WALTHAM, Mass. -- For more than a decade, Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has picked up his phone at the stroke of midnight on July 1 and started phoning prospective free-agent targets while knowing he has never had the necessary resources to snag a true top-tier talent.
That could change in eight weeks.
The Celtics have the potential to free the cap space necessary to offer a marquee free agent a maximum contract this summer. For the first time, Ainge can try to sell a player on why he should be the cornerstone of basketball's most decorated franchise, and he can do it without the constraints of the cap that have limited him to this point.
"We haven't ever had cap space, I don’t think, in the history of the Celtics," Ainge said this week, though he seemed to be asking more than declaring. "For sure since I've been here. So we need to use that space wisely. We can't just spend it just because we have it."
When exactly was the most recent time the Celtics had cap space? Our cap-crunching friend Ryan Bernardoni, better known by his online alias Dangercart, attempted to trace it back. Writing on Reddit, Bernardoni said the Celtics most recently used below-the-cap flexibility to sign -- wait for it -- Chris Mills to a six-year, $26.1 million contract on Aug. 22, 1997. Mills never appeared in a game for Boston and was traded two months later as Rick Pitino & Co. stumbled in the aftermath of missing out on Tim Duncan.
Bernardoni sums up the fallout as such: "For the next 17 years, the Celtics will rely on Bird Right, trades, the draft, minimum contracts and these new cap exceptions to make 280 player acquisitions without ever dropping below the salary cap."
Now, 6,522 days after that Mills signing (or 563,500,800 seconds, if you prefer Rajon Rondo parlance), the Celtics will have a chance to dip below the salary cap on (or around) July 1.
There's a lot of renouncing to be done to get to that point, including lingering trade exceptions and the head-shaking list of cap holds that linger on the Celtics' books (Nenad Krstic, Roshown McLeod, Stephon Marbury, Michael Olowokandi, and Shaquille O'Neal, just to name a few). Poor assistant general manager Mike Zarren will seemingly endure a mount of paperwork that hasn't previously been processed because, well, there has been no real reason to bother with it until the Celtics had the ability to truly free cap space.
To be clear here, there's no guarantee they'll need it this year. There is the slim chance Boston will elect to stay over the cap in order to utilize its trade exceptions and maintain its Bird rights on Jonas Jerebko. Jae Crowder's restricted free agency process and how quickly he'll move to sign an offer sheet could force Boston's hand one way or another as well.
For now, the Celtics will proceed as if they will have cap space -- we detailed here how they could have as much as $33.2 million to work with -- and hope they can sell Boston as the ideal place for a bonafide star to cement his legacy.
Still, Ainge acknowledges that won't be an easy sell, especially in a market where the top names will be lured by the extra money their current teams can offer. And there is that longstanding -- though largely overblown -- notion that free agents don't want to come to Boston.
"Most of the guys that have played here love it here. And they don’t want to leave once they are here," said Ainge, acknowledging that Boston's biggest non-draft additions have come almost exclusively via trade. "Not all of them are really excited about coming here when they first get here, but usually by the time they leave, they love the organization and they love the city. So we need to get that word out."
Essentially that pitch is: Look how well things turned out for Kevin Garnett!
Added Ainge: "We’ve tried to run our organization with the respect and understanding that 18- and 19- and 20-year-old guys don't really know that much about Celtics history, and it’s probably not going to play a big part in free-agent signings, so we need to get our message out, and we have to sell our franchise and sell our coach and sell our organization and the opportunity for players to come here and play. Some players will like it and some won’t. It’s that simple. Some players will choose sunshine over cold, but ultimately, most players want to be paid, they want an opportunity to play their game and be respected by the league, and they want an opportunity to win."
Ainge recently finished fourth in voting by his peers for the Executive of the Year in a season that featured 11 trades and 41 total roster players. Despite the constant change, the Celtics enjoyed a 15-win improvement and earned the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference.
But the heavy-lifting lies ahead for Ainge, who acknowledged repeatedly during an end-of-the-season press conference last week that he must upgrade the talent level on this roster. His scrappy Boston team competed hard against the championship-caliber Cleveland Cavaliers in the opening round of the playoffs, but the Celtics were ultimately swept in four games.
To be a true contender, the Celtics need to infuse their young nucleus with star power. Boston feels like it got a boost with the addition of sixth-man Isaiah Thomas at the trade deadline and has high hopes for some of its younger players, including rookie Marcus Smart. But the league requires individual talent to contend, and Boston needs more.
Ainge has pledged to be wise with Boston's potential cap space. He won't spend it just to spend it (that's what got the team in trouble two decades ago). Ainge is simply glad to have the opportunity to make a phone call to a star player and know he finally has the resources to give the right sales pitch.
It's a chance for him to finally dispel the notion that free agents don't want to come to Boston. And it's a chance to make the Celtics the type of team more stars want to flock to in the future.