With a focus on flexibility, the Boston Celtics have positioned themselves to add an impact talent some time in the next calendar year. But regardless of whether the Celtics seek that player via trade or free agency, there are numerous pain points along the way.
And cap space might be no less painful than the trade avenue.
Typically, utilizing cap space instead of trading away talent and draft assets would be most desirable. But the difficulty in cramming three bloated salaries under a salary cap that has endured a pandemic stall creates almost as many headaches as the trade route for Boston.
For the purpose of this exercise, let’s assume that Bradley Beal is the team’s ideal target and he opts out of the final year of his current contract with a desire to a sign a four-year, maximum salary deal with the Celtics next summer.
Beal, with 10 years of NBA experience after the 2021-22 season, is eligible to command up to 35 percent of the salary cap, or a first-year salary of roughly $41.7 million based on the NBA’s initial $119 million projection.
Beal -- or any 10-plus-year veteran who the Celtics might target -- could take less money to ease his new team’s burden. Boston also could seek a younger star. (Players with 7-9 years of experience can receive up to 30 percent of the cap; with 0-6 years of experience only 25 percent).
But let’s operate with the idea that Boston needs to get somewhere around $41.7 million in cap room to land Beal. Here’s the bare minimum that has to happen by the summer of 2022 for Boston to even sniff that much cap room:
- Trade Al Horford’s partially guaranteed $26.5 million contract for the 2022-23 season.
- Renounce their rights to unrestricted free agent Marcus Smart (or trade him before that point).
- Trade or do not pick up the 2022-23 options and renounce the rights to Romeo Langford, Grant Williams, and Carsen Edwards.
- Renounce the rights to all other unrestricted free agents, including offseason additions like Josh Richardson and Kris Dunn (if not previously traded).
- Extend an $11 million qualifying offer to Robert Williams (if not previously extended)
Boston’s roster/cap sheet entering the summer of 2022 then would look like this:
That’s roughly $74.6 million in commitment. That number would tick higher if the Celtics elect to sign Yam Madar to a multi-year deal this summer. Boston also would have a modest cap hold in place for their first-round pick.
You still have to add in incomplete roster charges, essentially dummying in minimum salaries until you’re at the 12-man roster limit. (Beal would count as the necessary 13th player at the time of signing.)
Even with ALL those concessions, you likely still need to ask Beal to take less than the full max in order to have the room to make it work.
With a Tatum/Brown/Beal core and some intriguing young pieces on the roster, Boston seemingly would be an attractive destination for the sort of championship-chasing veterans who are currently flocking to the Lakers and Nets. So, filling out the roster isn’t a major concern. But coming off what could be a down year might hinder the perception of what Boston’s ceiling is despite the addition of a new star player.
If Beal isn’t Boston’s target and the Celtics simply want to make a Lonzo Ball-like splurge, then getting to $20ish million in cap space is a little more digestible. In that instance, Boston could even consider extending both Smart and Williams this offseason.
Extending Smart does not necessarily close the path to cap space; it would simply require the team to trade him before a free-agent pursuit. Extending Williams would bite into available space but given that he has a bulky cap hold, then wiggling up to $13-$15 million range isn’t prohibitive.
A Smart extension would start around $17.2 million next season and, if you could lock up Williams in the low teens, then you’re still flirting with maybe $20 million in space depending on other concessions.
All this, too, assumes that the 2022-23 cap lands at what seems like a very optimistic $119 million projection given that the NBA is still not quite out of the pandemic woods.
Ingesting Beal’s $33.7 million salary during the 2022-23 season might be more palpable for the Celtics but requires an awful lot to happen, most notably Beal essentially signaling that he’s only willing to sign with Boston next summer and forcing Washington to accept something less than a Jaylen Brown-helmed package.
Even then, Boston would be sacrificing a heap of future draft assets, limiting the team's ability to add cheap young talent to a bloated cap sheet but potentially allowing the Celtics to retain some additional pieces currently on the roster. Tax concerns could deter ownership from that route.
There simply isn’t an ideal path to constructing a roster with three bloated salaries, though an influx of TV money further down the road could ease longer-term concerns.
The more immediate future will require the Celtics to make tough choices just to make the cap-space avenue a possibility.