By Brian Robb, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics took a big step forward during the 2016-17 season, advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2012. Team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge stayed patient during this process, holding onto draft assets and allowing his young core to develop on the floor as the next stage of the rebuild progressed.
Despite the franchise’s progress, the gap between the Celtics and title contenders like the Cavaliers and Warriors is a significant one. Ainge has the ability to make some big moves to close the talent gap this offseason, but it’s debatable whether cashing in trade chips right now is a wise play since LeBron and company are showing no signs of slowing down.
Is continued patience and a focus on building a loaded young core (via the Brooklyn picks) that could transform into a contender a few years down the line the best play? Or should Ainge shake things up and try to make a run at Cleveland sooner rather than later? Those decisions don’t all have to be made this summer, but the seeds of whatever direction Ainge picks will be planted. With that in mind, let’s examine what Ainge and his staff will be working with during this 2017 offseason primer for the Celtics.
Guaranteed contracts for 2017-18 season
Al Horford: $27.7 million
Avery Bradley: $8.8 million
Jae Crowder: $6.8 million
Isaiah Thomas: $6.2 million
Jaylen Brown: $4.96 million
Marcus Smart: $4.5 million
Terry Rozier: $1.99 million
Total guaranteed money: $61 million
Non-guaranteed/partially guaranteed contracts for 2017-18 season
Tyler Zeller: $8 million (guaranteed if not waived by 7/2/17)
Jordan Mickey: $1.5 million (guaranteed if not waived by 7/15/17)
Demetrius Jackson: $1.4 million ($650,000 guaranteed, fully guaranteed if not waived by 7/15/17)
Ainge and his staff have diligently maintained salary cap room for this summer, and the result is a roster that’s filled with great contracts for the third straight year. The entire roster outside of Horford are signed to below-market deals, enabling the front office the flexibility go after a max free agent with a few minor bookkeeping moves. The projected salary cap is $102 million, but the C’s cap space will likely be closer to $30 million when draft pick salary holds and other factors are taken into account.
Zeller’s $8 million salary for next year is a nice chip for potential salary matching in trades. His guarantee timeline is very similar to the deals that Jonas Jerebko and Amir Johnson had last summer. Mickey and Jackson are both cheap labor, but they may not be in the team’s plans after their limited impacts last year at the end of the roster.
Celtics Free Agents
Restricted Free Agents (if tendered qualifying offer by June 30)
Kelly Olynyk: ($7.7 million cap hold)
The seven-footer had a roller coaster of a year during his fourth NBA season. There were highlights (Game 7 against Washington) and lowlights (nearly the entire Cavs series), but Olynyk has the skillset (outside shooting, strong passing) that is an ideal fit for Brad Stevens’ pace and space offense. Boston will have the rights to match any offer Olynyk gets on the open market, but they will need to weigh heavily if they want to invest $10+ million per year into a player that continues to battle consistency issues at age 26. The team might also not have room to keep him under the salary cap if they are able to land a max free agent.
Unrestricted Free Agents
Amir Johnson (Early Bird Rights)
Jonas Jerebko (Bird Rights)
Gerald Green (Non-Bird Rights)
James Young (Declined First Rights)
The Celtics have a wide variety of free agent types hitting the market, so let’s examine what each of these “rights” mean for each player. Jerebko’s situation is the simplest. Since the team has full “Bird Rights” on him, the Celtics can pay him whatever they want this offseason, even if it puts them over the salary cap. That won’t be needed obviously (he made just $5 million last year), but it’s the best kind of free agent rights to have for unrestricted players.
Early Bird rights are designated when a player is signed for just two seasons. It allows a team to pay up to 175 percent of a player’s salary from the previous season. Since Amir Johnson earned $12 million last year and is due for a pay cut in his next deal, whether it’s from Boston or elsewhere, they will be able to keep him if they don’t renounce his rights.
Green and Young both have to be signed with cap room, unless it’s a minimum veteran deal for Green or a contract below $2.8 million per year for Young (his declined option for 2017-18).
Celtics Draft Stashes
No. 16 Guerschon Yabusele ($2.2 million cap hold)
No. 23 Ante Zizic ($1.6 million cap hold)
No. 58 Abdel Nader (N/A)
Ainge spent much of his draft capital in 2016 on picking young players and letting them develop overseas (Yabusele, Zizic) or in the D-League (Nader). The team has already indicated that they plan on bringing Zizic over and signing him to a contract after a strong season in Europe. There is less clarity on Yabusele’s situation, which could be impacted by the team’s need to maintain salary cap room for a max free agent. If that’s the case, the team could stash him for another season. Nader has no cap hold as a second round pick, so he’ll need to be signed with a rookie minimum deal or with cap space.
Celtics 2017 Draft Picks
No. 1 (via Brooklyn pick swap. $7 million cap hold if kept)
No. 37 (via Minnesota)
No. 53 (via LA Clippers)
No. 56 (via Cleveland)
The 2017 draft class should be easier to manage this year for Boston (not having eight picks wil help), but a collection of trades over the past three years have left the cupboard stocked well with four picks in total. Everyone will have their eye on what Ainge decides to do with No. 1 overall, but the introduction of two-way D-League contracts in the new NBA collective bargaining agreement creates the possibility that the second round picks could make the NBA roster as well.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.