This is a guest post from our friend Ryan Bernardoni.
The Boston Celtics trade deadline moves did not exactly light up the NBA after they added Xavier Tillman and Jaden Springer in exchange for Lamar Stevens, Dalano Banton, and three second round picks. When you’ve already added two All Stars in the past seven months, no one jokes about fireworks anymore, either. The Celtics simply needed to do some roster tweaking and they did.
In so doing, the front office has added optionality across the short, medium, and long-term.
The primary focus, as it should be for a top-tier title contender, is on what these incoming players can do this season. Tillman gives Joe Mazzulla a different type of center and a strong defensive option that was missing after Grant Williams left for Dallas (briefly). Springer is a defensive live wire and more of a guard defender than what was on the bench. Previously, Oshae Brissett, Stevens, and Banton were all better guarding wings than quick ball-handlers or movement shooters.
Tillman will likely play some role this year while Springer probably will not, and it’s possible neither make much of an impact. However, the chance that they do is still worth the investment, but these are players who give Mazzulla choices in trying to answer questions; they are not answers in themselves.
It’s also worth thinking about what these moves mean for beyond this season. Tillman will be an unrestricted free agent but carries his full Bird Rights over from Memphis. Springer had his fourth-year option picked up in October and so is guaranteed $4 million next season and is extension eligible this coming offseason. Normally players of Springer’s expected salary range do not sign rookie extensions. Payton Pritchard did last offseason and if no deal is reached, Springer could be made a restricted free agent the following year.
The bigger reality that the franchise must deal with is that a financial reckoning is coming. How do these moves fit into that? The new CBA with its Second Apron restrictions and onerous repeater tax rates means that a roster this deep, talented, and experienced cannot be kept together long. It’s impossible to say how this roster will re-form in the not-too-distant future only that it will, and this deadline has given the front office additional options.
The three players who feel most stable as long-term Celtics are Jayson Tatum, Kristaps Porzingis, and Derrick White. The size of Jaylen Brown’s contract and the challenges of having two players each making 35% of the salary cap means that he comes after them. Behind him would be Jrue Holiday who, when the Celtics traded for him, was assumed to be ticketed for an extension when he becomes eligible that would reduce his 2024–25 player option salary but add additional years. Derrick White’s elevation to near All-Star status means that the expected cost of his next contract has gone up and it’s no longer clear that the team can afford Holiday down the line while simultaneously keeping White.
The assumption that Holiday would extend implied that the Celtics would be a tax team again next year and then have to cut salary in 2025–26 in order to avoid the draconian repeater tax rate.
If Holiday is back next year alongside the other four high-salary starters, it’s a near guarantee that the Celtics will be a second apron team again. If that’s the case, having a small-but-above-minimum salary like Springer could have some utility. As an apron team, the Celtics would not be able to aggregate outgoing salaries in trade next season but there are players who make less than $4 million but are not on minimum exception contracts who could be acquired for Springer. There aren’t a lot of them, and the best ones are not being traded, but there are some. If that doesn’t come to pass, and Springer doesn’t earn a rotation spot worth the tax hit, he could likely be given away for nothing that puts you right back where you were before acquiring him. No harm, no foul.
However, has seeing Holiday walk in free agency this offseason become more of a possibility?
If the team were to make that choice, or Holiday makes it for them by leaving as a free agent or opts in at $39 million and is deemed unaffordable and traded, suddenly the cap and tax calculus changes. The Celtics could immediately go from a second apron team to below the tax entirely, and potentially able to do a reset of their repeater tax counter, though that would require a second below tax year after Tatum’s assumed extension kicks in.
There is no perfect solution to having to cut salary and replacing a veteran All-Star in your closing five. As a defensive specialist guard, it’s feasible that Springer could become part of a larger solution to replacing Holiday’s role and minutes with internal development. More likely, were the Celtics to find themselves in this situation, they then could aggregate salaries in an outgoing trade and use Springer as part of a package to get an Alex Caruso or Caleb Martin-type player who can more reliably fill Holiday’s current role while keeping the team below the tax.
Tillman’s utility is easier to envision in replacing some of what Al Horford brings. As with Springer and Holiday, Tillman is not close to the level of player that Horford has been. There is no replacing Al Horford for the $10 million he’s making. However, Tillman’s role as an undersized but ox-strong defensive specialist center would replace part of his role. You’re not going to get that and 40% 3PT shooting in a single non-Horford alternative at a low cost unless you strike draft or development gold.
Horford will not be a Celtic forever. It’s easy to imagine the Celtics winning the title this year and Al walking off into retirement. Even if he plays out his contract through 2025, his role must continue to diminish as he ages and anything beyond this contract would see him more in a Vince Carter-type position as a veteran mentor than what Horford is still providing today.
If the Celtics are a second apron team, they will have nothing to work with beyond minimum contracts and Bird Rights to sign free agents. In that circumstance, Tillman is obviously valuable. Even if they end up in the alternate timeline and open up the MLE, they would likely be too close to the tax or apron to use enough of it to get anyone better than Tillman. He is a more valuable addition to the team this season than Springer and like Springer, you can see utility for him in the future.
Longer term, we can start to see a new set of depth players developing on the roster. Pritchard, Sam Hauser (team option/RFA), Brissett (player option), Tillman (UFA), and Neemias Queta (potential 2-way conversion) are all in their mid-20’s. These young veteran role players can be important in building out a proven 15-man roster around a set of super-expensive stars. Springer joins Jordan Walsh and potentially the 30th pick in the upcoming draft as the younger and raw developmental projects who fit into the more difficult to fill (and so more expensive) athletic wing positions. If one hits, you’re happy.
All seven of these players (plus a draft pick) will not be on the team a year from now, let alone further down the line, but the team is developing options. They have players entering their prime ages as backups at every position and a couple wildcards in the pipeline behind them. None of them will break the team’s cap sheet.
Banton and Stevens were not going to help the team in the playoffs and also weren’t part of any future plans. Tillman can help on both fronts and Springer might be part of the future, either on the floor or in trade. When the Celtics come up against difficult questions, be they in-game or roster building, they have more potential answers than they did a few days ago.