The future of the Celtics remains brighter than ever, yet there has been a surprising amount of uncertainty about the status of Kyrie Irving that has come to the forefront of the rumor mill in recent days.
With the possibility of the Celtics getting a meeting with LeBron James this summer being floated, and a report that some in the Celtics organization fear that Irving could leave for the Knicks(?!?) in 2019, the questions have started to pile up about what’s next for the 26-year-old in Boston over the long haul.
Irving is not likely to go anywhere this summer but he is eligible for an extension now. No extension will be signed before next season, however (we’ll explain why in this piece). But that should not worry Celtics fans.
In speaking about the future in an exclusive interview with BostonSportsJournal.com, Irving sounds like a player that is eager to join forces again with Gordon Hayward and play through those possibilities in Boston beyond just next season.
“I'm just excited to see what that looks like, really getting that experience with G and seeing what other pieces we have going forward,” Irving said in a recent conversation. “I think that's the exciting part about all this is that when you're shaping up to gear up to be a championship-caliber team for years to come -- which I think Danny (Ainge) has echoed for a little bit. I'm just appreciative to be a part of it and see where my career can take off as well. I'm excited.”
After watching a breakout season from youngsters like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Irving believes Hayward will make their lineup become an even bigger handful for opponents to handle.
“Just how much versatility we have,” Irving said of a Celtics lineup with a healthy Hayward. “I think that our starting five probably could have changed game-to-game, based on the guys we have on this team and the length. When you add another prominent ballhandler, creator of opportunities, scorer and defender in Gordon, that's something you can't necessarily talk about it, you can only see. That's something a lot of us are excited to see from G.”
Despite his optimistic tone about the future in Boston, Irving remained somewhat guarded when asked specifically about the long-term.
“It's encouraging,” said Irving, about his time in Boston. “For me, it's my job to just stay present. When all that stuff at that time comes, we'll see what happens.”
A closer look at the numbers of Irving’s contract situation gives you a better idea of why Irving is voicing that kind of guarded attitude publicly. Committing to Boston now for the long haul would hurt Irving from a financial standpoint (if he signs an extension now) and potentially from a negotiating standpoint later (if he becomes an unrestricted free agent).
Why Irving won’t sign an extension this offseason
Irving is set to make $20.1 million during the 2018-19 season in the fourth year of a five-year contract. Irving signed a five-year extension with the Cavs back in the summer of 2014 for $90 million, a deal that quickly turned into a bargain over the second half of this decade for both Cleveland and later Boston, as the NBA salary cap skyrocketed by nearly 40 percent.
That cap spike and the rules of the collective bargaining agreement essentially give the Celtics no realistic shot to sign Irving to an extension this summer, even though he is eligible to sign one.
The problem for Boston logistically starts with the limitations on offering an appealing extension under CBA rules. Since the Celtics are over the salary cap, they can only offer an extension for Irving with a starting salary worth 120 percent of his 2018-19 salary, which would be equal to just over $24 million. The CBA also limits the annual raises the Celtics could offer Irving in his new deal to just eight percent per year for the length of the extension (up to four years total).
Barring more serious injury woes, that’s a deal that will be far under Irving’s market value in the summer of 2019 (when he can opt out of his player option and become an unrestricted free agent). If he hits the free agent market then, he’ll be eligible for a max deal that’s worth 30 percent of a salary cap that’s projected to rise to $108 million. That would mean a starting salary of over $32 million in that contract, with the opportunity for a $2.6 million raise each season of the deal if he re-signed with Boston.
If Irving waits it out until the summer of 2019, he’d have the ability to make $190 million over five years with Boston (an average of $38 million annually). The most he could make by signing a max extension over that same time frame this summer? Roughly $108 million over the next four years.
Needless to say, no one should fault Irving from declining to leave tens of millions of dollars on the table in order to commit long-term to the Celtics. Having that cash locked in now might be appealing for some players with a lengthy injury history, but Irving is clearly confident that he’s going to make a full recovery ahead of free agency in 2019.
In spite of these current limitations, the Celtics will still have a significant financial advantage over what they can offer Irving compared to other suitors next summer. They have the benefit of being able to structure Irving’s contract with eight percent annual raises (other teams can only offer five percent annual raises). Additionally, the Celtics will be able to offer a five-year deal (other teams will only be able to offer four).
Those factors combined with the C’s young contending core should make them feel very comfortable about their ability to retain the All-Star point guard for the long-term (assuming they want to do so). Irving may not want to tip his hand before eventual negotiations with Boston next summer for posturing reasons (a five-year max offer from them can’t be considered a 100 percent sure thing with his injury history), but his team-focused comments indicate that the Celtics are a squad he’d be content to play for over the long haul. It's also easy to forget that Irving already gave up $5.8 million to come to Boston in the first place by waiving his trade kicker last summer.
After playing on an under-market deal for the last few years, Irving sounds like a guy who likes Boston but also wants to maximize his earnings while he’s here. It’s hard to fault him for that.