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How will Celtics handle 2020 NBA Draft amid looming roster crunch?

(John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

As the NBA regular season remains on hold, there remains plenty of uncertainty on when and even if the 2019-20 campaign will resume in the coming months amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The one thing we know right now is that the NBA calendar will not look normal in the upcoming offseason assuming some kind of postseason is eventually held in the summer or fall. That will likely lead to a shorter offseason schedule with a potentially quick turnaround for teams to handle their planning, particularly for squads that are in a position to make late postseason runs.

With that in mind, it feels like a good time to take a deeper dive into some of the various scenarios and questions the Celtics will be weighing once the pivotal 2020 offseason does arrive later this year. In the weeks to come, we will be taking a closer glimpse at some of these big picture questions to better prepare for what lies ahead for this squad in the months to come. First up: The 2020 NBA Draft

What will the Celtics do with their four draft picks in 2021, including three first-round selections?

While it’s not official just yet that the Celtics will have four picks (the Grizzlies could technically fall out of the postseason and jump up in the NBA Lottery to top seven but those odds are minuscule), let’s go through this exercise assuming they do.

While a second-round pick at No. 50 is a contender for a two-way roster spot more than a 15-man spot, three first-round picks for Boston (if taken) are given guaranteed contracts for the first two years. Essentially, any first-round pick taken is guaranteed a roster spot unless they are considered a draft-and-stash. The conundrum for Boston? While cheap last first-round talent is helpful in controlling the payroll, finding a spot for more than one rookie on the 15-man roster next year will be a challenge.

Under contract for 2020-21

Kemba Walker ($34.3 million)
Gordon Hayward ($34.1 million – player option)
Jaylen Brown ($23 million)
Marcus Smart ($13.4 million)
Jayson Tatum ($9.8 million once team option is picked up in October)
Daniel Theis ($5 million – team option)
Enes Kanter ($5 million – player option)
Romeo Langford ($3.6 million)
Vincent Poirier ($2.6 million)
Grant Williams ($2.5 million)
Robert Williams ($2.0 million)
Semi Ojeleye ($1.8 million non-guaranteed)
Carsen Edwards ($1.5 million)
Javonte Green ($1.5 million non-guaranteed)

Guaranteed: 12 (if Kanter, Hayward both opt in)

Non-guaranteed: 2 (Ojeleye (7/1 guarantee date), Green)

Total: 14

Likely open roster spots entering offseason: 2 (Ojeleye gets kept and Green gets eventually cut in this projection)

Analysis: This number assumes Hayward and Kanter opts in and the Celtics guarantee Ojeleye's cheap contract ($1.8 million for next season). Green will likely remain on the roster until training camp since he will have a chance to make the team and his deal is fully non-guaranteed. So technically his roster spot will be open for him or anyone else to earn. More roster space could be created with trades of additional players (Poirier would be a candidate to be dumped) but moving the center would likely cost an asset to dump the salary while freeing up a roster spot. Tremont Waters and Brad Wanamaker will likely be fighting it out for one of these roster spots while the C's will have the taxpayer mid-level ($6 million) to bring in one or more veterans if they choose from the free-agent market. All of these factors will create a squeeze for Danny Ainge if he elects to use multiple draft picks in the first round.

Celtics projected draft picks for 2020: No. 17, No. 26, No. 30, No. 50

There are a few ways the Celtics can get around this roster crunch in regards to draft picks if they only have room for one or two rookies. Here are the main options:

1. The Celtics trade one or more first-round picks for a future first-round selection or a veteran (Ex: C’s traded No. 24 last year for Milwaukee’s 2020 first-round pick).

Upside: Retaining an asset for future trades when a rookie won’t help in the present or improving the team more in the present with a veteran that fills a need right away.

Downside: Losing some value on the draft pick. Teams know the Celtics are looking to dump picks so it's easy to offer a downgrade knowing Boston may not have a better option. The C’s dumping No. 24 in 2019 for a future Bucks pick (No. 30 in 2020) is a risk that could become common. Finding a veteran that helps the Celtics now and also fits into an already pricy payroll will be a challenge.

2. The Celtics use multiple picks to trade up in the draft.

Upside: The Celtics get a better player in the present (hypothetically) while also saving roster slots for other players. Depending on how far they can trade up, they also save some salary as well, which could be important when it comes to managing luxury tax territory (C’s are likely to be above the cap)

Downside: This may be viewed as wasted assets by the front office if the Celtics feel like they can draft a player they like with one of their current selections. League sources tell that the draft crop seems to be very even outside of the lottery with not a lot of clear tiers that would make a trade-up necessary. Intel will tell the story on whether the C’s will need to make a move to get a guy they want but giving up multiple shots on good, cost-controlled players to gamble on just one can look bad down the road.

3. The Celtics use one or more first-round picks on an international player as a draft-and-stash

Upside: This is the easiest way to solve the problem from a numbers standpoint. You take a player, let him develop overseas somewhere and he doesn’t cost anything against the cap during the year away. When the team wants him, they get his full rookie deal intact so it’s a good way to keep cost control in place for future seasons without trading for a future pick.

Downside: Finding a player who is willing to stay overseas for a year can be a challenge. The Celtics managed to do that with Guerschon Yabusele and Ante Zizic in 2016 but both of those gambles proved to be a mistake. Other draft analysts had those guys projected for the second round and likely for good reason. Good talent generally wants to play in the NBA right away so the C’s could be reaching for talent if they find someone in this mold. There are a few international players projected to land in the bottom half of the 2020 NBA Draft (more on them in the days to come) but the C’s will need to get good intel with them on their willingness to be stashed for a year. Otherwise, this route will lead to lackluster returns and wasted money/roster spots (i.e. Yabusele).

Final Thoughts

Moving one of these picks at the trade deadline would have helped to eliminate this issue but opting not to do so now looks helpful given how the season has played out. The draft-and-stash option seems the most unlikely to me given how this team will be entering a 'win-now' phase with guys like Walker and Hayward remaining in the tail end of their prime in the present. The strong guess here is we see Ainge take path No. 1 or No. 2 on draft night to set the stage for an impact rookie to be brought into the fold or simply to get the can on some assets so they maintain value for future deals.