The idea of Kemba Walker in green is undoubtedly tantalizing.
In a summer in which one All-Star point guard is set to walk away from the Boston Celtics, replacing him with another All-Star with a similar on-court skill set — and a more revered locker-room manner — is undoubtedly appealing. But this is not exactly an even swap when you consider the losses the Celtics would be enduring to simply generate the cap space necessary to sign a player of Walker’s ilk.
The decision for the Celtics to offer Kyrie Irving a max-contract extension would have been a no-brainer, in part because of the ability to keep many of the pieces of the team around him. The pursuit of Walker — or any max-contract player via trade of free agency this summer — is complicated by the fact that Boston would essentially be unable to recoup full value for departing assets while simply trying to open the necessary cap space to sign Walker.
In order to get to $34 million in cap space, the Celtics would need to renounce their rights to nearly all of their free agents, including Irving, Al Horford, Marcus Morris, and Terry Rozier. Even if Boston plans to move on from each of those players, they all have a varying degree of value as potential sign-and-trade assets that could recoup value as they depart. Alas, sign-and-trade avenues are difficult and would often require Boston to take back salary that would prevent it from generating the desired cap space.
If the Celtics were to sign Walker, the team would be left with a top-heavy depth chart that’s noticeably bare on frontcourt depth. The Celtics have already agreed to a deal with Phoenix that will send out center Aron Baynes, who started 84 games the past two seasons, many of which came alongside Horford. Even if you pencil Jayson Tatum in as the Celtics’ starting 4 in a small-ball lineup next season, there’s a clear need for a big man up front.
All of which makes it likely that Boston would need a supplementary move to address frontcourt needs. That could be a simple as using the team’s midlevel exception — or a minimum salary — to attract a low-tier big man. What’s maybe more likely in a scenario that adds Walker is packaging some combination of picks and young talent to land a complementary impact big.
The Celtics, with a tough financial decision looming on Jaylen Brown in the coming summers (he’s extension-eligible this year and a restricted free agent next summer), might be tempted to package the fourth-year wing and some of Boston’s future draft picks to attract, say, one of Indiana’s big men (assuming that the Pacers eventually come to grips with having to move one of Myles Turner or Domantas Sabonis).
In aggregate, the Celtics would essentially be moving Irving, Horford, Brown, Baynes, Rozier, Morris, and draft assets in exchange for Walker and a big man. That’s a steep price to fill your needs at the 1 and 5 spots. It's intriguing if you believe that Gordon Hayward is poised to return to All-Star form and that Jayson Tatum is ready for a Season 3 leap. It simply leaves you thin on depth and leaning on unproven young talent to fill backup minutes at the big spots. This path ultimately hinges on whether you plan to pay Brown moving forward and what draft assets you can retain in the pursuit of a big man.
The least prickly path in filling the holes at the 1 and 5 spots might be targeting a lower-cost big man and using your rights to re-sign Rozier at a stomachable salary. Boston can get to roughly $26 million in salary by moving on from Irving, Horford, and Morris, while still tendering a qualifying offer to Rozier. There’s some additional maneuvering the team could do to get a bit more space and Boston could offer someone like Orlando All-Star big man Nikola Vucevic a deal a bit south of his max value.
Boston would then match any reasonable offer for Rozier — let’s guess it’s something in the $12-15 million range — and roll the dice that he finds the form that made Scary Terry a household name in the 2018 playoffs. In this instance, Boston is able to retain all the pieces of its young core and its draft stash, giving the team the assets to put together a potential trade package when a new star becomes available. What’s more, Rozier remains a tradable asset at a reasonable price even if he doesn’t emerge as the team’s point guard of the future.
The Celtics could do a similar scenario with someone like Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams. While not quite as good of a fit given the way Brad Stevens utilizes big men, the Thunder are desperate to shed salary and could offer draft picks in order for Boston to absorb Adams’ hefty salary. This path would seemingly suggest a longer-term vision, one that seeks to maximize the future assets at a time when Tatum is closer to his prime.
There are some intriguing possibilities in restricted free agency but those come with built-in obstacles in terms of committing money and having to wait to see if rivals will match. That’s a delicate dance.
The Celtics could extend a hefty offer sheet to Milwaukee point guard Malcolm Brogdon — say, something in the $20 million range — and force Milwaukee to further bloat its salary if it desires to retain him. Boston could still hang onto Rozier in that instance and hope to find sign-and-trade possibilities that might aid their quest to add more talent. But it’s simply hard to see the Bucks not matching anything within reason, even as they brace for the possibility of paying both Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton to keep their title contender status at full strength.
The bottom line is that the Celtics have options and both Danny Ainge’s defiant players are “dying” to play in Boston stance, coupled with the Walker rumors, confirms the team plans to be aggressive in whatever is next. But the departures of Irving and Horford still complicate the path to keeping this team immediately competitive, even if the cap space is a nice benefit.
A Kemba splurge makes finding a big man trickier. A big-man indulgence means riding with Rozier if the team yearns to hang onto prime assets. The Celtics might have to make a decision on one of those moves without certainty in a corresponding decision.
It’s a puzzle that Ainge and his staff are trying to piece together on the go, and last year’s headshaking season shuffled all the pieces the team thought it had in place.
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