Celtics are built to thrive in NBA’s new cap era … at least for a little while

If there’s one lesson I hope we’ve all learned from these NBA playoffs, it’s this: can we hold our horses and wait a bit before immediately calling out anyone who has a successful trick elimination like The Next Thing?

In the first round, we thought the Denver Nuggets were inevitable because they beat the Los Angeles Lakers.

In the second round, Anthony Edwards was thought to take over as the Minnesota Timberwolves eliminated the Nuggets.

In the conference finals, Luka Dončić was thought to be an unsolvable enigma as the Dallas Mavericks overwhelmed Minnesota.

And in the NBA Finals, we learned that the Boston Celtics, the team with by far the best record, were — surprise! – actually the best team ever. Even though everyone thought they couldn’t be trusted due to past playoff failures, an unproven coach, and the lack of an MVP-caliber centerpiece, Boston won 16 of the 19 playoff games despite the absence of one of its best players for 11 of them.

As we prepare for whatever lies ahead next season, let’s allow 2023-2024 to be a humbling experience. The Celtics tried to tell us all year that they were great, and for some reason everyone ignored the signals. The lack of a full playoff group in the Eastern Conference probably didn’t help either; rolling through banged-up opponents in the playoffs didn’t offer many chances for statement games.

Nonetheless, the Celtics went 80-21 in 101 games, with a historic scoring margin, and were never seriously challenged in the playoffs. They are our sixth new defending champion in six years, but they will almost certainly enter 2024-25 as the presumptive favorite to win again.

There’s a good underlying reason for this: Boston is in excellent shape to withstand the worst depredations of the last collective bargaining agreement, at least for one more season. As revisions to the 2023 deal make it increasingly difficult to maintain championship-caliber rosters like this, Boston has positioned itself for a multi-year journey via smart contracts and timely trades, although that it has two of the most expensive players in the league in its midst. .

Looking just at 2024-25, the Celtics are in great shape. Unlike other recent champions who lost key players almost immediately – Bruce Brown to Denver, Gary Payton II and Otto Porter Jr. to Golden State, PJ Tucker to Milwaukee, Danny Green and Rajon Rondo to the Lakers and, of course, Kawhi Leonard in Toronto. – the Celtics are positioned to come back.

All of Boston’s rotation players have been signed for next season, with the only free agents being reserve centers Luke Kornet, Xavier Tillman Sr. and Neemias Queta and little-used guard Svi Mykhailiuk. Reserve forward Oshae Brissett has a player option on his minimum contract. Boston will also have the chance to add an inexpensive piece with the 30th pick in the NBA Draft.

I’m told the Celtics would like to bring back the centers if the money is reasonable; Either way, Boston can easily replenish the back end of the roster with more minimum deals this offseason. The Celtics are positioned to finish above the second apron and won’t have any other tools at their disposal, but they won’t need them because every key player is signed. (Exception: If 38-year-old Al Horford rides off into the sunset after winning his first ring, they’ll need another big man…but lowering his salary by $9.5 million would put Boston under second apron.)

Where things get more difficult is if Boston has more dynastic ambitions. The Celtics won’t sweat salaries by attempting to repeat in 2024-25, but after that, two elements of the CBA will punish them with increasing ferocity: the repeat tax and the second apron.

Boston would see two future draft picks frozen if it moved past the second apron in 2024-25 and 2025-26 and would see those picks moved to the end of the first rounds in 2032 and 2033, respectively, if it did not get a return under the second apron each of the following three years.

Less discussed, but perhaps just as important, is that Boston would be subject to a repeat punitive penalty in 2025-26. Starting that year, a team that was $22.5 million over the luxury tax limit would owe about $100 million in taxes and repeat penalties, about double what the same salary structure would pay. would cost Boston in 2024-25 as a non-repeater. Suddenly now: Yeah.

Additionally, the repeat penalty is showing its teeth just as the Celtics begin massive extensions for stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown; Brown begins next season on a five-year contract worth an estimated $287 million, while Tatum will be eligible this summer for a five-year pact worth an estimated $315 million that would begin in 2025-26 . The exact numbers won’t be known until the 2024-25 cap is set, but based on current league projections, Tatum and Brown alone would earn nearly $108 million in 2025-26.

Fortunately for Boston, it will take a while for free agency to do much to its roster. The Celtics are in a team contract extension and have prepared well for the coming era by locking up most of their best players. Six Celtics are in extension signed with Boston after their arrival; deals for Brown, Jrue Holiday and Payton Pritchard have each been signed through 2028.

Expect this trend to continue. In addition to Tatum, I’ve heard it’s very likely that Sam Hauser and Derrick White will join them. Hauser has one year left on the minimum, as a team option, and will be eligible for an extension this summer; he’s about to get more expensive, but Boston views him as a keeper. One possible scheme would be to decline Hauser’s team option for 2024-25 and re-sign him for less money and more years than in an extension that started in 2025-26. This would increase the Celtics’ tax penalty in 2024-25, but reduce the impact of the repeat penalty and manage the second apron in additional years.

Meanwhile, White will be eligible for an extension of up to four years and $127 million this summer, including incentives; League sources say the Celtics are strongly interested in a deal for him and would likely have to offer every penny to make it happen. (White’s extension amount has been reported as a different number in some places because the incentives of his deal weren’t considered likely before this season. But based on his 2023-24 season, they’re all probable.)

Looking at the books and the salary cap implications, an overall strategy becomes clearer: a spirited repeat campaign in 2024-25, possibly followed by a few tough decisions a year later. In particular, if these expansions all come to fruition, the key to continuing Boston’s reign will be figuring out how to build the frontcourt on a limited budget.

Horford and Kristaps Porziņģis already signed two-year extensions shortly after arriving, but these will be the first two significant Celtics to come off the books. Horford is set to earn $9.5 million in what could be his final season. Porzingis’ contract expires in 2026, at which point he will earn $30.7 million.

After a dominant season in a broken Eastern Conference, the Celtics could hardly be in a better position to defend their title. And yet, while we recognize Boston as a clear favorite, I urge caution as we approach next season. As I noted above, things are never as inevitable as they seem. A Celtics cynic might point out a few things:

  • Their system relies heavily on two rare centers, one of which is very old and the other very injury-prone.
  • While Tatum is great, it’s unlikely the Celtics will have the best player on the court in a big series.
  • The East might not be so easy next time around: We never saw the Milwaukee Bucks at full strength, the Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers are in position to re-arm heavily in the offseason, and the New York Knicks build the same type of ensemble cast. the Celtics dominated with it. And the Miami Heat sure as hell aren’t going to leave all of this alone…right?

So let me conclude by slightly contradicting myself. Yes, the Celtics have proven that they should be the clear favorites in 2024-25, and the recognition of their historic 2023-24 campaign has been far too late and too understated. As I noted earlier this year, their five-out switchable lineup is the future, and their front office has always been one step ahead of the pack.

They’re awesome, basically. But they are not inevitable. In a 30-team league, it takes a lot of fortune to survive the playoffs even once. Boston is in a better position than anyone to start again, but recent history suggests that betting on the field might still be the most accurate play.

Required reading

(Photo: Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

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