The Boston Celtics have never been big players in free agency.
Historically, their success was always cultivated through astute draft-day decisions (Larry Bird, Paul Pierce, Dave Cowens, John Havlicek, etc.), history-altering trades (Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Dennis Johnson) or an ingenious combination of the two (Bill Russell, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish).
But this summer, the Celtics have two things they rarely possess: cap space, and a roster filled with various needs. They'll be players in free agency, if they so choose.
Trading Rajon Rondo crossed off having to deal with his next contract (a possible, not probable, max deal), and the Celtics are now one move away* from essentially fielding a cap sheet of rookie-scale contracts, Evan Turner’s expiring $3.4 million deal and Avery Bradley next season.
(*With all the first-round picks in Boston’s possession, it can now dump Gerald Wallace’s contract on a rebuilding team with cap space. Paging Sam Hinkie? The Celtics also have enough trade exceptions to go the other way and take on salary/more draft picks.)
Assuming the 2015-16 season’s salary cap is $66.3 million, the Celtics currently have roughly $32.9 million to spend this summer, and nothing except Bradley’s deal beyond that. This does not include draft picks or cap holds, but it does include Wallace’s $10.1 million contract.
Remove that, and nearly $43 million in cap space is a fun thing to dance with. Here are Boston's three serious options with regards to what it can do: Punt (the Sixers strategy), go all in (the Joe Dumars strategy) or pick their spots (the most intriguing strategy).
Different ramifications come with all three. Let’s examine what they are.
If Boston punts its cap space—signing zero meaningful free agents and hovering around the salary floor, or even sinking below it—it'd roll the room over to the summer of 2016, when Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, Mike Conley, Joakim Noah and several other big names can become unrestricted free agents.
The list of restricted free agents includes Andre Drummond, Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, Anthony Davis and Jonas Valanciunas.
Jared Sullinger and Tyler Zeller will be up for extensions in 2016-17, but the NBA's cap will have skyrocketed by then. Boston will have plenty of money to spend, and, depending on how its youngsters develop, a nice cocoon of talent to help welcome established stars into the mix.
The Celtics will also have Brad Stevens as head coach and still be in possession of several valuable first-round picks, including Brooklyn's in 2018. It isn't likely Durant or Howard signs with the Celtics, but leaving the door open can't hurt.
The next option is for Boston to go all in. This is dangerous, and it's what Dumars notoriously did throughout his tenure as general manager of the Detroit Pistons, signing guys like Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva and Josh Smith for far more than they were worth simply because he could.
Under the current CBA, free agency is not the best place to find value. Teams are often forced to give a player his second or third contract, meeting or exceeding their in-vacuum price tag.
Rookie-scale deals not only keep players at a fixed number, but these players are also young, which means they’ll get better in a system they’re familiar with. There are no guarantees, but the chance of development is much better here than with a free agent in his mid- to late 20s who has to adapt to new surroundings.
The main way to beat this system is maxing out a player who’s worth a max contract, but this year’s crop doesn’t figure to yield too many options. The restricted free-agent class is loaded, but all the sure things figure to re-sign with their current teams—Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler, most notably.
From there, Boston would likely have to overpay for a role player—or a very good but declining non-superstar veteran—when it isn't anywhere near being competitive.
Danny Green, Wesley Matthews, Tyson Chandler, Paul Millsap, Omer Asik, Kevin Love (it's tough to include him here, but he belongs), Goran Dragic, Al Jefferson (if he opts out) and DeAndre Jordan are cool and super helpful in their own ways, but all of them will be overpaid next season.
The timing isn’t right for Boston to be one of the teams to spend just because it can.
Other free-agent talent can be found this summer; the Celtics just need to know where to look. Take Greg Monroe, for example.
Monroe is a 24-year-old with definable skills and weaknesses whose max deal won't damage Boston's cap sheet, thanks to the league's escalating cap over the next few years. That's not "rookie-scale contract" value, but it's not bad, either.
Would the Celtics go after Boston College product Reggie Jackson or Milwaukee Bucks point guard Brandon Knight? Marcus Smart is already on board, but those signings are possible.
What's most likely to happen? Don't be surprised if the team chooses to indefinitely hoard its cap space, draft picks and trade exceptions until the timing is right to trade for a star (or two).
This is the strategy Danny Ainge used to get Garnett and Allen, and the strategy Daryl Morey then copied to lure James Harden from Oklahoma City.
Boston's options are wide open, though, which is the whole point. This summer, the Celtics can be aggressive shakers or sit on the sideline. Either way, their rebuild still figures to take a while.
Michael Pina is an NBA writer who's been published at Bleacher Report, Sports on Earth, Fox Sports, Grantland and a few other special places. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina.