With the NBA playoffs behind us, The Washington Post’s Tim Bontemps will analyze the biggest question facing each playoff team as it enters the offseason. Next up are the Boston Celtics, who have a deep, talented roster — but one that’s about to get far more expensive and could lead to tough choices as early as this summer.
Speaking to reporters in Boston on Tuesday, Kyrie Irving dismissed the notion of signing a contract extension with the Celtics this summer.
“Contractually, financially, it just doesn’t make any sense,” he said.
While Irving hasn’t been making much sense with his claims about the Earth possibly being flat (just so he knows, it is not), he’s right about his contract. If Irving was to sign an extension with Boston on July 1, the maximum he could receive is $108 million over four years.
If he waits until July 1 of 2019, however, when he becomes an unrestricted free agent, he could sign a five-year deal worth $188 million – $80 million more.
So it makes sense that Irving would wait and, at minimum, allow himself to get that extra $80 million. It also gives him another season to make sure Boston is the best place for him moving forward.
But his willingness to follow that path leaves open another possibility Boston should consider pursuing this summer: following the same script it used in getting Irving last summer by trading him this offseason.
Wait, what? Trade Irving? What sense would that make, given the Celtics traded Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and what turned out to be the No. 8 pick in this year’s draft just to get a player of his caliber?
Well, because the Celtics are set up to become a very, very expensive team over the next few seasons – and, over the next three years, those bills are going to come due.
Let’s take a deep dive into those financial considerations. Beginning this summer, every key member of this year’s team will be up for a new contract over the next three years: Marcus Smart and Aron Baynes this summer; Irving, Al Horford, Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris next summer; Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward in 2020; and Jayson Tatum in 2021.
For now, we’ll focus on the five players – Irving, Horford, Hayward, Brown and Tatum – who could be in line for max contracts. Using the current future cap projections, if Irving, Brown and Tatum all sign five-year maxes and Horford and Hayward sign at a discount (say, $25 million and $30 million per year, respectively), Boston would be looking at paying five players a total of $153 million.
Even if the rest of the roster was filled out with players making the minimum (which it would not be), that would leave Boston with a payroll of nearly $169 million – and, more importantly, almost $25 million over the current projected luxury tax line of $144.4 million.
Considering Boston would all but have to be paying the repeater tax that season in this scenario, that would put Boston’s payroll at an astronomical $254 million – a number that would only keep going up. It also needs to be noted that getting both Horford and Hayward to take those lesser deals is no sure thing, and that the remainder of the roster is entirely composed of players on minimum contracts, which it wouldn’t be.
In short: Boston can’t afford to keep all five guys.
So, why move on from Irving? For starters, because he may move on from Boston a year from now. Next summer, there will be a host of teams with salary cap space – including, notably, his hometown New York Knicks, the Los Angeles Clippers and, depending on how their chase for free agents goes this summer, the Los Angeles Lakers.
Remember: Irving was only available for a group interview with reporters in Boston on Tuesday because he was promoting his new “Uncle Drew” movie. That’s not to say he’s more interested in the bright lights of a big city than being in a winning situation; but this also will be the first time in his career that he will be an unrestricted free agent, able to choose where he wants to go.
While that future very well may be in Boston, there’s nothing guarantee it will.
Then there is the injury question – which is equally scary. Irving missed the entire postseason because of back-to-back surgeries on his left knee in March and April – procedures which will keep him off the court four-to-five months.
It would be one thing if this was the only injury of Irving’s career. But we are talking about a small guard who now has missed 15 or more regular season games in four of his seven NBA seasons, and a total of 117 across his career. Add in the playoff games he missed with season-ending injuries in 2015 and this year, and that number balloons to 141 games – an average of 20 per season.
If Irving was to be signed to that five-year, $188 million max contract, Boston would be on the hook to pay him $40.2 million in 2023, and $42.8 million in 2024 – in his age 31 and 32 seasons.
All of a sudden, the idea of locking in Irving for the long-term is less appetizing.
Boston has arrived at this point because it has successfully used the never-ending fruits of the trade it made with the Brooklyn Nets in 2013 to land young, premium talents such as Brown and Tatum to go with ready-to-win veterans. That doesn’t include the first-round pick it used in 2015 to land Terry Rozier – who has developed into a starting-caliber point guard who could potentially be signed for less than half as much as Irving.
Those savings – upwards of $16 million per season – could be used to add quality depth pieces. Given how adept Coach Brad Stevens is at using his entire roster – and with Boston potentially having four first-round draft picks in 2019 – that depth could be more valuable to the Celtics than most teams.
Having top-end talent is the most important thing, but we’re talking about choosing between one of five top-end talents – which is a different proposition than most teams face.
Moving on from Irving now would avoid the possibility of losing him for nothing – or paying him close to $200 million over five years – and would also allow the Celtics to continue to add long-term, sustainable assets to their roster in a trade. Continually doing that over the past five years that has put Boston in a position to be a legitimate championship contender for the next decade or more.
That’s how Boston acquired Irving last summer – and why there are merits to moving on from him this summer.
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