Forsberg: Should the Celtics bring Fournier back? That depends


How much green are the Boston Celtics willing to spend to keep Evan Fournier in green this summer?

The Celtics are set to vault back into the luxury tax this season and must decide just how much they are willing to splurge to retain Fournier, the team’s big-splash addition at the 2021 NBA trade deadline.

Fournier filled Boston’s glaring need for size and shooting but results were mixed after his arrival. A battle with COVID hindered his late-season reps and he struggled defensively against the Brooklyn Nets in the postseason. But there were glimpses of his potential fit and, combined with his Orlando Magic resume, he's a desirable player to retain.

Boston’s ability to bring back Fournier, who will be an unrestricted free agent, hinges heavy on his market and the interest he generates from the small handful of teams with money to spend. But a desire to bring Fournier back must be balanced with Boston’s bloating payroll as Jayson Tatum’s extension kicks in.

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“What does the market dictate, right? I don’t care if a guy is averaging 16 points and shooting 44 percent from 3, if there’s not a market for that player then [that player is] limited as far as your options,” ESPN front office insider Bobby Marks said last week on the Celtics Talk podcast.

"When you look at the teams outside of that $9.5 million (non-taxpayer) midlevel exception, you are looking at teams like New York, Miami, Charlotte, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, perhaps Toronto, and we’ll see what happens in Dallas but they’ve got their own Evan Fournier in Tim Hardaway there.

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"Is there a team -- one of those five or six -- that (is) willing to pay him $14 to $16 million? I’m not sure."

The 28-year-old Fournier is an ideal fit for a contender looking to add an offensive weapon. He’s coming off a five-year, $85 million extension that paid him $17.5 million last season. But with a thin free-agent crop there should be suitors interested in his offensive skillset.

Fournier had a solid season as a focal point in Orlando but his usage rate plummeted from 26.2 (91st percentile among wings, per Cleaning the Glass) to 16.5 (49th percentile) with the Celtics. A player who thrived as both a scorer and playmaker in Orlando was a bit more bottled up in Boston, in part due to the COVID issues he battled.

For the season as a whole, Fournier averaged 17.1 points and 3.4 assists while shooting 41.3 percent beyond the 3-point arc. In Boston that 3-point percentage spiked to 46.3 percent in 16 appearances (this despite a particularly rough debut) and he’s an intriguing weapon to put around players like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

Boston’s conundrum is that it didn’t get much of a look at the trio together. Fournier played a mere 74 minutes with Tatum and Brown due to injuries and illnesses and that trio had a minus-14.7 net rating in that tiny sample.

"It’s hard to gauge Evan Fournier’s year,” said Marks. "COVID, gets traded, plays pretty decently down the back end, starts to find his legs in there. But, on the other end, if you're the Celtics, you lose Evan Fournier, you don’t replace him. You have the $5.9 million [taxpayer] midlevel exception so how much do you value him to retain and pay the luxury tax, right? You’re right at that number (with current guaranteed contracts).

"So that’s the decision that the front office is going to have to make. And how much trust do you have in your younger guards -- [Aaron] Nesmith, [Romeo] Langford, guys like that that can kind of step in?”

The other question for Boston is just how far out can you go with a Fournier deal. There’s a line of thinking that suggests the Celtics shouldn’t go beyond two years and line up the end of Fournier’s next deal with when Kemba Walker is scheduled to come off the books, positioning the Celtics with maximum flexibility when looking to add a third star alongside the Jays.

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But keeping both Walker and Fournier could mean a particularly menacing tax bill this season. Celtics ownership has been willing to pay to field surefire title contenders but Boston didn’t play anywhere near that level last season.

Could new president of basketball operations Brad Stevens sell ownership on loading up at the start the year with the promise of making tougher cost-slashing choices during the season if the team still doesn’t live up to expectations?

In that scenario, Boston could pay a bit more to retain Fournier the next two seasons and stiff-arm potential suitors while still allowing Fournier to get back into free agency at age 30.

If Fournier is eager for longer-term security that could complicate matters. But his biggest total payday seemingly would come from betting on himself in the short term and hoping for a lucrative long-term pact in the summer of 2023. The Celtics would simply have to hope a team like New York, with a penchant for big-money, short-term deals, doesn't swoop in with a similar offer.

The Celtics didn’t pay a prohibitive cost to acquire Fournier but it’s less than ideal to let him walk away without return compensation (even if it’s just generating another trade exception by trading him to a team with cap space). Boston needed to send two second-round picks to Charlotte to generate the Gordon Hayward trade exception, then utilized two more second-rounders to nab Fournier out of Orlando.

More importantly, the Celtics elected to use the largest trade exception in league history on Fournier and needed to maximize that return after watching Hayward depart. (Boston still has roughly $11 million to spend this summer with the rest of the TPE, which could fetch another veteran player).

It all comes down to the market. If it’s cool on Fournier early while teams hunt the few big fish, then maybe Boston can get him back on ideal terms. It gets a lot more complicated if the market heats up.

Editor's Note: We'll spotlight a different Celtics player every day by breaking down their 2020-21 campaign and what may lie ahead next season. Next up: Jaylen Brown.

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