NBA salary cap, luxury tax creating difficult decisions for Celtics' bench


The Boston Celtics have some difficult roster decisions looming after the season and the coronavirus pandemic could put a financial squeeze on a team that’s positioned to plunge into the luxury tax.

If Gordon Hayward and Enes Kanter opt into the final season of their contracts with the Celtics, the team could have as much as $144 million committed before they even sign their draft picks and any free agents. That’s a sobering number considering the NBA salary cap and luxury tax threshold could actually dip from this season due to lost revenues.

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Hayward, as detailed earlier in our COVID-19 series, is likely to opt into his $34.2 million player option. Kanter can trigger a $5 million option to return, while the Celtics will almost certainly choose to carry Daniel Theis at his bargain $5 million nonguaranteed salary. All of which would push Boston’s salary commitment to nearly $140 million for just 12 players.

The salary cap for the 2019-20 season was $109 million with a luxury tax line of $132.6 million. The Celtics sit at roughly $119 million in salary for the 2019-20 campaign, but that number will spike next year in part because Jaylen Brown’s rookie extension kicks in. The salary cap was expected to climb to $115 million for the 2020-21 campaign with a $139 million tax line but now both could drop because of lost revenues.

Those economics could put a squeeze on the back end of Boston’s roster especially for: 


Semi Ojeleye: The Celtics hold a $1.8 million team option on the third-year forward. That’s not a prohibitive number when you consider it’s not much more than a minimum salary but, with a squeeze on roster spots and as many as three incoming first-round picks, the team will have a tough decision about Ojeleye’s future. 

Brad Wanamaker: The Celtics can extend a $1.9 million qualifying offer if they desire to bring back the backup point guard but that might simply be a position they can address in the draft. The soon-to-be 31-year-old Wanamaker has been a steady depth option but has a limited ceiling. The Celtics might be able to replace him with a younger player with more upside to learn behind Kemba Walker.

Javonte Green: The high-flying 26-year-old muscled his way onto the Celtics’ roster after years of playing overseas. But he’s got a nonguaranteed $1.5 million salary for next season and might be the casualty of a bloated roster. The Celtics are well stocked with wing talent and might simply not have the roster space to let Green develop.

* Tacko Fall, Tremont Waters: The Celtics must decide if they can carry either of their 2-way players from the 2019-20 season on the parent roster. Waters was excellent in the minors but played only 89 minutes with Boston. Fall was a massively popular big man who showed intriguing potential but remains a long-term project to develop. Yet again, roster space could dictate decisions.

Even those with guaranteed contracts for next season might not be safe from roster management. If Hayward opts in, he’d become an unrestricted free agent after the 2020-21 season and the Celtics must decide if he’s part of their core and what they can spend to keep him here. Remember, too, a new deal for Jayson Tatum could be kicking in that summer, leaving the Celtics very top heavy in salary.

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Marcus Smart’s salary ($13.5 million) will always leave him in trade chatter, if only because Boston doesn’t currently have any other movable salaries in that tier. His value to the team, though, might be greater than his salary. Vincent Poirier played only 114 minutes in 21 games in his paused rookie season and wasn't able to crack the big-man rotation.

The Celtics will have as many as three first-round picks this year, including a potential lottery pick from Memphis if the Grizzlies don’t make the playoffs in the restarted season. Boston also projects at picks Nos. 26 (its own) and 30 (via Milwaukee). Unless the team plans to draft and stash, or push picks into future seasons, there’s a glut of young players with three rookies from last year’s draft already on the roster (Romeo Langford, Grant Williams, Carsen Edwards).


A lower tax line simply adds a layer of complexity to next season’s roster construction. Even as a non-repeater, the Celtics would be on the hook for a hefty check to the league. Let’s say the Celtics’ salary is $145 million and the tax line lands at $135 million. Boston would have to write the league a check for $16.3 million based on the incremental tax rate. Anything north of $10 million over the tax line gets steep in a hurry.

The Celtics must utilize each of its roster spots wisely and it’s a tough puzzle to piece together for a team that must balance hopes of title contention with not overspending if the team fails to be among the NBA’s elite.