It would be easy to say the Celtics’ offseason was saved by Dennis Schröder’s decision to turn down $84 million from the Lakers.
And that’s an accurate assessment.
Schröder’s mistaken belief that he would earn in excess of $100 million in the free agent market and evaporating salary cap space because of expeditious free agent signings had Schröder, a top-10-15 point guard in the NBA, looking for a team, and the Celtics pounced.
The Celtics were poised to score in free agency because of their patience, but this is a bigger boon than they could have imagined. Schröder is a $15-million-per-year player based on his production and Boston nabbed him for one year and $5.9 million.
Not only does Schröder upgrade the Celtics’ roster, new president of basketball operations Brad Stevens retains cap space for a max contract player next summer. Schröder is part of the Celtics’ plan to compete this coming season without sacrificing the opportunity to chase Bradley Beal or Zach LaVine next summer.
A rising salary cap in recent years has eliminated the NBA’s middle class. Players are either getting lucrative contracts at more than their value or being forced to sign for less than their worth. The Celtics were unable to sign Evan Fournier, who has never averaged as many as 20 points in a season, because they were unwilling to offer him $20 million annually.
A team with cap space and the desperation to win immediately can afford to be generous, such as the four-year, $78 million contract the Knicks gave Fournier. It’s the type of contract the Knicks have executed before — remember the $72 million over four years for Joakim Noah? — but deeply regretted.
Stevens is not going to offer up a frivolous deal that he may soon regret. His predecessor, Danny Ainge, gave Kemba Walker a maximum deal that brought remorse after one season.
Stevens is going to be careful with the Celtics’ finances. The club previously secured Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to long-term contracts and recently acquired Josh Richardson and signed Schröder and Enes Kanter. All three are on expiring contracts.
Can the Celtics compete for the Eastern Conference crown while saving save enough cap space for a maximum-salary player next year? It’s possible, but Stevens has to be astute with his remaining roster moves. The Celtics have 15 players on their roster if you include recently acquired Kris Dunn and Jabari Parker, who does not have a guaranteed contract.
There are still free agents available, such as James Ennis and Wesley Matthews, players who could come cheap and be useful in new coach Ime Udoka’s system. Stevens decided quickly that the way to approach this offseason, especially with the Celtics trying to avoid the luxury tax, was to be careful in free agency, even if that meant getting passed on paper.
Brooklyn, Charlotte, Miami, Washington, and Chicago improved through free agency and trades, while Milwaukee and Philadelphia stood pat but will be favorites to win the East. The Celtics, before signing Schröder, had been left behind.
But they scored a quality free agent because there wasn’t enough money to go around. The Bulls gave four years and $80 million to Lonzo Ball, who had fallen out of favor in New Orleans. The Lakers replaced Schröder by trading for Russell Westbrook. The Wizards replaced Westbrook with Spencer Dinwiddie at three years and $54 million.
The Heat acquired Kyle Lowry and sent Goran Dragic to Toronto in a sign-and-trade deal. Schröder did not have a strong statistical season with the Lakers and regrettably turned down their extension offer, believing he would be one of the top point guards on the market.
Westbrook’s trade to the Lakers changed Schröder’s fortunes. And other clubs coveted Dinwiddie, who missed nearly all of last season with a torn ACL, more than Schröder. The Celtics were the beneficiaries. They get a player who will be motivated to prove he’s worthy of a $100 million contract next summer. The Celtics have learned that just because you have money to spend doesn’t mean you should spend it right away and without restraint.
There will be several cases of buyer’s remorse from this free agent class in the coming months and years, but the Celtics won’t be on that list. And they’ll have plenty of money to spend on a can’t-miss All-Star-caliber player because of their patience.
SECOND TO NONE
Griner flourishes on Olympic stage
It’s apparent that Team USA and Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner plays with more freedom and under less pressure in international play. Many expectations have been placed on Griner since her days at Baylor more than a decade ago, and while she has had a strong career in the WNBA, she flourishes in the Olympic spotlight.
At 30, the 6-foot-8-inch center just won her second gold medal, scoring 30 points in the gold-medal game against Japan. She was untouchable in the post, using her height and skill to score at the rim easily. And while she has been a seven-time WNBA All-Star and one of the league’s top centers, Griner appears more comfortable on an Olympic stage.
That can happen with some players, just ask Carmelo Anthony, who became one of Team USA’s most valuable players by transforming into a pinpoint shooter on the Olympic stage. Griner has turned into an unstoppable force, a player with no peers in the tournament.
Her ascension over the past two Olympics began with an increase in confidence and assertiveness.
“I definitely feel more comfortable with saying where I want [the ball]. I wouldn’t do that before,” she said. “I was like, ‘Where do you want me?’ On defense, just being more confident knowing the game as well, just being able to say something. Just being more vocal on defense as well.”
Griner wouldn’t say she’s more comfortable under FIBA rules than in the WNBA, but there are advantages for centers. Griner was expected to take the WNBA by storm, and while she’s been All-WNBA five times, Griner has never been named MVP and almost gets taken for granted because she can make the game look so easy.
“No defensive three [seconds], you get to camp more,” she joked. “I do like that, being able to chill in the paint some. You’re just playing for your country at the highest level and it brings out the best. It’s like when I was in AAU I would play on a higher team or in high school I would practice with the men. It just brings out a little bit more in you. Just being able to represent the country brings out the best in me.”
Five-time gold medalist Diana Taurasi has been Griner’s WNBA teammate for nine seasons and has a deep appreciation for her skill set and demeanor.
