When Chris Paul and Dwight Howard elected to waive their early termination options, it made a thin free agent market almost desolate and turned the summer spotlight squarely on a stronger than usual class of restricted free agents. This presents a dilemma for the Celtics.
Signing restricted free agents is difficult. As long as their respective teams make a qualifying offer, they retain the right to match an offer sheet. In the past, teams would have up to seven days to decide on whether to match, but under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, the timeframe has been shortened to three days. That helps potential suitors, but it’s still not easy.
The Celtics have only four players under contract after this season for a total of just over $31 million. The salary cap is expected to be around the current figure of $58 million, but that doesn’t mean they have $27 million in cap space. It’s actually more like $20-22 million after the league assigns various cap charges and factors in the salary slots for their first round draft picks.
Then there’s the issue of “cap holds” for unrestricted free agents. If the Celtics want to use some of the money they would have to officially cut ties with players like Ray Allen (who has a cap hold of $15 million) and the big one, Kevin Garnett ($22 million). Cap holds are in place so teams can’t load up on free agents and then re-sign their own players using Bird rights.
If Allen or Garnett sign elsewhere, their cap holds go along with them and that space opens up. If they re-sign for less money it obviously goes against the cap figure. As long as they remain unsigned, the Celtics would have to rescind their Bird rights to free up their cap space, meaning they couldn’t go over the cap to re-sign them.
In other words, a lot of this comes down to Garnett. Considering his strong play this season -- as well as last year -- trying to bring him back seems like a no-brainer. Look at it this way: Would you rather have Garnett back for a reasonable deal, or a chance at signing a restricted free agent whose team can match the offer?
Once you start factoring in Garnett, as well as other players they could retain like Brandon Bass (who has a player option), Mickael Pietrus and Jeff Green, that cap space disappears pretty quickly. (See last week’s notebook for more on that scenario).
It’s possible that the Celtics and Garnett could meet halfway on a deal that allows the team some freedom under the cap, but once you factor in their other free agents it’s highly unlikely that they would still have enough room to target a premium free agent.
With that in mind, here’s a list of some of the top restricted free agents this summer:
Comment: There's a lot to choose from and while Hibbert's name has been popular with Celtics fans, the Pacers won’t let him leave without a fight. Keep an eye on Brook Lopez, who is still just 23 years old and didn’t miss a game in his first three seasons, while averaging 17 points and 7.5 rebounds. There's a lot of chaos around the Nets and in chaos there's usually opportunity.
Comment: This is a trick or treat bunch with Anderson clearly at the top of the pecking order. In his first year as a starter, Anderson is averaging 16 points and 7.4 rebounds, while shooting over 40 percent from 3-point range. He has the kind of floor-spacing range that the Celtics love in their big men.
Comment: Gordon may have the bigger name, but teams will be lining up to take a shot at stealing Batum from Portland. Mayo's name has come up periodically in rumors involving the Celtics, but don't sleep on Rush who has developed into a younger version of Pietrus.
Can the Celtics get the third seed?
Entering play on Friday, the Celtics were two games behind Indiana for the third seed, which would vault them out of the Bulls’ side of the bracket and directly in the Heat’s line of sight. The Celtics would own the tiebreaker with Indiana based on winning the Atlantic Division, but after their brutal loss to the Raptors that no longer seems realistic.
“It would be great if we had this amount of games with rest,” Doc Rivers said earlier in the week. “I would love our chances to finish, I actually said I think we could all the way to the three spot. Having said that, with the amount of games and so little time it may not come down to the best teams winning these games. It will be the teams that can survive.”
We’ll know more about their chances after they finish this run of three games in three nights and five in six with all but one on the road. The Pacers don’t have a three-in-three, but they do have two sets of back-to-backs and four in five with tricky road games at Milwaukee and Philadelphia. That’s the best time for the Celtics to make their move because Indiana closes with four straight at home.
Rivers, as you may have guessed, is not a fan of this frantic race to the finish line.
“Everyone has a bunch of games and I don’t like how they did that,” he said. “I don’t think it’s right. I don’t think that’s how you should end the season on who can survive going through 100 games in 101 days, but that’s what it is.”
What is Avery Bradley’s true position?
The second year guard from Texas has emerged in the backcourt with Rajon Rondo where he is free to cut to the basket and move without the ball. Bradley has averaged better than 12 points a game in his last 10 outings, and he and Rondo form a dynamite defensive tandem. With Bradley on board, Rondo can defend two-guards some nights like he did in stretches against the Hawks.
But Bradley is also the team’s backup point guard and it was there that he first made an impression this season when Rondo missed eight games with an injured wrist. The Celtics went 6-2 in that stretch and while Bradley doesn’t have nearly the command of the offense that Rondo does, he kept his turnovers down and didn’t try to do too much.
“He played really [well] earlier in the year when Rondo was out for eight games,” team president Danny Ainge said this week on The Big Show. “We went on a really nice winning streak there when Rondo sat. Even though he's not a point guard like Rondo, or a true point guard, we were able to win games with him playing that position just because of the defense. Both of those stretches were equally impressive.”
Bradley’s ballhandling limitations could present a problem in the postseason. The Hawks pressured him fullcourt as soon as Rondo was out of the game, which played a part in Rondo asking to play the entire second half and overtime on Wednesday. At various times Rivers will have Ray Allen bring the ball up the court, but that’s not a natural fit either.
“That’s something we’re going to have to fix when teams do that,” Rivers said.
Ultimately, Bradley is probably best served playing off the ball, but he’s still developing. The playoffs will be a huge test for him, but the summer will be as important as he continues to progress. He has never played in summer league and he yet to even go through a full training camp, making his late-season emergence all the more remarkable.
With their recent hot stretch, the Celtics have moved from the middle part of the first round down to around the early 20’s for their first round picks. The one they will receive from the Clippers is even lower.
The good news is that the draft is deep with all but one top underclassmen – Indiana center Cody Zeller – electing to enter this year. The names will change after the pre-draft camps and individual workouts but here’s the list of prospects from 18-25 according to Draft Express:
Marquis Teague, PG Kentucky
Jeff Taylor, SF Vanderbilt
Tony Wroten, SG Washington
Moe Harkless, SF St. John's
Dion Waiters, SG Syracuse
Evan Fournier, SF France
Arnett Moultrie, PF Mississippi State
Royce White, PF Iowa State
Expect the Celtics to take who they feel is the best player, regardless of position.