Best of BSJ Free Preview

Examining the Celtics’ options if Kyrie Irving walks in free agency

(Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)

OAKLAND — Six months ago, the idea of Kyrie Irving leaving the Celtics this summer seemed like a long shot based on the commitment the point guard made in front of team season ticket holders at a preseason event in October. However, a tumultuous campaign has caused Irving to back off on that verbal commitment, as evidenced by his comments in New York on February 1st and his actions in recent weeks. Even the most optimistic Celtics sources now acknowledge the possibility that Irving could walk this summer is very real, and it's a scenario that a small but vocal section of Celtics fans would welcome after watching the point guard look disinterested at times on the floor for parts of the last month.

With the C’s failing to mesh on the floor as well after losing seven of the past 10 games, the possibility of a first-round exit for this group in April cannot be discounted, which could perhaps be the final straw that leads to Irving moving on to his next chapter. While we won’t have an answer for four months on what Irving’s intentions will be, it’s fair to start wondering right now about what life without Kyrie would look like and what kind of team-building options this team would have without their only All-Star.

Let’s take a closer snapshot of that nightmare scenario would be for Boston’s front office and how they might proceed from there in hopes of building a team that is capable of contending in a far improved Eastern Conference.

Players under contract for 2019-20

Gordon Hayward: $32.7 million
Marcus Smart: $12.6 million
Jayson Tatum: $7.8 million
Jaylen Brown: $6.5 million
Guerschon Yabusele: $3.1 million
Robert Williams: $1.9 million
Semi Ojeleye: $1.3 million

Guaranteed money committed: $65.9 million to seven players

Player options (Decision must be made by June 29th)

Al Horford: $30.1 million
Aron Baynes: $5.4 million

Overview: Horford’s decision will be a fascinating subplot to Irving’s eventual choice. Unless Irving directly communicates to Horford that he won’t be returning to Boston ahead of the start of free agency (which seems like a long-shot scenario), it’s hard to see Horford walking away from the Green without the lure of another contender that’s able to add him to the fold. There will be teams that can throw big money at him but none of them (Indiana, Utah, Brooklyn) will be in a better position to contend than Boston right away even if Irving walks. The true contenders (Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, Golden State, Houston, Denver, Oklahoma City) aren’t going to have the cap room to make Horford a competitive offer. Unless some other playoff team is going to max him out with a long-term deal, a contract that the Celtics might hesitate to match, it’s challenging to envision the C’s letting him walk away for nothing and hitting the reset button. The veteran likes the culture in Boston and has appreciated stability throughout his career. The front office may have to sell him on a Plan B if he opts out and looks for a long-term deal in the wake of an Irving departure, but a lack of alternatives for Boston should force them to overpay here to remain competitive. The possibility also exists that Horford opts in since he's unlikely to get $30 million annually on the open market.

Aron Baynes is an easier keeper for Boston. The team has Early Bird rights on him now, which enables them to pay him up to $7.5 million if he opts out in hopes of securing a raise. Given his age and injury history, it’s hard to envision him commanding more than that on the open market. The Celtics will be in pole position to retain him, which seems like a no brainer given his value to the team.

Restricted free agents

Terry Rozier (Bird Rights): The Celtics declined to trade him last summer in part due to Irving insurance. Despite his struggles this season, he is still one of the better guard options on the market in free agency this summer and has always thrived more when given a larger role. Eric Bledsoe already started to set the market for the summer with a four-year, $70-million extension signed this week with the Bucks, and Rozier is not going to get anything close to that after his underwhelming fourth season. Finding a team that offers him Marcus Smart money even seems like a long shot despite the fact that the market will be littered with teams with cap room. Most teams now have starting point guards under contract for next season and the ones who don’t lack cap room. One potential suitor (Phoenix) traded for Tyler Johnson at the trade deadline, so unless the Magic like him, the C’s would bring him back, perhaps at a far smaller annual salary (less than $10 million) than Rozier was gunning for at the start of the season.

Daniel Theis: The Celtics don’t have full Bird Rights on him since they signed him to just a two-year deal, but they will be able to offer him up to the average NBA salary (roughly $9 million per year) per CBA rules. His market won’t be nearly as expensive as that, making him a welcome addition given a lack of alternatives.

Unrestricted free agents

Marcus Morris (Bird Rights): The Celtics will be able to offer the 30-year-old whatever they want thanks to the Bird Rights Morris has. He’s due for a big raise from his $5.3 million salary in 2018-19 but his second-half struggles should slot him in a fairly affordable range ($10-15 per year) due to his age and defensive limitations. If the Celtics plan on contending, they will need to keep him around or perhaps could look to sign-and-trade him to address other areas of the roster. Like Horford, they can’t afford to let him walk for without compensation if Irving isn’t back if their team aspirations remain high

Brad Wanamaker (Non-Bird Rights): He’s been solid for an end of the bench point guard and probably deserved to play over Rozier at times. He will be available again at the league minimum but the Celtics may decide they can do better with this roster spot.

