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Celtics pre-free agency roster decisions

Boston has set themselves up to have only a handful of contract guarantees and free agent decisions to make this summer

Brooklyn Nets v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images

In the first part of this three-part post-trade deadline series, we looked at where the Boston Celtics roster stands after Brad Stevens made three deadline day deals.

Now, we turn our eyes to roster decisions the Celtics are facing this summer before free agency starts. After all the wheeling and dealing since Stevens took over, Boston currently has only three pending free agents. That list is likely to grow (more on that later), but there is another big pending decision to be made first.

As a matter of fact, let’s start right there!

Detroit Pistons v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images

Before we talk about what might happen with Al Horford, let’s ground everyone in exactly how the final year of Horford’s contract is structured.

Horford is on Boston’s books for $26.5 million for 2022-23. However, only $14.5 million of that season is guaranteed to Horford.

Again, to be clear (since there seems to be a lot of confusion about this!): As long as Horford is on the Celtics, his cap and tax hit is $26.5 million. If Boston was to waive Horford, that amount drops to $14.5 million. Unless the Celtics stretched that hit, but we’ll get to that in a bit!

Now, here’s where things get a little trickier. If Boston makes the 2022 NBA Finals, Horford’s guarantee jumps to $19.5 million. If the Celtics were to actually raise Banner 18 this year, that guarantee jumps up to the full amount of $26.5 million.

In either of those cases, you’d assume two things:

1. Horford was a huge part of getting to or winning the Finals.

2. No one would care what his salary is for 2022-23, because the Celtics just made or won the Finals.

So, to be crystal clear:

· $26.5 million = cap or tax hit as long as Horford is on the Celtics

· $14.5 million = guaranteed amount

· $19.5 million = Celtics in 2022 NBA Finals

· $26.5 million = Celtics won 2022 NBA Finals

One last note: Assuming no 2022 Finals win, Horford’s deal will become fully guaranteed on January 10, which is the league-wide guarantee date. But since players have to clear waivers prior to becoming fully guaranteed, the date is functionally January 7.

Got it? Good! Moving on…

Boston Celtics v Detroit Pistons Photo by Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images

Since your author here tends to be hyper-realistic, especially about cap matters, we’re going to tackle things from the perspective that Boston won’t be in the Finals. Feel free to screenshot and send tweets and comments that say “You dumb idiot! BANNER 18 BABY!!!” should the Celtics make or win the 2022 NBA Finals. All will be gladly accepted!

Alright, so working from a $14.5 million guarantee standpoint, the Celtics have a lot of options with Horford.

Do Nothing

This one is really easy. The Celtics do nothing. They keep Horford on the books for his $26.5 million and let his contract play out. Is that too much money for what Horford is now as a player? Yes, probably. Is it such a massive amount that you can’t work around it? Not at all.

Horford’s scoring is at a career-low, matching his rookie season output. But his attempts per game are the lowest they’ve been since his rookie year. It is fair to note that Horford’s shooting has slipped, and that nearly half of his attempts are three-pointers now. But his shot has shown signs of life lately.

Horford’s rebounding numbers are actually the best they’ve been since 2013-14, and better than the entirety of his original Celtics tenure. His blocks per game are also up over the last couple of years, and in line with his career average. Overall, his defensive profile remains incredibly strong.

All of the above is to say: Al Horford remains a productive player, but is also overpaid. Both can be, and are, true.

Waive and Stretch

Should Boston waive and stretch Horford, they’d reduce the cap hit from that $14.5 million owed down to $4.83 million. But that $4.83 million amount would be on the books for each year through 2024-25.

Given the somewhat uncertainty of Boston’s long-term roster plan, there’s really no reason to have nearly $5 million sitting on the books in dead money in the future.

This one seems fairly unlikely, because of what’s outlined above.

Straight Waiver

In this scenario, Boston would waive Horford and eat the full $14.5 million in dead money all in 2022-23.

While this is possible, the Celtics would still be well over the salary cap even after waiving Horford. He’s not so overpaid at $26.5 million that saving $12 million should be that big of a necessity.

Waive and Re-sign

Now…we might be on to something!

In this scenario, the Celtics waive Horford, eat the $14.5 million but then re-sign him to a new deal. In this case, the Celtics would be looking at a chunk of the MLE or the Bi-Annual Exception. It’s been floated that maybe Horford takes his $14.5 million and re-signs for the veteran minimum. That’s pretty unlikely. Given his current production levels, he’d likely have greater offers from other teams looking for a steady, veteran big man.

Note: This only works in the “straight waiver” scenario. If Horford’s deal were to be stretched, the Celtics would not be able to re-sign him in the summer of 2022.

Trade

This is where things get interesting, but also complicated.

