WALTHAM, Mass. -- After a whirlwind first 12 hours of free agency passed with little in the way of noise from the Boston Celtics, some in the team's increasingly restless fan base were seemingly gathering their pitchforks and mapping their way to Danny Ainge's office.
It didn't help when Kevin Love -- the one big-name free agent that, after his flirtation here last year, many held out hope might be receptive to Boston's sales pitch -- announced he was returning to Cleveland. But before the angry mob could deploy, the Celtics quietly strutted into the NBA's wild transaction party on Wednesday afternoon and signed Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko to low-risk, two-year deals.
Boston capped Day 1 of free agency by signing restricted free agent forward Jae Crowder to a five-year, $35 million deal. In total, Boston committed roughly $24 million towards next season's payroll.
Maybe not surprisingly, the moves earned mixed reviews. Many scoffed at paying Johnson an average annual value of $12 million and suggested the addition of a second-tier free agent would leave Boston on the treadmill of mediocrity. A quieter minority celebrated the Johnson signing -- one that former Brooklyn Nets assistant general manager Bobby Marks championed on Twitter by noting that "Boston is in the lead for best contract so far Amir Johnson is a huge bargain" -- and embraced the low-cost re-signing of Jerebko, a player who challenged for a starting role by the end of last season. Most seemed content to bring back Crowder, a fan favorite after his arrival last year, but groaned a bit at the price tag (even on a day when players at his position were earning upwards of $15 million per season).
So, for those who still need a bit of cajoling, let me pour you a tall glass of green Kool-Aid (and hop off the James Young hype train for a quick moment) to tell you why you should be celebrating Wednesday's moves.
It's hard to properly quantify all the little things Johnson does on the floor. He is a darling of ESPN's real plus/minus stat, particularly for his impact at the defensive end. He's renowned for his screen setting and roll ability, which is all the more important now that Boston has added two paint-craving guards in Isaiah Thomas and Terry Rozier in the past four months.
Go take a quick trip down (bad) memory lane and watch this clip. It's from a Celtics-Raptors game late in the 2013-14 season. Tied in the final seconds, Johnson sets the screen on a high pick-and-roll with Kyle Lowry, then trails the play before muscling through both Avery Bradley and Brandon Bass (whose starting role he's likely to assume) for a putback that lifted the Raptors to victory. A couple hustle plays like this and fans in Boston will be swooning over Johnson.
The downside? He's 28 with a decade of NBA wear and tear on his prep-to-pro legs. His numbers dipped a bit last year in a slightly diminished role. His rebound and block rates have declined. Johnson doesn't get to the free throw line often and shot a career worst 61.2 percent there last year.
But make no mistake: Johnson is an upgrade for Boston's frontcourt. Most importantly, his teams have typically posted much glossier numbers when he's on the floor than when he's off it. For all that Bass did for the Celtics, the on-/off-court numbers rarely reflected positively on him.
It's on coach Brad Stevens to figure out how to best maximize Johnson's talents, including who to pair him with up front. But Johnson's ability as a help defender will make life easier for whomever he shares the floor with.
And here's the kicker: The Boston Herald noted that the final year of the deals for Johnson and Jerebko are expected to be non-guaranteed. If the signings simply don't work out for Boston, or there's a desire to pursue cap space next summer, the Celtics will have an ability to move on, particularly given that non-guaranteed deals typically carry high trade value.
Yes, Johnson is not an eye-popping name -- and re-signing a pair of top rotation players won't get fans too excited either -- but the most noteworthy signings early in free agency have typically been re-signings of superstar talent. Johnson is one of only a handful of second-tier guys to swap teams.
Where do the Celtics go from here? Let's reset where things stand after the two signings on Wednesday.
Roster Reset: Trio makes 14 guaranteed deals
A look at Boston's current guaranteed salary commitments for 2015-16 (with estimates for Boston's three signings on Wednesday):
Amir Johnson -- $12 million
Gerald Wallace -- $10.1 million
Avery Bradley -- $7.7 million
Jae Crowder -- $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
Terry Rozier -- $1.8 million
James Young -- $1.7 million
RJ Hunter -- $1.1 million
Boston is committed to roughly $68.4 million for 14 players. That's right up against the projected cap and doesn't include carrying second-round pick Jordan Mickey (whose first-year contract would add merely a half million to the salary total). Trades seem inevitable to relieve some of the roster crunch.
We've often discussed the options with Wallace. Boston can ride out this final season and clear him from the books, but it can also maneuver with him if it desires to clear roster/cap space. That might mean parting with a draft pick for someone to stomach the final year of his deal, or stretching out that hit over the next three years. Either way, the Celtics have options.
The lingering questions from here:
• Will the Celtics will use their draft pick stash to entice other moves? Boston still has its war chest of picks to offer to muscle into conversation for any big-name player that becomes available on the trade market.
• Are the Celtics comfortable with Marcus Smart as primary point guard and would that make Evan Turner a bit more expendable after handling much of the ball-handling duties last season?
• If Terry Rozier and/or R.J. Hunter prove capable of competing for minutes this season, would Boston consider moving some guard depth to ease a potential crunch?
Goodbye cap holds, trade exceptions
On July 9, when the NBA's moratorium lifts, the Celtics will (finally) clear the comedy of cap holds that have lingered on their books for years (in part because, living perpetually above the cap, there's been no need to renounce them). In order to clear the cap space necessary to sign Johnson, the Celtics will also have to renounce their bulky trade exceptions (which eliminates one path to adding more talent outside free agency with Boston choosing to dip below the cap for the first time in nearly two decades).
Roster is getting crowded
Potential trades could open up roster spots in a hurry this summer. But, at least for the moment, things look bleak for non-guaranteed guys such as Phil Pressey (whose contract becomes guaranteed on July 15) and Chris Babb. Pressey and his less-than-$1 million contract have survived roster jams in recent seasons, but the Celtics would have to feel confident later this month that they'll trim numbers (and the guard depth doesn't help Pressey's cause).
What does this mean for the Tobias Harris Fan Club?
Many Celtics fans, eager for a bigger splash, fell in love with the notion of overspending to pry away a restricted free agent like Orlando's Tobias Harris. Unless the Celtics open additional cap space by moving Wallace and Turner without taking guaranteed salary in return, then the team doesn't have the ability to chase another free agent. This will disappoint some, who believe Boston might have spent unwisely on a player like Johnson. It simply forces Boston to pursue deals on the trade market rather than via free agency.
The bottom line
The Celtics improved their team on Day 1 of free agency, all while bringing back a pair of players that were muscling their way towards the starting lineup by season's end. While Johnson is the new highest-paid player on the team, his deal should look reasonable in an NBA in which salaries are skyrocketing even before the arrival of new TV money.
If the Celtics make no other moves this summer, you could argue that swapping Johnson, Rozier, Hunter, and Mickey for Brandon Bass, Luigi Datome, Pressey and Babb would be at least a minor upgrade for the roster.
The guess here is Ainge isn't done. There's still plenty of summer to find ways to make Boston a more legitimate contender during the 2015-16 season.