No matter what happens in the playoffs, the Boston Celtics will probably be happy with how their season went. They approached 50 wins, sent a player to the All Star Game, saw some development from their young players and Brad Stevens is now officially familiar enough a face for me not to secretly wonder if he’s actually two kids in a trench coat coaching an NBA team. Things would be looking good for Boston no matter what. And then you take a look at their cap sheet.
Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder signed long-term deals before anyone realized how valuable they were. Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk are still on rookie contracts. Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko bizarrely agreed not to guarantee the second year of their deals. Add it all up and the Celtics will likely keep the majority of their roster in place next season… and still go into the summer with over $50 million to spend.
How is this happening? Well, let’s look closer. If we rank the Celtics by win shares, Boston will retain their two best players (Thomas and Crowder), a third out of their top five (Bradley), two more from the top-eight (Smart and Olynyk) along with a cadre of younger players (Terry Rozier, James Young, Jordan Mickey, R.J. Hunter) no matter what. Add up their salaries and you get only a paltry $32,931,569.
With a projected $90 million cap, that’s almost $60 million in space, but we still need to take draft picks into into account. We’ll assume for the moment that Boston renounces all other players, not because they actually will, but just to maximize cap space for this exercise. The Celtics still have to pay their rookies next season, and they’ll have several. If current draft projections hold, Boston will have the No. 3, No. 16 and No. 23 picks through various trades. They also have multiple second round picks, but for the sake of simplicity we’ll treat those salaries as negligible as they won’t greatly exceed a minimum cap hold and likely won’t make the roster.
Using Larry Coon’s projections, we’ll say the No. 3 pick will make $3,952,500 next season, the No. 16 pick will make $1,573,500 and the No. 23 pick will make $1,151,900. Add those numbers to the original nine players listed and you have a complete 12-man roster making only $39,609,469. That leaves over $50 million to be spent on free agents. There are no other restrictions here, with 12 players signed there are no minimum cap holds to consider, and we are once again assuming they renounce everyone else just for the sake of argument.
This kind of cap space for a team that won so many games and retained most of its talent from the previous season is unheard of. The Celtics will have over 50% of their salary cap to spend with the bulk of their nearly 50-win team in place. And the craziest part? They’re cap numbers look even better for the 2017 offseason.
Thomas, Crowder, Bradley and Smart will all still be in place, and though Olynyk will be a restricted free agent (assuming he doesn’t sign an extension first), his cap hold will remain relatively low. Combine that with the expected improvement from their young players and added production from rookies in both the 2016 and 2017 draft classes, and the base of Boston’s roster looks to be even better in 2017. But because all of those players will either be on rookie deals or contracts signed before the cap boom, their salaries will remain relatively stable.
If they chose not to sign anyone to a long-term contract this summer and retained this group of players and draft picks without any major changes, they would have only around $50 million committed for the 2017-18 season, but the cap is expected to jump to around $108 million. That’s nearly $60 million in cap space two summers from now, with Thomas, Crowder, Bradley, Smart and two high Nets draft picks (among other things) guaranteed to be on the roster.
This puts Boston in the rare position over the next two summers of being a legitimate playoff team that could add almost any free agent they want. They may not have the sway to steal Kevin Durant or Blake Griffin, but the Celtics have the money to overpay anyone outside of that superstar class. If there are two pseudo stars they want this summer (let’s say… Hassan Whiteside and Chandler Parsons), they could blitz the market and give both players their max. If they want to go the Portland route and sign a bunch of younger guys to “prove it” deals, they could nab five high-upside players for $10 million each.
The combinations are endless. They’ll be able to overpay anyone they want, but will also have the playoff cache to win ties against lottery teams. Considering how rare it is for highly-seeded playoff teams to have any cap space, let alone this much, it essentially means that the Celtics will be able to get any free agent they want.
The talk this summer is going to be about Kevin Durant, but the Celtics are the most interesting storyline of free agency. We’ve just never seen anything like this.