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Thursday, June 30, 2011
How will lockout impact Celtics?

By Chris Forsberg
ESPNBoston.com

The term "lockout" couldn't be more appropriate. When the NBA's collective bargaining agreement expires at midnight as the calendar flips to July, owners will quite literally lock their players out from team facilities, and all NBA business will halt until a new agreement is reached.

That means no summer league, no free agency, no rookie signings. Just lawyers and legalese until owners and player reps decide how to best divvy up their earnings and establish the parameters by which the salary cap will be governed for the foreseeable future.

But what does a summer (and fall? and winter?) of uncertainty mean for the Boston Celtics? The catchphrase among league executives like Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge is that "everyone is in the same boat." Although that's true, Boston appears to be in better shape than most as Day 1 of the lockout approaches, but a lengthy NBA furlough would be incredibly daunting for this aging team.

Although the Celtics only have six players officially inked for next season -- Jeff Green will be a restricted free agent and is likely to be back with the club -- that group includes the entire playoff starting 5 of Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jermaine O'Neal, along with sophomore-to-be Avery Bradley. Despite being unable to sign their rookie deals, Boston draft picks JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore have been in town all week, along with undrafted Pittsburgh shooting guard Gilbert Brown, getting instructions on what to work on this offseason. Count everyone in for next year and Boston has 10 of its possible 15 roster spots spoken for.

It's likely Boston won't have much money to spend even when a new CBA is achieved and, aside from maybe the midlevel and bi-annual exceptions, will be forced to fill out its roster with veteran minimum deals (though Boston does hold full Bird Rights to unrestricted free agent Glen Davis, which means the team can re-sign him up to a max contract or facilitate a sign-and-trade deal in order to get something back for him).

However it's not all good news for the Celtics. The potential for a shortened (or, gulp, cancelled) season is incredibly daunting for this aging team.

Say the NBA lockout plays out as it did during the 1998-99 season, where owners and players didn't reach an agreement until mid-January and the season didn't begin until early February. On the surface, a veteran team like Boston that has struggled to the finish line each of the past two seasons would welcome a 50-game slate. But consider that those 50 games would be crammed in a four-month span, with plenty of back-to-backs and constant game action, and that could be incredibly dismaying for a team that thrives with as much recovery time as possible.

And dare we even fathom a completely cancelled NBA season? Yes, it seems impossible, particularly with the league coming off an intriguing 2010-11 season where interest grew in the product. The window of Boston's Big Three has seemingly been closing each of the past couple years, but the Celtics keeps finding a way to jam their fingers in to prevent that. A cancelled season would be crippling considering the ages of the trio (Allen will be 36 next month; KG is 35; and Pierce turns 34 in October) and the fact that Allen and Garnett are in the final years of their deals.

How the new CBA plays out will also dictate just how competitive Boston can remain. The current soft cap, along with the numerous exceptions, allow a team like the Celtics to spend more than others might be willing to be championship contenders. Even with a cap of roughly $58 million this past season, the Celtics spent $76.2 million and will be paying luxury tax (dollar for dollar for anything over $70 million) for that willingness to spend.

With the seven current contracts (including a $5.9 million qualifying offer for Green), Boston is on the books for $64.9 million next season. Sprinkle in rookie contracts, a possible midlevel exception signing and the potential of re-signing the likes of Davis at an increased salary level, and Boston is back up over the luxury tax threshold yet again.

What could be most daunting for Boston is if the league installed a hard cap (or even the much-discussed "flex" cap) that forces parity by establishing a salary ceiling of, say, $62 million. It would be virtually impossible for Boston to field a team at that level, even with amnesty to eliminate a bad contract.

But Ainge and his staff aren't worrying about that quite yet.

"Well, we can't have a game plan in place today. … But every team's in the same boat," Ainge said in May. "We're just sitting and waiting for those answers. We know some possibilities, we read what you guys read and follow that and we have an owner that can keep us updated on how things are going, so you've got to be a little bit flexible."

Pressed after last week's draft on the uncertainty, Ainge stuck with the catchphrase.

"Well, we're all in the same boat, every team," he said. "I don't know what's going to happen, but I can't really address that. We'll just deal with whatever rules we're given."

For rookies like Johnson, the possibility of working without a contract this summer is a bit daunting, but he shrugged it off when asked about the lockout at Monday's introductions.

"I'm not too concerned," said Johnson, the No. 27 overall pick in last week's draft. "I mean, pretty much, we can only focus on the things we can control, and right now that's working out and continuing to get better as a player. Obviously a lockout's probably going to happen, so there's not too much we can do about it."

Like their fans, Celtics players, coaches and executives will simply sit and wait to find out the rules they'll be playing by next season. There's uncertainty, but Boston has done everything it can to put itself in a good position entering the lockout.

Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.