Kevin Garnett told the Celtics that he would let them know if he would return or retire by Saturday, the day before the start of the free-agent negotiating period. And he is a man of his word: The Boston Herald reported that the 36-year-old big man has informed the team that he will be back next season. The deal will be for three years and $34 million, according to Yahoo! Sports, though it will be interesting to see if some of that third year is nonguaranteed.
The deal is not without some risk for Boston, given his age, 50,000 minutes of mileage and the inclusion of a third year, which would take Garnett’s contract one year beyond the 34-year-old Paul Pierce’s current (and presumed final) deal. But the Celtics’ cap sheet is clean enough that they could make themselves players in free agency each summer, including this one, without much of a problem. Also: Garnett, even after a 2009 right-knee injury that took something out of him, is still one of the most valuable players in the league. He’s so good that you could easily make the argument that he is this summer’s best free-agent big man. The only other candidates are Indiana’s Roy Hibbert, San Antonio’s Tim Duncan and Orlando’s Ryan Anderson, none of whom are expected to switch teams.
Boston has looked around the free-agency landscape and decided that potentially standing pat while tweaking on the fringes and remaining flexible enough to change course on a moment’s notice is the best way to go. That makes sense, especially considering Garnett’s effectiveness. But getting him back at this price also allows the Celtics to proceed in two different ways, including a path that would involve staying over the cap and using the full mid-level exception instead of the smaller one available to teams with payrolls that cross a certain level.
Garnett has been one of those players whose impact goes well beyond his traditional box-score statistics. In almost every one of Garnett’s 17 seasons, his teams have been dramatically better with him on the floor, to the point that he might be the league’s on-court/off-court plus/minus leader in that span. The Celtics outscored opponents by nearly eight points per 100 possessions when Garnett was on the floor last season, roughly equivalent to the league-best margins that the Spurs and Bulls posted. When he sat, opponents outscored the Celtics by nearly three points per 100 possessions. (Garnett averaged 31 minutes for the second season in a row.)
The trend became even more stark during the playoffs, when the Celtics played like champions with Garnett on the floor and a D-League team without him. There just aren’t many guys who can have this influence every night and every season, and if Garnett could still play 40 minutes a night, he’d be an obvious candidate for a spot on any 10-player MVP ballot. He may still be the league’s second-best defender, behind Dwight Howard.
Factoring in all that, plus Garnett’s resurgence as a scorer during the postseason, and this kind of salary is fair. A deal like this can be fair and risky at once, and this one probably is.
But Boston’s cap position and the lack of any better options on the big-man market swing the deal in its favor. Finalizing Garnett’s deal at the beginning of the free-agent signing period on July 11 will remove a massive $22 million cap hold, linked to his old salary, from the team’s books, allowing it to properly go about the market. The Celtics could create about $12 million in cap space, assuming an $11 million salary in 2012-13 for Garnett, rookie deals for first-round picks Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo and small charges for empty roster spots. That would leave Boston room to chase one or two mid-level-type free agents — likely a wing and a big man. The cupboard up front consists of Garnett and a bunch of unproven first- and second-year players.
Getting that cap space requires some work, however, because the space is an illusion for now. The Celtics are over the cap until further notice because of cap holds for Ray Allen, Brandon Bass, Jeff Green, Greg Stiemsma (a restricted free agent to whom they tendered a qualifying offer last week) and their other free agents. Those cap holds, including a mammoth $15 million charge for Allen, will stay on the books until the Celtics renounces their Larry Bird rights to those players one-by-one — rights that allow the team to go over the cap to re-sign its free agents.
In other words: While cap space is alluring, it seems just as likely that Boston goes the other route of staying over the cap, re-signing some or all of its free agents to cheaper, shorter deals, and then using the full mid-level exception to attract one outside player who might be able to goose one of the league’s worst offenses. (Don’t let the Celtics’ high shooting percentage fool you. They ranked 25th in points per possession last season.) Re-signing Garnett at a fair rate doesn’t change that equation in general, but it at least gives Boston a chance to re-sign Allen, Green and Bass and keep the payroll low enough to have a shot at the full mid-level exception. A reminder: The new collective bargaining agreement bans teams from using the full mid-level (worth about $5 million per season) and taking its total payroll more than $4 million above the tax line. The tax will be set around $70 million again next season, so teams cannot use the full mid-level exception and exceed $74 million in payroll.
The math will be tight for the Celtics, with about $44 million now committed to seven players. But it’s workable, particularly if they can get Allen to re-sign at a discount. And if they lose Allen, Green or Bass, the math becomes much friendlier. Keep in mind that the Heat are going to chase Allen hard, but they have only the mini mid-level exception of $3 million to use because their payroll will be over that $74 million threshold, even if they use the amnesty provision on Mike Miller. (The Heat have said they won’t amnesty Miller, and that is probably one reason why.)
The particulars of those theoretical future deals for Green, Bass and Allen now become more important. All three will surely demand multiyear contracts, and such deals, combined with Garnett’s, would affect Boston’s ability to be a max-level player in free agency next summer. Boston now has about $43 million in salary committed for 2013-14, factoring in another $11 million for Garnett, escalating deals for Sullinger and Melo and another late first-round pick next year. If the cap level jumps about 3 percent or so, as expected, the Celtics would be in decent position at $43 million plus some minor roster charges. Add in $12 million or so, at the low end, for two of the Allen/Green/Bass group, and much of that cap room is gone.
But Boston’s overall flexibility would not be. This core probably won’t be enough to unseat a healthy Heat team, but the Celtics weren’t too far from defeating Miami in the conference finals, and by remaining relatively lean they would be able change course fast via trade or painful free-agency concessions. They are not a title favorite, but there are worse places to be.