Salary Series: Impossible Decisions Await the Boston Celtics
Welcome back to the Business Casual Basketball "Salary Series."
In these weekly posts, we will take a look at a particular player or team with an interesting salary structure.
For example, certain contracts around the league have with interesting incentives, rare escalating, or declining dollar amounts, or vary significantly from typical market value.
When it comes to teams, there will be a deep dive on their spending habits, how they got to their current position, and what they can do take advantage of their spending power. Conversely, if they are deep into luxury tax territory, we will look at what they can do to mitigate the damage as much as possible, both short-term and long-term.
Today's subject of study will be the Boston Celtics and their escalating financial obligations.
Bean town has been rising within the Eastern conference hierarchy each year since Brad Stevens took the helm prior to the 2013-2014 season. During the dark days that saw the departure of franchise legends like Kevin Garnet and Paul Pierce, they bottomed out at a paltry 25-57 record. That was a tough pill to swallow for a franchise so proud and accustomed to success. 17 championship banners hang in the rafters - most in league history. They seemed to cry out in agony with each painstaking loss. However, this winning culture that was forged through the crucible of countless playoff wars simply would not allow the losing to continue. One season later, the win total spiked from 25 to 40 and the men in green put up an admirable fight during the first round of the playoffs against the Cavaliers.
Fast forward to this season and the Celtics enjoy an abundance of riches through savvy trades, excellent player development, and picture perfect drafting. Much like the hostess cupcakes that currently sit in your pantry, too much of a good thing can be harmful. Consume to many of a sweet product and you will pay the consequences. That is the reality of smart dieting. Variety is the spice of life. No one can survive and thrive taking in the same thing day after day.
This brings us to the beautiful dilemma that has been building in the confines of the Celtic conference rooms for what seems like years. There are simply too many alphas on this Boston squad. Jaylen Brown has seen his minutes per game dip by four compare to last season. Additionally, His three point percentage has declined by seven points. Terry Rozier plays three less minutes per game and his three point percentage has fallen by three points. Gordon Hayward has had less chances to get back to his old self than he would like. Players who have experienced the spotlight and relished in playoff settings are now seeing their opportunities slashed and it has had a trickle down effect on team chemistry.
Through 48 games, Boston ranks in the top ten in offensive (10th) and defensive (5th) efficiency. Despite this, they have the 3rd worst win differential in the league at -3.4. Based on their numbers, they should be 33-15 instead of 30-18. At least one player on this roster is unhappy in their role and will look for a way out as soon as possible. This means that soon, sooner than Boston would like, tough decisions will have to be made that could drastically alter the trajectory of this promising team. If you read the previous blog post, you will know that risk management is the name of the game when you are wheeling and dealing multi-millionaires frequently as GM Danny Ainge has in the past four years. Moving on from one or more of their high-upside, home grown heroes will be no easy task. In spite of this, it’s absolutely necessary to allow this core to reach 100% of their sky-high potential. Here’s how they might go about doing that.
Jeff Siegel's Salary Cap Table on EarlyBirdRights.com will be used as a reference for player contracts and the Celtic's payroll overall. If you'd like to see all of the deals on the books for this team, you can find the link here. It is an excellent resource to keep up with where each teams spending situation stands as we approach the Trade Deadline and the Offseason.
Obviously, retaining franchise cornerstone Uncle Drew will be priority one, two, and three for this team going into Summer '19. It is worth pointing out however, that he holds a player-option for 2019-20 worth $21.3 million. The odds of him exercising this option are slim to done, since he is entering his prime and in the midst of a career season. He's not blowing the opposition away with 50 games like a certain bearded individual in the West, but he as steady and poised as ever with career highs in efficiency and a pronounced impact on the defensive end that was sorely lacking during his stint in Cleveland. The advanced numbers stand by this idea, as his Defensive Box Plus-Minus is positive (0.7) and his team is better defensively with him on the court for the first time in his career. The Celtics surrender 0.8 less points per 100 possessions according to Cleaning the Glass. Add in the fact that he will be only 27 years old this Offseason and he will require nothing short of a max-contract to keep around. Luckily for Boston, their most important decision doubles as the easiest, as it's not hard to justify holding on to a top five Point Guard with some of the slickest handles this side of the And-1circuit.
