Boston Celtics Using Free Agency to Keep Dream of Blockbuster Trade Alive

Brian Robb@CelticsHubFeatured ColumnistJuly 2, 2015

Toronto Raptors' Amir Johnson (15) shoots over Brooklyn Nets' Thaddeus Young (30) and Brook Lopez (11) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, April 3, 2015, in New York.  (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

BOSTON – Armed with salary cap room for the first time in nearly two decades, the Boston Celtics aimed to make a big splash at the start of NBA free agency on Wednesday but came up empty.

Striking out on the stars should not come as a surprise to Celtics fans. Jay King of Masslive.com reported last week that Boston’s front office was not optimistic about its chances of landing a big name in free agency. The only star (Kevin Love) widely rumored to potentially have interest in playing for Boston, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sportsquickly put an end to that speculation after announcing his decision to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers on the Players’ Tribune website

Several top free agents agreed to terms with their own teams, as expected. Others, like LaMarcus Aldridge and DeAndre Jordan, would not even give Boston a pitch meeting while they weighed different options for their next destination, according to TNT's David Aldridge. The writing is on the wall for the Celtics: They simply don’t yet have the talent needed to appeal to the superstar free agents that want to win.

Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Instead of standing pat or chasing a second-tier star on a expensive lengthy deal, team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge elected to snag future trade assets by adding a trio of role players.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports was first to report that Boston had agreed to sign former Toronto Raptor forward Amir Johnson to a two-year, $24 million contract. Minutes later, Jonas Jerebko joined Johnson in the fold after Sam Amick of USA Today tweeted that the two sides had come to terms on a two-year, $10 million deal. A busy day concluded with Shams Charania of Real GM reporting Boston will be bringing back restricted free agent Jae Crowder on a five-year, $35 million deal.

At first glance, Crowder and Jerebko's agreements appear to be relative bargains, given the positive impact both guys had on Boston after being acquired in the middle of the 2014-15 season. Meanwhile, Johnson’s reported salary of roughly $12 million per year seems to be a bit of an overpay for a 28-year-old who averaged just 9.3 points and 6.1 rebounds in 26.4 minutes per game.

The hefty number became more reasonable upon Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald reporting that the second year of both Johnson and Jerebko’s contracts will not be guaranteed.

Chuck Burton/Associated Press

The Celtics probably agreed to a give Johnson a sizable raise for next year in order to have the flexibility to maintain the enormous chunk of salary cap space the team has lined up for summer of 2016.

The salary cap is expected to jump to $89 million at that point, and Boston is currently projected to have at least $55 million in cap room at its disposal if needed. Only Crowder, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Isaiah Thomas, James Young and the team's 2015 draft class (Terry Rozier, R.J. Hunter) will likely be signed to guaranteed deals.

Johnson and Jerebko will serve as placeholders on next year’s roster and help the Celtics compete for a playoff spot in the lackluster Eastern Conference until the Celtics can utilize that chunk of cap room. Both will allow head coach Brad Stevens to build upon a promising second half of last season with a pair of players that will fit the team’s culture of playing hard every night.

Celtics List of Future First Round Draft Picks
2016ownBrooklyn (unprotected)Minnesota (top-12 protected)Dallas (top-7 protected)
2017ownright to swap with BrooklynMemphis (top-11 protected)
2018ownBrooklyn (unprotected)
2019own
Real GM

As an added bonus, both short deals will also act as a pair of expiring contracts throughout the 2015-16 season, which could be sold off by Ainge at the trade deadline. 

If the duo finishes the year in Boston, the presence of those non-guaranteed second-year salaries may come in handy next summer as well. The combined $17 million Jerebko and Johnson would be set to earn during the 2016-17 season could be used as a salary filler by Ainge next summer as he pools his assets while shopping for a building block in a mega deal.

At this stage, Boston’s list of trade chips is long, but the actual value of those pieces remains questionable at best. The Celtics’ collection of future first-round draft picks from the Brooklyn Nets, Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves is extensive, but none is guaranteed to land in the lottery. The team’s young core of talent has some promise, but outside of potentially Smart, no one projects to be a player you can build a franchise around.

In lieu of stars, the Celtics have filled the remainder of the roster with rookie deals and good value contracts for young role players, such as Crowder. The 25-year-old is a gritty defender who excelled in his expanded role in Boston last year. If he can improve his outside shooting (31.6 percent from three-point range in his career), Crowder may be an alluring part of a sizable trade package Ainge could put together to land a star.   

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

In order for Boston to have a chance to lure top-tier free agents to Boston, the team must first find that initial building block. That player is unlikely to come from within, so it’s up to Ainge to pounce on a star that becomes available via trade. 

"Our roster isn’t complete," Ainge said last week on draft night. "If you’ve learned anything, that’s one thing you should know—what you see today is not what you’ll see tomorrow. We’re a team that’s building for a championship, and we’ll continue to do that by trying to find the best players we can."

Ainge didn’t have the pieces to land Love last summer, but he aims to be ready with as many assets as possible when the next enticing name becomes available. Johnson, Crowder and Jerebko’s deals add to that stockpile, while helping to keep Boston on an upward trajectory for the upcoming season. 

*All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise stated.

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