There’s more than one way to skin a cat.
While a frequent complaint about the NBA’s on-court product is consistent styles of play, roster building in the league is anything but. Front offices and executives try several different ways to build their ideal team. From positional differences to skill overlap, from free agency to draft, there’s real joy in seeing a front office not only gain superstar talent, but figure out exactly how to maximize the group around them.
Over the past five years, the toughest part of the equation has been completed for the Boston Celtics. They had their superstars and made it through the draft. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, selected in back-to-back drafts, became All-Stars and cemented their place at the top of Boston’s pecking order by leading the Celtics to the 2022 NBA Finals. Brown is just 25 and Tatum has 24. If the history of the other stars is any indication, both will be in their prime for most of the next decade.
In addition to acquiring talent and keeping it happy, front offices must do salary cap gymnastics, dodge and avoid the luxury tax, and abide by ABC rules to build a competitive team around these stars. Tatum and Brown, both currently signed to max deals, will combine to earn $59 million next year, according to Spotrac. That figure will rise to $63.3 million next year, the last year Jaylen is under contract before he can negotiate a big contract increase. In order to keep those two together, the Celtics will either have to spend big on the luxury tax or find ways to land cheap contracts off the roster.
Fourteen months ago, Brad Stevens slipped into the main front office chair, succeeding Danny Ainge as president of basketball operations. Stevens’ first big move was packing his 2021 first-round pick with Kemba Walker to get Al Horford. Many saw it as a cap-driven decision at the time, trading the overpaid Walker for a better deal and giving up a late premiere as a cost of doing business. Horford ended up being a major acquisition on the field and an ideal player for the roster.
By the 2022 trade deadline, Stevens was back, dealing his first round of 2022 in San Antonio (with Romeo Langford and Josh Richardson) for Derrick White. White, an underrated role player stuck in a traffic jam at San Antonio, was another veteran who could provide some bottoming depth to the Celtics, who never found the right replacement for Kemba. White has proven to be all of that for the Celtics, coming in droves in the playoffs and blending seamlessly into their already established core.
The third part of the ‘Stevens trades a pick’ saga unfolded with the acquisition of Malcolm Brogdon. On the face of it, Brogdon is the best player Stevens has acquired in his time as Celtics general manager, and it only took one chunk of draft capital (a first-round selection in 2023) to pull it off. . The Indiana deal also included salary fillers (notably Daniel Theis and Aaron Nesmith).
Nearly fourteen months and Stevens apparently kicked the draft during his first three years on the job. Some cap specialists may worry about a possible shortage of cheap contracts with team control. Grant Williams is due to sign a new contract next summer. Once that happens, Payton Pritchard will be the Celtics’ only first-round pick still on the roster.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Stevens has already shown, with the trades of Horford, White and Brogdon, what his path to building the roster is.
The first step is to keep flexibility at the back of the list. Throughout the regular season, this flexibility will allow the Celtics to add the right end-of-bench pieces based on who is available and their team’s needs. The players they add can be veteran retreads (like Nik Stauskas) or younger G-League players good enough to be on a roster (like Malik Fitts). The Cs can easily swallow one of their contracts if the right veteran is available on the buyout market without disrupting the long-term plan.
The key for Stevens is to sign each player for an additional year of unguaranteed salary. This mechanic allows the Celtics to pool those pieces for a summer trade (as they did with Fitts, Juwan Morgan and Stauskas) to acquire a better role player.
Giving an extra year at the end of the contract gives them control of the team in another cap year, but is designed to circumvent Stepien’s rules that dictate trading draft picks. Under Stepien’s rule, an NBA team cannot trade future first-round picks in consecutive years. When the league year ends in July, however, that clock resets.
This year is an example of how it works. At the deadline, because the Celtics traded their 2022 first-round pick for White, they could not distribute the 2023 pick until after July 1, 2022. Once the league’s new year began, the conclusion of such an agreement is back on the table. We could see the same thing next year: Boston doesn’t have a 2023 pick, so they can’t process the 2024 pick in any midseason trade. Next July, this restriction disappears.
Stevens is likely to round out the rest of the roster this summer with a few G-League stars, minimal veterans and intriguing young players. Expect them to all be given two-year contracts, with the second year being completely unguaranteed, solely for the purpose of using them in a later trade.
With the roster becoming more expensive in the coming years due to the impending free agency of Grant Williams and Al Horford, as well as the rising salaries of their contracted players, the allure of maintaining Team-friendly salaries are important. But a first-round pick is just one way to get a cheap contract.
Since the Celtics remain good (or at least plan to be good in the Tatum and Brown years), the value of a first-round pick isn’t that great. Most of the selections for them will be in their twenties, and it is extremely difficult to find early career recruits in these places. We have already seen the dangers of trying to develop talent while chasing a championship; Nesmith and Langford fell victim to not having a longer leash to play through mistakes and not having the polish to play without making them.
Additionally, these future first-round picks can be used to help complete a contract down the line. As the C’s accumulate expensive players, the luxury tax repeat penalty could reduce the ownership neck to reduce one or more of those expensive role player contracts. Early rounds are great deal sweeteners for any team taking the money, and can help create trade exceptions for the Celtics if traded to the right team with cap space.
The point here is this: as the roster gets more expensive, don’t assume the cure for that expense is to keep control of our own first-round picks. Yes, first-round picks are cheap and therefore have value. But the Celtics can find better uses for them to help acquire role players, offset expensive contracts and keep the title window open for the long haul. If I was a bettor, I think it will be a while before the Celtics make another first-round selection.