Celtics unlikely to capitalize

August 1, 1991

Celtics unlikely to capitalize

The salary cap goes up today. In some NBA locales, the announcement could trigger personnel moves and make things interesting the rest of the summer.

But for the Celtics, the move will affect their day-to-day operations about as much as the Julia-Kiefer split.

For some teams, today's bump of about $ 800,000 will help. Those teams have payrolls straddling the current $ 11.871 million cap figure. Golden State is known to be lusting for Jack Sikma. The Warriors may be able to put something together with the new figures.

The Celtics? If the cap doubled, instead of rising 7 or 8 percent, they might start rejoicing. But with a payroll in excess of $ 20 million - the largest in NBA history - they'll get no help from today's incremental boost.

"It does have implications to us in trying to deal with other teams," general manager Jan Volk said yesterday. "The increase could impact the other team. But we know what our limitations are."

And they are limited indeed.

Now that the salary figures are in place and everyone is playing with the same numbers, what can the Celtics do to improve their roster? With 12 guaranteed contracts and an announced interest in re-signing Kevin Gamble and Derek Smith, the Celtics need some help from a Sympathetic Other. Todate, none has been found.

The reason is most teams (21 of the 27) are like the Celtics: over the cap. Those teams are limited, too, and, unlike the Celtics, most still have to sign their first-round pick. For several teams, that will take a combination of luck and creativity.

The Celtics are not totally hamstrung. They can trade players, cut players, even sign players. And that brings us to the real question: What can they do and how can they do it?

TRADES: The Celtics could trade a player as long as the player they get in return makes no more than 110 percent of the salary the traded player earned. Example: Michael Smith is scheduled to earn $ 625,000 this season. Should he be traded for a player, that player can make no more than $ 687,500.

However, the Celtics can always trade a player for a draft choice, and that would be their best route, for it would not only remove a player, it also would give them the full value of the vacated slot for a calendar year. They made such a move a few years back when they unloaded Sam Vincent and Scott Wedman to Seattle for a second-round draft pick.

The trade route, however, has been a difficult one for the Celtics the last couple of years. Their last major deal was the Feb. 23, 1989, trade with Sacramento that brought them Joe Kleine and Ed Pinckney for Danny Ainge and Brad Lohaus.

To make matters worse, the players they have been shopping (Michael Smith, Kleine) have zero appeal on the open market. And in the event they felt compelled to trade Reggie Lewis (which won't happen), the dreaded specter of base-year compensation enters the picture.

Lewis will earn $ 3 million this year. For salary cap purposes, he is listed at $ 3.3 million, the extra money because of a signing bonus. However, if the Celtics wanted to trade him, they could do so only for a player who earns around $ 450,000 or less. That's because the team is over the cap, and when a player has a salary increase of 30 percent or more, his previous salary is the one used for trading purposes. The same number ($ 450,000) would apply if Lewis retired tomorrow to sell seashells at Nantasket Beach.

CUTTING PLAYERS: This may be the most expeditious way to create the eventual 12-man roster. It also is the most expensive.

Releasing a player would cost the Celtics the full, guaranteed value of the salary. The salary also would stay on the team's cap. So they can't magically reduce their payroll by getting rid of the deadwood.

But they can get rid of undesirables, which they showed they were willing to do last year when they said adios to Jim Paxson. And there is no shortage of candidates for expulsion on this team. Once a player is waived, the team can use half of the salary ($ 437,500 in Paxson's case) to sign someone else. That's how they were able to sign Derek Smith.

Waiving a player thus is a double-edged sword, but it nevertheless is a mechanism to create an opening where none existed. Owners Alan Cohen, Don Gaston and Paul Dupee would have to dine on contract souffle this fall, but the end result would be fewer players and an "exception" or salary slot to utilize down the the road.

Although the Celtics have said they intend to re-sign Derek Smith, they could do what they did with Dennis Johnson and decide otherwise. That would leave Smith's slot open for a year.

SIGNING PLAYERS: There are no limits on what the Celtics can pay to re-sign their own free agents. Thus, Gamble and Derek Smith are not affected by the cap in their negotiations. Nor is Kevin McHale, who will sign a huge extension sometime soon. They will get whatever the two sides agree on. There also is no limit on the number of players a team can sign to minimum ($ 130,000) contracts. They've already done that with Anderson Hunt. The Celtics cannot effectively compete in the open market, however, for players like John Salley, Sikma or the recently signed John Battle. They don't have any exceptions (slots) available.

And what if Patrick Ewing had won his arbitration case? And been granted immediate, unrestricted free agency? And said that Boston was his one and only choice? And that money (or lack thereof) was not an impediment?

The Celtics have nothing available now. In that case, however, they'd probably find something in a hurry.

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