Will the Lakers’ draft pick end Marcus Smart’s time in Boston?

After the 2018 NBA Draft, the Celtics might not have enough salary cap room to keep Smart.

Marcus Smart Boston Celtics
Boston Celtics' Marcus Smart plays against the Minnesota Timberwolves during the fourth quarter. –AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

COMMENTARY

“You must gain control over your money or the lack of it will forever control you.” —Dave Ramsey

The nitty gritty of building an NBA franchise is ugly and tedious. Every great thing costs something, even if it isn’t something you want to let go.

In fact, just looking at that last sentence, written before I knew what this sentence would be, is a look into just how ugly this process really is.

You clicked on this link for an explanation of how a draft pick could impact player movement. In crafting this piece, I thought of that sentence as a nice setup to what I have floating in my head. But when I wrote it, I wrote it instinctively as if I was discussing objects, not people. The numbers and names we plug into spreadsheets and trade machines are individuals who have lived and worked in a city for years. As we’ve seen with the Isaiah Thomas trade, there is a personal impact on all of these guys.

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That, though, is the business of the NBA. Danny Ainge is making deals with a singular focus: the betterment of the Boston Celtics. Ainge, who himself was traded a few times, knows more than anyone that very few teams get to completely “run it back” with the same roster as the year before. Emotional attachment to players clouds the judgement necessary to make the big deal that could change a team’s future. We’re watching and enjoying a team that turned over 80 percent of last year’s roster.

Change is inevitable. Especially for contenders committing big money to their stars.

Last June, the Celtics set out to pick Jayson Tatum with whichever draft pick they held. When Philadelphia offered them a protected pick from the Los Angeles Lakers for the right to swap places and still select Tatum, they jumped at the chance. The possibility of drafting another impact rookie means having another player on the roster with a high potential of quickly outperforming his contract.

It could also mean the end of Marcus Smart’s time in Boston.

The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement was built to prevent dynasties. More specifically, it was meant to not let big-market teams create dynasties sustained by bigger television deals and generally higher revenues. Luxury taxes were not only raised, a separate tier was created for “repeat offenders” under which teams paying taxes three times in a four-year span paid a higher rate. (This is complicated and probably boring numbers stuff for some of you but I’d highly suggest this explanation on CBAFaq.com to get the full impact of the luxury tax system).

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That creates a system under which a few types of players are highly valued: The franchise mega-star, and the rookie phenom, and the supporting player over-performing his contract. Middle-class players like Smart who play very well but who will never carry a franchise, can often get caught up in the cruel finances of the NBA salary cap. Just ask Avery Bradley.

Next year’s salary cap is projected to be $101 million with a luxury tax line at $121 million. Between the big salaries of Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving, and Al Horford, and the already guaranteed contracts of Marcus Morris, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Terry Rozier, and Guerschon Yabusele, the Celtics will go into next season $3 million over the cap with up to seven spots to fill.

If the Celtics are trying to avoid paying a tax next year so they can extended the “repeat offender” window by one year, they will only $17 million left to spend.

This is where the Lakers pick could mess with Marcus.

Should that pick convey, the Celtics will automatically be committed to a salary based on that spot. Teams have some wiggle room when it comes to this, but most teams tend to automatically give the allowed 120% increase to that player. Here’s how that shakes out.

Selection 2018-19 Rookie Scale 120 Percent Scale
2nd $6,036,200 $7,243,440
3rd $5,420,500 $6,504,600
4th $4,887,200 $5,864,640
5th $4,425,600 $5,310,720

 

If you’re keeping track, getting the second pick would give the Celtics nine players to this point, about $10 million to spend, and still no contract for Marcus Smart. Throw in the Celtics’ own late-round pick (slotted for about $1.3 million), and guaranteeing the contracts of Semi Ojeleye and Daniel Theis ($2.7 million combined) and you start to see the crunch that could squeeze Smart out of Boston.

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Next season is the only season moving forward where the Celtics can feasibly avoid the tax. The following three season involve potential contracts for Irving, Horford, Hayward, Brown, and Tatum. A lot of money will be spent and a lot of tough decisions will be made. That will force the Celtics to draw lines in the salary sand and say tough goodbyes along the way.

Smart very well could be one of those guys, but it’s not a foregone conclusion. He is a restricted free agent, and the ability for a team to match deals typically scares off a lot of the competition for a middle class salary player like Smart. Teams go on big spending sprees to start summers while restricted guys often twist in the wind and watch their value drop.

If the Celtics get the 5th pick, Smart’s price comes in lower than expected, and the Celtics trade away some salary (Marcus Morris becomes a prime candidate), then the odds of keeping Smart go up.

But if the Celtics strike draft gold and get that second pick, and if another team comes in with an offer north of $10 million for Smart, trading Morris might not be enough to keep Smart in Boston. Like Kelly Olynyk waiting on the Hayward decision last summer, the ping pong balls could determine if this is the last we’re seeing of Smart in Green.

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