options, however, are very much in play.

It’s important to note that despite not reaching an agreement with Boston on an extension, there doesn’t seem to be any sort of acrimony between Williams and the Celtics. Both sides are looking forward to the upcoming season and getting back at negotiating next summer.

And therein lies the rub.

Boston can’t legally negotiate with Williams now until June 30 at 6:00 PM ET when the free agent negotiating period opens. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen. We’re all grownups here and know teams and players have ways of working around the rules to reach agreements early. That’s how multi-year, $100-$200 million-plus deals are announced as soon as free agency opens.

However, the chance exists that Williams wants to at least see what’s out there for him in free agency. Normally, unless a player is All-Star level, and Williams is not, restricted free agency is generally a win for a team. It’s pretty rare that anyone but All-Star level players sign an offer sheet. It’s even rarer that those offer sheets aren’t matched by the incumbent team.

This summer, things could get tricky though. Right now, up to nine teams project to have cap this summer, with most in the range of $30 to $60 million. The free agent group doesn’t project to be a banner class either. The best players are regularly locking in long-term extensions now, instead of heading to free agency.

Some of the top free agents expected to be available include James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Khris Middleton, Draymond Green and Fred VanVleet. How many of those guys, and many others, will leave their currents teams is very much in question.

That means those teams with cap space are going to be looking around for players to spend it on. History tells us that’s when teams are more willing to play the restricted free agency game. If there aren’t unrestricted free agents to sign, and if there aren’t trades to be made to take on money, signing a restricted free agent to an offer sheet is a good move.

Restricted free agency is always a risk/reward proposition. A team needs to craft an offer sheet that includes enough guaranteed money, and maybe some bells and whistles (options, trade bonuses, upfront payments, etc.) to get the incumbent team to not match.

That’s where the Celtics could end up in trouble with Grant Williams.

Williams is going to play, and probably play a lot, for the Celtics this season. Robert Williams is going to miss at least the first couple of months of the season. Al Horford is 36 years old and starting Year 16. Danilo Gallinari is out for the season. How much Blake Griffin has left in the tank is a real question. Luke Kornet, Noah Vonleh and Mfiondu Kabengele are all interesting enough, but none are surefire contributors.

In many ways, Grant Williams may be the most reliable player in the Celtics frontcourt at the moment. (This is obviously factoring in that Boston will likely look to take things easy with Horford as much as possible.) Having a big role on a title contender, and delivering in that opportunity, is a recipe to get a guy paid.

Brandon Clarke, who was drafted one pick ahead of Williams at the 2019 NBA Draft, signed a four-year, $50 million guaranteed extension. That set the floor for Williams’ negotiating position.

Clarke is a better finisher, rebounder and shot blocker than Williams, but Williams has him beat in every other category. Williams is a switchable, versatile defender. He can shoot, pass and he’s showing signs of an off-the-dribble game. To say Williams should get at least the deal Clark got is fair. It’s also fair for Williams to expect a bit more.

Why should Williams expect more?

First, he’s the Celtics in-house Horford replacement. When Horford eventually ages out, or simply decides he’s had enough, Williams is the guy who would ideally step in for him. They aren’t the same players, but there are a lot of similarities in their games.

It’s that projecting forward of a bigger role that should have Williams comfortable in asking for more than Clarke got. It’s also reasonable for Boston, who has long-term (three or more years) money locked in for five players (and eventually the Celtics need to re-sign Jaylen Brown too), to be responsible in what they offer Williams.

But back to what next summer’s offers might look like…let’s do a little projecting here.

With a bigger role, say 30 minutes per game and maybe 40-something starts, Williams will probably average double-figures in points for the first time. He’s shot 37.2% and 41.1% on three-pointers in each of the last two seasons. With stars drawing the defense’s focus and an additional playmaker in Malcolm Brogdon, it’s not a stretch to think Williams can improve and hit even better than 41% from distance this season.

That would make him the prototypical stretch-4, but with some wrinkles. Williams is a very versatile defender. Only the very quickest of perimeter players and the very biggest of post players give him trouble. Williams can hold his own against everyone else.

On offense, Williams is more than just a standstill shooter. He’s a good passer and screener, and Boston is going to use more of that this season with Robert Williams out. And Williams can punish mismatches by sticking his butt into a smaller player and backing them into the paint.

It’s reasonable to expect Williams could average something like 12 points per game on good shooting percentages, with five or more rebounds per game and up to three assists per game. And he can do all of that while playing really good defense too.

All of a sudden, Clarke’s $12.5 million a year starts to seem like too low of a salary floor for Williams. Now, you factor in that a lot of teams will have cap space this summer, and things start to look a little dicey. Now, factor in that the cap is going up, up, up over the coming years and what a team might offer Williams looks downright scary.

Boston probably didn’t want to go much higher than $15 million AAV (average annual value) for Williams in an extension. But it’s not hard to see a team with a major need at the 4 (Spurs, Rockets, Thunder, Pistons, Pacers, old friend Danny Ainge and the Jazz) that is sitting on a pile of cap space throwing Williams an offer sheet that starts in the range of $20 million or more.

$20 million seems like a very big number, but it’s important to reframe those contract values in terms of percentage of the salary cap. The cap is rising rapidly and is only going to continue to do so. $20 million of the projected $134 million cap for 2023-24 is 15% of the cap.

15% of the cap is only a touch more than Marcus Smart and Derrick White for the Celtics, and just a bit less than Malcolm Brogdon for 2023-24. Is Williams just as valuable as those three for Boston? It’s hard to argue he isn’t, given Al Horford’s age, Rob Williams’ health concerns and Danilo Gallinari’s combination of both.

Yes, it seems absurd that a role player with 35 starts in three years on his resume might be worth as much as $20 million a year from now. Yet, here we are. Those are the new economics of the NBA.

Grant Williams has a carrot dangling in front of him to turn in his best season. He doesn’t seem like the guy who’s going to gun for stats, so that shouldn’t be much of a worry. Plus, his teammates won’t stand for it, should Williams take that sort of turn.

A great season from Grant Williams can only aid the Celtics in their pursuit of Banner 18 this season. But it’s going to end up costing them on the backend. And it might end up costing them more than anyone could possibly imagine.

That’s the risk/reward of not getting an extension done. Jaylen Brown and Rob Williams both signed deals that ended up being team-friendly for Boston. Grant Williams likely saw how those deals turned out, looked at the cap projections and set a high number for himself.

Williams also talked about how his role as a VP in the Players Association, puts more responsibility on him to sign a good contract. He was never going to ink a deal that was overly team-friendly for Boston.

Grant Williams made a big bet on himself. Making that bet pay off is something the Celtics can benefit from in the immediate, even if that math might tip towards Williams after this season.

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