Kevin Garnett holds the key to the Celtics' offseason.There's a misconception that, with the bulky contracts of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen coming off the books this summer, the Celtics immediately have globs of money to spend in free agency.
If only it were that easy.
The NBA's cap structure is such that it encourages teams to re-sign their own free agents, offering financial leniency as teams can spend above the salary cap to retain the players it holds rights to. But in order to prevent a loophole where teams -- like Boston this offseason -- could snatch up other team's free agents with available cap space, then ink their own free agents over the cap, there are holds in place to prevent shenanigans.
With help from our friends at the indispensable salary site ShamSports.com, you'll notice that the Celtics are currently committed to roughly $87.3 million in cap holds entering the 2012 offseason. Even if Boston were to renounce its rights to both Garnett and Allen -- thereby forfeiting the opportunity to re-sign them above the cap -- Boston would still sit at $50 million (or a mere $8 million under last year's salary cap). Boston could chip off another $8 million by dispensing its rights to Brandon Bass, but -- as you can start to see -- it might simply be easier to splurge on its own players as opposed to trying to free up room to pursue what's a thin free-agent crop anyhow (particularly of the unrestricted variety).
Confused? Here's another way to look at it: The 2012-13 Celtics are currently committed to $30.5 million in salary to a mere four players in Paul Pierce ($16.8 million), Rajon Rondo ($11 million), Avery Bradley ($1.6 million) and JaJuan Johnson ($1.1 million). Center Greg Stiemsma is pegged for a $1.1 million qualifying offer (and that number could shoot higher if he draws outside interest and Boston matches an offer). The team also holds non-guaranteed options on E'Twaun Moore ($762,195) and Sean Williams ($915,852).
Let's go crazy and assume everyone above is back at those numbers. Sprinkle in predetermined salaries for the first-round picks at Nos. 21 ($1.1 million) and 22 ($1 million) and that's around $35 million for nine players, leaving Boston around $23 million for as much as six more player (and even that's not exactly true because of lingering cap holds elsewhere, including the likes of $8 million for Nenad Krstic and another $1.4 million for Stephon Marbury -- yes, these things don't go away easily).
Unless Garnett takes a steep discount -- you have to assume he'll command roughly $10 million -- Boston isn't going to have a lot of leftover money to throw around. It's on Garnett to accept less if he wants to give the Celtics financial flexibility to beef up their roster on the heels of a Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference finals.
If the Celtics desire Jeff Green ($9 million was the amount he was looking at before his heart issues last season) or Brandon Bass (start the bidding around the $6.3 million Glen Davis made last season), go ahead and break out the checkbooks. Mickael Pietrus probably isn't coming back at the minimum this time around, either, and you've still got to fill out the end of the bench -- with or without Allen.
All of which is to say, if Boston puts the band back together, there's likely not much room -- outside of the $3 million tax-payer's mid-level exception -- to add an outside body above a minimum contract. This isn't a situation where Boston can easily re-sign its core and add some big-name talent.
So how does Boston generate actual cap space in order to unlock the free-agent ATM this offseason? One way is to renounce the rights to the likes of Garnett, Allen, Green (at a whopping $11.1 million cap hold), Bass, and Dooling (heck, if you're getting nuclear, consider the amnesty option on Pierce, too). That doesn't necessarily mean none of those guys are back, but it would take away some pesky cap holds and allow Boston to spend to build its roster. The Celtics could sign a couple quality players with $20+ million to spend and might even be able to circle back and ink Garnett at low money. Again, it would be on Garnett to stomach a below-market-value contract in order to allow the team room to spend. (One caveat here: The Celtics could still facilitate sign-and-trade deals with renounced players, which would allow them the flexibility to still bring back comparable salary; Alas, the new CBA makes it somewhat less enticing for players to navigate sign-and-trade deals).
Regardless of the path Boston takes, it all hinges on Garnett. He's the first domino that has to fall -- even if he simply alerts the team that he plans to be back and later signs at a reasonable rate. Until then, the only thing Boston has this summer is globs of uncertainty.
(For more on all things salary cap related, there is no better resource than Larry Coon's NBA Salary Cap FAQ, which was recently updated with details from the new CBA thanks to Coon's tireless efforts.)