Brutal injury luck for the Boston Celtics in 2017-18 was followed up with brutal inconsistency on the court in 2018-19, which has resulted in brutal repercussions for the franchise this offseason.
Kyrie Irving is expected to leave the Celtics to sign with the Nets, and now Al Horford is expected to leave after he and the team couldn’t get close enough in negotiations on a new contract. It appears Horford has a team willing to offer him a four-year, $100 million deal, which is a contract that might not make sense to match if you’re Boston and Irving is already out the door.
Horford and Irving were the two best players on the Celtics last season, while making the second and third-most money on the team as well. Without their contracts on the books, it’s likely that the Celtics would be able to create about $28 million in cap space. This happens if they renounce the rights to all of their free agents, meaning no Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier, Daniel Theis and Brad Wanamaker on the team next year. If the Celtics trade all three of their first round picks or use them all on “draft and stash” players, they can create up to $33.5 million in space.
Whatever combination of moves they end up making, the Celtics will be flush with cap space but probably won’t have any top-tier free agents to use it on. Without Horford and Irving gone, Boston should find themselves back in rebuild mode, where cap flexibility and future assets are key. Let’s break down what they could do to use this space assuming they aren’t signing anyone to a max contract.
Take on bad contracts for assets
The Celtics won’t be in any position to contend, and the best way to create a path to contend and acquire superstars is to build a collection of future picks and young talent. Playoff teams on the fringe of contention don’t usually have cap space, so they tend to trade bad contracts coupled with either a cheap, young player or a future first round pick.
The Celtics could send little to nothing away in this type of deal and just absorb the new salary into their cap space. Ideally these players have one year left on their contracts, but either way it’s an organic way to put yourself in position to acquire big-time talent.
A few teams that come to mind:
Blazers: Evan Turner
He has one year left on his contract with the Blazers and is set to make $18.6 million next year. Turner has had success under Brad Stevens before and could provide some playmaking and scoring off the bench. He’d fit nicely on this new version of the Celtics that will likely feature Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown as focal points of the offense.
Thunder: Steven Adams
Adams is a very good player for OKC, but they’ll need more versatility and scoring in their frontcourt to reach a new level with Paul George and Russell Westbrook. Adams is due $25.8 million next season and $27.5 million in 2020-21. Boston could use him as an anchor defensively as they try to build good habits in developing their younger frontcourt players.
Hornets: Bismack Biyombo, Cody Zeller, Nicolas Batum
If the Hornets hope to re-sign Kemba Walker over the other contenders interested in him, they’ll have to clear space to convince him they can put more talent around him. Getting rid of any of the players mentioned above would be a step in the right direction, and a pick from Charlotte could be a valuable asset down the line if things don’t work out.
Restricted Free Agency
Restricted free agency (RFA) is always really interesting. The players teams know they want to keep long term rarely hit this market, they just sign a big extension. The RFA’s available are either players teams know they’ll be able to keep on bargain deals, or they are prepared to let the market dictate how much they’ll fork over to a player they aren’t 100 percent sold on keeping.
Remember, RFA’s are allowed to sign offer sheets with any team that has the space for them, but their original team has the right to match if they extended the qualifying offer.
The Celtics could utilize the space to put certain teams in a bind by agreeing to an offer sheet at a number they’re comfortable with, but more importantly, makes the incumbent team consider not matching. Two players come to mind for this potential scenario.
Malcolm Brogdon, Bucks
Not only would Brogdon be a great fit on any team, but putting the Bucks in a financial pickle would be beneficial for anyone trying to knock them off in the East in years to come. Giving Brogdon an offer sheet in the $20-million per year range could force the Bucks to think about not matching. And if they do, they have a contract on their books that they would have hoped to be a bit smaller, which would hurt their ability to build a deep roster moving forward.
D’Angelo Russell, Nets
The Nets don’t seem very decisive on Russell’s future, especially if you add in the Kyrie variable. The Celtics could force their hand and hope to throw a wrench in their cap flexibility by signing Russell to a large enough offer sheet. If the Nets don’t match, the Celtics would have a young, talented shot creator to hopefully mold into a more all-around contributor.
Sign free agents to one-year contracts
Even though the Celtics won’t be contenders if Kyrie and Horford leave, their young core is still very talented and has shown an ability to win playoff games if given the right supporting cast. The Celtics could use their space this summer to bring in veterans that can contribute, but offer them one-year deals at values above the mid-level exception, leaving more incentive to sign in Boston.
Some players that could work:
Versatile defender, good shooter and has plenty of experience in the postseason. The Celtics should Ariza him a look no matter what.
We know what Thomas can do offensively in Stevens’ system, and Thomas needs a place to revive his career. A potential win-win scenario here.
Good defender, great shooter, and showed he can still contribute to a playoff team last year during a short stint with the Pacers.
Declined his player option with the Kings, so if his market sours on him he could be looking for a one-year deal to play on a playoff team and then hit free agency again next summer. The Celtics could use his defensive versatility and shot-making.
The kind of combo-forward teams look for, but hasn’t been able to put it all together yet. The Celtics could use him as a spot starter but also as a way to match up with the likes of Ben Simmons, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Pascal Siakam in the East. Green wouldn’t necessarily guard them exclusively, but he’s a player that gives you lineup versatility.