Prior to the 1984-85 season, the NBA implemented a salary cap to level the playing field among its large-, medium-, and small-market teams. And over the last 30-plus years, maneuvering the cap has become an art.
Take the Warriors, for instance. Not only did general manager Bob Myers, and Larry Riley before him, draft extremely well — including Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green — they were also able to sign Curry to a below-market extension because of his ankle issues, and then procured manageable extensions with Green and Thompson.
Finally, because of a major increase in the cap because of the new television contract, the Warriors were able to squeeze Kevin Durant into their salary structure after trading Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut.
It was almost too good to be true.
Now, 3,100 miles to the east, the Celtics are enjoying the fruits of Danny Ainge’s salary cap management, as well as some good fortune, and have built a championship-contending team that likely won’t be the same after this season.
This is as good as it will get for the Celtics in terms of player salaries and a luxury tax that isn’t astronomical. After this season, Terry Rozier will seek a lucrative offer sheet from another club, in the hopes of becoming a starter; Marcus Morris will be an unrestricted free agent and will look for a contract far above the $5.3 million he’s earning this season; and Jaylen Brown will be due a potential $100-plus-million extension as his rookie contract expires.
And that’s not to mention the money that will be spent on a Kyrie Irving maximum extension, as well as in the summer of 2020, when Jayson Tatum will tap Ainge’s shoulder looking for his max extension.
The Celtics signing three max free agents (if you include Irving), scoring big off their draft picks — Rozier, Brown, and Tatum — and extending Marcus Smart will eventually become costly. But not as much right now. The Celtics enter the season with the eighth-highest payroll in the NBA, an estimated $30 million less than the league-leading Heat ($158 million).
Ainge doesn’t want to hear about increased luxury-tax bills, rookie extensions, and Irving’s potential $188 million extension just yet. He wants to capitalize on a team he’s built with crafty moves, savvy trades, and some good fortune.
“If there’s anything I’ve learned in 40 years in pro sports, it’s that things can change from one year to the next,” Ainge said. “We’re always trying to predict the future and how this player is going to be and that’s hard, especially when you’re dealing with a lot of young players. There are a lot of tough decisions to make in managing payroll.
“But one thing I do know, it could be way different. Things could be way different if Aron Baynes chose not to come back or Marcus Smart chose not to come back. Those are completely unpredictable things, so we have to have Plan C, D, and E to be able to manage the payroll because you can’t have that many long-term contracts.”
Another break the Celtics received was acquiring Irving in the final years of the five-year, $90 million extension he signed with the Cavaliers, meaning he’s Boston’s third-highest-paid player, earning $11 million less than Gordon Hayward, despite having better credentials. Irving said he will opt out next year to sign a five-year, $188 million package. But again, that’s next year.
The players know the game is a business and fully understand that three or four players from this year’s team will likely be gone next year. But that just adds a sense of urgency.
“That’s the whole thing, being in the league for eight years, I’ve really never been on a contending team,” Morris said. “This year, I think we’re going to win it. All the other stuff that’s involved isn’t important now. Obviously I want to get paid, we all know that, coming off the [expletive] contract that I got, I definitely want to get paid. But at the same time, I won’t allow that to get bigger than the team because we have something special now. If I’m on a 25-win team then it could be something different. But I’m looking to help out the team in any way.”
Rozier is not likely to sign a rookie extension by Monday’s deadline because he wants to be a starter and that likely won’t happen in Boston. But at a recent practice, Ainge put his arm around Rozier and the two talked privately. The message was clear: Play for this season and then get the money and bigger role next year.
“That’s why I think you have such a focus on getting to playing well, and playing as well as you can,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “There’s going to be some bumps in the road. With reintegrating [Irving and Hayward], I think that’s going to be the early part of the challenge. We’ve just got to make sure we’re doing the best we can to make sure we’re all moving in one direction. The reality is when we were playing in the playoffs last year, we probably didn’t have as many curveballs that we could throw because we didn’t have enough [depth].”
Depth won’t be an issue this season, and the Celtics have learned from the Warriors that winning tends to solve issues involving roles and playing time. The increased salary cap has not only resulted in many big contracts, but it has made managing rosters and keeping productive players much more difficult.
Two of the Celtics’ rotation players — Brad Wanamaker and Daniel Theis — will earn a combined $2.1 million this season, $500,000 less than Guerschon Yabusele. Ainge was able to sign those players from overseas because both had NBA aspirations and wanted to play for a winning organization.
“I just want to enjoy this year until February [trade deadline] and then we can talk about next year,” Ainge said. “We’ve been very fortunate. The fact that Terry and Marcus and Jaylen and Jayson have all worked out to be really good players, the fact that Kyrie, we were able to acquire him in a trade. Aron wanted to come back. Marcus wanted to come back. Those guys had other options.
“The fact that Gordon and Al [Horford] chose to come here. The fact that Daniel Theis has worked out as a nice piece for us and Semi [Ojeleye] has been able to play a role, and Brad Wanamaker wanted to come over and live his dream of playing in the NBA, could have made a lot more money in Europe by staying.
“There were a lot of things that were completely unpredictable that have worked out and we’ve been very fortunate and sometimes you don’t get that fortunate. This year was more Plan A and B worked out for us.”