30 teams in 30 days: Boston Celtics offseason preview

Jan 3, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Utah Jazz guard / forward Gordon Hayward (20) takes a shot while guarded by Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas (4) and forward Jae Crowder (99) during the third quarter at TD Garden. The Boston Celtics won 115-104. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 3, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Utah Jazz guard / forward Gordon Hayward (20) takes a shot while guarded by Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas (4) and forward Jae Crowder (99) during the third quarter at TD Garden. The Boston Celtics won 115-104. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports /

Fresh off an Eastern Conference Finals appearance and winning the top pick in the draft (and then trading it), the Boston Celtics are poised for perhaps the most interesting free agency period in the league. They’re the rare contender that could have the cap space to land a max-level player without the benefit of a huge cap spike, with both Gordon Hayward and Blake Griffin linked to the team, to say nothing of Paul George trade rumors. It’s conceivable that one of Hayward or Griffin could make their way to Boston and the Celtics could still trade for George.

Even still, they could then extend George to lock him up to the team through 2020, mitigating fears that he would leave next summer if things don’t go well in Year 1. Doing so would almost certainly require general manager Danny Ainge to cash in all the chips he’s acquired over the past five years, but a team centered on Isaiah Thomas, George, Jayson Tatum, Hayward/Griffin, and Al Horford might be too good to pass up.

The salary cap math is complicated and immensely uninteresting unless you’re a cap nerd, but in general, there is one main path to uniting one of Hayward and Griffin with George in Boston:

Step 1—Clear enough cap space for Hayward or Griffin by renouncing all current free agents, then sign that guy to a max or near-max contract.

Step 2—Negotiate a trade with Indiana for George to become a Celtic.

Step 3—Clear enough cap space by trading players currently under contract to renegotiate and extend George through 2020, then agree to that extension with him.

This set of moves would require the Celtics to part with literally their entire roster outside of Thomas, Tatum, and Horford (excluding Ante Zizic and Guerschon Yabusele, but they’d have to stay overseas for another year). They would come out of the extension with George will just five players on their roster and no cap space to bring in filler talent—the entire team would be filled out by minimum contracts and their $4.3 million room exception.

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Technically, George could renegotiate and extend his current contract with Indiana and then be traded to Boston. This would benefit the Celtics immensely, as they would likely be able to keep two of the following: Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Demetrius Jackson. In the other scenario, they would have to get rid of all six of these guys. However, George cannot implement language into his renegotiation and extension with Indiana that he would be immediately traded to Boston. Once he signs that renegotiation and extension, he’s bound to Indiana through 2020 and they’re allowed to do whatever they like with him, including going back on their word or holding Boston’s feet to the fire with another asset or two. It would be an awful look for the Pacers and would definitely hurt them with future free agent signings, but it’s technically a possibility.

If they don’t pull any funny business, this arrangement could be more beneficial for the Pacers as well. Because the Celtics wouldn’t have to perform as many cap gymnastics and would be able to keep two of their rotation players, Indiana could theoretically ask for more in that trade, perhaps nabbing themselves next year’s Brooklyn pick or the Lakers/Kings pick given to Boston in their trade with Philadelphia last week. One year of George might not be worth a high first-round pick and a handful of players…but three guaranteed years of his services (plus the additional players the Celtics would keep) might be.

All of the above is perhaps the best possible scenario for Boston, but what happens if Hayward and Griffin both sign elsewhere? Trading the farm for George at that point doesn’t seem as amenable, especially if it doesn’t come with a renegotiation and extension promise, so where would the Celtics be in that scenario? Their likely scenario is $19.3 million in cap space and retaining their host of young and future assets:

They would still be able to bring back Kelly Olynyk in restricted free agency and sign Yabusele and Zizic if those players are ready to contribute. The Celtics wouldn’t have a ton of clear needs, but depth across the board would be important for a team looking to make another deep playoff run. They’re not going to get into the point guard market with Thomas on the roster, but perhaps a backup like Langston Galloway, Darren Collison, or Shelvin Mack (who played for Boston head coach Brad Stevens at Butler) would make sense.

On the wing, they’d have Bradley, Crowder, Tatum, Brown, and Smart, so once again, they’d be remiss to chase after a big name here. Lower end guys make the most sense for them: Kyle Korver, Thabo Sefolosha, Omri Casspi, Ian Clark, Justin Holiday, and Ben McLemore all come to mind. Another rotation-level big man would be a good pickup as well, since it would just be Horford, Olynyk, and a bunch of kids, plus a few wings masquerading as a 4. Perhaps they would bring back Jonas Jerebko for a reasonable number below his $9.5 million cap hold or go after a higher-end guy like Patrick Patterson or restricted free agent Nikola Mirotic.

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Whichever path they choose, or whichever path is chosen for them by decisions that are outside of their control, the Celtics are very well set up for both the present and future. They already look to be a consistent Eastern Conference Finals contender for the next few years, in addition to the future assets and young players that could sustain this success for at least the next decade.