Vin Baker has likely played his last game as a Celtic. All that remains to be seen is what the team will do. Options range from nothing to cutting all ties with the power forward.
But be advised that even if the team terminates Baker's contract because he failed to comply with his alcohol treatment program, which could only be an option three weeks from now, it does not mean the Celtics can suddenly put a free agent like Kobe Bryant on their radar screen this summer. Yes, there will be a dramatic savings; assuming they prevail in arbitration (yes, the players' union will file a grievance), they could save what's left from this year's $13.5 million salary and another $14.625 million next year and $15.75 million the year after that. That all comes off their payroll. And, knowing that it was in the budget, it amounts to more than $30 million in found money.
But, at present, even lopping off Baker's salary from next season does not put the Celtics into the same situation that Utah, San Antonio, and Denver are likely to be in this summer. All of those teams could have significant room under the salary cap to pursue free agents. If Baker's money comes off the books, the Celtics' payroll (assuming they keep Chris Mihm at his designated rookie salary figure of around $4 million) will be $44 million-$45 million next season. With the salary cap expected to come in at around $45 million, that means the Celtics will be in no position to be far enough under the cap -- or even under it at all -- to go out and sign any marquee free agents with available cap space. Bryant is expected to be the biggest fish in the pond, assuming he stays out of jail.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves somewhat here. First, the Celtics must wait 10 games before they can even think to act.
However, once the suspension hits 10 games -- which would be after the final game before the All-Star break -- the Celtics take control of the situation. They could then go to the uniform player contract and, citing the medical evidence assembled by the doctor, announce they are terminating the deal because Baker is unfit to play. They could allow the suspension to continue, but one gets the sense that this ownership group, while sympathetic to Baker's situation, also knows it has a business to run, and would desire a swift resolution.
But suppose they do terminate the deal and Baker's money disappears. Here's how such a move would help financially on three fronts:
If there is a luxury tax this year -- and that won't be known until the summer -- the Celtics may well not have to pay a dime if they can get what's left of Baker's money this year to come off the books. Many teams figured that any club with a payroll in excess of $57 million would have to pay the luxury tax, which is a dollar-for-dollar tax on the overage. The Celtics' projected payroll for this season, with all of Baker's cash on the books, is around $59 million. If you are under the threshold, you're entitled to refunds from the league, which could be substantial. That is one reason the players' union is monitoring this thing with an electron microscope. But no one can say for sure if there is going to be a luxury tax. There was last season.
The Celtics can be aggressive in using the midlevel exception, which they chose not to use last year. That figure, which should be about $5 million, can be used by an over-the-cap team to sign a player (or players), and there usually are some good buys at this price. Most teams are in the same boat, however, so competition for someone like, say, Brent Barry, will be stiff. Last summer, Juwan Howard was one of the more celebrated signees out of the midlevel exception. Two others: Gary Payton and Michael Olowokandi.
The Celtics would be able to take care of their own without worrying about the luxury tax. Mark Blount, for instance, is under contract next season for a shade more than $1 million. But it's a player's option and, given the improvement he's made, he is certain to exercise it. The Celtics could then strike a new deal with Blount for more of a fair-market value for a decent NBA starting center.
Blount has earned that much. Mike James is another who should get a raise. The Celtics still hold his rights but, given the way he's played, he deserves a big bump from the $640,000 he's getting this season.
These are only possibilities. And they may not come to pass. But after another noncompliance episode, the Baker story has quickly gone from uplifting to troubling to sad. No one wanted to see it end this way.