After a painfully quiet draft day, the Boston Celtics got wild on Friday.
Boston agreed to two trades that left more questions than answers about what the team has planned for next season (and beyond).
Here’s what we know for certain: With the timeline to maximize available trade exceptions closing, the Celtics pounced. Boston used smaller trade exceptions to move off Tristan Thompson’s bulky salary while bringing back Kris Dunn, Bruno Fernando, and a future second-round pick.
The Celtics then utilized the remainder of the Gordon Hayward trade exception to absorb the modest salary of Josh Richardson.
So what happens next? We look like that popular gif of Charlie from "It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia" trying to determine what it all means.
What we know for certain is that Boston has maintained flexibility as it plots a path forward and has some intriguing new assets that can either help them on the court, or could potentially aid the Celtics in restocking their collection of future assets.
Some questions that need answers:
Does the Josh Richardson deal signal that the Celtics are worried about re-signing unrestricted free agent Evan Fournier?
The Celtics showed on draft night that maintaining future flexibility, likely to chase a big-ticket third star, is of premium importance. In splurging a bit to add Richardson and his $11.6 million expiring salary, the natural inclination is to wonder if Boston is worried that a rival might pry away Fournier this summer. If the Celtics are hellbent on maintaining flexibility, then they have to be cautious with the length and total value they can offer Fournier, who they acquired at the trade deadline last year.
All that said, Boston could also simply be absorbing Richardson’s deal while knowing it can always flip him for assets at any point during the 2021-22 season, especially if he bounces back from a down year in Dallas. This could simply be striking early before the Hayward exception evaporates next month in the midst of free agency. As will become a theme here, the Celtics have options.
Are the Celtics positioning themselves to use the full midlevel exception this season? Or do they have even bigger plans?
After trimming salary with both the Kemba Walker and Thompson trades, it was fair to wonder if Boston might be toying with the idea of using the heftier non-taxpayer midlevel exception this summer. That would allow Boston to chase a more impactful free agent than what the $5.9 million taxpayer midlevel might allow.
Again, this all sort of hinges on Fournier. If the Celtics pay a hefty price to retain him, then they’d almost certainly be a taxpayer and limited to the smaller midlevel. But Boston could shed other salaries -- including some of the newly acquired money -- to pave a path towards a bigger free-agent splurge. For now, we’re operating under the assumption that Boston errs on the side of the smaller midlevel as not to hard cap the team and maintain maximum flexibility. But is that $5.9 million midlevel enough to land a Patty Mills or Rudy Gay?
What does this mean for a pursuit of Lonzo Ball?
A report from The Athletic on draft night suggested the Celtics could pursue restricted free agent guard Lonzo Ball this summer. We’ve been stumped trying to figure out exactly how Boston could do that without navigating a bunch of cumbersome hurdles.
Ball is set to command a salary north of $20 million and the Celtics cannot easily absorb that number given their cap constraints, and there’s additional obstacles presented by the collective bargaining agreement (Ball is subject to base-year compensation with the raise he’s projected to receive; and the Celtics will be hard-capped by receiving any player in a sign-and-trade). Friday’s dealings do not open any clear paths to pursuing Ball, at least without the Celtics having to move on from at least one of Fournier and Marcus Smart, and also involving a third team in the Ball transaction.
Are the Celtics setting themselves up to pursue a free agent in the summer of 2022?
It’s noteworthy that all of the players that Boston acquired Friday are on expiring deals. None of the maneuvering has complicated the path to max cap space in the summer of 2022, though it’s still a prickly process that would involve moving on from both Fournier and Smart along the way.
But it’s at least an option. The only guaranteed money on the books for Boston for the 2022-23 season is Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and the partially guaranteed deal of Horford. If Boston can get off of Horford’s money before the trade deadline this year, they could be in position to really clear the books (and they might still be able to hold onto Robert Williams, who would have only a modest cap hold next summer if not previously extended).
What’s the next domino to fall?
Fournier remains the big question mark here. If the Celtics pay to retain him, then it’s likely a series of smaller moves to fill out the roster and then Boston could evaluate it needs early in the season. If Fournier gets a bigger offer elsewhere, the Celtics will have some tougher decisions but could emerge with another big trade exception and have a bit more freedom to spend this summer.
The bottom line is that Boston has a whole bunch of different paths forward. They are positioned to audible if Plan A or B is squashed.
We just have to wait to figure out exactly what Plan A and B are.