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What Will Grant Williams’ Free Agency Look Like?

The Celtics offered Grant Williams the $8.5-million qualifying offer on Thursday, according to The Athletic, making Williams a restricted free agent when negotiating begins at 6 p.m. on Friday. The routine process gives Boston the right to match any offer sheet until 11:59 on July 7 after the moratorium ends, and maintains the team’s ability to reach an agreement with Williams themselves.

The Boston Globe first reported the Kristaps Porziņģis trade marked the end of Williams’ time in Boston and it is not difficult to see why. Williams played sparingly last year under Joe Mazzulla, even considering his March hand injury that resulted in surgery. Adding Porziņģis to that mix alongside Al Horford and Robert Williams III further limits and potentially eliminates any playing time for Williams. The Porziņģis trade also pushed the Celtics within $7.3-million of the second apron, a threshold signing Williams to any feasible contract would push Boston above. That doesn’t matter as much as the team’s commitment to Williams, who would receive a one-year no trade clause if Boston decides to match an offer sheet.

The developing free agent market makes it likely Williams will receive at least the full mid-level exception for the first year of his contract, worth $12.4-million, available to teams above the salary cap, but below the luxury tax threshold. Teams that sign that contract, or any portion of the total, become hard-capped at the first apron for the first season of the deal — $172 million this season. Those teams include:

  • Chicago Bulls (~$33M below the apron after extending Nikola Vucevic and before re-signing Coby White, Derrick Jones Jr. and Ayo Dosunmu). They have not been connected to Grant.
  • Washington Wizards (~$56.3M below the apron). Unlikely to sign long-term veterans beginning a rebuild.
  • Sacramento Kings (~$74M below the apron before re-signing Harrison Barnes and/or signing other free agents). Reportedly one of the more active cap space teams this summer, with the ability to sign a major free agent (Kyle Kuzma, Khris Middleton, Draymond Green?) and still squeeze in Williams on a mid-level exception. They’re a team to watch.
  • Memphis Grizzlies (~$29.4M below the apron without any free agents to re-sign). Squarely in the mid-range market as a team without cap space. Only can add one player to the active roster. Would Williams fit? Brandon Clarke’s achilles tear and Marcus Smart’s presence makes it an intriguing option.
  • New York Knicks (~$15.5M below the apron without major free agents to sign). Doubtful Grant destination given Julius Randle and Obi Toppin’s presence, plus the team’s proximity to the apron.
  • Atlanta Hawks (~$16.3M below the apron without major free agents to sign). The John Collins trade creates some extra opportunity at the four position, but De’Andre Hunter and Jalen Johnson, along with continued roster flexibility without a hard cap, likely remain priorities here.
  • Toronto Raptors (~$46.5M below the apron before re-signing Fred Van Vleet and Jakob Poetl). A wild card destination on a mid-level if the Raptors decide to compete this year. Their style under Nick Nurse would’ve fit Williams’ game. A new coach in Darko Rajaković would need to desire and want Williams. They won’t have enough space below the hard cap if Van Vleet and Poetl both remain.

It’s worth noting the Celtics cannot offer their own MLE, given their team sits above the first apron already, and their $5-million MLE (likely too low anyway) would trigger a disruptive hard cap at the second apron. Boston can only use its Bird Rights, allow them to pay or match a broad array of Williams offers while above the cap. Almost any realistic offer would thrust the Celtics above the second apron, eliminating their ability to use the MLE this year, narrowing their salary matching abilities in trades, freezing their 2031 first-round pick and likely bumping it to the end of that first round, among other penalties in the new CBA.

Boston may decide, as I wrote recently, to acquire a trade exception (TPE) in a Williams sign-and-trade to retain flexibility and delay their inevitable move above the second apron line by one year. That would not be in tandem with the teams above, many of them above the salary cap, or committing that cap elsewhere. That would be the case with the teams below, who could sign Williams outright into their cap space.