So all that is left to examine in Kyrie's case is how much he is eligible to earn. The answer should serve as additional comfort to the franchise pocket books. Every dollar counts since they are projected to be over the luxury tax line again next season...more on that later on. If you need a refresher on the cumulative effects of tax payments, (it ain't pretty) be sure to reference that portion of the CBA Walkthrough area here. After glancing at Kyrie's accomplishment throughout his career, it's clear he won't be eligible for the absolute maximum salary for his next contract. He has not won Defensive Player of the Year, MVP, or reached an All-NBA team in two consecutive seasons, so he is subject to a deal that is worth 30% of the salary cap instead of 35%. He has 8 years of NBA service, which is also taken into account here. Using this type of calculation process, that comes out to a salary that starts at approximately $30.5 million and features 8% annual raises. One more factor to note: He cannot receive a five-year deal from Boston. According to the CBA FAQ, since Boston will have only had Kyrie for two full seasons once the Summer hits, his contract will be classified as Early Bird, instead of the full Larry Bird. This of course, will put him back in Free Agency one year earlier at age 31.
Now, Irving has made over $100 million in his career so far, so he shouldn't miss that additionally salary from a five year super-max contract too much. Four years will put a huge strain on the Boston books, but his performance is sure to more than make up for the investment.
Let's just hope he stays relatively healthy during the life of the contract. The league isn't the same without this man carving up ankles on a daily basis.
Scaring off Terry Rozier
If his last game was any indication, Terry Rozier is primed and ready for a sizable pay raise. He dropped 26 points, eight rebounds, and six assists on the Cavaliers head.
Funny how they keep popping up here, isn't it?
Granted, Cleveland is pretty much a pile of hot garbage at this point, but Rozier has had plenty of ups and downs this season and that performance could serve as a turning point for him in a contract year.
Speaking of a contract year, that means that decision number two for the Celtics this Summer will involve Terry. He comes up as the next in line to be dealt with over Brown, because he has an expiring contract. That is more urgent than a player still under contract for one more season after this one.
Unlike the other upcoming free agents Boston will roll out in July, Rozier actually has a decent chance of being traded before we even reach that point. There are already several players here that will need to be paid, and it probably wouldn't make sense to give big money to a guy that has historically come off the bench. They could try to lock him up on a team-friendly deal, but that is unlikely. Terry has not made more than $3 million in any of his four seasons so far. Now compare that to Kyrie's career earnings. He will be looking to change that soon.
Since he is coming off of his rookie scale contract, Rozier will be a restricted free agent, instead of unrestricted like Irving will be. That means other teams will be able to swoop in with offers from all directions in an effort to lure Rozier away from the only team he's ever known. The C's of course have the right of first refusal, but that still leaves them between a rock and a hard place. They can match whatever lavish deal he gets from an outside suitor, or decline and watch him vanish into thin air by joining the enemy's roster.
Teams like Orlando and Phoenix will have ample cap space to take a big run at Rozier, so it wouldn't be surprising to see deals in the $15-$20 million range. That is simply too big of a pill for Boston too swallow, considering every dollar over the luxury tax will count for much more on their books.
Circling back to his odds of being traded, jettisoning him at the trade deadline would make a lot of sense so they don't lose him for nothing and gain some assets back in return. A cheaper veteran PG would be a nice fit behind the first unit. Emphasis on CHEAPER.
Time is ticking for this team to make a decision on their energetic point guard. We are only a few weeks away from the trade deadline and if he is on the roster past that date, he is as good as gone.
What Can Brown Do For you?
Next on the franchise to-do list should be former #3 overall pick Jaylen Brown and his ability to sign a rookie extension prior to his fourth season in the league. Jaylen's career has certainly been up and down to this point and unfortunately, it has been trending downward this season following the return of Kyrie and Hayward. It's easy to forget that not too long ago, he was seen as a budding superstar. As recently as the 2018 playoffs, he was averaging 18 points on 46 percent shooting. He was knocking down threes, attacking the basket with authority, and picking up the best player on the other team with pride. He hasn't been afforded the chance to replicate numbers like that with reduced playing time that more established players have taken from him. In a way, his own team is responsible for stunting his growth and slashing his value as an impact player. It is unlikely that Boston doubts his upside in any way, but his fit on this team is extremely questionable at this juncture.
Brown is a physical presence on the court that thrives in contact and space. At 6-8, he is frequently at an advantage going downhill and can shoot over many players that he might matchup against. However, his assist percentage has never been above the 38th percentile. He is simply not someone who is going to get his teammates involved on a regular basis. As a result, he has been moved back to bench lineups where he has been better suited to get touches and be aggressive on the ball. This is fine and dandy for this season as Boston gears up for another high pressure playoff run, but it is probably not what Brown wants as he approaches the best years of his career. He knows he has a much higher ceiling than a perky 6th man.
