(Right here is my recap of the Celtics trade deadline from a roster perspective. This is about how the trade sets them up beautifully for the future in terms of the cap.)
The Celtics are sitting pretty with their salary cap sheet, and the Isaiah Thomas trade makes them look even prettier.
A brilliant point that Bill Simmons made in Grantland’s aadfasdfasdfsda of Deadline Day was that the Celtics now have Marcus Smart, James Young, Avery Bradley, and Isaiah Thomas locked up through 2018 for a combined $22 million. That’s insane.
After 2016, the cap will rise considerably, and $22 million may be about a quarter of the total cap at that point. Also, Gerald Wallace comes off the books after 2016, as does Evan Turner’s $3.4 million sum. (What the Celtics do with Turner will be very intriguing. Do they use him for next year as an acceptable placeholder on a good team, then let him go into free agency, do they try to roll with him in the future despite having a clogged backcourt now, or do they try to trade him this summer to get an asset for him and valuable minutes for Smart, Young, Thomas, and Bradley? Smart money is on the 3rd option. That’s also the right call.)
Also in 2016, Sullinger and Zeller’s rookie deals end, and they’ll be restricted free agents, and Olynyk will have 1 year left. The Celtics’ situation in 2016 is incredibly fascinating. They’ll owe about $22 million to 4 great options at guard and small forward if Young can play at the 3, and then no other spots on the team are set. Olynyk is the only non guard on the team who runs after 2016, meaning that the Celtics are going to be at the ultimate crossroads — but only with about half the positions on the floor. The other half is completely solidified unless Ainge wants to use the current guards as assets for better ones, which we can’t rule out. Then they’ll have only about $25 million committed when the salary cap could be as much as $90 million, which is a number that I’ve seen many times but is a ballpark estimate at best.
Many teams with huge cap space in 2016 are going to realize that their space means less than they expected because cap space is going to be so plentiful leaguewide. Cap space is also an asset, and an asset’s worth decreases if everyone has it.
But the Celtics are not going to have that problem, because they’ll better be able to put that cap space to use. They probably won’t get Kevin Durant or Al Horford, the best unrestricted free agents in 2016 by a long shot (next on the list would be a 31 year old Joakim Noah or Mike Conley, and the Celtics very likely won’t be in the point guard market). But they could use the cap space and assets they have to go on a trading spree, maybe somewhat similar to 2007 with Garnett and Allen. The difference here would be the ages of the core of the team. Back in 2007, Paul Pierce was 30, so it made just as much sense to go for aging stars with some game left in the tank than it would have to go for younger guys, because that core wouldn’t have lasted so long anyway.
If such a spree were to happen in 2016, the Celtics would have the luxury of having a younger core. Let’s say that Smart is really the only untouchable for the team at that point. They could offer Brooklyn’s 2016 1st rounder, which could be Top 10 or even Top 5. They could sign and trade Sullinger or Zeller, or maybe trade them at the 2016 trade deadline if they see that as the best time to get a star or superstar. Or, if a team wants NBA ready players for whatever superstar the Celtics get (a type of trade that rarely seems to work out for NBA teams), the C’s could trade Bradley and/or Thomas.
Just for fun, I went looking for guys who could be potential trade targets in the summer of 2016, either for contract or team reasons. The obvious leader of the list is Demarcus Cousins, who I’m praying daily will be a Celtic within 18 months. The dude is an absolute beast and will only be turning 26 that summer. His contract runs through 2018, which would be perfect for the Celtics, who would get 2 more guaranteed years, and is short enough that the Kings might realize that they can’t make it work with his remaining window in the city. Sullinger, Young, Brooklyn’s 2016 1st rounder and a Celtics 1st rounder? That’s a high price, but I think it’d be worth it.
Other possibilities are Greg Monroe if the Pistons resign him and then fail to keep improving as they have since the Josh Smith trade, meaning he’d want out; Paul George if he’s at close to what he was this time a year ago but the Pacers are going nowhere; Zach Randolph, who would be on a 1 year, $10 million deal at that point and may be able to be acquired rather easily; Serge Ibaka, who would be on a 1 year, $12.5 million deal which would be incredibly reasonable after the cap rises, and Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors, who I’m including on this list simply because Utah is bound to screw something up.
But no matter what the Celtics do, they will have a ton of options in the near future. As for the immediate future, I’m hoping for the young core to get playoff experience this year, and then a Greg Monroe signing in the summer. But Danny Ainge always likes having flexbility, and now he has a ton of it. I’m feeling pretty good about the Celtics right now, and that’s saying something considering they’re out of the playoffs.