Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge was dissecting the three-team trade that his squad helped facilitate earlier this week when he said something revealing while referencing a Cleveland Cavaliers team that would soon use the generated cap space to sign LeBron James.
"I wish I was in their position," Ainge said.
Who wouldn't? Cleveland was able to lure the world's best basketball player back to town, vaulting the Cavaliers from fringe playoff contender to NBA-title favorite.
Ainge was refreshingly honest in that moment, even if what he acknowledged was obvious. It's so hard for teams to recruit stars, particularly the biggest one in basketball, but everything lined up for the Cavaliers. There are 28 other general managers who would nod right along with Ainge.
The Cavaliers certainly benefited from their location in bringing back James, but Cleveland also had two things working in its favor: An intriguing young core of talent and the necessary cap room to make a big splash.
Which got us thinking: Hey, Danny, with the right moves, maybe you could be in that position.
While everyone is clamoring for fireworks this offseason, we've maintained that Boston might be better off positioning itself for next summer. Sure, the mere idea of another rebuilding season leaves Celtics fans nauseated, but what if it meant having the opportunity to pursue as many as two star players next offseason? Hear me out here.
Let's start with a glance at Boston's current salary commitment this year and next (with numbers from salary site ShamSports.com):
The Celtics currently have 17 players on their roster and a total salary commitment that's about $2 million north of the luxury-tax line. There are most certainly more moves to come, though it might be as simple as shedding some nonguaranteed contracts to trim bodies and dip below the tax line. No team wants to pay the tax in a rebuilding season, and it also sets Boston up well to avoid harsher repeater rates as it re-establishes itself as a contender down the road.
If the Celtics did nothing more than shed nonguaranteed deals this summer, they'd stand to clear another $32.2 million in salary at the end of the 2014-15 season as the contracts of Rajon Rondo, Marcus Thornton, Brandon Bass and Joel Anthony expire. That alone isn't enough to make Boston a true player in the free-agent market next summer, particularly if the team desires to re-sign Rondo (or at least use his rights as a way to get return value). But things could get a lot more intriguing.
Jeff Green holds a player option for the 2015-16 season. While most would contend that he's played below his salary rate in Boston, you can't help but wonder what kind of money he might command on the open market (particularly when you look at the salaries being extended this offseason).
What's more, Gerald Wallace will be entering the final year of his own bloated deal next summer and, if Boston were to dangle a draft pick, maybe a future-minded team would be interested in absorbing his expiring deal. Boston could also explore the stretch provision this year or next, but dead money on the books for three to five years isn't particularly good business (though it's not a terrible worst-case scenario if they were to utilize it next summer and carry a $3.4 million charge for three seasons on the chance that the team found no takers and were desperate to clear room).
So, for the sake of hypotheticals, let's eliminate Wallace, Green, Keith Bogans and Chris Babb (the latter of whom faces an uphill battle to make this year's roster). That would leave Boston with as little as five guaranteed contracts (Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Kelly Olynyk, James Young and Jared Sullinger) at a total value of roughly $17.3 million (we're assuming here that team options on Olynyk and Sullinger would be no-brainers to pick up). Boston could also retain low-cost bodies such as Tyler Zeller (team option), while Vitor Faverani, Phil Pressey and Chris Johnson would have nonguaranteed pacts.
With the salary cap expected to be north of $66 million in 2015-16 (and a tax line near $81 million), that leaves Boston an awful lot of potential room to play with. Yes, there's pesky cap holds to navigate (particularly one for Rondo), but the Celtics could start renouncing rights (something they haven't done in so long that guys such as Shaquille O'Neal, Michael Olowokandi, Roshown McLeod, and Stephon Marbury still muddy their cap-calculating books, according to ShamSports).
And let's not forget all those draft picks. The Celtics picked up another 2016 first-rounder for helping Cleveland shed cap space to land James and now have as many as six first-rounders in the next two drafts (though more likely five, given that Philadelphia's is lottery-protected next year; though Boston would end up with an additional second-round pick in each of the next two drafts if that happens).
Boston could continue to add young talent with those picks via the draft or use them as trade assets (whether to clear space like Wallace's contract, or add additional talent after landing big names in free agency). One of the benefits of another lean year in 2014-15: the potential for a high lottery pick next June.
It's not fair to suggest that Boston would have what Cleveland has this summer. The Cavaliers, with help from lottery luck, had three No. 1 picks to help entice James back. But with development this season, the idea of playing alongside the likes of Sullinger, Olynyk, Smart, Young and the rest of Boston's young core could be intriguing to prospective targets.
What would the Celtics do with space next summer? For starters, they could bring back Rondo at the high salary number he'll command (and seek). Or maybe they'll determine this season that it's better to part ways.
Next year's unrestricted free-agent class could include Rondo, Kevin Love, DeAndre Jordan, Goran Dragic, LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol and Roy Hibbert (player options and contract extensions will determine just how bountiful the class is). The Celtics could pick a couple of their favorites and pitch them on being the ones to help restore the league's most successful franchise to contender status.
Ainge might not be in quite the position Cleveland was, but it'd be about as close as he could get. And considering the Celtics have rarely -- if ever -- been in position to sign a big-name free agent, it has to be mighty enticing for Ainge.
So fret not if there are no fireworks this summer. You can trade the farm for Love this year, or hope to sign him next year without having to sacrifice your draft-pick surplus. Let the rest of the league knock themselves out overpaying for the LeBron Leftovers.
Remember that sacrificing a few sparklers and bottle rockets this summer could lead to a much bigger boom next year.
We know, waiting is no fun. But just imagine all the Boston Celtics fans who are sitting around this weekend looking at James going back to Cleveland and thinking, "I wish I was in their position."