WALTHAM — Danny Ainge is going to have tough choices to make over the next couple summers thanks to a roster full of young players outplaying their contracts. The true money squeeze won’t hit until the summer of 2019 since the Celtics have nearly its entire core under contract until then, outside of Aron Baynes and Marcus Smart. Both of those free agents should be within an acceptable price range for the Celtics to retain, at least for the 2018-19 season. Things get dicey after that from a payroll perspective (something we’ll cover in greater depth here at Boston Sports Journal in the weeks to come).
In the interim, a season-ending injury to Kyrie Irving has opened the door for plenty of opportunities in the backcourt, and no player across the league has seen his stock skyrocket more over the past two months than Terry Rozier.
The 6-foot-2 guard had been an integral member of Brad Stevens’ rotation this season prior to March, playing 23 minutes per game while providing critical energy, floor spacing and athleticism in his third NBA season during that time. Once Irving and Smart went down with injuries, the keys to the offense were handed to him, out of necessity more than anything else. He rose to the opportunity down the stretch, averaging 15.6 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 5.1 assists as a starter over the final month and a half of the regular season.
That production has only increased this postseason, and Rozier has improved his numbers in nearly every statistical category including points (17.4 per game average), assists (5.6), 3-point shooting (37.4 percent) and turnovers per game (1.2). He ranks fifth in win shares this postseason, just behind James Harden and Al Horford, and ahead of names such as Kevin Durant and Draymond Green.
"He's got a freedom now without Kyrie," Sixers head coach Brett Brown said earlier this month. "He becomes sort of what they needed in Kyrie. He's got a real ability to score. He has a dance with the ball that I think is elite. And there's a freedom that he has [that] sort of partners with his confidence under a pretty impressive skill package, and it's a perfect storm. He provides a heck of a plan B."
With Smart and Jaylen Brown also thriving, and the return of Irving looming, it’s safe to say there is going to be minutes squeeze in the Celtics backcourt next fall. Even with the assumption that the C’s will play more small ball, it’s hard to find a way Stevens will be able to keep everyone happy with their floor time with names like Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris, Al Horford and Daniel Theis taking up minutes in the frontcourt as well. A guy like Morris could be moved, but his versatility in the frontcourt has been crucial on the defensive end this postseason.
So will Rozier, making a bargain $3.1 million next season in the final year of his rookie deal, be content to go back to a reserve role? He opened up about the situation in a recent conversation with BostonSportsJournal.com.
“I'm not a selfish guy,” Rozier said. “Obviously, I don't want to be off the bench my whole career. That's the only thing. I'm not trying to push nobody out, I'm not trying to try to put pressure on the organization or anything like that. That's not me.
"I like to win. I like being here. I like the organization and the fans. I love everything about the Celtics. If this is the perfect situation next year, I'm down with it. I like winning.”
That type of buy-in for Rozier is important since it could have been the biggest looming challenge for Stevens at the start of next season. The assertion that there won’t be room for Rozier and Smart in Boston next year is a foolish one from a financial standpoint. League sources expect the Celtics to be able to go into the luxury tax as soon as next season for a contending squad, and that might not even be necessary in a depressed open market with little cap room. Smart is a restricted free agent, and there aren’t a lot of rebuilding teams with the need at the point guard position that will be able to throw a big money offer at the 24-year-old who shoots under 35 percent from the field.
Even if they don’t want to keep him long-term, the Celtics can afford to keep Smart under contract until at least 2019, when new deals are due for the likes of Irving, Rozier, and Morris. Financially, there won’t be room for everyone at that point, unless Celtics ownership is willing to pay a record luxury tax bill. Boston will have to either trade Smart or Rozier or let one walk during their respective free agencies (barring other salary-clearing moves).
While Rozier may be content to stay in a reduced role, that won’t preclude the Celtics front office from potentially testing the trade waters this summer and seeing what the 24-year-old guard can fetch. Rozier’s modest salary and untapped potential make him a fit on playoff and rebuilding teams alike. He plays at one of the deepest positions in the league, but his skill set is a unique one. He is an elite rebounder for his size, his turnover rate is tiny and his athleticism can give opponents headaches all across the floor.
A polling of multiple league executives indicates Rozier’s trade value would be higher than someone like Avery Bradley last summer, who was sent to Detroit with a year left on his deal for Marcus Morris. Rozier is younger, has more promise and will be a restricted free agent in 2019, giving the Celtics (or another team) more control over his future. The Celtics will also have an opportunity to sign him to a contract extension this offseason ahead of late-October. However, the C’s seldom offer contract extensions that have been enticing enough to sign (the last time being for Rajon Rondo), and Rozier will likely be asking for too much in the wake of this postseason for the Celtics to reach that figure.
The good news for Ainge is that Boston won’t experience the same salary-cap crunch this summer that forced them to deal away Bradley last July to make room for the Hayward signing. Thus, there will be no strong urgency to deal Rozier unless the asking price is met. Running it back with this group intact could be the more enticing play, especially if they advance to the NBA Finals and put up a fight there. Moving Rozier this summer would be a proactive play to try to help balance the future books and secure a strong return for his services, with the knowledge that the C’s may not be able to afford his asking price in 2019.
For now, Rozier will continue to make the most of his opportunity while it lasts with Irving on the sidelines. He knows the value of performing under this spotlight and wants to keep riding the wave of success in Boston while he can.
“The playoffs are called the moneymaker, man,” Rozier said. “It doesn't matter how good or bad you played in the regular season, it's a whole new season in the playoffs. It's a whole new grind. Everybody is playing harder and everybody has to be ready for the opportunity.”