The Celtics continue to repeat: flexibility, flexibility, flexibility.
Brad Stevens’ first three moves as the new Celtics president aimed to clear cap space off Boston’s salary sheets next offseason to the point where Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford’s partially-guaranteed contracts remain. It’s unclear for what.
The notion of flexibility is great. It’s unclear in reality what the Celtics could build from enormous cap space: see the New York Knicks. Bradley Beal may or may not come. If he does, so many players will have departed Boston in recent years it’ll leave Boston with Brown, Tatum and Beal surrounded by minimum and young players — and maybe Robert Williams III if Stevens can find a Horford trade.
Count the departed: Kemba Walker, Tristan Thompson, Enes Kanter, Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris, Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Vincent Poirier and more. Evan Fournier could follow this offseason, amid multiple reports from the Herald, The Athletic and others that Boston won’t meet his asking price.
The entire post-Irving Celtics era consisted of Danny Ainge compensating for previous losses, only to reverse and unload those following additions in short order — sometimes paying to do so. Stevens can’t be blamed for that yet, but has to reverse the tide and find a direction fast.
It’s time for the Celtics to establish a sustainable direction, one that still provides stability and growth, with the ability to win and maintain flexibility. Boston will reportedly do by pursuing Lonzo Ball, among other free agent point guards, as Chris Mannix reports Marcus Smart’s time in Boston could be over after the Celtics added Josh Richardson for Moses Brown last week. Richardson and Smart would be an awkward back court pairing, and Smart is a free agent next offseason. If Smart ever departed, it would be the final drop of Boston’s hemorrhaging of players.
Smart is valuable. That’s why it’s worth heavily considering trading him. His $14-million would go a long way toward matching in trades, while his defense, passing and leadership would be valuable to middling or young teams that need those attributes at point guard. I wrote last month about Smart’s powerful skills at point, though ones that we saw last season aren’t necessarily maximized when he’s tasked with being the thin team’s third scoring option. Smart also had his worst defensive season amid being relied upon more offensively and suffering a calf strain. With his crash-and-bang style it’s fair to wonder if he’ll decline sooner than other NBA guards.
Ball, a restricted free agent, by contrast, is 23 and would be signed to a four-year deal in tandem with Brown and Tatum’s long-term deals. The potential for growth remains with him, after his best shooting year ranking in the 73rd percentile on spot-up jumpers and finishing over 40% from three. Both he and Smart had equivalent seasons creating in the pick-and-roll, while both struggle to finish at the rim. Smart excels more at cutting to the rim, while Ball initiates the fast break more smoothly.
Ball (23) —
69.4th percentile in P&R
72.8th spot up
40.2% catch and shoot
Smart (27) —
35th spot up
32.5% catch and shoot
— Bobby Manning (@RealBobManning) August 1, 2021
Both entered the NBA with elite lead guard potential. Both defend well, Ball on the perimeter and Smart rotates inside like a big man. It’s a worthy comparison and concerns about losing Boston’s “heart and soul” are valid, but team-building and multiple reports of teammates growing tired of Smart’s occasional erraticism on the court make make this the time to invest in a player on a long-term contract with long-term upside. Richardson and Smart don’t seem to make sense together in the back court.
How would it happen?
Jake Fischer and others report the Bulls expect to offer Ball a four-year, $80-million contract. They can’t do that outright in free agency, so they’d need Chicago’s help in a sign-and-trade or find a way to offload recently-guaranteed Tomas Satoransky and Thad Young contracts elsewhere. The ability for the Bulls to finalize the signing could depend on New Orleans’ desire to bring back some combination of those players and free agent Lauri Markkanen. A third team needs to enter the fold to take Markannen and provide New Orleans compensation.
As the Pelicans continue their own pursuit of a point guard, likely striking out on Kyle Lowry. One of the worst defensive teams in the NBA last year, they could find value in Smart as a future point guard, culture tone-setter and facilitator for Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram who’d be cheaper than Spencer Dinwiddie or Reggie Jackson-tier free agents.
