There are many ‘what if’ questions in the NBA. These are decisions or occasions when a different outcome may have changed a franchise or a player and, therefore, the history of the league.
For example, what if LeBron James stayed in Miami or Cleveland, or what if Chris Paul’s trade to the LA Lakers was never vetoed by NBA Commissioner David Stern. What about if Shaquille O’Neil had never left Orlando or Celtics rookie Len Bias had never sadly passed away in 1986. All these make us ponder the question ‘what if’ and we might currently be witnessing another one:
What if the Sacramento Kings have stopped the NBA’s next great dynasty?
As Golden State begins to seemingly implode, everyone is keen to see who will replace them. Houston have failed to flatter and with Paul’s max contract the franchise will struggle to improve considerably for the short-term. The Lakers aren’t as developed as people had hoped and are operating with a small window given LeBron’s age.
There is one team out East that seems to have all the pieces in place once they get their act together this season. The Boston Celtics have a blend of youth and experience, they have quality across the roster and a top five coach in the league. But is it possible that a team with stars like Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum is dependent on a team that finished with the 25th best record last year? In short, yes.
Boston could have up to four first round picks in the 2019 Draft. They will have their own selection, plus a potential pick from the Memphis Grizzlies as long as it falls lower than eighth, they could also have a pick from the LA Clippers should it come outside the top fourteen, but by far the best pick was meant to be Sacramento’s.
The Kings’ pick is top one protected. If it results in the first overall selection then it would go to Philadelphia, but anything else finds its way in to Boston. Celtics’ fans have been watching Zion Williams and RJ Barrett light up college basketball with Duke, and they have begun to dream. But they don’t just want that high pick, they need it.
The Celtics are in a fairly unique salary situation. They have been able to have three players (Al Horford, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward) on big contracts while still being able to have great role players. The reason for this is the rookie pay scale. Brown and Tatum are projected to make $5.2 million and $6.8 million, respectively, this season, a wage that doesn’t befit their importance to the team or their ability.
Irving will become an unrestricted free agent this summer. He has already signalled his intent to stay with Boston, but with this comes a price. It is expected Irving will waive his player option and sign a five-year, $190 million contract extension this summer.
The NBA salary cap increases to $109 million in 2019 and if the Celtics use their exceptions and release, or trade, Terry Rozier, Daniel Theis and Marcus Morris, they will easily be in the luxury tax. There is no doubt the team will be willing to pay it, considering only five out of the last 16 teams to win a title avoided paying the tax. However, for a team who hasn’t even made the finals yet to be paying luxury tax is significant, especially since they will be deemed repeat offenders as of this year should they fail to trade Rozier or Morris before the February deadline. To highlight the importance of this, if a regular team were to be $10 million above the luxury cap then they would pay $16 million in tax, however, a repeat offender would pay $25 million.
This would essentially mean that without trades the Celtics could not add anyone significant through free agency in 2019 and would be incentivized to move cap space and players rather than recruit them. Then you have the issue of Brown and Tatum. Boston has already exercized their final year player option on Brown for 2019-2020, meaning he will become a restricted free agent in 2020. Brown will likely pursue a max contract, a deal in the region of four-years, £113 million, which Boston would match. Hayward would still take his $34.1 million player option while Horford would probably renegotiate a team friendly contract. But this would again trigger the repeater tax.
Boston would go through a similar ordeal in 2021 when Tatum will also become a RFA. He will also sign the max while Hayward’s contract would expire. Should he stay healthy, Boston would surely have to re-sign him. They would have Irving, Brown, and Tatum all on max contracts, while Horford and Marcus Smart would be earning around the mid-level of $14 million. Even if the cap increased again, these five players would put them above it already. And with Hayward’s bird rights, they could match any offer and keep a player they would stand no chance of replacing otherwise.
This was a long drawn out way to say the Boston Celtics have limited options. Even if their current assortment of players are good enough to put together a series of Golden State-like championship runs, to simply keep them together will result in many sacrifices. This is assuming they will be willing to pay the repeater luxury tax which, by 2021, will have cost the team an excruciating amount of money.
A high draft pick could solve a lot of these problems, but this is bigger than that. This pick likely offers Boston their only significant method to improve, not only this summer but for the next four years.
Drafting a Zion Williams would give them the option to allow Brown to leave in 2020 or alternatively allow Tatum or Hayward to leave in 2021. This would give them the cap space to save on the repeater tax or spend the salary difference on an improved bench. They could also decide against this and keep their current stars alongside a young rookie, just like they planned to do when they drafted Len Bias when they had Kevin McHale and Larry Bird.
As the modern NBA continues to evolve it is easy to see how an Irving, Brown, Hayward, Tatum and Williams line-up could dominate the league. The only thing preventing this dream is the Sacramento Kings.
Las Vegas had the Kings over/under wins at 25.5, second lowest in the league. Our team at Double Clutch predicted they would win a mere 19 games all season. With changes in the draft for 2019, this would have given Boston favourable odds. A bottom three record in the league would mean a 14% chance at the number one pick, and therefore an 86% chance in falls between second and fifth, and as a result it would become Boston’s and not Philadelphia’s.
The Kings currently sit 10th in the Western Conference but 15th overall and they are showing no signs that this is a flash in the pan. If the season was to end today then Sacramento would have just a 0.7% chance for the top pick in the draft and a 96.6% chance of the 14th pick, likely resulting in a player who can help them but not transform a franchise.
Should Sacramento maintain anything like their current record, Boston will rue the Kings sudden and surprising turn around. Should they simply have played true to form then Boston might have been preparing to become the NBA’s next great dynasty, without that, they may be facing decades of wondering what if?
Featured photo – via Getty Images / Fox Sports / Double Clutch illustration