With max contracts and salary cap restraints, who are Danny Ainge's future Big Three?
With the signing of Marcus Smart, the Celtics 15-man roster is full and complete - for now. As a died-in-the-wool cynic, my favorite phrases are "for now", "we'll see" and "so far".
My phrases may also be in Danny Ainge's repertoire. With salary-cap restrictions and the player-demand for max salaries, an NBA exec needs to choose his superstars carefully at contract time. So how does this effect the Boston Celtics.
Lesson #1 in this dilemma is: When you have a young player that seems a sure-fire superstar, sign him to a max deal at contract time. Why? Because players with six years or less of NBA experience can be signed up to a level equal to only 25% of the salary cap. Players with 7-9 years can be signed to a maximum of 30% of the cap, while those with 10 or more years can get 35%.
Start with Kyrie Irving. He has a player option for the 2019-20 season. If he opts out and signed for the max, that means 30.6 Million using this season's cap numbers. Gordon Hayward has a player option for 2020-21 with a salary of 34.2 million.
How about the young Jay-Team guys? Jaylen Brown has a player option for 2020-21 at 8.6 million. If he has become a max player by then, we are looking at 25.5 million. Jayson Tatum seems as sure-fire as you get for superstardom. He has a player option in 2021-22 and his max salary would be the same as Jaylen's - 25.5 million.
The total salaries of the four players comes out to 115.8 million (using this year's cap numbers). The cap is set at $101,869,000, and the luxury tax kicks in at $123,733,000. You see the issue. Just four players put Boston well over the cap and heading towards the luxury tax line. And the team needs to still add 11 other guys.
Our readers have mulled over this dilemma at some length. You can make various arguments. Four max players can agree to accept less to stay with a winner and allow the signing of talented mid-range guys such as Marcus Smart. The team could decide to keep four players on max deals and pay huge money on salaries, luxury tax and repeater tax, but this is unlikely.
Another option is to have a more-even salary distribution by sacrificing talent for the payout of less money - no superstars. It worked for the 2004 Detroit Pistons. I doubt this would ever happen in Boston. Knowing Danny Ainge, he will attempt to choose his Big Three wisely and go with them. Who are they?
Al Horford is on a max deal now with a player option for 2019-20. If he remains a Celtic, his contract should be well below any max amount. Signing Tatum to a max deal when necessary just seems like common sense right now. That can always change. If Jaylen Brown continues to improve, he just may be the second max player. Their youth means lower contract dollars.
We have seen Gordon Hayward for a few minutes as a Celtic, but he just may be a keeper. But that remains to be seen. Kyrie Irving? We hear rumors that he may bolt and join up with Jimmy Butler, but he proved himself a much-valued part of the Celtics plans. Both Irving and Butler could be free agents this summer, and there is always the minuscule chance they could end up in Boston. Don't hold your breath on that one.
In truth, all of this means nothing. The only important factor is what Big Three (or Four) does Danny Ainge see as grabbing another Championship. If he feels none of these present combos would work, we may see another trade or two.
Most of us are glad to have Marcus Smart back in the fold, even at a higher-than-expected salary, but that mid-range salary is something the Celtics didn't have this past season and it could always be a trade piece. Ainge has never taken his eyes off Anthony Davis, and I am sure he will watch the Pelicans closely for the first part of the season. But first, he will watch his current crew together, except for six minutes, for the first time as a complete unit.