The problem for Boston is three-fold. Ball needs to want to come. The Celtics would be hard-capped at $143-million by adding Ball. Say they match Chicago’s $20-million offer, trading Smart for Ball puts Boston within an inch of the hard cap at $141.4-million (if the Tristan Thompson trade goes through as originally designed). The Celtics would be unable to add free agents on anything other than minimum deals to round out the final roster spot or two.
Ball is also a Base Year Compensation player, which means players who receive over a 20% raise on a new contract are traded as 50% of their first-year salary, and received as 100% on their new team. That means Ball is sent out as $10-million in this example, and received as $20-million in Boston. That creates divergent matching rules and further limit how much salary New Orleans could take back in a potential deal to give the Celtics more room under the hard cap.
It’s a difficult yet worthwhile navigation to pursue. Ball’s $80-million deal would take Boston out of a free agency pursuit of Beal, but without assurance that Beal would eventually come and needing to continue the three-year array of Celtics losing players for nothing is a precarious risk.
Boston can assert its future now, instill trust in the players on the Celtics that they’re all part of the eventual plan and possibly pursue a trade for Beal or some other player if it comes to it while a young core grows around the Jays and Ball. Ball’s vision and instincts could raise the level of Boston’s young players, the team’s biggest current need.
Reports connected the Celtics to Dinwiddie and Jackson in free agency, two other players likely to require sign-and-trades. Dinwiddie’s asking price, north of $20-million, would carry the same hard cap concerns as Ball. He’s 28, older than Ball, and off ACL surgery.
The Nets are difficult sign-and-trade partners, deep in the luxury tax, so any salary Boston sends them back would essentially be tripled on the Nets payroll. Them drafting five rookies this offseason signals a desire to not take on significant salary. It also wouldn’t be a great idea to supply a rival contender with Smart.
Perhaps the Celtics work a separate sign-and-trade to send Fournier to the Knicks, acquire a $20-million trade exception, and try to accept Dinwiddie into it by sending Smart elsewhere and supplying Brooklyn with picks and minimal salary.
Jackson could be a full mid-level exception target for the Celtics, though he’d likely request multiple years after a career-saving season at 31. He doesn’t fit the Brown and Tatum timeline, and isn’t the connecting facilitator Boston needs. The Celtics could keep Smart by adding him, but it would make the team much more expensive with an uncertain impact on winning.
Smart isn’t worth dumping for a future pick or marginal player. He’s still an exception passer who could lead a rejuvenated defensively-oriented Celtics team. The Celtics could retain the max cap space pursuit by keeping him and the current cast in place, but guard, wing and interior depth all currently lack on the team.
As the east rapidly improves, they could remain in the bottom tier, or slide further by losing Walker and Fournier’s scoring. There’s a world where this team, as stands, doesn’t make the playoffs. Ancillary moves below could help, without drastically changing the team’s fortune.
Here’s what else is being discussed ahead of free agency:
- Adam Himmelsbach reported Boston’s interest in Kelly Olynyk, Jeff Green and Rudy Gay. Olynyk would likely rise to full mid-level territory, with other suitors like Detroit interested in him. He’d pad the Celtics center depth and provide some additional scoring, but likely trigger a hard cap for little gain.
- Green is a good defender, can play the five and shot over 40% from three last year. He’d continue to receive good looks and bring size next to Brown and Tatum. Depending on the price, he’d be a nice addition.
- Gay is closer to a league average three shooter who would be attainable on a minimum deal.
- Patty Mills continues to be discussed, like Gay a former Ime Udoka player in San Antonio. His scoring would be a nice bench scoring and shooting punch, and would likely only cost the non-taxpayer midlevel exception. He doesn’t address facilitation needs as well as TJ McConnell would though.
- Isaiah Thomas could return, per Marc Stein, but he likely replaces Carsen Edwards’ role more than anything else.
- All these free agent moves are contingent on the finalization of the Thompson deal, which may not conclude until Aug. 6. Boston currently has a roster spot and may address the end of its roster through an expanded deal.