Stephenson is an unrestricted free agent, so he conceivably can sign with any team that has the money and the will. Still, this isn’t a matter of whether Stephenson becomes a Celtic or not. It’s about how Stephenson would become a Celtic, and how he would affect other moves the team would subsequently make.
With Stephenson replacing Kevin Love and Gordon Hayward (for the time being) as the hot Celtics target of the moment, let’s attempt to sift through some factors in the Celtics’ potential play for Stephenson.
Stephenson reportedly rejected a five-year, $44 million contract from the Indiana Pacers. Due to pricey, underachieving players like Jeff Green and Gerald Wallace, the Celtics really only have the $5.3 million mid-level exception to offer to a free agent. That’s a problem if they want to sign Stephenson outright. Arguably the Pacers’ best player for stretches last season, Stephenson turned down a deal that would have paid him roughly $8.8 million annually. Unless Stephenson is willing to take a lot less money to play in Boston, he is out of the Celtics’ price range as a free agent.
Avery Bradley just re-signed with the Celtics for four years, $32 million. Speaking of free-agent guards, the Celtics recently signed one for about the same money Stephenson just turned down. On one hand, this could mean the Celtics feel they are set at two-guard; on the other hand, this could be a tidy one-for-one sign-and-trade under the salary-matching rules. But again, Stephenson appears to think he is worth more than Bradley. From a pure production standpoint, he is right.
The Celtics still have plenty of draft picks, plus their $10.3 million trade exception. Although Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge would most likely rather keep Marcus Smart for a possible Kevin Love trade, the Celtics still have as many as eight first-round draft picks in the next four years. They also have the trade exception they received in last year’s blockbuster with the Brooklyn Nets, allowing them to acquire a contract or contracts worth up to $10.3 million without sending out any of their own salary in exchange. The Pacers probably wouldn’t trade Stephenson for nothing, however, which is why a draft pick or two might be necessary to sweeten the deal. Keep in mind that the trade exception expires Saturday.
The Pacers would love to have a point guard of Rajon Rondo’s caliber. Whenever fans of a team start throwing out cockamamie trade scenarios, it’s always nice to put the shoe on the other foot. In this case, sending Rondo to Indiana for Stephenson in a sign-and-trade makes a lot of sense for the Pacers, who appear to have ridden the George Hill experiment to its limits. From the Celtics’ standpoint, of course, getting Stephenson (at about the same price point as Rondo, presumably) doesn’t really get them anywhere. Ainge would love to unload Green instead of Rondo, but it’s doubtful the Pacers, who opened negotiations with Stephenson at less than $9 million per year, would be super keen on paying more than $9 million annually to Green over the next two seasons.
How much do the Minnesota Timberwolves like Stephenson? Question: Why would the Celtics want Stephenson if they already have Rondo, Bradley and Smart? Answer: Maybe they don’t. Maybe what the Celtics are actually interested in is what Stephenson could net them if they flipped him to another team — for, say, Kevin Love. It’s unclear how much Flip Saunders likes Stephenson, or why the Pacers wouldn’t just trade Stephenson for Love themselves, or if Stephenson would agree to such a roundabout scenario that ultimately landed him in Minneapolis. But every transaction the Celtics make right now is made with the specter of Love looming in the background.
James Young has yet to sign. Under the CBA, draft picks are worth $0 for trade purposes until they are signed. Then they count against team’s payrolls and in transactions just like any other player. In addition, draft picks cannot be traded within 30 days of signing. This is why signing Smart was more than simple housekeeping for the Celtics. Young, who has been held out of summer league action with a minor neck injury, has not signed. Until he does, he counts as $0 in trades, which might mean he could be tossed into a trade package as a “free” bonus. As a standalone piece, though, Young has little value.
Phil Pressey, Chris Johnson, Chris Babb and the 2014 draft picks are young and cheap. Without question, Stephenson is better than any of the Celtics’ incumbent reserve guards individually, and possibly even combined. But Ainge seems to enjoy the financial flexibility such a low-cost backcourt gives him, particularly with so much guaranteed money tied up in Green, Wallace, Brandon Bass and Joel Anthony. Even Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk, though affordable, are basically guaranteed to be on the payroll through 2016 and 2017, respectively. This makes the non-guaranteed players valuable as trade chips to a team that wants to cut costs, but it also means the Celtics can quickly save themselves a little less than $1 million each by cutting bait any time.
None of this is to contend the Celtics will or will not acquire Stephenson, nor whether they should or should not. With all the truths, half-truths, lies and damn lies that get thrown around during free agent season, it is worth bearing in mind that when it comes to Stephenson and the Celtics, as with every rumor out there, things are never quite as simple as they seem.