The Future is Nigh
The 2019-2020 NBA season hasn’t begun and the Boston Celtics are already thinking about the future. The futures of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, to be specific. Jaylen Brown becomes a restricted free agent after this season. The Boston Celtics have a qualifying offer of $8.57 Million (M) for Brown in 2020-2021. Jayson Tatum has a non-guaranteed club option for $9.897M with a qualifying offer of $12.99M in 2021-2022. I’m sure the Celtics would be ecstatic to pick up Tatum’s club option, but they know that qualifying offer won’t work. Brown will easily eclipse his qualifying offer, and Tatum could be worth threefold in the open market by his qualifying offer. The Boston Celtics would be wise to retain both players, but is that even possible?
The Celtics enter 2019-2020 with an opportunity to go from a championship contender, to a question mark, back to a championship contender for reasons in and out of their control. Out of their control are the departures of Kyrie Irving and the decision making of Anthony Davis. Also, out of their control, but in their favor, were the recent departures of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard from the Eastern Conference. In their control were the signings of Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter in an effort to fill voids left by departing or dissing marquee free agents. Also in their control is the possibility of retaining the young stars that came within seven minutes of the NBA Finals as rookies (Tatum) and sophomores (Brown).
Crunching the Numbers
The Boston Celtics are on the books for $96.78M in 2020-2021, including two player options for Gordon Hayward and Kanter. Hayward would be a fool not to exercise his $34.38M player option. Kanter could find another suitor willing to pay more than $5M or sign him long-term, but so could the Celtics if things go well. There are several other club options and qualifying offers that could theoretically increase the Celtics salary cap to $127.3M. The 2020-2021 NBA salary cap is set at $118M; the luxury tax for that year is set at $143M. The Celtics likely won’t exercise every option and qualifying offer, but two in particular stand out.
Consider the four shooting guards that had similar numbers to Tatum in 2018-2019: Those contracts average $18M. Tatum’s PER of 15.13 was better than Andrew Wiggins ($29.5M) and slightly worse than Khris Middleton ($35.5M). Brown’s qualifying offer of $8.57M doesn’t come close to comparable player Terrance Ross’ $13.5M average salary. It certainly doesn’t approach Jimmy Butler ($35.2M), a player one could argue is Brown’s ceiling. The Celtics have no chance of retaining Brown at that $8.75M qualifying offer, nor do they have a chance at competing for Tatum in two years.
Tatum, Brown or Both?
Unless Hayward declines his player option the Boston Celtics enter 2020-2021 with at least $91.77M on the books. This would leave the Celtics with ~$26M in salary cap space, and voids at shooting guard and center. If Kanter picked up his $5M player option Boston would have ~$21M in salary cap space and a center. That $21M would fit nicely as Tatum or Brown’s salary, but that only leaves room for one.
By crunching the numbers I’ve shown the Boston Celtics can easily afford one of those players heading into the 2020-2021 season, but the question is, which player? One could argue the Celtics let the season play out, which could be the easy solution. However, one can’t predict how the season will progress, or regress, nor the effects these impending contracts might have on Tatum and Brown. Look at how things worked out with Kyrie Irving. The solution might be to work on extending these players now, before they hit the aforementioned player options and qualifying offers. How do they do that with only ~$20-26M to offer, you ask? Restructure Gordon Hayward’s anchor contract and then we’re in business.