LAS VEGAS -- The Marcus Smart free agency saga has taken center stage in Las Vegas over the past couple days as the point guard is one of the few notable names left on the open market.
With all kinds of reports out there, it’s tough to tell what to believe and where things are headed. To make better sense of it all, BostonSportsJournal.com polled multiple league executives and observers over the past couple days to try to separate fact from fiction in the increasingly public negotiations. Here are the most important points to remember along with exclusive insight to keep in mind as the positioning from both sides continues:
1) Don’t buy much into the Smart/Nets chatter: There was plenty of hoopla about Brooklyn after Smart and his reps were spotted with general manager Sean Marks in Thomas and Mack Arena on Tuesday morning.
However, a league source tells BSJ that not much should be drawn from the meeting. The Nets are one of a few teams with more cap room than the mid-level exception after buying out Dwight Howard (about $12 million available), but they already have a full backcourt that is stocked with Jeremy Lin, D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LaVert, Joe Harris and Allen Crabbe all signed to deals. With a mountain of cap room (up to $70 million) available for next season, the Nets are expected to be big players on the free agent market for max-level talent as well. The thinking around the league is they would have to clear out more cap room to make an offer the Celtics wouldn’t consider matching. The Celtics aren’t going to walk away from Smart for $12 million a year, and that’s the best deal the Nets can offer right now. The belief in Vegas is that it would be surprising to see the Nets make that kind of an offer anyway since it would cut into their ability to offer two max contracts next summer.
2) Common theory: Smart’s agent is trying to drum up interest for the point guard with leaks: After a report of the Kings preparing an offer turned out to be hearsay, a couple of league executives told BSJ that they believe Smart’s representation is trying to make the Celtics budge on their hardline stance in negotiations by drumming up reports of impending offers from different teams. This is a tactic that may make some sense in theory but is not likely to work based on the realities of the market. There is a limited pool of teams involved here that still have the money to give Smart more than the mid-level exception ($8.4 million), and all of those teams have strong depth in the backcourt already. The Celtics are well aware of both of these facts. The Kings were one of the teams with serious cash remaining ($20 million) but their roster and rebuilding point is not a good fit for Smart. While the visual of Smart in Vegas chatting with general managers in the crowd may look threatening, don’t expect the Celtics to take the bait and up their offer to minimize the risk of Smart signing another offer sheet that they’d have to match.
3) The contract Smart wants is not out there: While Smart’s camp turned down a contract in the range of $12-13 million annually over four years last fall, according to league sources, the reality of the 2018 market is that offer is just not out there anymore, from Boston or anywhere else. Just because the Celtics got lucky that Smart turned down that deal in the fall doesn’t mean they are going to put it back on the table now. Smart’s reps, according to two league executives, have not adjusted their expectations to the market realities and now are doing their best attempts at damage control by “lowering” their demands. That’s a tactic that will not bear fruit, despite their public posturing. They badly miscalculated what the market would look like last fall and are going to cost their client millions in the process.
4) The Celtics are not going to voluntarily sign themselves into a long-term deal with Smart unless it’s team-friendly: The Celtics already believe they have one of the deepest teams in the league and they will also conveniently remain under the luxury tax this year if Smart ends up signing his qualifying offer for $6 million. That would be good news for the future team-planning since the harsh reality for C’s long-term payroll is that they will be dealing with the prospect of paying the luxury tax for the next 4-to-5 years if they retain their current stars on max deals. That sustained run of luxury tax payrolls will trigger the repeater tax after paying the luxury tax for three seasons, which will cause additional burden on Boston’s finances. Ownership has shown a willingness to pay up, but delaying the start of the luxury tax clock by one year (to 2019) could pay serious financial dividends down the road by keeping the repeater tax clock from starting until 2022. Of course, the Celtics could have their hands forced on this front if Smart signs an offer sheet with another team, but they aren’t going to budge from their stance of a long-term deal for just over mid-level money annually for the point guard. That’s a contract that will be a good value for the C’s over the long haul, but it’s not one Smart is willing to sign at the moment. Boston will wait this thing out well into September, since it’s the financially responsible thing to do, and they won’t mind one bit if Smart signs his qualifying offer.
5) A sign-and-trade is unlikely for Smart: In theory, this prospect makes sense to pursue for Smart’s camp, but it’s not likely to happen for a couple reasons. Smart would not only have to find an offer that he likes enough to sign over the long haul (at least three years), he would also have to hope that a team is willing to give Boston enough assets to let him go. That’s a heavy ask in this tight free agent market, which is why no restricted free agents have been traded yet this offseason. It’s conceivable that a team could pay Smart above market value, but the idea of doing that (which would be needed to appease Smart’s current salary demands) and giving up an asset on top of it is unrealistic. Most of the playoff teams that could use Smart are already in or approaching luxury tax territory so they won’t be in a position to give him the kind of money he wants.