The idea of extending both Marcus Smart and Robert Williams before the start of next season seemingly runs counter to the Boston Celtics' rather obvious goal of maintaining maximum flexibility moving forward.
But the reality is that extending both players actually could make it easier for the Celtics to construct a championship-caliber roster. After largely sitting out the free-agency period, Brad Stevens can create multiple paths to a big-splash addition by extending both Smart and Williams.
The case for extending Robert Williams
With Williams, the case for an extension is simple -- and not just because the author of this article is the unabashed president of the Robert Williams III Fan Club (Memberships still available, apply online!).
Williams, who already owns the “probably my favorite person to play with” stamp from superstar teammate Jayson Tatum, is set to be a restricted free agent after the season. While the Celtics would have the ability to match any offer he receives next summer, a healthy and productive season could cause Williams’ price tag to skyrocket. If there’s potential to lock him up at a rate that’s beneficial to both sides, the Celtics can ease future cap concerns by striking early.
Here’s the more nerdy part: Williams will carry an $11 million cap hold next summer. Re-signing him this summer to a deal starting in, say, the low teens ($13 or 14 million starting salary?) does not heavily infringe on potentially available cap space.
The Celtics are unlikely to be able to clear the necessary space to pay a 10-plus-year veteran (like Bradley Beal) the full 35 percent max next summer and may need their star target to take a discount. Having Williams locked in as part of this core might be helpful in recruiting that star at less-than-max money.
Even if Williams isn’t in Boston’s future plans, he’d be an attractive trade asset on a modest extension. The only reason not to extend Williams would be long-term fears about his durability (and in that case, the team ought to move him this season with hopes of generating future assets), or if Williams wants to bank on himself in hopes of bigger payday next offseason.
The case for extending Marcus Smart
Whether Smart is the Celtics' starting point guard of the future is one of the biggest questions entering the 2021-22 season. For the first time, the Celtics will toss the point guard keys to Smart and see just how much he’s able to accentuate the talents of Tatum and Jaylen Brown when he’s more than just the backup quarterback.
Trading a non-extended Smart during the season could generate minimal return. A team is unlikely to overpay for a potential rental in the final year of his contract. An extend-and-trade might work but Boston essentially would have to determine before the start of the year that Smart isn’t part of its future, which would make the outlook for the 2021-22 season even bleaker than it already is.
The Celtics can offer Smart a four-year extension starting at 120 percent of his 2021-22 salary. That prices out to about 4 years, $77.2 million with a deal that would kick in at the start of the 2022-23 season. That extension shuffles Smart close to his reported goal of $20ish million per season and offers long-term security for the 27-year-old guard.
Given his new long-term contract, Smart likely becomes a more valuable trade asset -- especially if he reestablishes himself as an All-Defense presence after last year’s downturn.
Two extensions; multiple paths forward
With Smart and Williams extended, the Celtics still have multiple paths forward:
Path 1: Trading for a disgruntled star next season
Maybe the Celtics get into the 2021-22 season and the Smart/Williams/Tatum/Brown quartet shows promise. The Celtics identify they still need another piece but feel like they have four of their five starters in place and simply yearn to add an impact player via trade instead of pursuing cap space.
Boston still has Al Horford’s partially guaranteed contract for the 2022-23 and all their future first-round draft picks to help assemble a trade for any big-ticket player who becomes available. The development of players like Aaron Nesmith and Romeo Langford could aid that pursuit, too, by giving Boston desirable young talent as part of the package.
Is that enough to outbid all suitors? It could depend on how badly that disgruntled star -- Beal or otherwise -- wants to play in Boston.
Adding an impact talent via trade would send the Celtics into the tax in future seasons when the Smart/Williams extensions kick in, but it might limit how much you need to gut the current roster to add another star. The expense is losing future draft assets in any trade.
Path 2: Need a little free-agent help, but not a max player
If Smart and Williams accentuate the talents of the Jays, then Boston could target a less glitzy free-agent splash. Instead of feverishly clearing space in hopes of a near-max player, Boston has an easier path to roughly $20 million in space, all while maintaining much of its core.
Boston would still have to move Horford’s deal, likely at the expense of a future first-round pick, but the team could go into the summer of 2022 with Tatum, Brown, Smart, Williams, Nesmith, Payton Pritchard, and their 2022 first-round pick on the roster. Even with incomplete roster charges, the Celtics’ would have roughly $20 million in cap space to pursue a mid-tier free agent.
Beal is out of the picture here, but the Celtics could target a young star whom they think might pair well moving forward with the core. That amount puts them in a position where they could make a Lonzo Ball-type splurge next summer. Boston then would fill out its roster with minimum-salary players with hopes that a talent-filled starting five would help attract championship-chasing veterans.
Path 3: Sign-and-trade for Bradley Beal
In a quest to get Beal to Boston but also get him the most money possible, the Celtics engage the Wizards on a sign-and-trade in the summer of 2022.
Beal has signaled his desire to play in Boston and bluffs as if he’s willing to simply sign into their cap space at less than the full max. In fear of losing him without recouping value, the Wizards cooperate in a sign-and-trade with Boston sending back some combination of talent and picks.
In this instance, having Smart and Williams signed long-term could help make the money work if Boston needs to include one of those contracts. It also allows the Celtics to preserve a bit more on-roster talent than trimming to get to space.
Path 4: Near-max space to sign Beal (or another max-type player)
If the Celtics simply have no other path to land an impact talent beyond signing them in free agency, they can still clear their way to near-max space. Instead of letting Smart walk after the season, the C's would have to find a trade partner that could take him without sending back salary.
Boston then utilizes the flexibility it has sought this offseason and purges much of the roster (leaving only Tatum, Brown, Williams, Nesmith, and Pritchard) and has enough to pursue a 30-percent max player.
The bottom line is that there seems to be only minor risks in extending Smart and Williams. Flexibility is maintained, especially if you believe Boston’s splurge is more likely to come via trade than free agency. It also could set the team up to maintain more talent deeper into the future.