Because of the partially guaranteed nature of Horford’s deal, he only counts in trades for the guaranteed portion. That’s $14.5 million, in case you somehow forgot from a couple of minutes ago!

What the Celtics can do, should the trade partner acquiring Horford agree, is to amend that guarantee. Boston could push it up to as high as the full amount, then trade Horford using that new amount as the matching salary.

Think back to this past summer Moses Brown, who Boston coincidentally acquired with Horford from Oklahoma City) was traded to the Dallas Mavericks. Because there needed to be a little more salary in the deal for matching purposes, Brown’s guarantee was amended to $500,000.

So, the Celtics have all sorts of options with Horford as a tradable player this summer. That flexibility could work in their favor. The acquiring team could bring Horford in as a $14.5 million salary-match and then waive him and eat only that amount. Or there is up to $12 million in salary to play with, should the amount need to be increased to match salary.

Summary

The prediction here is split 50-50 between “Do Nothing” and “Trade”. The Celtics clearly like Al Horford, or they wouldn’t have reacquired him, kept him and started him for an entire season. He’s also still a good player. That means keeping him as a $26.5 million expiring contract isn’t crazy. No ideal, but certainly not crazy.

The trade option is interesting, because Boston is set up to be players on the trade market for any star who shakes loose. (More coming on this in Part Three!) Having Horford as somewhere between $14.5 million and $26.5 million is a really nice piece of salary-matching in a deal. Especially given the expiring nature of his deal.

We’ll go with “Do Nothing” for two reasons:

1. Horford is good. Overpaid, but good.

2. The trade option will remain all the way until the 2023 trade deadline.

Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

As of this writing, the Celtics only other roster decisions will involve three players. We’ll tackle them in order of importance.

Sam Hauser

Sam Hauser is signed to a two-year minimum deal. Boston has a team option for next season. If they pick that team option up, Hauser will be on the books for $1.5 million, but only $300,000 of that is guaranteed. If you don’t understand partially guaranteed contracts by now, re-read the Al Horford section above. If you don’t understand them after that, I’ve failed you Dear Reader and you have my sincerest of apologies.

If Boston declines their team option for Hauser, he becomes a free agent and there is a second decision to be made. The Celtics could issue Hauser a qualifying offer for $1.8 million and make him a restricted free agent. Or they could non-tender the qualifying offer and make Hauser an unrestricted free agent.

Given that that Boston seems to like Hauser, and he’s shown potential to be a good shooter, the guess here is that they simply pick up the team option and keep him around on the cheap for 2022-23.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Luke Kornet

Luke Kornet signed a one-year, rest of season deal with Boston. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent this summer.

This is really simple: If Kornet wants to come back on a partial or, more likely, non-guaranteed deal, he probably has a spot with the Celtics. They’ll have a lot of roster spots to fill and there’s clearly a comfort level with Kornet.

LA Clippers v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Brodric Thomas

Coming off a Two-Way contract, Boston can make Brodric Thomas a restricted free agent by issuing him a qualifying offer. Or, like with Hauser, they could non-tender Thomas and let him become an unrestricted free agent.

Note: In Thomas’ case, if he signed the qualifying offer, it would be for another Two-Way deal.

Thomas has flashed at times in the NBA, with both Cleveland and Boston. In the G League, he’s been good, but not great. The guess here is that Boston non-tenders Thomas and lets him move on as an unrestricted free agent.

The Mystery Men

We have no idea how the Celtics are going to fill out their roster for the rest of this season. Currently, Malik Fitts and Kelan Martin are with the team on 10-Day contracts. But the Boston still has an open standard roster spot and an open Two-Way spot.

It’s likely that the team will eventually fill those final three standard spots, and probably the Two-Way spot, as well. Depending on the contract structures, that will likely create a handful of additional roster decisions.

(Waltham, MA, 07/05/13) New Celtics Head Coach Brad Stevens speaks with reporters after his introductory press conference at the Celtics practice facility on Friday, July 5, 2013. Staff photo by John Wilcox. Photo by John Wilcox/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images

The Celtics have the rest of this season to see how the roster shapes up. But they don’t really have a lot of guys auditioning for key spots with the team. Sure, whoever eventually fills out roster spots 13-15 and the second Two-Way spot, will be in Boston on a tryout basis, but those are end-of-bench guys. They aren’t competing for rotation minutes.

That should create healthy competition for the back end of the roster. But the top 10 players on the roster are all under contract through at least 2022-23. That means none of them should be feeling pressure to play for a job. At least not beyond the regular pressure one feels when in the NBA, anyway.

And it’s that vast number of guaranteed contracts, ranging from $2.2 million to $30.3 million that gives Brad Stevens a lot of fun options for this offseason. But you’ll have to wait until Part Three to read about what those options are!