The Celtics’ free agent odyssey has just begun.
Bringing back Avery Bradley was the first order of business for Celtics’ president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, but what comes next for Boston remains the bigger question of the offseason.
The team has reportedly reached out to 30 players in free agency thus far, including bigger names like restricted free agents Gordon Hayward, Chandler Parsons, and Isaiah Thomas. Lesser-known players like Jordan Hill and Kent Bazemore have also been contacted by Boston.
While the team’s target list may be long, Ainge won’t have a chance of landing the vast majority of these players. For one thing, the Celtics barely have any salary cap room at the moment.
After factoring in the Bradley signing, the team has roughly $60.3 million committed in salaries for next year when you add in cap holds for Marcus Smart and James Young. The projected salary cap for the 2014-15 season is $63.2 million.
So without cap room, how exactly can Ainge improve this roster? He has a few weapons at his disposal.
First, there are the four non-guaranteed contracts (Keith Bogans, Phil Pressey, Chris Johnson, Chris Babb) that the team has under its control for next season. Combined, those deals are worth about $7.8 million and could be used in a trade for a team hoping to create cap space or shed salary.
The Celtics also have three trade exceptions totaling roughly $12.7 million at their disposal. Ainge could use these to bring aboard a free agent in a sign-and-trade deal with another team.
So, even though the Celtics don’t have much salary cap room right now, they still have a number of different ways to upgrade the roster. What route will they choose? Let’s explore a few of the options the team could take this offseason.
PLAN A: Try to contend right away
Possible Scenario: Celtics trade Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger, three future first round picks and cap filler to Minnesota for Kevin Martin and Kevin Love. Ainge then brings back Paul Pierce with the midlevel exception and signs veteran bigs (Elton Brand, Emeka Okafor) looking for playing time and a chance to contend.
Odds of Happening: Slim-to-none. The Wolves have not shown the inclination to move Love this summer without an exceptional offer and the Celtics already lost one of their best trade chips by using the No. 6 pick on Marcus Smart in the 2014 NBA Draft. Minnesota likely isn’t enamored with anything Boston has left to offer. With no other All-Stars (that we know of) on the trade block, the Celtics’ best chance of taking a big step forward this offseason came and went on draft night.
PLAN B: Aim to make the postseason while adding to a young roster
Possible scenario: The Celtics address their need for rim protection by gambling on adding a young center like Larry Sanders who is coming off a miserable season in Milwaukee. The Celtics could offer the Bucks to pick a couple options from Boston’s list of trade assets that include salary relief, Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger, and future first round picks.
From there, Boston adds another young piece or two (think a Hill or Bazemore type) with the midlevel exception, brings back Kris Humphries, and has a young roster that should contend for a playoff spot.
Odds of Happening: 30-40 Percent. I believe this kind of trade scenario involving Sanders or another emerging player like Hayward is Boston’s preferred plan (Hayward is reportedly being offered a max contract by the Cavs). It doesn’t necessarily mean it will happen, since it takes two teams to tango, and the Celtics won’t be desperate to make a trade for the sake of making a deal. Overpaying in a trade or in a big contract (for a player like Hayward) won’t help the building process. If the price is right though, Ainge will jump on it and speed up the rebuild process just a bit.
PLAN C: The Young Rebuild Plan (Year Two)
Possible Scenario 1C (Keep Rondo while staying young): The Celtics look to continue adding assets as they build with an eye toward the future. Rondo, Bradley, and Smart are given a chance to mesh in the backcourt as the team weighs whether they can coexist long term. The team uses Keith Bogans’ expiring contract to land other assets (a young player or draft pick) and then adds a couple young players (Hill, Bazemore) via sign-and-trade or the MLE to maintain salary cap flexibility for next offseason.
Possible Scenario 2C (Trade Rondo and get even younger): The Celtics move their captain as a part of a sign-and-trade deal with the Sacramento Kings for Isaiah Thomas, Ben McLemore, and a pick. More developing youngsters with offensive upside (Jordan Hamilton is one player that comes to mind) are targeted during the remainder of free agency as the Celtics try to develop their young core and wait to make a big splash via trade or free agency in 2015.
Odds of Happening: Let’s go with 40 percent for scenario 1C and 20 percent for scenario 2C. I don’t think an enticing offer is out there for Rondo right now, and the Celtics should not feel any pressure to move on from him yet. Waiting to see what a Smart/Rondo/Bradley backcourt looks like in action should outweigh the allure of a minimal return for the Celtics captain.
Whatever path the Celtics end up taking should remain a mystery for at least another few days, while bigger fish like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony decide their own futures. From there, a domino effect should take place with other free agents on the market landing in their new homes. At that point, the Celtics will be able to better determine the best path for the team’s future.