So the Golden State Warriors are the newly crowned champions of the NBA, something as seemingly inevitable as another Fast & Furious movie being made, or Taylor Swift breaking up with her next boyfriend.
This of course means fans of teams around the league are now turning their attention to the offseason full of hope and blind optimism. As you scroll twitter and various other internet sites you’ll hear numerous suggestions and rumors. Some make sense, some aren’t worth the free 140 characters they’re written with. (I saw a Knicks fan suggest the Knicks offer Carmelo Anthony and his albatross of a contract for the number #1 pick. Phil Jackson could offer to throw in 3 lifetimes worth of free Chipotle and Danny Ainge wouldn’t even consider that for a New York minute).
I’ve also seen mention of how well positioned the Celtics are moving forward, armed with young players (Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, etc.), youngish veterans on remarkable contracts (Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Isaiah Thomas), and a treasure trove of future picks (the Nets #1 next year, their own picks, as well as future picks coming from the Clippers and Grizzlies). This simply is overblown. The Celtics are positioned to strike, but they’ve got to do it this offseason. They’ve got to do it now.
What I hardly see mentioned is that the cap space needed to make a major move will dry up after this offseason. As constituted the Celtics could fairly easily create the cap space to ink a max contract player. It would involve not picking up the non-guaranteed contracts of such end of rotation players as Tyler Zeller, and Jordan Mickey, while also renouncing guys like Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerekbo, and James Young.
The real trick is to make the most of that room now. As it stands, the salary cap for the 2017-2018 season is coming in at $101 million. With an expected slight bump the following season (nothing like the giant leap seen last offseason that was the perfect storm in allowing the Warriors to sign Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP award winner Kevin Durant).
Lets assume for a moment that the Celtics sign a player to a multi year max contract. Whether that player is Gordon Hayward, Blake Griffin, Danilo Galinari, Paul Milsap, or some other unnamed player, for the purposes of the current discussion, the important part is his roughly $30 million cap number.
The players currently under contract for the Celtics for the 2018-2019 season account for roughly $51.6 million in contract dollars. Those players would be Al Horford, Jae Crowder, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, and whomever is chosen with the #1 pick in this years draft. Add in another max contract guy, and now that number is coming in around $82 million.
At first glance you may look around and say, great, that’ll leave about $20 million to play with before the Celtics re-sign their own guys (Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas, and Marcus Smart will all be eligible for free agency after next season. In the case of Marcus Smart, that would be restricted free agency.) The issue is that when a player reaches free agency, they’re assigned a cap hold. That number is a place holder set up to account for that player on the team’s salary cap. Now a team can renounce a player, thus removing that cap hold, and re-sign that player at a later time, but they lose the “Bird Rights” to that player, the ability to go over the league salary cap to retain that player unless that player is willing to accept a league minimum contract. ( a scenario you may see play out with a guy like Gerald Green this summer).
The cap hold totals for Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Marcus Smart would account for $29.3 million in cap space. Coupled with the $82 million previously accounted for that puts the teams cap number at about $109 million, and that’s before accounting for the cap hold for their 2018 draft picks. The first of which presumably will be another high (relative to draft picks) cap charge as the Nets again expect to be shipping a high lottery pick north up the 95. Meaning, they’d be over the cap before doing anything, with no realistic chance to get significantly below.
A lot of Celtics fans are clamoring for Markelle Fultz in the draft (me amongst them, I watch this kid and see some Kyrie Irving in him, and some James Harden, neither of which upsets me), and also Gordon Hayward. I see these same fans talking about Fultz playing the 2 alongside Isaiah Thomas.
Well, lets for a moment set aside Gordon Hayward and assume the Celtics prime free agent targets this off season are post players to help out up front. Even without Hayward you’d be looking at a log jam at the point and on the wings. You’d be going into the season with Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Markelle Fultz, Terry Rozier, and Jaylen Brown. And that’s not considering Jae Crowder at the 3, the position he has played primarily through out his career. To put it bluntly, someone has got to go. The question now is who?
Some may then say, well, if the Celtics are signing Player X to a max contract this off season, why wouldn’t they then just stay over the cap next off season and re-sign Isaiah Thomas AND Avery Bradley and put Brad Stevens in the position of having players fight for minutes in practice, competition breads excellence. The reason is the NBA’s luxury tax. To re-sign Bradley, Thomas, and Smart the Celtics would blow by the luxury tax and eliminate any hope of future cap space. After playing at well below market contracts the last 2 seasons Bradley and Thomas will be looking to cash in, and rightfully so. To re-sign both would realistically mean paying a combined $50 million plus a year to the pair. They would be committing to the team as constituted (and by as constituted I mean the version the night after the 2018 draft). To me that just doesn’t seem realistic. So the question is, do you look to slip Fultz into the off guard position next to fellow Washington Husky Isaiah Thomas, or next to Avery Bradley?
