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NBA AM: The Celtics Have A Lot Of Options

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Hayward, Top Pick and Lots Of Decisions

The Boston Celtics got handled in Game 1 versus the Cleveland Cavaliers, and based on how large the inequities between the two teams appeared last night, the Celtics have a lot of choices to make fairly soon.

By way of a savvy trade back in 2013, Celtics president Danny Ainge stuck to his guns and demanded an unprotected first-round pick as part of the deal that sent future Hall-of-Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets. On Tuesday, that deal produced the top overall selection in the 2017 NBA Draft, the best possible outcome for the Celtics.

As much as Nets fans bemoan the deal today, the risks involved in the deal on the Brooklyn sides were thoroughly discussed, and Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov made it clear he wanted a win-now roster at any cost. The Nets tried to protect the pick, however, Ainge was unwavering in the cost of his two All-Stars, and Nets ownership ultimately agreed to the price.

Today, the Celtics have an embarrassment of riches: a roster loaded with promising young players (many of whom are on rookie scale contracts), veterans are on moderately priced deals—most under contract beyond next season—and arguably one of the best young coaches in basketball. To top it off, the Celtics also have a treasure trove of future draft assets, many from that same Nets transaction.

The Celtics future looks very bright, despite the drubbing they took from the Cavaliers in Game 1. The good news is the Celtics have a ton of options, but with those options comes some decisions:

The Top Pick

The Celtics are sending out very clear signals and messages. They are not locked in on any one player, and they plan to use the leverage of the top overall selection to look at anything available to them. As much as Washington’s Markel Fultz looks like the smartest and safest selection, the Celtics plan to engage with UCLA’s Lonzo Ball and Kansas forward Josh Jackson. They will likely work out the top five or six players before zeroing in on who they will draft.

The idea of trading the pick or trading down with the pick is on the table, but Celtic sources were quick to say the most likely outcome is the Celtics keep and use the pick. The thinking on keeping the pick is because the impact of the guys possible with the pick outweighs anything they feel like they could obtain with the pick in a trade.

The smart money says the Celtics select Fultz, but that’s not been decided at this point, mostly because it does not have to be.

Trades

As much as fans want to talk about trading the top pick for a proven All-Star like Indiana’s Paul George or Chicago’s Jimmy Butler, the stance from the Boston side is that neither player is worth the top selection under their current contract situations.

In George’s case, he can hit free agency next July. While the Celtics would love to add George’s talent, unless he agreed to extend his deal the day he arrived in Boston, the Celtics are not interested in moving what could be a 10-year All-Star for a 12-month possible rental.

With Butler, the Celtics get a little more contract security but ultimately face the same issue. Butler can be a free agent in 2019. In NBA terms, that is a long-time but given how the East is structured in the Celtics window really next season? And is the window better with Butler for two years or with what’s possible with the number one for 10 years?

There are no guarantees with draft picks, and that’s something the Celtics seem to understand, but the prevailing belief is the C’s are not going to trade the top pick for either of the names linked to them. However, if either of those player’s teams wants to talk about the trove of future picks the Celtics hold, they would absolutely have interest.

The Young Guards

It does not take a genius to see that the Celtics roster is loaded with point guards, and with another elite guard likely on the way, the Celtics have some issues brewing.

As much as fans like to talk about playing for a winner, players are playing for a contract. In the Celtics’ case, many are playing for a chance at their first monster payday. In the case of Marcus Smart, that payday window comes open in full force this summer, when he becomes eligible for a rookie scale contract extension.

If the Celtics are not going to pay Smart the going rate, his camp has to ask for a trade. The Celtics don’t have to trade him, but things become increasingly more complicated if they try and hold one of the young guys hostage while reducing his role and minutes.

The same is true of second-year guard Terry Rozier. He has emerged in the postseason as a quality young guard. He has been sharing minutes off the bench for most of the season and is eager to see an increased role. Like Smart, the Celtics are going to have to decide how much he matters to the future with another elite guard prospect likely coming in via the draft.

The Celtics also face some interesting future contract situations with playoff standout Avery Bradley, who will enter the final year of his deal next season. Bradley has been a monster for the Celtics, but where does he fit in the grand scheme if another guard needing big minutes comes into the equation? Bradley is going to command a hefty increase from his current $8 million per year contract. So that’s a factor for the Celtics to consider.

In the same vein, All-Star Isaiah Thomas will enter the final year of his deal next season, too. There has already been talk that the smart move might be to trade Thomas while his value is so high because of the quality depth the Celtics have and avoid what’s expected to be a new contract demand of over $100 million for a player that will be right at 30 when his current contract ends.

None of these are easy decisions, mainly because this core of guards powered the Celtics to 53 wins and first place in the East. Combine that will an amazing team chemistry, is it smart to mess with that?

Free Agents

As things sit today the Celtics have $61.77 million in salary cap commitments for 2017-18. They are going to get a cap hold of $7.1 million for the first overall pick, they’ll carry a $7.7 million hold for Kelly Olynyk. $8 million in non-guaranteed money if they plan to keep Tyler Zeller. A $15.6 million hold on veteran Amir Johnson until they re-sign or renounce him. They have decisions to make on draft picks Guerschon Yabusele and Ante Zizic. If either push to come to the NBA next season, they would eat into the Celtics space unless they are renounced or traded.

In a realistic way, the Celtics are going open the 2017-18 cap year with a least $76.57 million in commitments, leaving them what should be $24.43 million in usable cap space against what should be a $101 million salary cap, based on the latest from our cap guru Eric Pincus.

While that’s enough money to add a serious piece or two, that’s not enough space to pursue the Celtics believed top free agent target in Jazz forward Gordon Hayward. The C’s could get there if they pass on Olynyk or find a way to dump off some salary in a trade around the draft, but things are tight for the Celtics in term of pure cap space, mainly because of the hold the top draft selection gets in the new collective bargaining agreement.

The Celtics have a ton of trade options to consider (many of which we’ve covered), but it will take some moves for the Celtics to get to a single maximum salary slot before free agency opens and it will mean subtractions before additions.

The good news for the Celtics is that if Hayward does indeed opt to explore his options away from the Jazz (which may not be likely), he’s likely not going to make a quick decision. That would give the Celtics a chance to know where they stand with him before passing on someone like Olynyk to open room.

While the Celtics do have some tough choices ahead of them, many teams wish they had the Celtics’ problems. Too much guard talent, an All-Star, and future All-Stars to potentially pay and some excellent draft options by way of the top pick and a ton of trade assets to play with to boot.

While much will be made over the next few weeks about how much better the Cavaliers are than the Celtics in the playoffs, the truth of the matter is the Celtics roster is constructed with so much youth that needs this postseason experience. The Celtics have nothing to lose and everything to gain from getting this far in the season, and the future in front of them is as bright as any in the NBA.

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About Steve Kyler

Steve Kyler

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.