Celtics Offseason Preview Part 1 - The Boring Stuff
Updated: Oct 5, 2020
Another disappointing success of a Boston Celtics season came to a close and so it's time to make the annual shift to looking towards the future. The problem is, COVID has made "the future" so murky that it's difficult to see to even the start of next season.
In this post I'll try to cover some of the technical challenges and basic offseason information before following up with more about the bigger picture in a future one.
At the moment, it seems like not even the league knows how the revised CBA will be structured or what the cap, tax, and associated figured will be for at least the next two years. The world of public capologists has internalized the idea that the 2020-21 cap will be frozen at 2019-20 levels with a substantially increased escrow withholding allowing for normal looking contracts to be enacted but the players' actual paychecks being substantially less than it says that they will be on the documents. That would allow the players as a whole to get their guaranteed share of revenues without damaging players signing new long-term deals this offseason.
As far as I can tell, this isn't based on any hard reporting, though. It's a logical solution to the problem of a massive drop in revenue but that doesn't mean that it will be what the league and NBPA agree to. Even if it is the correct rough design, there are multiple ways to structure the details that will have an impact on many teams. We can use the Celtics as an example.
Impact of CBA Design
First, we need to set up a hypothetical offseason. This is not a suggestion or prediction; it is just the simplest path to building a coherent 2020-21 roster.
For our example, we'll assume that Gordon Hayward and Enes Kanter opt in. Daniel Theis is not waived so his salary becomes guaranteed but Semi Ojeleye and Javonte Green are let go. Brad Wanamaker signs elsewhere and is replaced by Tremont Waters signing a minimum salary deal. Tacko Fall takes a second year on a 2-way. The 14th pick is used and signed, the 26th pick is traded for two future second rounders, and the 30th pick is stashed overseas. The 47th pick becomes the second 2-way player. The mid-level is not used (yet) so the team is carrying 14 players plus two 2-ways.
Because the salary of the 14th pick is based on the salary cap, in this assumption of the general outlines of the CBA remaining intact we can't say the exact team salary, but it's around $144M.
As a baseline, the pre-COVID cap projection with break-even escrow would have that roster rack up a $7M tax bill for a total spend of ~$151M. From there, we can run four different scenarios using the idea of stabilized cap but adjusted escrow and tax calculations. We'll then add a final scenario showing what a huge revenue drop would do without any changes to the CBA.
Scenario A: Keep the pre-COVID cap and tax figures with a 35% escrow holding
B: Hold the 2019-20 cap and tax figures with a 30% escrow holding
C: Hold the 2019-20 cap but use the pre-COVID tax line with 30% escrow
D: Hold the 2019-20 cap and tax, lower the tax multipliers by $0.50, have 30% escrow
Scenario E drops the cap all the way to $75M in accordance with fan-less revenue projections. This scenario isn't actually on the table; it's just there to show why there's a provision in the CBA stopping this from happening.
The four "cap smoothing" scenarios have a range of $20M (A: $101M; B: $121M) in actual team expenses for the exact same roster. All four seem viable, depending on how the negotiators want to spread out the losses between higher and lower salary teams.
In Scenario A, using the full Taxpayer MLE on a veteran in the open roster spot would add about $13M more in post-escrow salary and tax. In Scenario B it would be over $20M more, for a total of a $27M additional cost just based on how the cap and tax lines are structured.
With this, you can see how it's difficult for teams to plan for the offseason even if the league gives them some base assumptions to work from. This is why things like the date of the draft keep getting pushed back. Until the negotiations on the revised CBA are completed, you can't proceed with those events. Rough ideas are not enough.
From this point on, I'm going to use Scenario D. It uses conservative cap, tax, and apron figures but assumes some mitigation of luxury tax payments. It's a good middle ground example that I'm picking just to draw a line in the sand.
Gordon Hayward - $34,187,085 (Player Option)
Hayward was just starting to look something like his old self when he broke his hand during the regular season and then just starting to look like his old self again when he suffered a severe ankle sprain in the post-season.
While I can construct a case for Gordon opting out to re-sign a longer-term, lower annual salary contract, it just doesn't seem likely. The injury risk has become too great for the Celtics to commit enough to him to be worth passing up $34M this year.
By far the most likely scenario seems to be Gordon opting in and for the trade rumor noise to continue to get louder. It's difficult but not impossible to see him being a Celtic beyond 2020-21.
Enes Kanter - $5,005,350 (Player Option)
One of the strangest things about the Kanter signing was that they had to give him a player option. Was there someone offering him more than the Celtics did? He's not a type of player that I like so I would like for him to opt out, or opt in and be traded at the draft.
If he's on the roster next season it's not a disaster, though. He does have some uses, particularly in the regular season. Having both he and Vincent Poirier feels like overkill and if Enes is a Celtic, he still needs to get fewer minutes to open space for Robert and Grant Williams. Maybe all those factors make him see the writing on the wall and he decides to opt out, but the uncertainty around the league and lack of cap and exception space probably drives him to opt in.
Semi Ojeleye - $1,752,950 (Non-guaranteed and Team Option)
It feels like the C's have been carrying Semi for three years in hopes that they can develop him into a dedicated Giannis/LeBron "stopper." His offense has not progressed to the level where he would be a net positive even if he were a quality defender against those elite big wings, despite improvements in his spot-up shooting.
There aren't enough roster spots to continue to carry him. The only question should be if a team desperate for a hypothetical defensive wing (Trailblazers, Portland) would still give a 2nd round pick for him or if the C's just need to cut bait.
Javonte Green - $1,517,981 (Non-guaranteed)
He's a nice story and has the profile of a player who could stick in the league somewhere, but that somewhere isn't Boston. Like Semi he should be a victim of the roster crunch.
A small mark against him is also that he counts ~$800k more against the luxury tax than a second round pick signing for the rookie minimum would. If the team ends up in the 2.5x tax multiplier, that becomes ~$2.6M in additional salary and tax.
Daniel Theis - $5,000,000 (Non-guaranteed)
A virtual lock to have his contract guaranteed.
Brad Wanamaker - Restricted Free Agent ($1.8M Qualifying Offer)
Unless the Celtics make moves to clear additional roster spots at the draft, I don't think even extending Wanamaker a qualifying offer is a good idea. If I were Wanamaker and the QO were put on the table I would just immediately sign it.
He did a nice job as a stable backup PG on a team that really doesn't need a backup PG when the rest of the roster is healthy (which is never). He took some collateral damage from how bad / inexperienced the rest of the bench was. It's not his fault that he's not the quick release on-the-move shooter that the team could have used.
Tremont Waters - Restricted Free Agent (2-way Contact Qualifying Offer)
Part of the reason not to extend a qualifying offer to Wanamaker is to elevate Waters. He was tremendous in the G-League but miserable in a very small NBA sample, primarily because he was not shy about taking threes but not good at making them. His G-League shooting splits don't paint the picture of an elite shooter, but they're much better than his NBA performance and the shots he was taking were difficult.
The big positive is that his elite college defense translated into passable professional defense, even at (generously) 5'10". There's certainly no guarantee that Tremont will be a good rotation guard but the opportunity is there to lock him up for four seasons at the minimum and so the payoff, particularly a few years down the road, is worth the risk.
Tacko Fall - Restricted Free Agent (2-way Contact Qualifying Offer)
The big, big, big man showed that he's more than just a curiosity, but not much more. A second 2-way season is probably where this heads.
Robert Williams, Romeo Langford, Grant Williams (Rookie Scale Options)
All of these will be picked up. The option decisions are due just before the start of the season and are for 2021-22.
Jayson Tatum (Extension Eligible)
The Celtics will offer Jayson a full five year max contract extension and at some point he'll probably sign it. There are only two things really up for negotiation.
First, if Tatum makes an All NBA Team next season he will be eligible for the higher "Rose Rule" max of up to 30% of the cap instead of the standard 25%. I don't expect the Celtics to squeeze very hard on this, but in order for an extension to happen both teams should give up something. A deal where Jayson gets 28/29/30% based on if he reaches 3rd/2nd/1st Team status would make sense.
Second, Jayson will want the fifth season to be a player option and the Celtics will really not want to give him that. A likely outcome would be no option in exchange for that 28/29/30% Rose Rule structure, but honestly Tatum is such an elite young player that if he demanded 30% for any All NBA Team and a fifth year option the C's might still do it.
The Maximum Qualifying Offer provision that they would have as a fall-back after next season gives them some leverage, but I'm not sure if it's worth applying any leverage if you don't absolutely need to. Hopefully the negotiations are harmonious and get done quickly.
This group of starting moves sets certain things in action. First, the team will be in the luxury tax and so the only way to sign free agents would be the Taxpayer MLE (A maximum of three seasons starting at $5.7M in this hypothetical) or the Minimum Exception. The Non-taxpayer MLE and Bi-annual Exception both invoke an untenable hard cap and so cannot be used without other significant steps being taken first.
Acquiring a player via sign-and-trade also triggers that same hard cap and so would be challenging to work with. The outgoing player(s) in that trade would likely have to make more than the player being received to relieve some of that pressure. It's not mathematically impossible to build an offseason where a sign-and-trade acquisition happens but it's not worth discussing unless other moves happen first.
The roster crunch is the main driver in a lot of decisions. There isn't space to carry 3-4 second year players plus three rookies within the 15 man roster of a contender, of course. Everyone who looks at this roster knows that a consolidation trade, trade to roll picks into the future, or multiple draft-and-stash picks are necessary. They might also have to use a draft pick to dump a salary like year with Aron Baynes, though now it would be for roster spot and budget reasons, not to clear cap space for a max signing.
The picture will become much more clear once the NBA and NBPA come to terms on the CBA specifics. We'll still never know what the C's budget is, but at least we'll know how to do the math.
Continue on to Part 2 where I look at Jayson Tatum's centrality to all team planning...
Anyone who wants to play with CBA and team building scenarios can try out my roster-builder tool (not mobile browser friendly).