The first domino fell Wednesday. According to a league source, center Aron Baynes will opt into the final year of the two-year, $11 million contract he signed prior to last season. Baynes played in only 51 regular-season games because of various injuries but was a steady defensive anchor when he was available. He averaged 5.6 points and 4.7 rebounds in 16.1 minutes per game.
At a charity event last month, Baynes said his preference would be to return to the Celtics, but that he would want some assurances about his role.
“I know where I want to be,” he said. “But at the same time, I’ve got to talk with Danny [Ainge], I’ve got to talk to Brad [Stevens], and see what their thoughts are as well. I want to be in the right situation.
“In the NBA, everyone always wants to be able to contribute and help the team that they’re on, and I’m no different.”
Kyrie Irving, who like Baynes had a Thursday deadline to decide on his option, has already publicly stated that he will not opt into the final year of his deal, which would pay him $21.3 million next season.
It is an obvious choice, given that he would then be in line to sign a contract for as much as five years and $189 million if he decides to stay with the Celtics and four years and $140 million if he chooses to go elsewhere. Irving may choose to sign elsewhere, but opting out will not be an indicator of that.
Al Horford is due to receive $30.1 million in the final season of his four-year deal. It is unlikely that he will command a higher salary, but he could prefer long-term security and opt out to sign a long-term contract for a lower average salary.
Horford has indicated that he would like to stay in Boston, and Ainge said last week that retaining him is a priority. But if the Celtics are unable to acquire Davis and Irving decides to depart, Horford, who just turned 33 and has never won a championship, could plausibly seek a potential title opportunity on another team.
ESPN reported that Pelicans general manager David Griffin’s preference is to agree to a deal for Davis at least a few days before the June 20 draft so the team will have more time to evaluate prospects it could select with the draft picks it receives.
Davis’s agent, Rich Paul, reiterated in a Sports Illustrated interview released Wednesday that if the Celtics trade for Davis, who has one year remaining on his contract, he will simply leave when he becomes a free agent next summer.
That could just be posturing to get the Celtics to pull back, making it more likely for Davis to land with the Lakers, where Paul’s most famous client, LeBron James, is waiting. But it must give the Celtics at least some pause as they decide whether to mortgage their future on Davis.
If New Orleans agrees to trade Davis to a team other than the Celtics, Boston would at least have some clarity regarding how to move forward with its draft selections. If New Orleans agrees to trade Davis to Boston, look for some if not all of Boston’s three first-round picks to be shipped out.
As it stands, the Celtics own the 14th, 20th, 22nd, and 51st picks in next week’s draft. Regardless of how the Davis trade talks and Irving’s free agency play out, Boston has no desire to add three more rookies to the roster. If the Celtics are unable to complete a deal for Davis, look for them to make a push to package some of their selections to move up in the draft. They could also trade some of these picks for future selections, further bolstering Danny Ainge’s unending collection of assets.
By next week, the Celtics will have hosted more than 100 draft prospects for workouts. And those sessions make up just a small part of the multiyear evaluation process. So even if the Celtics were to trade up into a range of players that did not come to Boston for workouts, they will have plenty of other intelligence to lean on.
The NBA moved the start of free agency up from midnight on July 1 to 6 p.m. on June 30, partly to put an end to bleary-eyed phone calls and subsequent media reports about the phone calls, and partly to capitalize on the made-for-TV nature of the frenzy.
In recent years, this has been a boom time for the Celtics, as they nabbed max-contract All-Stars Horford and Gordon Hayward while coming up just short of signing Kevin Durant. But Boston is over the salary cap now, severely limiting its options. The primary focus will be the future of Irving, the All-Star point guard who fizzled in the playoffs and has been increasingly linked to the Knicks and Nets in recent weeks.
Irving and Durant were long rumored to have interest in teaming up next year, most likely in New York. But the Achilles’ tendon injury Durant suffered in Game 5 of the NBA Finals Monday night clouded that picture significantly.
If the Celtics can acquire Davis, they would have a more potent presentation for Irving, maybe even selling him on the idea of a short-term deal to essentially take a Davis-led team for a test drive. That would be a substantial risk for the Celtics, who could potentially lose both Irving and Davis to free agency next year and receive nothing in return.
But they would be a championship-caliber duo, certainly setting up the Celtics for success in the present, and perhaps showing them what it would be like to do the same in the future.