  • Oklahoma City Thunder (currently ~$15M below the cap before re-signing Dario Šarić and after renouncing other cap holds). That’s a little tight to sign Williams outright or produce a full TPE without sending salary back to the Celtics. He’d fit on this roster, but probably not under the cap. The MLE remains an option for him here.
  • Utah Jazz (currently ~$7.4M below the cap). The John Collins trade took a big bite into both Utah’s cap space and their ability to offer Williams minutes, but CEO Danny Ainge drafted Williams, the two front offices undoubtedly communicate and they can offer Williams the full MLE. This is a real possibility.
  • Orlando Magic (currently ~$757K below the cap, including cap holds). They could create some cap space, but not enough to offer Williams something substantively more than the MLE, especially with two first-round picks coming in and more from overseas. Maybe a larger S&T where a player(s) returns to Boston is in play here (there is a guard log jam), but Orlando could not create a TPE for Boston. Williams would have to sign here outright.
  • Detroit Pistons (currently ~$28.8M below the cap before re-signing Hamidou Diallo). They’re reportedly in the Cam Johnson race, another restricted free agent with a similar skillset to Williams. That’ll tie up their cap space, since he’s also a restricted free agent. That probably takes them out of the Williams running, along with their extremely crowded front court.
  • San Antonio Spurs (currently ~$42M below the cap before re-signing Tre Jones, Romeo Langford and other free agents). They have a ton of money and few viable major free agent targets. Do they get in the running for Brook Lopez? That probably takes them out of play. Some positional overlap with Victor Wembanyama also makes things awkward here, but Williams could defend fives for Wembanyama as more of a banger. The Spurs have more than enough money to beat other Williams offers and create an even more sizable TPE than the mid-level for Boston. It’s a possibility, Tim Bontemps pitched it, but I don’t see it happening unless they strike out on other options.
  • Indiana Pacers (currently ~$34M below the cap without any major free agents). They were my pick to land Williams given their need to fill the four position, and Jake Fischer connected them weeks ago. Indiana began filling that spot by drafting Jarace Walker, and they’re reportedly pursuing Harrison Barnes and Max Strus, who would inevitably price Indiana out as a TPE and cap space option.
  • Houston Rockets (currently ~$64.2M below the cap without any major free agents). This is the team. Without any major free agents, with the James Harden momentum losing steam with every passing day and with their Bucks targets Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez increasingly likely to stay in Milwaukee, look out for Ime Udoka to reunite with his former forward. The Celtics have options here too, would they prefer to take a redundant player like Jae’Sean Tate back to maintain some of that Williams salary base on the team? They could do that instead of landing a sizable TPE.

The difficulty with the TPE plan becomes the new CBA wrinkle, announced yesterday, that limits a team from carrying that TPE over to next season. Before, if you acquired one in July, you’d have it until next July. Now, it expires before the league year ends, so the Celtics would become a second apron team this year regardless.

That creates some incentive to take some money back, or even simply retain Williams as that long-term salary and a depth option at the forward position. Speaking to reporters on Tuesday in Foxboro, Williams expressed interest in staying with the Celtics. He’d be better than any mid-level signing the team could acquire anyway, the Celtics reportedly previously offered the mid-level and the final CBA showed some mercy to teams that leap above the second apron, then quickly dip below in terms of the draft picks falling to the end of the first round.

I’d still bet on Williams playing elsewhere next year, but both the CBA and drying cap space opportunities around the league limit his ability to earn more than $12 million annually.

“(I’d) absolutely (return),” Williams said. “It’s just a matter of the decision of whether or not it’s needed.”

Bobby Manning

Boston Celtics beat reporter for CLNS Media and host of the Garden Report Celtics Post Game Show. NBA national columnist for Boston Sports Journal. Contributor to SB Nation's CelticsBlog. Host of the Dome Theory Sports and Culture Podcast on CLNS. Syracuse University 2020.

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