So where will Brown and this team meet on the negotiating table? It might be in both parties' best interest to wait it out until 2020 to give Jaylen more time to adjust to his new responsibilities and while still giving Boston a chance to trade him before next years' trade deadline if he still can't find his niche with other offensive wings alongside him.
If Boston were to get impulsive and lock him up for another few years, it could get costly down the road.
Remember a guy named Jayson Tatum? Yeah, he's pretty good too. He will be eligible for an extension next year and that certainly won't be cheap. With the amount of moving parts attached to this team and the amount of careful calculation it will take to not blow the hinges off the bank doors, it is looking like Brown will have to wait one more year to get his big break.
It is easy to become fixated on the Celtics young pieces and their growth as they go through formative years of their maturation. If you gaze into this shining light of upside for too long, you can become blind to the other critical parts of this team some refer to as "glue guys." Just because they aren't destroying Twitter with superhuman highlights on the daily, doesn't mean they don't deserve to be recognized. A few of these men will be reaching the end of their current deals, as well.
Al Horford just might be the most iconic glue guy around. With 12 years of NBA service under his belt, he has seen and experienced just about anything a pro could dream to, outside of a NBA championship. His future is really in his hands with a $30.1 million player option awaiting him following the conclusion of this season. How he approaches this hefty sum of cash really depends on how we feels about the direction of this unit and what he could stand to gain from that. The Celtics will undoubtably be one of the top teams in the East and the NBA assuming good health and continued growth from the young core. Horford would not want out because of the teams performance, even though they have slightly underachieved this season. Nevertheless, he still has the option to opt-out if his heart softens up to the point he's willing to negotiate a new contract with more years tacked on but less annual salary. Think three year deal worth $10-$12 million annually.
Still, it is very possible he takes his option on day on and keeps it moving.
Another bucket gathering wing the Celtics have employed the last couple years is Marcus Morris. He represents another dynamite trade prize that was obtained in return for Avery Bradley. Bradley's career hasn't exactly been fruitful since leaving Boston, so put another win on the board for the good guys. Still, performance comes at a cost. Marcus will certainly be a hot commodity around the league and he is unrestricted in July. If he decides he needs something different for the 2nd half of his career, there isn't a thing the Celtics can do to stop him. This is exceedingly possible when you consider the fact that he has not made over $5.3 million any year of his career. Look at these figures from past seasons:
11-12: $1.4 million
12-13: $1.9 million
13-14: $1.9 million
14-15: $2.9 million
15-16: $5.0 million
16-17: $4.6 million
17-18: $5.0 million
18-19: $5.3 million
For context, the average yearly salary in the NBA is worth $7.3 million. How bad do you think he's craving a raise? A capped out Boston team won't be the place to get it.
So...yeah. Might be time to set this bird free.
That leaves Aron Baynes (player option), Daniel Theis (restricted FA), Brad Wanamaker (restricted FA), Semi Ojeleye (non-guaranteed), and Jabari Bird (non-guaranteed) as the other possible free agents for this team.
It is safe to assume Baynes takes his deal as it is fair value and he plays a pivotal role for Boston.
Theis has been good as a third string center, so he might stick around as well. A one or two year deal would be fine as long as he doesn't get too rich of an offer from the outside world.
Ojeleye has shown promise as a gritty, defensive specialist, but he might become a tax casualty depending on how the rest of the roster shakes out. He is due less than $2 million, so Boston might be able to spare the expense if they think he can take another step forward in his development.
Wanamaker and Bird haven't played much at all, so it is tough to get a gauge on their value. The Celtics probably know more about what they bring to the table. Hard to say what ends up happening with those two.
Gotta Pay to Play
As you can see, the Celtics have their work cut out from them beginning at this years trade deadline and continuing on into the Summer months. The Boston ownership group is looking is looking at a steep salary tax bill in the $7.5 million range since they are about $3 million over the tax line of $123 million. This won't be a one time expenditure, either. The tax bill could easily double next year and continue to rise as they remain in luxury tax territory. Remember, the repeater tax threatens to punch big spenders after a few years of jumping over the line.
This concept of paying to play is nothing new for anyone looking to rise to the creme of the crop. A wise man once said,
"It takes money to make money." - Sol Luckman
If you want a profitable business, you have to invest in assets that you firmly believe will come through on the chance you are taking on them. The balancing act between saving money and remaining competitive is one that will show up to the front doorstep of any professional sports franchise and it will come calling for this unit any day now.
Good luck fellas, your destiny awaits.
Coming next week - Brooklyn Heights