“Obviously, I have close connection with [Brittney] and what she showed in the tournament just shows you at what level she could go to and how she could dominate a game,” Taurasi said. “I always tell her, I don’t think you know how good you are. But that is also the best thing about her. She’s the ultimate teammate. For the people around her, you get to know that she really just wants to win and she’ll do anything for the team to win. At the core, that’s what makes her a beautiful person. She’s the most unselfish superstar I’ve ever been around.”
Griner said she considers Taurasi and Sue Bird mentors. She’s part of the middle generation of USA Basketball, a veteran of two Olympics who should have at least one more left. The admiration for those who came before her is apparent.
“They know how much I look up to [Taurasi] and they know how much I look up to Sue as well,” Griner said. “Just to be a part of five for those two, I’m just honored to be part of that history. It means everything to me to have two of these. You could never have too much of a good thing when it’s a gold medal.”
So much was expected from Griner because of her physical prowess. She is a unicorn on the basketball floor and it has taken time for her to appreciate her uniqueness and be comfortable in her own skin.
“Love being different,” she said. “The world would be boring if we were all the same. And own it. I love being tall. I love being bigger. I mean, even to the 17 men’s shoe that I wear. Owning what makes you different because that makes you beautiful, honestly.”
Commissioner’s Cup a bonus for WNBA
Those who casually follow the WNBA should have paid attention this past week to the championship game of the Commissioner’s Cup, where Seattle beat Connecticut, 79-57, in Phoenix. The winning team earned $30,000 for each player and Olympic gold medalist Breanna Stewart earned $5,000 for being the game’s MVP.
A midseason tournament is something the NBA has been considering for a few years. During the WNBA season, certain regular-season games were counted as “Commissioner’s Cup” games and the teams with the two best records in those games were placed in this midseason championship.
It’s an idea that many WNBA players are accustomed to because it is popular overseas. It allows players to earn extra money during the season and for a midseason showcase for the league.
“I bring up the [collective bargaining agreement] because that was a deal that I think put a lot of things in place that will benefit the league and help it grow,” Seattle guard Sue Bird said. “The Commissioner’s Cup is one aspect of it but there’s a lot we can talk about obviously. But with the Commissioner’s Cup, it gives something that I think the WNBA has lacked, its own stage at some times. Different aspects of our season, the Finals, it kind of gets lost. It’s not necessarily our time.”
The WNBA is looking for more exposure, and perhaps in the future the Commissioner’s Cup can be scheduled on a weekend and telecast on a major network. The NBA wouldn’t have those issues; the league would just have to introduce the idea of a midseason championship to a basketball public that’s foreign to that idea.
“A great example is the NCAA Tournament. Women’s basketball has its own stage. Whether or not it grows into that, I’m not sure, but it’s actually something that the league can sell ahead of time,” Bird said of the Cup. “Here’s going to be a date, a place, a time, you don’t know the opponents yet but you can sell that ahead of time. Fans can get excited about that. You can cheer for your teams or you can buy tickets and go regardless, just like the NCAA Tournament. That’s really what I was getting at when I talked about what this Commissioner’s Cup means just in terms of long-term growth for the league.
“And I think for us players playing, it gets you excited. I mention those bonus games overseas. We all knew in the locker room before those games, like, there’s 10K on this one. You knew it and you talked about it and it does give a different edge to what you’re doing as you prepare.”
The key for the NBA is selling the idea to the players, and a financial benefit is always a good way to start.
Stewart, who was named the most outstanding player of the Olympic tournament, said the Commissioner’s Cup is another means of promoting the WNBA. The NBA wants that same type of midseason interest.
“I think it just continues to kind of increase engagement,” Stewart said. “The fact it’s on a neutral court makes it that there’s no bias, even though Seattle is obviously closer to Phoenix than Connecticut, but it brings people into the city and for the WNBA I think that’s great. Especially as we continue on with this post-COVID, it’s going to be like [Bird] said, similar to the NCAA where people can just come.”
Don’t be surprised if a midseason tournament is installed in the NBA for the 2022-23 season.
Las Vegas Summer League has always been a place where veteran players looking for one final chance can attempt to resuscitate their careers by playing on a stage where scouts and coaches from every team are present. The Trail Blazers have three such players — Michael Beasley, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Kenneth Faried — trying to get training camp invitations. All three are capable of helping an NBA team, and teams appear to be more open to signing such players — instead of relying on unproven rookies — after Carmelo Anthony flourished with the Blazers. Meanwhile, former Celtic Isaiah Thomas is attempting a comeback by playing weekend at Jamal Crawford’s Seattle-area summer pro-am, where he dropped 81 points last weekend. Thomas appeared in three games for New Orleans this past season, but it was really difficult to judge him because the Pelicans were so dysfunctional. Thomas does deserve a second or third chance in the NBA and the Celtics are seeking minimum-salary players to fill their roster. The plan now is to hope Carsen Edwards responds after another year of experience. But the hope is that teams don’t discount these veteran players because of their absence from the NBA. The league is getting younger but there’s always a place for veterans. Take the Heat, for instance. They just signed Udonis Haslem to a minimum contract to return for a 19th season, basically as a mentor/assistant coach. Veterans have value, but the league has become so consumed with prospects that these players are bypassed … Two players not on summer league rosters are former Celtics two-way contract players Tremont Waters and Tacko Fall. It was a foregone conclusion that neither would return to the Celtics as Brad Stevens continues to reshape the roster, but it would seem like summer league would be a good opportunity for them to perhaps procure two-way deals with others clubs. There are also opportunities overseas. The Celtics have one remaining two-way roster slot, but that is likely to be filled by someone on their summer league roster … After playing for Italy in the Olympics, former Warriors two-way guard Nico Mannion signed with Virtus Bologna with the hopes of returning to the NBA. Mannion’s Olympic performance was uneven and the one-and-done player from Arizona was a third-string guard for Golden State at best.