Ruminations on Trades, the CBA, and Summer League
Updated: Jul 7
Some random thoughts too long for twitter...
In the last CBA renegotiation the rules for salary matching in trades were revised. It used to be that non-guaranteed salary amounts could be included in the matching salary needed for over-the-cap teams to make trades. This led to players with non-guaranteed seasons seeing their contracts passed around until eventually landing with a team that saw them solely as a way to cut costs who would then waive them.
The change to only guaranteed salaries counting for matching was seen as something of a negative by a fanbase who loves the transactions game almost as much as the game game because it made trades, both real and fake, harder to put together. However, the players involved are real people and the new rules have been a boon for a lot of players / union members hanging on at the edge of the league.
For example, the Celtics trade of Daniel Theis and Aaron Nesmith for Malcolm Brogdon was $5.5 million away from a valid salary match. Nik Stauskas, Juwan Morgan, and Malik Fitts were sitting on a combined $5.7 million in non-guaranteed salary that under the old rules could have been traded and then waived at no cost to Indiana. Now, to complete that trade nearly all of that amount had to become guaranteed, sending a lot of money to those three players and also increasing the likelihood that they'll hang on in Indiana with a chance to extend their NBA career and receive future contracts.
As a first round pick Stauskas had already made around $15 million in his career but Malik Fitts had made closer to $300,000 in his. That's still a lot of money for a 24 year old but adding $1.8 million to that is the real life changer. We often talk about "life changing money" being second contracts that impart generational wealth on players but the true life changer is going from being poor or even middle class to being able to pay cash for a house, setting you up for the majority of your life where you'll make a normal salary and not professional sports money.
As John Goodman taught in The Gambler, when you get up the $2.5 million you buy a house with a 25 year roof and invest the rest at 3-5% to cover your taxes. After that, you can say "fuck you" to anyone who tries to tell you what to do with your life.
In December, both the league and union have the option to terminate the current CBA at the end of this season instead of in 2024 when it would end by default. Everyone expects this to happen and many are speculating that the increasing level of autonomy being shown by star players on contracts will make for a contentious negotiation, with everything that has happened in Brooklyn over the last six months causing things to boil over. I'm not certain that will be the case but it's possible.
While the last CBA did a number of things to benefit less experienced and lower paid players across the league, including forcing trade matching to be for only guaranteed money, I think there's an obvious thing that both sides should be open to that would benefit the higher earners.
Currently, veteran extensions for players not on rookie scale and who have not been "designated" by their status as a Most Valuable Player, Defensive Player of the Year, or All NBA performer are capped at 120% of the salary in the final year of their existing deal or 120% of the estimated average salary across the league, if that is higher. Extensions to contracts that include bonuses must also carry forward the same bonuses.
This has been a largely positive rule for the league. The last CBA changed the limit from 105% to 120% which has led to a lot of extensions being signed where the team can make a fair offer and the player and agent can say that they received their maximum allowed amount. Everyone is happy and feels respected.
I think both sides should want to amend this to say that an extension maxes out at this 120% amount unless the two sides agree to the player's full maximum extension with no bonuses, options, or non-guaranteed money. The gap this closes is for players like Zach LaVine or Jaylen Brown who would undoubtedly receive max extensions if they could but can't because their breakouts happened after their current sub-max deal was signed. In order to achieve their true max salary they have to either make All NBA and become "supermax" eligible or play their contract out to unrestricted free agency which can lead to outcomes that neither party truly wants. This might become even more important in a few years if cap growth accelerates or spikes with a new TV deal.
This rule would not negatively impact the extension negotiations for players like Marcus Smart who would know that they weren't realistically going to get double the money that they did where the team's only option would be, in his case, an extension for up to 4/$76.5M or for the full 4/$151M. He signed that 4/$76.5M then and very likely still would in a future with the "or full max" rule in play.
There might be a couple players over the course of a decade who would have a 120% max extension close enough to the 30% or 35% of the cap max to make the negotiation a bit more difficult but it would benefit more players and the ones it would "hurt" wouldn't be financially penalized.
Back to the other end of the player spectrum, I find this year's Summer League Celtics somewhat interesting. Only Sam Hauser has any real chance of impacting the Regular League Celtics but there are still some opportunities here. For one thing, without a bunch of established prospects on the roster there will be more of a chance for guys who don't have an obvious path to an NBA roster spot to make a name for themselves.
The 2019 Summer League team turned up Max Strus (who was already on a 2-way deal) and Javonte Green despite being comparatively loaded with drafted players on guaranteed deals who were certain to play the majority of the minutes. This year the only SL Celtic on a guaranteed deal of any kind is Hauser so everyone will have a chance at playing time. JD Davison and Juhann Begarin have a more clear path to the Celtics roster because of arcane luxury tax rules but there's certainly no guarantee that either player will rise above 2-way status, if even that.
The flip-side is that the contending Celtics offer no path for any of the non-Hausers to build an NBA name beyond Summer League. There could be money to be made here with a few open spots at the end of the bench but anyone filling those spots knows they'll never play outside garbage time. There's really nothing that a Mfiondu Kabengele or Trevion Williams could do to supplant anyone in the C's rotation. They could be the greatest practice performers of all time and still not get played in real games.
Still, the G-League does offer some opportunity to forge an NBA path and, like with Summer League, the Maine Celtics won't be clogged up with not ready for prime time recent draftees on guaranteed deals getting minutes by fiat. With the rookie minimum salary now over $1 million and 2-way deals paying over $500,000 that's still "buy a house" money for any player who can break through like Green did in 2019.
Lastly, while I think it's unlikely that the team adds any more significant salary we might still see some use for the famed Evan Fournier Traded Player Exception that expires on July 18. As soon as the Brogdon deal was leaked it should have been obvious to any observer that the TPE would likely go unused in the way that we think about "using" a TPE where a player making near the money accounted for by the TPE is taken in with little or no salary going out the door. The team has become very expensive in the context of the franchise's historical spending and that's unlikely to decrease much in the next few years. Yes Al Horford's current contract expires but Grant Williams is due an extension and the team will likely spend their mid-level exception again next summer. Horford may also return on a lower but still substantial deal.
That doesn't mean there's no use for the TPE, though. While I don't expect anything else major, it is still possible that a trade could be coming that can be executed using salary matching but will instead extinguish the Fournier TPE and create a new one for the outgoing player. At this point the roster is basically all contributors so it would have to be a good player like Derrick White going out, but that's not an entirely crazy thought with the team being somewhat heavy with combo-guards and bigs but light at the traditional wing positions. Again, unlikely but not infeasible.
We could also see a small sliver of the larger amount used to trade for a player making just above the minimum or to claim a player on waivers. Normally the team would use one of the smaller TPEs available to put in a claim like that but with those lasting to mid-season and Fournier's disappearing in a few weeks they could go that way. Most waived players go unclaimed though, and in the case of ones like Isaiah Roby who was just claimed by San Antonio there are a lot of teams with waiver priority above the Celtics because that goes by reverse regular season record from last year. Even if it seems likely that the TPE chain ends here there could still be some surprise left in store for us.