SALT LAKE CITY -- At midnight Thursday, the NBA's moratorium period will (finally) lift and, armed with official salary cap numbers for the 2015-16 season, the Boston Celtics can start formally assembling their roster for next season.
That task is a bit more daunting than you might imagine.
While the Celtics have made a handful of moves over the first eight days of free agency -- coming to agreements with Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko and Jae Crowder, while also prepping a trade that will deliver David Lee from Golden State -- the tricky part now is sequencing those moves to allow the team to execute them under the guidelines set forth by collective bargaining agreement.
By examining how the Celtics might proceed, it hammers home the savvy nature of Boston's front office. The Celtics are set to drop below the salary cap for the first time in nearly two decades and, in doing so, must carefully plot their moves in order to maximize the space they are creating.
In the aftermath of reports that the Celtics would acquire Lee and his bulky $15.5 million contract, former Brooklyn Nets assistant general manager Bobby Marks said, "Not sure how Mike Z in BOS will make it work but possible."
That's Mike Zarren, Boston's assistant general manager and team counsel. A Harvard Law School and University of Chicago grad, he's the team's brainy capologist who has helped structure deals to maximize the return for Boston. The one that continues to grow in lore is the 2013 blockbuster between the Celtics and Nets in which Boston delivered Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry in exchange for a haul headlined by three first-round picks. The deal was restructured from an initial incarnation to allow Boston to create a hefty trade exception for Pierce's salary.
What became of that exception? Well, there's a flow chart that has evolved from the trade as a whole (made by our buddy Ryan Bernardoni, who ought to be an NBA front-office guy with his own cap savvy). It'll make you go cross-eyed trying to trace it, but you can make the case that the Celtics-Nets trade has helped deliver roster players Isaiah Thomas, Tyler Zeller, James Young, Jordan Mickey and, soon, Lee. All while Boston still waits to collect on two of those three first-round picks (and has the ability to swap first-round picks with Brooklyn in 2017).
Rebuilding a franchise isn't easy, and the Celtics have tried to find every advantage that can help accelerate that process. One misstep in roster construction can doom a team to mediocrity for an extended stretch.
The Celtics have worked hard to maintain salary flexibility, and many of the moves made this summer are geared toward having deep pockets again next summer when the opportunity to land a superstar might finally present itself.
The focus in the immediate future is putting together this salary puzzle for next year's team. And here's a glimpse at the grunt work that lies ahead for Zarren:
Step 1: Renouncements
In order to formally dip below the cap, the Celtics have to renounce the rights to anyone with a lingering cap hold on their books (save for Jerebko, whose signing should be one of the first processed). Sounds simple enough, right? Not when you consider that the likes of Michael Olowokandi, Shaquille O'Neal, Nenad Krstic, and Stephon Marbury linger on Boston's books. How is that possible, you wonder? Well, there's never been a reason to clear them out. Boston has perpetually lived above the cap the past two decades, and the holds did nothing to hinder that. In the quest for long-awaited cap space, they all must go (yes, even you, Roshown McLeod). What's more, Boston must renounce all of its lingering trade exceptions, especially the largest ones like a $12.9 million exception from the Rajon Rondo trade last December. This is a matter of consternation for many Celtics fans because of the haul generated in part from the Pierce trade exception of a similar value. Don't fret, Boston fans, the cap space generated is more valuable for Boston in roster construction. The Celtics are essentially setting the table to start processing moves with a cleaner slate.
Step 2: Get the ball rolling
The Celtics will enter July 9 with 11 players under contract for roughly $42.3 million (that includes the nonguaranteed deals of Chris Babb and Phil Pressey). They'll have additional cap holds on restricted free agent Crowder ($1.2 million), first-round picks Terry Rozier ($1.5 million) and R.J. Hunter ($957,000), and Jerebko will temporarily be on the books for an $8 million hold. That gives Boston an initial commitment of roughly $53.7 million with a salary cap that was set Wednesday at $70 million.
Boston's first move will be to sign Jerebko, who has agreed to a two-year, $10 million contract. With Jerebko's estimated salary at $5 million for next season, Boston's cap commitment will actually drop to $50.7 million by replacing his bulky $8 million cap hold.
The Celtics could also immediately sign Johnson to his two-year, $24 million deal. An estimated $12 million salary pushes Boston's salary commitment to $62.7 million, and that's where things start to get interesting.
