Welcome to the new, post Capocalypse NBA, everyone. While last year’s announcement regarding a meteoric salary cap rise for the 2017 season and more money for every single team to spend was practically an all-neon sign in capital letters, there was some fine print to be read too: That there is going to be a serious market correction when it comes to paying for proven star talent.
Forget the price tag for Gordon Hayward. I’m not sure the Boston Celtics have ever done better in free agency. Yeah, it felt great when we got Dominique Wilkins back in 1994, but those good vibes faded fast. There have been some great names (Gary Payton, Rasheed Wallace and Shaq) who were past their primes when the Celtics signed them, like Wilkins. Getting Al Horford last year was great. Hayward is bigger, though. He is the lone star player at the beginning of his prime who the Celtics have convinced to sign from another team in the history of this franchise.
Getting a top 25 player without giving up any assets is enormous. It also represents great timing for the Celtics. If they plan to build around Jaylen Brown and/or Jayson Tatum next decade (not a lock, but not far fetched either), they are going to have to pay them too. Allocating that money to Hayward in the mean time is a win for a team that just went to the conference finals. However, this signing is going to have ripple effects throughout this roster. That is bound to happen when you spend roughly 60% of your cap on two players. Getting Hayward was the easy part. Figuring out how to squeeze the rest of the dozen or so players on this roster into the other 40% of the team’s cap space was the hard part for Danny Ainge.
Capocalypse 2016 set the league into a spending frenzy, a result that was expected after the salary cap rose from approximately $70 million to $94 million. Capocalyse set a clock for NBA teams, meaning that every contract signed under the previous collective bargaining agreement is now a bargain. That five-year window really began in 2015, or the last off season of team friendly deals of any kind. Deals go five years max, meaning NBA teams are heading into year three of five to capitalize (because after 2020, any pre-Capocalypse good deals will be expired). It’s another reason signing Hayward is huge.
However, 2017-2018 salary cap projections at the time were in the $108 million range. The NBA has set the cap for the coming season at around $100 million, leaving teams like the Celtics to scramble. That development, caused by the overwhelming amount of short playoff series this past post season, absolutely hurt the Celtics more than any team. It’s the difference between fitting in Hayward without trimming much of the roster and having to part with roughly a half dozen players, including a starter, to fit him in.
They had to clear out the last spots on their roster by renouncing Tyler Zeller, Gerald Green, Jordan Mickey, Kelly Olynyk, Jonas Jerebko and James Young. They have traded Avery Bradley for Marcus Morris, a move that saves roughly $3 million in cap space. Although they signed big man Aaron Baynes, they currently have just two true centers on their roster after sending Zeller, Mickey and Oylynk to outright free agency and not resigning Amir Johnson. On the flip side, they are absolutely LOADED at the guard and wing spots.
The painful trade of Avery Bradley, a move I lamented here (http://dirtywatermedia.com/the-avery-bradley-conundrum/), is incredibly a direct result of the cap being set at a number that surprised the entire league. I agree with dealing Bradley over Jae Crowder, even if most people do not. It is simple economics. Crowder’s contract is simply too good to give away. Also, while Bradley is certainly the better defender, Crowder is arguably the more versatile one.
Ainge likely is still not finished, as a trade for a big man still seems likely, despite the trade for Morris and signing of Baynes. Look for the Celtics to see who out of Jae Crowder and Morris can net another true center/big man. Terry Rozier is another possible trade candidate, although I hope not. This is tricky for the Celtics because they are at the very beginning of what they hope is a lengthy run of success. If the team wades into luxury tax territory this year, it is basically a lock to do so in the coming two years given Isiah Thomas’s likely extension next off season. With new repeat tax penalties, the franchise is wise to do anything it can to dip under the luxury tax line for 2018. That is why they scrambled to get under the cap.
Going forward, the Celtics match up well with teams like Denver (Kenneth Faried?), Orlando and possibly Utah (Derrick Favors?) to obtain the frontcourt length they need. Teams with ample size in their frontcourt should have the Celtics on speed dial. The Marc Gasol rumors seems legit, especially given Ainge’s history with former Celtic GM and current Memphis boss Chris Wallace. However, given their clear aversion to paying a tax this season, I’d look for a cheaper alternative at center. Proven guards on rookie deals, veteran starting-caliber forwards on comically cheap deals that extend through the end of this decade and, of course, those future draft picks. The Celtics remain in excellent position to pounce should an upgrade at the pivot become available. Whether it’s this summer or at the trade deadline next season, expect Ainge to import another big man.