It’s a nauseating thought–the Boston Celtics buying out The Captain, Paul Pierce, discharging him after after 15 years of service to save some money. Yet, given the structure of Pierce’s contract (Pierce is guaranteed only $5 million of his $15.3 million salary if he is waived by June 30), a buyout is an option general manager Danny Ainge will have to consider.
Multiple reports suggest that is exactly what Ainge is doing. Greg Dickerson, a sideline reporter for CSNNE, reported that Pierce’s career as a Celtic is probably over and that a buyout is the most likely option. Bob Finnan, of the Ohio News-Herald, reiterated that claim in a story posted Sunday. It has been reported that Pierce anticipates a new destination for next season and his family is preparing to move.
Why would Ainge and the Celtics be so willing to ship out Pierce, you ask?
The same Paul Pierce, let me remind you, who led the Celtics in scoring (20 pts/36 minutes), played 77 of a possible 81 regular season games, and rebounded (11.2 TOT REB %) and passed (25.1 ASST%) at a higher rate than he ever has. Let me reiterate that: Pierce rebounded and assisted at higher rate than he EVER HAS this season, while sporting a True Shooting Percentage (55.9%) right around his career average (56.8%).
To put those numbers in perspective, Pierce defensive rebounded at a higher rate than Marc Gasol, David West, Paul Milsap and Nikola Pekovic. After Rajon Rondo tore his ACL, Pierce assisted on a higher percentage of team’s baskets while he was on the floor than LeBron James.
As fans, we have let 6 games of bad playoff shooting white-out what was another vintage Pierce season. Sure, Pierce isn’t quite the defender he was a few years ago, and he seems to get sloppier with the ball as the years go by (though the numbers don’t exactly support this), but he was unquestionably the Celtics best player after Rondo got hurt.
So again you ask, why does it feel like Pierce has played his last game as a Celtic?
The answer is less a question of Pierce’s production, and much more a result of Boston’s current location in the NBA landscape. In its current manifestation, the Celtics reside in NBA purgatory–not good enough to realistically compete for a title, but not quite bad enough to secure a high draft pick.
Of course, there is something to be said for competing and playing to win (I mean really, besides the Spurs and Tim Duncan, has tanking ever led to an NBA title?), but the Celtics ownership/front office are probably hesitant to continue to pay the luxury tax for this Groundhog’s Day movie.
The Celtics have paid the luxury tax each season since Kevin Garnett arrived in Boston, but new conditions in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that begin to kick in this season make the tax more costly, from both a financial and competitive standpoint.
Prior to this season, any team that was over the luxury tax ($70.307 million the past two seasons) paid a dollar to the league for every dollar they were over the luxury tax. For example, this season, Boston was roughly $5 million over the tax, meaning they had to pay $5 million to the league office. If the Celtics are over the luxury tax next season, however, they will pay $1.50 for every dollar they are above the line. So, if the Celtics were again $5 million above the tax, they would pay $7.5 million to the league office.
In addition, the tax rate gets larger the higher above the tax a team is (see here for more details), so the consequences for being over the tax have increased dramatically. Starting next season, if a team is over the tax for three consecutive seasons, the team will pay the luxury tax at an even steeper rate. The tax is called the repeater rate and it begins at $2.50 for every dollar over the tax and increases incrementally based on how far over the tax a team is.
What does this all mean for the Boston Celtics and Paul Pierce?
The Celtics currently have 14 players under contract for $76,019,698, according to HoopsWorld.com. When you add in the cap hold for the 16th pick (valued at $1,419,200), the Celtics owe $77,438,898 in salary slated for next season. With the luxury tax projected to be about $73 million next season, the Celtics will need to shed roughly $4.4 million to get under the tax threshold.
There are a few ways Ainge could work to get the Celtics under the tax line, but waiving Pierce is by far the simplest option. Because Pierce’s contract is mostly non-guaranteed, he has a lot of value as trade bait for a team looking add a productive veteran, or a team looking to dump salary.
Unless the Celtics trade partner has a lot of salary cap space ( like the Utah Jazz, Cleveland Cavaliers, or Atlanta Hawks), Ainge would only be able to shave so much money via trade, however, because the salaries exchanged in a trade have to be roughly equivalent (125% of the salary sent out is good guideline).
For instance, if the Celtics traded Pierce alone to a team without salary cap space, they would have to take back at least $12 million in salary to make the trade work. Trading Pierce by himself, therefore, would not be enough to get the Celtics under the luxury tax and they would have to pursue another trade, or waive one or more of the players with a non-guaranteed contract (DJ White, Shavlik Randolph, or Terrance Williams) without filling the roster spot.
As you can see, if Ainge has orders from the team owners to get under the luxury tax for next season, he has a very difficult task before him. It will take some creative dealing from Ainge to get under the tax without waiving Pierce.
From a competitive standpoint, waiving Pierce doesn’t make a whole lot of sense but, when considering the potential financial implications, you can see why Ainge won’t rule it out.