Let’s say for the sake of argument that the NBA trade deadline passes on March 15 without the Celtics making a major move. Under that very plausible scenario, they would move forward with their aging core for presumably one last playoff stand. Who knows? Maybe they channel both the 1999 lockout Knicks and their own not-so-distant history by blazing an unexpected path to redemption through the postseason.
That last part may be unlikely, but the chances of team president Danny Ainge standing pat at the deadline rank at least even with pulling off a major move. What then?
As everyone knows, the Celtics will have enough salary cap space to pursue a max free agent with money left over. As everyone also knows, the chances of landing Dwight Howard fall somewhere between slim and none, which leaves Ainge in a quandary.
Does he use that new-found space to pursue lesser free agents or trades and try to stay competitive, or does he hold tight and wait for bigger names to become available down the line? The answer lies somewhere in between. In both his public comments and his actions, Ainge understands that the fastest way to irrelevancy is blowing through cap space on middling free agents. That doesn’t mean, however, that he will just wait for a savior to become available.
The Celtics’ rebuilding process is likely to take several years and will require patience and planning. Here is a highly speculative look at how it would look:
WHAT WOULD BE LEFT
The Celtics have four players under contract for next season: Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Avery Bradley and JaJuan Johnson. Brandon Bass has a player option for $4.25 million, which is a bargain for a player of his caliber, meaning he’ll likely opt out.
They also have an option on E’Twaun Moore and can make a qualifying offer for Greg Stiemsma, who have both flashed NBA ability and have the advantage of being extremely affordable. Assuming they retain both players, their cap situation looks like this:
Committed salaries with Bass: $35.52 million
Without Bass: $31.27 million
Expected salary cap for 2012-13 season: $58 million (Note: The cap is set after the season, but for the purposes of this exercise, the $58 million figure will do.)
It’s important to remember that the Celtics’ cap space is theoretical. The eight free agents, plus assorted other blasts from the past represent over $95 million in “cap holds.” (See Sham Sports salary page for details).
In order to use that space one of two things have to happen. Either the free agent player signs with another team, or the player’s rights are renounced.
It’s possible that say, Kevin Garnett or Ray Allen could be re-signed for significantly less money. It’s also likely that some players such as Mickael Pietrus or Chris Wilcox may be re-signed. Either way, it would be a surprise if all eight pending free agents had different addresses next season.
(The others: Jermaine O’Neal, Marquis Daniels, Sasha Pavlovic and Keyon Dooling).
Barring a complete collapse from the Clippers, the Celtics will have two first round draft picks: Their own and one from the Clips via the Kendrick Perkins trade. While that Clippers pick may not carry the promise of a lottery windfall like it once did, having two picks in what should be a loaded draft is a definite help in the rebuilding process.
The Celtics would have the 15th and 23rd picks in the draft at the moment. Per Draft Express, the 15th-rated prospect is none other than Duke freshman guard Austin Rivers and the 23rd rated prospect is North Carolina freshman forward James McAdoo. Obviously a lot will change between now and the draft, but even picking in the middle and latter part of the first round should yield quality options.
WHAT THE ROSTER MIGHT LOOK LIKE
PG: Rondo, Bradley, Moore
SF: Pierce, Jeff Green*
PF: Wilcox/Bass*, Johnson
* Anticipated signing
We’ve gone ahead and slotted Pietrus, a returning Jeff Green and either Wilcox or Bass with the two first rounders on a theoretical roster, giving the Celtics 11 players for about $45 million. (Again, that’s very rough estimate).
That’s not enough for a max player, but if Howard goes elsewhere, as expected, there’s no one else besides Nets guard Deron Williams who is worth that kind of money. That’s still plenty of space to add players who can be part of the rebuilding project. The key is not breaking the bank and keeping their options open beyond next summer.
THE FREE AGENT MARKET
The obvious needs are at center and the shooting guard position. The free agent market may be thin in unrestricted free agents but there will be a larger-than normal influx of restricted free agents and they offer some intriguing possibilities.
Centers: Roy Hibbert, JaVale McGee, Brook Lopez, Robin Lopez, Omer Asik
Forwards: Ryan Anderson, Nic Batum, Mareese Speights, Michael Beasley, J.J. Hickson, Jason Thompson
Guards: O.J. Mayo, Eric Gordon, George Hill, Rudy Fernandez
Garnett and Allen are the key figures here. It’s not out of the question that one or both could return at a reduced salary, but if they decide to go elsewhere, the Celtics could use them in sign-and-trade scenarios that could yield either players or trade exceptions for future use.
Remember, they used the sign-and-trade route to acquire Bass and turned a trade exception for Daniels into Dooling. Everything is an asset in the NBA, including expiring contracts.
One of the benefits to having cap space is it allows you to absorb contracts without having to match salary in return. That opens the door to limitless possibilities for Ainge to wheel and deal. Teams below the luxury tax line can also take back 150 percent of player contracts in trades as opposed to 125 for taxpaying teams.
Additionally, Bradley, Johnson and Moore are getting important playing time. All three were unknowns before the season started, and while none of them may be cornerstone players that have more value now than they did when the season began. Add in two more first rounders and Ainge is in a position to begin stockpiling assets for a future move.
LUXURY TAX ADVANTAGES
It’s also worth pointing out that teams below the luxury tax threshold (about $70 million in salaries) have certain advantages, such as access to the bi-annual free agent exception (worth just under $2 million) and either the room exception ($2.5 million) or the non-taxpayer mid-level exception worth $5 million. In December, the Celtics could only offer the taxpayer mid-level worth $3 million.
It gets complicated in a hurry, but the larger point is that the Celtics would go from a tax-strapped, over-the-cap team to one with several new options and possibilities virtually overnight. All of that is why retaining flexibility is so important for the Celtics as they look to rebuild and why Ainge won’t trade his core players just to make a move.