Chris Forsberg

Can Celtics afford to keep the Jays together? CBA may force cap crunch

The Celtics will have some tough financial decisions to make if they keep the Jays together.

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On Monday, we laid out how the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement, with its draconian penalties for teams exceeding a certain spending threshold, could force the Boston Celtics to alter their roster-building strategy.

Now, it's time to provide examples.

For the purposes of illustrating the challenges in roster construction with both Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum eventually on supermax deals, let’s do a sample roster build for the upcoming 2023-24 season. But first, a disclaimer: All salary numbers for future seasons are estimates -- especially those of Tatum and Brown, whose salaries will be based on 35 percent of wherever the salary cap lands in two years. (The NBA typically announces the following year's salary cap and tax line in late June after final accounting on this season is complete.)

Let's get into the exercise, which assumes the following happens in the summer of 2023: 

  • Jaylen Brown inks a supermax extension (five years, $295 million, or 35 percent of the salary cap).
  • The Celtics re-sign soon-to-be restricted free agent Grant Williams on a four-year, $52 million deal (flat rate of $13 million per season to ease tax burdens in later years).
  • Danilo Gallinari triggers his player option ($6.8 million).
  • The Celtics trigger their team option on Mike Muscala ($3.5 million)
  • The Celtics sign a veteran center (maybe Blake Griffin is retained?) on a 1-year veteran minimum deal.
  • The Celtics sign their No. 35 pick using the new rookie-scale exception available for second-rounders in the new CBA.

In this extremely "run it back!" scenario, the Celtics end up with a very familiar looking 15-man roster that costs $181 million, or already $19 million over the tax line. They’re looking at another hefty tax bill (roughly $40 million) and simply banking on being less inconsistent than they were a year ago.

The Celtics already would be a second-apron team, though the league’s decision to phase in the penalties attached to that designation could help entice Boston to consider splurging for the 2023-24 season. Alas, that brings repeater issues into play, which could really sting by the time the Jays’ new deals kick in.

All of which could entice Boston to entertain the idea of trading a high-priced guard (Marcus Smart, Derrick White or Malcolm Brogdon) now, potentially filling its frontcourt need at a lesser salary and freeing playing time for Pritchard. If that doesn’t happen, Pritchard likely needs to be moved and maybe Boston considers cutting a little cost by carrying 2022 draft pick J.D. Davison as a fourth guard.

But the point here is this: Running it back is still costly, even with the Jays still on bargain deals, and the team will be scrambling to cut costs in future years.

Look ahead to 2024-25, when the first year of Brown’s contract kicks in at 35 percent of a a projected $143 million cap. Boston would be committed to roughly $186 million with five roster spots still to be filled. Boston essentially would be a second-apron team even if it filled out its roster with minimum signings.

Something has to give, sooner than later. Maybe that means simply moving on from Grant Williams this summer. But if you’re re-signing him, then it feels like one of the high-priced guard trio has to be moved no later than the offseason before the 2024-25 campaign. And that’s not even taking into account the possibility of an early White extension that could spike his number that same summer.

By 2025-26, when Brown and Tatum could be making a combined $109 million and eating up 70 percent of the cap, it gets even harder to make the math work.

Even with only Smart, Williams, Williams III, and the No. 35 pick on the roster, the Celtics would still be over the cap and roughly $31 million away from the second apron line — with a whopping nine (NINE!) spots to fill. 

If that’s not enough, luxury tax rates repeater rates spike for the 2025-26 campaign, which means Boston has to think hard about ways to get below the cap in seasons before the Jays’ deals kick in.

Long story short: Brad Stevens has his work cut out for him over the next two years, with some potentially difficult decisions in his near future.

Editor's Note: This is Part 2 of Chris Forsberg's five-part series on how the new CBA impacts the Celtics' future. You can read Part 1 here. Coming Wednesday: The Malcolm Brogdon dilemma.

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