The Celtics have positioned themselves nicely for a big-name free agent by maneuvering cap room wisely in the past two weeks. They looked ready to make the most of that room as well. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.com is reporting that the Celtics have emerged as the front runner for Walker once free agency begins on Sunday after a stalemate was reached in negotiations between Walker and the Hornets. Charlotte has a nightmare cap sheet and have been wary of going into the luxury tax, something that would prove necessary if Walker was re-signed.
The Celtics are one of three reported suitors for Walker outside of Charlotte (Knicks, Mavericks) heading into next week. The Mavericks have the allure of young talent to pair with the All-Star guard but they also have a ball-dominant guard in Luka Doncic that could limit some of Walker’s opportunities.
The Knicks have enough cap room to land two max free agents but there is only very young talent to surround them with after the roster was cleared out last season. With big fish like Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard expected to go elsewhere, there probably is minimal appeal for Walker to go to the Big Apple and carry a franchise on his own.
That leaves the Celtics as a clear cut team at the top of the list for Walker. They can offer him a promising supporting cast along with the lead role in the offense. Danny Ainge also can reference the team’s flexibility in adding key pieces thanks to its collection of young assets and future draft picks as a way to convince Walker he is playing for a contender for years to come.
How would the money work in a Walker deal?
A four-year max contract would start at $32.7 million for the 2019-20 season for Walker with percent annual raises mixed in. The Celtics have the ability to open up just over $34 million in cap room if they renounce their free agent cap holds. That means saying goodbye to Irving, Horford, Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier once Irving is ready to sign. They could still keep Brad Wanamaker or Daniel Theis on the books if they want to offer them one a qualifying offer in order to maintain their restricted rights. Wanamaker seems highly unlikely to return in the crowded backcourt, while Theis makes sense to keep as an option. There could be big opportunity him in Boston if he wants to return after an injury-plagued last season.
What’s next when it comes to roster building?
We already started down this road on Wednesday by examining a wide variety of big man options that are expected to be available for the room-level exception. However, that’s just one path for the team to consider. The room-level exception would allow for probably just one serviceable big and this roster is going to need more than that to emerge as a contender in the East next year.
Trade avenues will undoubtedly be explored as well to round out the rest of the roster. A few possible scenarios on that front:
1. See what Jaylen Brown could fetch for a young big: The Celtics backcourt could certainly use the 23-year-old but he is also going to be owed a big new contract next summer. If the Celtics want to balance out the roster adequately, checking to see on Brown’s trade value is critical. The Pacers are on a team that is worth calling to check in on the availability of Domantas Sabonis after the team drafted another center in the first round and already has Myles Turner on a long-term deal. Other more minor possibilities would be shopping around Guerschon Yabusele with a draft pick for a serviceable big on a cheap contract.
2. Explore sign-and-trade scenarios for Kyrie Irving and Al Horford: These are both long shots (Irving moreso than Horford) but are worth diving into as a way to maintain assets for Boston. The Nets feel like almost a no-shot to do sign-and-trade with Irving involving Boston since they will be able to sign him outright with cap room and have plenty of incentive to not help Boston out without getting a steep price (multiple picks) for their help. The C's would balk at that.
Horford is a far different possibility though. The Celtics will have to renounce him in order to sign Walker outright as a free agent, but some type of sign-and-trade involving his new team, the Celtics and the Hornets could keep the Celtics above the salary cap (since Walker and Horford would have close to matching salaries). In this scenario, the Celtics would be able to maintain Bird Rights on free agents like Morris to re-sign (much-needed) and would also have the mid-level exception to work with for true center big man targets. It would take cooperation from the Hornets (they’d need an asset) and Horford’s team would need something as well if they could just sign him outright into cap space. Luckily for Boston, they have enough future first round picks and other potential assets to make it worth it for everyone. This would weaken their asset pool for future free trade targets slightly but would be worth it to increase their competitiveness now, depending on how steep the price was.
Here’s a look at what their roster could look like in such a scenario:
PG: Walker, Smart, Edwards
SG: Brown, Langford
SF: Hayward, Bi-annual exception ($3.7 million)
PF: Tatum, Morris, Grant Williams, Ojeleye
C: MLE signing, Rob Williams, Yabusele
Having the full mid-level exception ($9.2 million) to work with would allow the Celtics the ability to target some higher ceiling bigs and offer them a long-term deal (up to four years) compared to the room level exception ($4.7 million, two years max).
The Celtics will be working both of these avenues feverishly over the coming days to see what the best roster they can come up with. Securing a big fish like Walker though is a big first step in maintaining a contending squad in the East while the team’s top two players walk out the door. What the front office can put around Walker (assuming he signs) will determine whether this team is just a fun playoff squad or a realistic East contender.