Set for a plunge into the luxury tax waters for the 2022-23 season, the Boston Celtics will have only the $6.4 million taxpayer midlevel exception available to sign free agents at anything more than a minimum salary.
That’s still a decent chunk of change but not enough to attract the top available talent, especially since other teams have cap space and/or the $10.3 million non-taxpayer midlevel to dangle at the same top-heavy talent pool.
The Celtics’ best avenue to adding an impact talent this offseason will almost almost certainly be through utilizing a traded player exception, especially the $17.1 million Evan Fournier TPE generated last summer. Boston can split that number up to pursue talent or splurge on one spot to beef up the bench. The Celtics must use that Fournier TPE before July 18 and, after giving up four second-round picks to create it (as a spawn of the Gordon Hayward TPE), there should be some motivation to not let it vaporize.
There’s a bit more flexibility with the midlevel exception. A year ago, the Celtics remained patient, and when the market for free-agent point guard Dennis Schroder dried up, they pounced. Things didn’t go exactly as planned with that relationship, but Boston maximized its money then cashed out midseason.
There’s the chance the Celtics don’t even utilize the taxpayer midlevel this summer. It could be valuable as an asset during the season, particularly having a little extra to spend on the buyout market at a time when the team can evaluate exactly what it needs to emerge as a surefire title contender again.
Keep this in mind, too: Boston is already committed to a big chunk of change before even filling out much of its bench. If the Celtics do utilize any or all of the Fournier TPE, the roster is going to get very expensive, very quick. Maybe some of that is alleviated if the Celtics move on from Daniel Theis and sign a lower-cost third-string center further down the road.
What’s feasible if Boston does use the MLE? Well, it’s tricky. And it might come down to what players are willing to take a bit of a discount in order to chase a title.
Other teams can offer more money and a bigger role. Boston needs to identify players who know the team’s starting five is already set and understand the limited time the team can offer.
Too rich for their blood?
Before we get into players Boston can actually land, let’s throw cold water on a few options that feel unlikely:
Bruce Brown, Brooklyn Nets: It’s fun to daydream about bringing home the well-rounded Boston native who tested free agency last season and settled for Brooklyn's $4.7 million qualifying offer. Brown's price tag should jump quite a bit this year -- maybe even beyond the bigger midlevel.
Nic Batum, Los Angeles Clippers: The Hornets paid $27.1 million to get rid of Batum and all he’s done since then is shoot 40 percent beyond the arc and emerge as the sort of versatile veteran forward that championship teams covet. He’ll opt out of his low-money player option ($3.3 million) with the Clippers and Steve Ballmer almost certainly will write him an even bigger check to bring him right back.
Isaiah Hartenstein, Los Angeles Clippers: A young big who blossomed last season with the Clippers, Hartenstein can either re-sign with LA for the same non-taxpayer money that Boston can offer, or will find a richer deal from a team with more to spend.
One thing that could work in Boston’s favor: If the Clippers use any part of their MLE to sign John Wall, then it might open a window for Celtics to swoop in (while Luke Kennard becomes a possible TPE target if Clippers try to cut spending).
Otto Porter Jr., Golden State Warriors: After resuscitating his career and winning a title in Golden State, it feels like Porter Jr. should be motivated to maximize his potential payday, particularly given his injury history. Maybe the taxpayer midlevel is enough to get your foot in that door but two-way wings always seem to find rich paydays.
Kyle Anderson, Memphis Grizzlies: Anderson is a dream fit for the Boston bench (well, maybe if he could shoot the three a little better -- and quicker) but he'll likely find a much bigger payday (unless Ime Udoka can convince the former Spur to take a big paycut).
Could they help Boston's bench?
These players don’t necessarily leap off the page but they can help a contender. Just how much? Well, that’s why they’re available for the smaller midlevel (or maybe even just a chunk of it):
Delon Wright, Atlanta Hawks: This 30-year-old combo guard checks a bunch of Boston’s boxes while being a big, defensive-minded guard. His assist-to-usage rate has long been tops among combo guards but his defense and rebounding numbers are what leap off the page. The only downside: The Celtics might need just a bit more size on a bench that already features Payton Pritchard and Derrick White.