Future Draft picks for 2019

Clippers pick: (18-20): $2.4-million estimate for draft pick salary in 2019-20

Celtics own pick (18-26): $2-million estimate for draft pick salary in 2019-20

Memphis pick (1-8 protected in 2019, 1-6 protected in 2020, unprotected in 2021): N/A for 2019 salary

Sacramento pick (11-14): $2.8-million estimate for draft pick salary in 2019-20

Will the Celtics have cap room if Irving leaves?

No. Even if the Celtics let their current free agents walk (Rozier, Morris, etc.) the still will not have significant room under the cap for a max deal. The only way they could open up some sizable salary cap space would be by letting Horford walk or dealing away Gordon Hayward without taking back salary (an unlikely scenario). Opening up cap room for a team without Horford or Hayward seems counterproductive unless the front office wants to really go young next year and target players that match the age timeline of Tatum and Brown. Even then, serious cap room would only be present if the team’s other free agents are allowed to walk as well.

What resources will the Celtics have to improve the roster without Irving?

The team will have the taxpayer mid-level exception ($5.7 million) to add free agents if they go over the tax line ($132 million). Otherwise, the only other route to bring aboard new talent will be veteran’s minimum free agents and trades.

A list of some point guards who might be available on the free agent market in that price range in the summer of 2019 that could be intrigued by the possibility of a starting job in Boston (if it’s not given to Rozier).

Rajon Rondo
Cory Joseph
Ish Smith
Patrick Beverley
Emmanuel Mudiay
Elfrid Payton
Jeremy Lin

Overview: It’s easy to see why the Celtics have so many eggs in the Irving basket when you look at that list and their current situation. Outside of a couple of names, Rozier is probably the superior option to all the players on that list as none of them would come close to replacing Irving’s production on the offensive end. The Celtics could simply bring back Rozier and elect to use the taxpayer mid-level elsewhere but there’s going to be similar role level talent available for that kind of money, especially in a market where more than half the NBA will have cap room. The Celtics will no longer be recruiting players from a contending position without Irving. Instead, they will only be able to sell opportunity on what will still be a pretty deep roster if everyone else is retained.

Projected depth chart heading into FA without Irving:

G: Smart, Brown, Rozier (RFA), Wanamaker/Minimum FA
F: Tatum, Morris (FA), Hayward, Ojeleye
C: Horford (PO), Baynes (PO), Theis (RFA), Williams

Other assets: Three first-round picks

What about a big trade?

The Anthony Davis option will still be on the table, but the odds of him staying in Boston beyond one year without Irving seems like a tough sell and would surely impact the type of package that Danny Ainge is willing to offer for the All-Star.

Otherwise? Finding an appealing star is troublesome, particularly when it comes to matching the money. Kevin Love ($28.9 million) will be available in Cleveland but he’ll cost Hayward or an assortment of Smart/Brown and filler to make the money work. The same goes for Bradley Beal ($27.1 million in Washington, even though the price will be higher for him given his age (27). Still, would adding either of those guys to a team without Irving turn this group into a contender when you are giving up key young pieces as part of the deal? Beal and Love don’t look capable of being a No. 2 option on a contender, much less a No. 1 option. At age 31, Mike Conley ($31 million) will remain available as well in Memphis, but would require giving up Hayward (and picks) or several key young pieces to make the money work.

Bigger names on rebuilding squads like Karl-Anthony Towns will surely be off limits and outside of a couple flawed bigger names (Andre Drummond, Aaron Gordon), there isn’t much on rebuilding squads to be chased. Surely no one that puts this group on the same level that can be when Irving is at his best.

Final thoughts

You would never know it based on the way Celtics fans talk about him right now, but Irving is in the midst of a career year at the moment, with season-highs in FG percentage, 3-point percentage, RPG, APG, and SPG. The off-court drama has overshadowed that, as has the fact that the Celtics have struggled with Irving on the floor in the past month (-1.1 net rating since February 1st)

While there’s no questioning that Irving’s defense has dipped significantly in the past month (the defensive numbers back it up), don’t be fooled by the team’s 9-2 record with him sidelined. A closer breakdown of those games shows that mark is less damning of Irving than it looks.

Celtics without Irving against teams over .500: 3-2

Wins: @ Philadelphia, vs. Detroit, vs. Brooklyn
Losses: @ Brooklyn, @ Utah

Celtics without Irving against teams under .500: 6-0

Wins: vs. Cleveland, @ Cleveland, vs. Minnesota, vs. Dallas, vs. New Orleans, vs. Charlotte

Celtics on the road without Kyrie Irving: 2-2

The Celtics can beat bad home teams without Irving, as they should with the talent on this roster. However, the team’s 1-7 road mark last postseason should be the bigger number that is focused on here. Life without Irving could very well happen this summer but based on the available alternatives, it’s not a scenario fans should be rooting for.