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

If there’s one lesson we’ve hopefully all learned from these NBA playoffs, it’s this: Can we hold our horses and wait a little while before immediately anointing everyone who had a successful playoff run as 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, we thought Anthony Edwards would take over as the Minnesota Timberwolves knocked out the Nuggets.

In the conference finals, we thought Luka Dončić was an unsolvable riddle as the Dallas Mavericks outflanked Minnesota.

And during the NBA Finals, we learned that the Boston Celtics, the team that had the best record by far, was – surprise! – basically the best team all the time. Even though everyone thought they couldn’t be trusted due to past playoff failures, an unproven coach, and the lack of an MVP-caliber center, Boston won 16 of 19 playoff games despite having to play for 11 of them one of his best players was missing.

As we prepare for what awaits us next season, let’s let 2023-2024 be a humbling lesson. The Celtics tried to tell us all year that they were great, but for whatever reason everyone ignored the signals. The lack of a full playoff foil in the Eastern Conference probably didn’t help either; running through weak playoff opponents didn’t provide many opportunities for statement games.

Nevertheless, the Celtics went 80-21 over the course of 101 games, by a historic scoring margin, and were never seriously challenged in the playoffs. They are our sixth new defending champions in six years, but will almost certainly enter the 2024-2025 season as the presumptive favorites to win again.

There’s a good underlying reason for that: Boston is in prime position to withstand the worst of the depredations of the most recent collective bargaining agreement, at least for another season. While revisions to the 2023 deal make it increasingly difficult to keep championship-caliber rosters like this one together, Boston has positioned itself for a multi-year run through smart contracts and timely trades despite having two of the league’s most expensive players at center stage. .

If we just look at the 2024-2025 period, the Celtics are in great shape. Unlike other recent champions who lost key players almost immediately – Bruce Brown in Denver, Gary Payton II and Otto Porter Jr. in Golden State, PJ Tucker in Milwaukee, Danny Green and Rajon Rondo of the Lakers and of course Kawhi Leonard in Toronto – the Celtics are positioned to turn it around.

All of Boston’s rotation players are 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 deal. Boston also gets a chance to add a cheap piece with the 30th pick in the NBA Draft.

I’m told the Celtics would like to bring the centers back if the money is reasonable; Either way, Boston can easily replenish the back of the roster with other minimum deals this offseason. Positioned to finish above the second platform, the Celtics 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 walks off into the sunset after winning his first ring, they’ll need another big man… but dropping his $9.5 million salary would put Boston under the second apron to take.)

Where things get tougher is if Boston has more dynastic ambitions. The Celtics won’t worry about salaries as they try to repeat this in 2024-2025, but after that two elements of the CBA will punish them with increasing brutality: the repeater tax and the second apron.

Boston would see two future draft picks frozen if it moves over the second platform in both 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 doesn’t would work. each of the next three years returned under the second platform.

Less discussed, but perhaps just as important, is that Boston would face a tough repeater penalty in 2025-26. As of that year, a team that was $22.5 million above the luxury tax line would owe an estimated $100 million in taxes and repeat penalties, about double what the same salary structure would cost Boston in 2024-25 as a non-repeat player. Now suddenly: Yes.

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

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

Expect this trend to continue. In addition to Tatum, I hear it’s highly likely that Sam Hauser and Derrick White will join them. Hauser has at least one year left on his contract, with a team option, and will be eligible for an extension this summer; he’s about to become more expensive, but Boston sees him as a keeper. A possible cap shenanigan would be to decline Hauser’s team option for 2024-2025 and re-sign him for less money and more years than in an extension that began in 2025-2026. This would increase the tax penalty for the Celtics in 2024-2025, but reduce the impact of the repeater penalty and manage the second apron in recent years.

Meanwhile, White is 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 will likely have to sacrifice every cent of it to make it happen. (White’s extension figure has been reported as a different number in some places because the incentives in his deal were not considered likely before this season. But based on his 2023-24 season, they are all likely.)

Looking at the books and the implications of the salary cap, an overarching strategy becomes clearer: a tough run with a repeat in 2024-2025, possibly followed by some tough decisions a year later. If these additions all come to fruition, the key to continuing Boston’s dominance will be figuring out how to build the frontcourt on a budget.

Horford and Kristaps Porziņģis signed two-year extensions shortly after arriving, but those will be the first two significant Celtics off the books. Horford is expected to make $9.5 million in what could be his final season. Porzingis’ deal expires in 2026, when he will make $30.7 million.

After a dominant season in a fractured Eastern Conference, the Celtics could hardly be in a better position to defend their title. And yet, even as we recognize Boston as a clear favorite, I would urge some caution as we head into next season. As I noted at the top, 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 vulnerable to injuries.
  • While Tatum is great, the Celtics are unlikely to have the best player on the court in any major series.
  • The East might not be such a cakewalk next time: We never saw the Milwaukee Bucks at full strength, the Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers are positioned to heavily rearm themselves this offseason, and the New York Knicks are building a similar ensemble cast on. with which the Celtics dominated. And the Miami Heat certainly won’t pass all this up… right?

So let me close by contradicting myself a little. Yes, the Celtics proved they should be clear favorites in 2024-2025, and the recognition of their historic 2023-2024 season came far too late and too muted. As I noted earlier this year, their five-player lineup is the future, and their front office is consistently one step ahead of the competition.

They’re basically great. But they are not inevitable. In a 30-team league, it would take a huge fortune to survive the meat grinder of the playoffs even once. Boston is in a better position than anyone to do it again, but recent history suggests on-field betting is still the sharpest play.


Required reading

(Photo: Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)