Celtics-76ers trade will send ripples into draft and free agency

Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens, right, sits with general manager Danny Ainge before an NBA basketball game in Boston, Wednesday, March 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
AP Photo/Charles Krupa

No. 1 overall picks hardly ever move before an NBA draft. The last time the top pick changed hands on draft night or in its immediate ramp-up was in 1993: Chris Webber’s draft. So when it happens, it’s big enough news on its own. But in this case, the now-official swap of the Boston Celtics’ No. 1 pick for the Philadelphia 76ers’ No. 3 and a likely future lottery selection carries a bunch of downstream impacts ahead of this Thursday’s draft and NBA free agency in July.

The first obvious follow-up question involves whether Boston really has an encore planned involving Bulls star Jimmy Butler. FanRag’s Jay Boozell tackled that possibility over the weekend, so there’s no need to tackle it here, except to remark at the number of subsequent ripples that could send into the NBA universe. A Butler deal could force Dwyane Wade, a win-now veteran with a limited window, to rethink his player option. If he opts out, then the Bulls might reconsider their position on Rajon Rondo, who can be waived by the end of June at a low cost, and they could enter a full rebuild.

But that’s just a start. Downstream from this Boston-Philly pick swap, a number of franchise and players lie in wait to see how this could impact the summer market. Here are a few early guesses.

A shift in the market for point guards

Before this deal, the NBA community regarded Philadelphia as likely to pursue the crop of starting point guards available this summer. That’s not to say they would have succeeded at signing any of George Hill, Jeff Teague or Jrue Holiday (let alone All-Star Kyle Lowry), but simply by being in the conversation, they would have helped shift the market upward for that type of player.

Now, with Markelle Fultz ostensibly on his way to Broad Street, the Sixers probably don’t feel the same urgency to pursue those guys. Sure, Fultz is only 19 and will undoubtedly require some assimilation time; but the Sixers aren’t exactly in a hurry, and having the rookie on the same timeline as Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid might make more sense than signing a 30-ish veteran anyway. Expect Philly to seek a fringe starter as a steady tutor for Fultz, but offering $35 million to Lowry or $30 million Hill just because they can no longer makes sense.

That could be bad news for these point guards but good news for other second-tier free agents. Denver and Sacramento are two other lottery teams who have the cap space and motivation to give a free agent PG a rich contract (or at least some negotiating leverage), but at the end of the day, Philly’s acquisition of Fultz means the number of motivated PG buyers just went down by one. Without the leverage of an offer from a team like the Sixers, at least one of these point guards will settle for less money, and it increases the likelihood of one or more in that group staying home.

For every Lowry-level (or even Hill-level) free agent that stays put, more cap space remains available for people further down the food chain. This won’t feel like last summer when almost any team that wanted to could easily create a max cap slot. At most, about a quarter of the league can carve out such room without making other moves to do so (and even that depends on the decisions of those six or seven teams with regard to their own free agent rights), so the pie just isn’t as big in terms of major cap money for top free agents to divvy up. Every free agent who signs with his capped-out team via Bird rights leaves a chunk of that money available for someone down the line.

This could impact player option decisions, too. For example, if the shift in free agent economics leads Pau Gasol’s reps to conclude that he could find enough money on the market to justify opting out of $16 million, then that changes the math on San Antonio’s potential pursuits.

Boston’s free agency plan

On the other hand, if the pick swap turns out to be a precursor to a Butler deal, then it also removes — or at least limits — one of the teams expected to target top free agents.

Rumors have placed star free agents like Blake Griffin and Gordon Hayward on Boston’s radar, and for good reason. Boston has the flexibility to create cap room for an offer almost precisely in line with what would be max money for either of those stars. As veteran free agents in the 7- to 10-year experience buckets, those guys qualify for a deal starting at roughly $30,300,000. And with the Celtics slotting in the cap value of a No. 3 pick instead of the No. 1, they can create a $30,439,079 slot. That’s way too close to consider it an accident.

*HYPOTHETICAL* – How the Celtics can create cap room for a max free agent

However, a Butler deal makes things a great deal more complicated. The scenario above shows that Boston controls all the cards to open up that single max slot, but they’d need help in terms of offloading salary to accommodate Butler’s $18.7 million salary and a max deal for Hayward or Griffin, something Stephen A. Smith suggests is the goal in Beantown. In addition to sending the third overall pick (and its $5.6 million hold) to Chicago, Boston would need to include all of Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown, or salary-dump them elsewhere. Then they could accommodate both Butler and Hayward (or Butler and Griffin) but they’d be approaching their free agency pitch with a pretty thin supporting cast.

*HYPOTHETICAL* – What it would take to accommodate both a Butler trade and a Hayward/Griffin signing

A starting five of Butler and Griffin in the forward spots, Al Horford in the middle, and Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley in the backcourt is a star-studded core and as good as virtually any five-man unit in the league. But beyond that, the Celtics’ depth would be limited to Terry Rozier, whomever they could acquire with the room mid-level, and a bunch of minimum-salary fill. Is that enough of a supporting cast to entice a free agent like Blake Griffin? Would he even care who’s coming off the bench if the starting lineup featured four All-Stars?

That construct makes slightly less sense with Butler next to Hayward, since the two are similar positionally and in some of their strengths. The Celtics could instead move Bradley (creating room on the wings for that duo) and keep Kelly Olynyk’s rights, but bottom line is that if they get an All-Star free agent to say yes, they’ll sort out the resulting positional quandaries. Those are high-class problems.

And in either scenario, there are ripples into the broader free agency pool, starting of course with the incumbent team of whomever Boston signs.

So, less than two weeks left before free agency begins, perhaps the most salient question as it applies to this class’ headliners involve Boston. If Boston deals for Butler now, then much of free agency will play out relative to what Hayward and/or Griffin think about playing next to Butler and Thomas, but without much of a reserve corps. The biggest dominoes go first, and since nobody expects Kevin Durant or Steph Curry to move, Boston’s finagling will have a lot to do with the biggest of the dominoes … Jimmy or no Jimmy.

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