We're told it's a business. And it is.
Kevin Garnett, however, is a human conglomerate, and his addition to the Celtics represents a coup for Danny Ainge from a basketball standpoint -- with thanks, again, to old friend Kevin McHale, who now has taken in an astonishing nine players off the Celtics' roster in the last 18 months. (And the roster, if you recall, wasn't all that hot.)
But Ainge isn't paying the freight. He's merely moving it. The cost of bringing Garnett to Boston is a steep one and ownership deserves kudos for allowing it to happen.
Wyc Grousbeck and the lads simply could have raised the luxury tax red flag and the deal likely would have died. Owners generally look at the luxury tax threshold as the third rail of the NBA, which is why so few cross it. (Last year, for instance, only a handful of teams had payrolls that exceeded the $65.42 million threshold.) You may recall that previous owner Paul Gaston would not re-sign Rodney Rogers in the summer of 2002 because of luxury tax concerns.
Gaston's successors have not exactly been Cubanesque in their spending. This past season, for instance, 10 players were either on rookie-scale contracts or were second-rounders. An 11th, Michael Olowokandi, was playing for the veteran's minimum, for which the team was not wholly responsible. Ownership has refused to use the mid-level exception most of the time, the lone case to the contrary in 2005 when it split the exception between Brian Sca-
labrine and Dan Dickau.
So, you could say, they owed the fans one -- or more. And, with Garnett, they are paying it back.
The Celtics are going to be luxury tax payers soon, possibly even this year, depending on how much Garnett's trade kicker turns out to be (it had been $6.75 million), how it will be dispersed, how long and how costly his extension turns out to be, and, finally, who else Boston brings in to round out the roster. Just using Garnett's base salary of $22 million for next season, the Celtics, currently with nine players under contract, will be perilously close to the tax threshold of $67.865 million after they sign their two second-rounders and add a 12th player, most likely a veteran to a minimum deal (Gary Payton redux?), for which there is a reimbursement from the league. The nonreimbursed amount counts against the cap.
That would give them a roster of the minimum of 12 players. They could add a 13th or 14th player, probably veteran free agents, who, again, would come relatively cheap. But Boston would be flirting with the tax threshold for this season, which would mean a dollar-for-dollar penalty over the threshold.
Going over the threshold also means the Celtics would lose revenue they had received the last few years for staying under the threshold. Last year, for instance, the five teams over the luxury tax, combined, paid around $55.56 million, with the Knicks ($45.142 million) accounting for most of it. The teams that were under the threshold each get one-30th of the overage, or about $1.9 million. So if you're $1 million over, you essentially take a hit of almost $3 million.
That is one reason it took this deal so long to get done. And even with it in place, the Celtics are destined to become luxury tax payers in 2008-09, if not this season. Hey, that's Mark Cuban's approach, and he seems to do all right. It's just surprising to see the heretofore frugal (to be charitable) Celtics jump off that cliff.
In '08-09, using Garnett's $23 million salary that was on the books, the Celtics have only five players under contract. But those deals total a whopping $67 million plus. And the tax threshold that season likely will be around $70 million.
But, undoubtedly, however far the Celtics stray into that once-forbidden land, they have to think they will recoup the money in any number of ways. There is likely to be an increase in (paid) attendance next season. There could be a pronounced interest from potential sponsors. There is a new TV deal that goes into effect after this season. And, finally, there is the expectation there will be some serious playoff revenue coming in.
The old adage, "You've got to spend money to make money," is never more true than in this instance. The owners are opening their wallets (insert your own joke here) to bring in a certifiable Hall of Famer. They'll have two of the highest-paid players in the league in Garnett and Paul Pierce and could end up with one of the top payrolls. But they won't care, and the fans never will care, if the latest move brings the expected results.
Peter May can be reached at P_May@globe.com.