Few NBA teams head into the summer with as many question marks as this year's Boston Celtics. With a roster unsure of whether it will be blown up or rolled out for one more year, the salary cap situation becomes more imperative than perhaps ever before.
As it stands, the Celtics have a guaranteed total of $62,604,091 on their payroll in a projected $58.5 million cap. Of course, that pretty picture only involves 10 players, and fails to encapsulate the bevy of wild cards Boston could encounter this season.
So, here goes nothing.
Paul Pierce Gets Waived; Celtics Buy Out His Contract
If president of basketball operations Danny Ainge opts to waive Paul Pierce, buying out the captain's contract for $5 million of the total $15.33 million he would earn in 2013-14, the Celtics would have $67.60 million on the books.
If Ainge decided to pick up the second-year options on reserves Shavlik Randolph ($1,106,942), Terrence Williams ($947,907) and D.J. White ($1,027,424), the team salary would rise $3.08 million to $70,686,364.
That's a lot of dough for a 13-player team that just lost its leader.
Ainge also has the option to amnesty the "Truth," wiping out his contract entirely. That scenario seems unlikely, given the fact that Pierce is a 15-year veteran, it would still leave Boston over the cap and it wouldn't benefit the organization very much.
Pierce Gets Waived or Traded and Kevin Garnett Retires
Of course, it must be noted that Kevin Garnett might not want to return if Pierce gets waived, amnestied or dealt in a sign-and-trade.
Boston has until the end of June to waive Pierce. Coincidentally, if KG retired before July 1, his entire contract would come off the books and the Celtics would owe him nothing (his 2013-14 salary was set at $12.4 million and his 2014-15 non-guaranteed salary would be $12 million).
With the Pierce buyout and a formal Garnett retirement, the Celtics would have $58,252,629 of total payroll.
With the No. 16 pick in the June 27 draft, Boston will also owe $1,348,200 to their incoming draftee for next season. That would push the grand total, even without “Truth” and KG, to $59,600,829, a little over a million bucks above the salary cap with gaping holes at point guard, small forward and center.
Long story short, the Celtics will be over the cap next season, flirting with the estimated luxury tax threshold of $71.6 million. If Pierce remains in Boston and Ainge decides to “run it back,” the organization would almost certainly be paying the tax.
Many factors comprised this puzzling (and somewhat troubling) salary picture, not just the large contracts for Pierce and Garnett. Around the same time as the KG extension last summer, Ainge used up all of Boston's cap space on extensions to Brandon Bass and Jeff Green as well as new additions Jason Terry and Courtney Lee.
While Green has since emerged as a star, the relative disappointments known as Bass, Terry and Lee now linger over this roster like an odorous gas.
Bass will be due $6,450,000 next season and $6,900,000 in 2014-15. Terry and Lee will both make $5,225,000 in 2013-14 and $5,450,000 the following season. Lee is the only current Celtics player signed through the 2015-16 season without a team option (sigh).
Options Under Newest CBA
So, what proverbial cards can Ainge play? If he wanted to utilize one of the newer provisions of the league's latest collective bargaining agreement, he could waive Bass, Terry or Lee and essentially modify one of their contracts over double the length of their current deal, plus one year.
So, since Bass will make $13.35 million the next two years, Ainge could waive him and "stretch" his contract to five years so Boston's annual cap hit would only equal $2,670,000. Bass would become a free agent, and the Celtics would shore up some space with the dead money to make a couple moves.
Similarly, the cap hit for Terry would only be $2,315,000 for five years under the stretch provision.
It seems unlikely, but if Ainge failed to find trade value in any of these three players, he could make this practically unprecedented option a reality. It might come in handy with Lee, whose average salary of $5.45 million over the next three years would be reduced to $2.33 million over seven years if stretched.
Boston Herald writer Steve Bulpett has already insinuated that Danny Ainge has a host of trade options with Pierce, which could be an ideal avenue. Grabbing a package like DeAndre Jordan and Eric Bledsoe, for instance, would instantly make the Celtics younger, more athletic and frankly more competitive all-around.
Rumors have also swirled regarding the possibility of Ainge dealing Pierce and Avery Bradley to the New Orleans Pelicans for Eric Gordon. This would provide a solid scorer alongside Rajon Rondo, but might hamper the Celtics from a defensive standpoint.
ESPN Boston reporter Jackie MacMullen has stated that Ainge continues to covet Utah Jazz free agent forward Paul Millsap, who stands 6'8” and averaged 14.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game in 2012-13 (she also says that she has heard Garnett will probably be back no matter what happens).
Ainge would have to pull a rabbit out of his hat to acquire Millsap in a sign-and-trade, considering Utah will likely turn their noses up at high-priced elders on the downslope of their careers.
But alas, crazier things have happened.
The Wonderful World of Mid-Level Exceptions
In order to satisfy needs but also respect the luxury tax, Ainge will likely explore the many mid-level exception options at his disposal.
The non-taxpayer mid-level exception, for instance, may be split and given to multiple players. It may be used for contracts up to four years in length, with raises up to 4.5 percent of the salary in the first year of each mid-level contract. The mid-level exception remains the easiest way for over-the-cap teams to sign other teams' free agents.
If the Celtics explored full mid-level exception candidates, they would be looking at spending a little over five million bucks as of next season for each player.
Exception candidates who would fit the Celtics' style and specific needs include Atlanta Hawks shooting guard Kyle Korver, San Antonio Spurs center Tiago Splitter (team option), Golden State Warriors point guard Jarrett Jack (who could demand more money) and Cleveland Cavaliers guard Daniel Gibson.
More affordable options include San Antonio Spurs center DeJuan Blair, New Orleans Pelicans guard/forward Roger Mason Jr. and Indiana Pacers point guard D.J. Augustin. This list may not seem pretty, but with limited cap space, it could offer good bang for small bucks.
Frills or no frills, these players would provide significant improvements in many role player positions, while also keeping the Celtics below the luxury tax threshold.
Bottom Line: Expect the Unexpected
Of course, Ainge could pull a draft-day trade if he felt inclined to grab another pick. He could also peruse the undrafted rookie pool for potential bargain buys. He's been known to do that in the past, sending training camp invitations to forwards DeShawn Sims in 2010 and Gilbert Brown in 2011.
Those players didn't pan out, but past undrafted players who ended up Celtics—like Bruce Bowen and David Wesley (both before Ainge's era)—certainly did.
Anything could happen between now and July 1, never mind the end of summer. By grasping the complexities of the Celtics' current salary cap situation, we can all glimpse into Danny Ainge's tangled web of managerial conundrums.
Without even looking into the crystal ball, one thing's for sure: the future of his career depends on the 2013-14 season.
But right now, that crystal ball looks murky.