On Dec. 8, 2010, Steph Curry rolled his ankle in a game against the San Antonio Spurs… yada yada yada… Kyrie Irving is a Celtic.
So few things happen in a vacuum in professional sports, especially in a league where there can be so much player movement. Every team in the NBA has to operate with a plan in mind and, if they’re good, have the willingness to adjust when something out of the ordinary happens. Plans can change on a dime.
Curry had ankle surgery in the summer of 2011 and again in 2012. Everyone knew he was getting pretty good, but those ankles were a big enough concern that he agreed to a four-year deal worth just $44 million in 2013, and even that had some people wondering if the Warriors made too big a commitment to someone with bad wheels.
We know how good Curry is now. We also know that even with the massive salary cap spike last summer, Kevin Durant was only able to sign with Golden State because Curry was entering a year in which he made $12 million.
A super team was born and all but maybe one or two teams saw their timelines change. Boston was building its newest contender with Al Horford and Isaiah Thomas when it happened. Adding Hayward was a major step in that direction but the prospect of getting good-but-not-good-enough was suddenly staring Danny Ainge in the face.
Which brings us to today.
When Ainge talks about the Celtics’ timeline, he’s talking about an adjusted timeline that shifted in the wake of the Warriors. Instead of building a team to get past Cleveland and fight for a championship now, the Celtics have created a roster that will still be good, but will be better suited for when the Warriors start to fall apart.
Here’s where it’s important to understand some things about the Collective Bargaining Agreement when looking timelines and why Boston made this trade.
The NBA operates with a “soft cap.” The team salary cap this season is $99 million but teams can go over it in certain instances to sign or re-sign players. In an effort to keep rich teams from buying all the good players, there’s a luxury tax on rosters above $119 million. The rate at which a team is taxed goes up as the payroll does. On top of that, teams that have paid the luxury tax in three of the past four seasons get taxed at an even higher rate (you can dive into the minutia of all that here if you’d like).
So the aforementioned Warriors payroll this year will be over $138 million, but they’ll ultimately be spending about $181 million after taxes. As currently constituted, they’ll spend $244 million next season when the repeater tax kicks in, and then, according to ESPN, it could get much, much worse.
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) July 3, 2017
Even when playoff money and other income is factored in, that’s too much money to spend on a team. Decisions have to be made.
Kevin Durant can opt out after this season. Klay Thompson is a free agent after next season. Draymond Green’s and Andre Iguodala’s contracts are up the year after that. The unbeatable Warriors won’t be a super-team for much longer. Players will walk away or get traded, and it will start happening relatively soon.
The Celtics, meanwhile, will be hitting a nice stride right about when contractual dynamics start to break up the greatest NBA team ever assembled. In two years, Al Horford will be 33 and in the last year of his contract. Gordon Hayward will be 29 and smack in the middle of his prime. Irving will 27 and just entering his. Key players like Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum will be 25, 22, and 21 respectively.
So the Celtics are building a team that is built to grow into a contender in a couple of years and make a serious run at the NBA title when Cleveland and Golden State theoretically start to decline.
But wait, there’s more!
Boston will ultimately face those same financial pressures, but not for a while. Their competition in the East (Cleveland, Washington, Toronto) will face those pressures sooner than Boston, and the C’s might be able to push money issues off even further with some roster moves.
Irving will be 27 when he can opt out of his contract and get a five-year deal from Boston. Assuming they give him that deal, they’ll have Irving locked up through 32-years-old to lead a team that suddenly features Smart, Brown, and Tatum just hitting their own primes as well as a very good player selected with the Lakers/Sacramento pick acquired in the Tatum/Fultz deal and, maybe, some decent young role players in Semi Ojeleye, Guerschon Yasbusele, and Daniel Theis.
In three years, Tatum, Ojeleye, Yabusele, Theis, and the unnamed 2018 or 2019 pick will all still be on their rookie deals. That means there is a good possibility of the Celtics, just like they had with Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder, could have some good young contributors making much less than they should.
This all means the timeline Ainge is talking about isn’t just about the next couple of years and trying to pounce in the post-Warriors era. It involves seven years of Irving, after which he’ll be turning 33 and Isaiah Thomas could be heading into retirement (or already a year or so into a TV gig).
There’s no doubt Ainge paid a premium to trade for Irving. He admits the price was high, especially in summer that saw Jimmy Butler and Paul George go for much less in return. But that high price bought the Celtics a few extra years of potential greatness at the point guard position while opening minutes for Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to grow into their roles. When looking at this current Celtics timeline and sliding Kyrie Irving into one of the lead roles, it’s clear Ainge is making a big bet on a sustained, long-term run of very good Celtics teams.