Lets take a look at what each has to offer. It is very easy to toss it out there that Thomas is the vastly superior offensive player, and Bradley the vastly superior defensive marvel, and that statement would likely be correct.
So with Fultz in the backcourt, which skill set is needed more? While Fultz has the potential to become a factor defensively with his 6’10” wingspan and quick feet, his offensive skills are far more developed. Advantage Bradley .
While Bradley has been in the league longer than Thomas has, he is actually 2 years younger (Bradley is currently only 26 vs. Thomas being 28), this is largely a result of Bradley leaving Texas after his freshman season where as Thomas stayed in Washington for the long haul. For the beginning of their contracts that isn’t a big deal. It would be realistic to expect productive seasons from both following re-signing. But at the end of their contracts, which one would you expect to still be reasonable? Avery Bradley playing in his age 32 season. Or 5’9” Isaiah Thomas who relies on his quickness to overcome his shortfalls in stature playing his age 34 season?
As an example of the difference between where a similar player was during similar portions of their career, lets examine Tiny Archibald’s age 28 season (the season IT4 just came off of) and Tiny’s age 34 season. Keep in mind that since the years of Tiny played the world of sports medicine has traveled forward light years, so it would be expected that Thomas’ body would better handle the aging, as well as the fact the in Tiny’s day you could hand check, where as now that’s a no-no. The comparison is not an exact science, but rather an example of how smaller players show a rapid decline in production. I use Tiny as the example instead of say Allen Iverson, or the original Isiah Thomas because of how frequently IT4 has been compared to Archibald.
In his age 28 season Isaiah averaged a remarkable 28.9 points per game. Tiny averaged 20.5 (there was no 3 point shot back then). Isaiah averaged 5.9 assists per game, Tiny, 7.5 per game. Isaiah shot 46% from the field, Tiny shot 45%.
Now jump ahead to Tiny’s age 34 season, where he averaged 10.5 points per game, 6.2 assists, and shot 43% from the field. Not awful numbers for a 34 year old guard, the 6.2 assists are more than Isaiah averaged this season, but are they the numbers you’d want to be paying a max contract player, especially one who is actually a detriment to the defensive system in place? That’s not to say Thomas would mimic those numbers, but to illustrate a precipitous drop in scoring.
While Thomas shot 46% from the field, and 38% from three this season, do you realize that Bradley also shot 46% from the field, and 39% from three? Obviously a lot more of Thomas’ shots came with him creating the shot, vs. Bradley being much more of a catch and shoot player. But in case you haven’t seen him play, Markelle Fultz is tailor made for the modern day pick n roll NBA. Bradley will still be getting those looks with Fultz running the show.
Its simply not realistic to keep both long term. And while the Celtics are partially built to be competitive now, they’re being built to really compete down the line. That is why Markelle Fultz is coming to town, and Jimmy Butler is not. The Celtics are looking to take control of the East when the reign of Lebron is ending. Which of the two players is more well equipped to be a contributor when that occurs? Its Avery Bradley.
Now assuming you’re not re-signing both following next year, the question then becomes who has more value on the trade market. And for the same reasons that I would keep Bradley, and jettison Thomas, I would say that Bradley has more trade value. To that end trading Bradley makes sense, but as I don’t see the Pelicans offering up Anthony Davis, is there anyone out there to be had that makes sense? Would the Bulls accept an offer centered around Bradley, Crowder, and future non Nets picks for Butler? History suggests the answer is no.
There is the option that Ainge went with in during the 2015 off season, and one that he may employ again. If they’re not able to ink a worthy difference maker, a Hayward, a Griffin, a Galinari, then you may see him look for mid-tier guys to sign to 2 year deals where only the first year is guaranteed, such as what he did with Amir Johnson, and Jonas Jerekbo. But in that scenario, barring an unexpected leap in the salary cap, or the Celtics being willing to trade off a Jae Crowder and the 2018 pick, along with other pieces it would be very difficult to create a max slot next year, which again brings us to making a move this offseason.
At the end of the day, Thomas is that bright shiny new Corvette that looks gorgeous, goes zero to 60 in about half a second and turns all the girls heads. Avery Bradley is the big sturdy brand new Ford F150, made to run forever, to take a beating, and perform the dirty work needed day in and day out. Its tough to afford both, for me, I’m hanging onto that sturdy Ford, especially when I look over and see that new Maserati pulling up named Markelle.
- Jason Sullivan