Gary Harris Jr., Orlando Magic: He’s an Indiana kid so you know Brad Stevens already has a soft spot for him. Working even more in Harris’ favor: He’s still a solid defender who connected on 46 percent of his corner threes last season in Orlando. Catch-and-shoot might be the extent of his limited offense but the Celtics’ bench needs versatile defenders and any shooting it can add.
Caleb Martin, Miami Heat: If the Celtics don’t have any immediate plans for their MLE money, there’s worse ways than to float an offer sheet above Martin’s $2.1 million qualifying offer from the Heat. If nothing else, it forces a cash-strapped rival to use its own MLE to retain one of its young development projects.
Patty Mills, Brooklyn Nets: With Kyrie Irving opting in, Mills might be motivated to stick around and see what happens. But if he’s worried about the calamity, or just his role with both Irving and Ben Simmons (presumably) on the court more than last season, then he could turn down a $6.2 million offer and find similar money from other contenders with the taxpayer MLE.
Mills' previous relationship with Udoka could be a selling point and Boston could benefit from a big-game-tested vet who shot 40 percent on threes and can direct a second-unit offense.
Guerschon Yabusele, Real Madrid: He just came off the Boston books last season and he just signed a three-year extension with Real Madrid. But you can’t convince us that Yabusele isn’t the best Al Horford succession plan after watching his progress overseas.
Roll the dice
Want to get the most bang for your buck? You gotta roll the dice.
TJ Warren, Indiana Pacers: Warren only played four games over the last two seasons. For as good of a scorer as he was pre-injury, he needed a lot of shots. Still, beggars can’t be choosers, and 6-foot-8 wings who shot 40 percent on 3-pointers from 2018 to 2020 don’t grow on trees.
Joe Ingles, Portland Trail Blazers: Coming off an ACL tear and set to turn 35 in October, Ingles would likely be a bit of mid-stream addition. The question is, what will he have left and do the Celtics want to pay to find out?
LaMarcus Aldridge, Brooklyn Nets: Defensive limitations seems to rule this one out but Udoka’s past history forces us to include Aldridge, who would have some epic midrange battles against Jaylen Brown after practices.
Getting the max out of a veteran minimum (or something less than the taxpayer MLE)
Just because you have $6.4 million to spend doesn’t mean you have to use it all. Here’s a handful of bargain-cost players we’d consider to fill out the roster:
Tomas Satoransky, Washington Wizards: Let the rest of the league focus on his woeful numbers in New Orleans. We choose to focus on his sizzling 22-game finish with the Wizards, where the 6-foot-7 point guard posted a 33.9 assist percentage (96th percentile among all combo guards). His size at the guard spot is intriguing.
Ish Smith, Washington Wizards: Yup, we’re like 1,000 words into an offseason article about Celtics’ offseason targets and we’ve now mentioned two Wizards guards not named Bradley Beal. This particular Celtics killer is solid ball-handler who seems to score in spurts every time he sees green (but maybe only when he sees Celtics green). His assist percentage ranked 84th percentile among all point guards, per Cleaning the Glass.
The counter argument is that, if you want an undersized point guard who is typically steady with the ball and has even more offensive upside, just play Pritchard more.
Robin Lopez, Orlando Magic: The Celtics need a bruising big who can joust with the Joel Embiid types in the post. The 7-foot Lopez can do that and give you a steady diet of hook shots. He’d be a lower-cost option for a third big if the Celtics were comfortable eventually moving Theis.
Dewayne Dedmon, Miami Heat: He’s 7-foot, rebounds, and plays hard. That checks all of our third-string-center boxes. Call us crazy because Dedmon had a relatively quiet playoffs against Boston but he was a nuisance for 15 minutes in that late-March game where Miami ensured itself the No. 1 seed in the East.
Wesley Matthews, Milwaukee Bucks: We’re probably putting too much stock in that one game where Jayson Tatum struggled against Matthews in the East semifinals. But he did shoot 40 percent on threes in the 2022 playoffs and can defend above his size. Plus, it’s slim pickings on wings who fit Boston’s needs.