If Boston elects to immediately process the Lee trade as the initial iteration suggests -- sending out Wallace and a nonguaranteed contract, Boston will be taking back $4.5 million in additional salary in the swap. Pending the final cap number, that will push them a bit closer to the salary cap and limit any additional spending. The Celtics could clear another $1 million by waiving whichever nonguaranteed deal (Pressey or Babb) that doesn't go to Golden State.
Assuming both Pressey and Babb are dropped from the books and the trade is completed as currently structured, Boston would then have a salary commitment that would look a bit like this:
David Lee -- $15.5 million
Amir Johnson -- $12 million
Avery Bradley -- $7.7 million
Isaiah Thomas -- $6.9 million
Jonas Jerebko -- $5 million
Marcus Smart -- $3.4 million
Evan Turner -- $3.4 million
Tyler Zeller -- $2.6 million
Jared Sullinger -- $2.3 million
Kelly Olynyk -- $2.2 million
James Young -- $1.7 million
Terry Rozier -- $1.5 million
Jae Crowder -- $1.2 million
RJ Hunter -- $1 million
Remember that Crowder, Rozier and Hunter would still be just holds. Those signings still need to be processed, but should be at the end of the to-do list in order to maximize immediately available space. Boston would stand at roughly $65.2 million committed, but that number is going up.
Step 3: Sign the rookies
The Celtics might not rush to sign their rookies, typically a perfunctory act, in order to maintain an extra sliver of cap space (though the higher cap number might make that unnecessary to delay). The team typically pays its rookies 120 percent of the scale -- the most allowed -- which means Rozier's cap commitment will jump to $1.8 million and Hunter's will bump to $1.1 million. It's not much, but whenever those signings happen, it adds nearly $500,000 to the books.
Likewise in waiting mode is second-round pick Jordan Mickey. A minimum contract would start at $525,000, but there's little rush to ink that deal. Boston's final pick of this year's draft, Marcus Thornton, is likely to spend next season overseas or in the D-League to work on his development.
Step 4: Re-sign Crowder
The Celtics have agreed to re-sign Crowder to a five-year, $35 million deal. By owning his rights, Boston has the ability to leap back over the cap in order to sign him. So after maximizing their cap space with the Johnson and Lee moves -- and any other last-minute maneuvering the team might elect to engage in -- Boston can replace Crowder's current hold and jump above the cap again with his re-signing.
Some will groan that Boston utilized a rare trip below the cap simply to sign a pair of aging power forwards in Johnson and Lee. Keep in mind that, with Johnson and Jerebko expected on nonguaranteed deals in the second year of their contracts, and Lee coming off the books, the Celtics will be positioned to dip well below the cap again next season -- especially with a spike looming. There will be another opportunity to use rare space to try to lure star talent.
Step 5: More trades on deck?
The Celtics can simply call it an offseason and stand pat with a 15-man roster when all these moves are completed. More likely, they'll continue to examine the trade market and look for ways to (1) remove redundancy and (2) add the sort of talent that can help now without sacrificing future flexibility.
Boston's depth chart would look like this in the aftermath of its initial moves (using coach Brad Stevens' four-position system and acknowledging that some players overlap categories):
• Ball handlers: Smart, Thomas, Rozier, Turner
• Wings: Bradley, Young, Hunter
• Swings: Crowder, Jerebko, Mickey
• Bigs: Lee, Johnson, Olynyk, Sullinger, Zeller
There's a logjam up front, even though Boston has a variety of bigs. Stevens struggled to find minutes for five bigs last season, and something might have to give this year to generate enough minutes for this group.
With Smart expected to take on more ballhandling duties and with Rozier to add some depth behind him, we've wondered whether Turner becomes a bit more expendable. His versatility was extremely valuable last season, but if Smart is running the offense and Crowder projects to be your starting swingman, it limits Turner's role moving forward (though the big-man crunch might be more of Boston's priority in the immediate future).
The Celtics could use some help on the wing. There's some clamoring in the fan base about exploring the possibility of adding Danilo Gallinari, who is reportedly on the trading block in Denver. Could Boston spark interest somewhere with its big-man surplus and draft picks while maneuvering for another wing scorer?
The Celtics must hope development from their youngest players, along with the infusion of upgrade bigs like Lee and Johnson, will be enough to give them a boost forward after last year's run to the postseason. Boston, in its initial post-processing iteration, doesn't quite look like an elite contender, but the Celtics likely project to be in the playoff mix in the Eastern Conference.
Flexibility maintained, the team would continue to look for deals that could maximize the return -- all while hoping their patience and attention to detail help deliver the team back to legitimate contender status by next summer.
Let the paperwork processing begin.