The way the Boston Celtics’ 2021-22 season ended brings a sense of bitterness. Some would say the loss to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals is a missed opportunity, especially after losing Game 4 at home when they had a chance to lead 3-1. Others will say it’s a learning experience that will benefit Boston in the upcoming playoffs.
Ultimately, Boston’s season is a resounding success considering this team was at .500 in January and a long run in the playoffs was considered unlikely.
The Celtics, a team cut for the championship
Boston’s successes since Jan. 21 and now the trip to the NBA Finals have cemented the Celtics as a championship team going forward. After falling a game below .500 at the end of January, the Celtics went on to have the best record in the league, 28-7, and most importantly they found a defensive identity.
The Celtics led the league in defensive efficiency, pick-and-roll defense, drive defense, opposing points in the paint per game. The starting five of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Robert Williams III scored 95.5 points per 100 possessions, the best defensive efficiency of a roster that has played more than 100 minutes together.
We’ve seen contending teams (Atlanta and Utah) get burned out based on roster continuity. But the Celtics have two franchise players in Tatum and Brown, who have not reached their 26th birthday, elite defensemen in Smart and Williams and a complementary group of players who fit the identity of what coach Ime Udoka research in a team.
If there’s a weakness, it’s an offense that becomes stagnant in close games — and turnovers. During the regular season. They were 3-9 in games decided by 3 points or less (same record as the Rockets, who finished with the worst overall record).
The question facing the Celtics heading into the offseason is not which free agent to keep (the only players who could become free agents are Luke Kornet, Sam Hauser and Juwan Morgan) but whether the owners feel like spending up the luxury tax. Including Horford’s $26.5 million partially guaranteed contract, the Celtics have $156.4 million in salary, which is $7.5 million above the tax threshold before the start. of free agency.
Brown enters the offseason with a decision similar to the one he faced in 2019 when he was eligible to sign a rookie extension. That decision boiled down to getting guaranteed money or playing the 2019-20 season with the expectation of higher pay in the future.
Brown chose the guaranteed option, signing a four-year, $107 million extension that included an additional $12 million in potential incentives. The extension was $30 million short of a maximum four-year deal, but considering the point guard was coming off a season in which he started 25 of a possible 74 games and averaged 13 points, it was a smart decision.
The compromise on the rookies’ contract extension by Boston and Brown three years ago now has a negative consequence. Brown, starting Oct. 1, can sign a three-year, $111 million extension, which rises to $123 million if bonuses are factored into his contract. This extension is not a maximum salary as Boston can only offer a 120% salary increase in the final year of the contract. That means the maximum starting point for any extension is $34.1 million, which is $6 million less than the projected maximum he can earn in 2024 as a free agent.
Brown’s extension now is $120 million less than he could make with the Celtics when he becomes a free agent and $60 million less than if he signed with another team. The overtime route also prevents Brown from becoming eligible for the super-max in future seasons. If Brown were named All-NBA in 2023 or 2024, he could sign a five-year, $273 million deal with the Celtics.
When his role on the roster was undefined in 2019, going for guaranteed money was the smart play, but that’s no longer the case. Brown has three consecutive 20+ point seasons, is an All-Star and the cornerstone of the franchise. He redefined his game offensively, relying less on scoring from the perimeter and more in the restricted area.
Brown has shot 72% from the restricted area this season, the best result of his career. He’s the only point guard in the 2021-22 season to attempt at least 200 shots in the restricted area and shoot over 70%, according to ESPN Stats & Info. His 72% in the restricted area is also the best of any single-season goalie in the past 10 years.
The luxury tax
The Al Horford trade for Kemba Walker last June not only improved the roster, but it also gave Boston a card out of jail to pay the luxury tax in 2021-22 and beyond. By taking $10 million off salary this season, Boston avoided paying the tax and eliminated the potential to become a repeat tax team (four out of five seasons) in the future.
Horford’s contract also gave the Celtics the option to avoid paying a financial penalty in 2022-23 if they did not believe they could challenge for a top spot in the Eastern Conference. Horford has a $26.5 million contract in 2022-23 with $19.5 million guaranteed. By waiving it this offseason, the Celtics would be right on the tax threshold but at a significant cost….
The last 35 games of the regular season and the playoffs have confirmed that Boston can compete with the best teams in the East, and Horford must not become a salary-cap victim, even if it means paying a financial penalty for the second times in nine seasons (the last was in 2018-19 with Kyrie Irving on the roster). The Celtics are currently planning to pay a $12 million penalty.
This brings us to: Does the front office have the authority to use the $6.4 million tax mid-tier exception to sign a player or use one of its three major transaction exceptions? (17.1, 9.7 and 6.9 million dollars) to acquire a player via a transaction? The answer to this question will determine how active the Celtics are this offseason.