New Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens stayed busy Friday, making a second trade the day after the draft to land Josh Richardson following the Dallas Mavericks swingman’s decision to pick up his 2021-22 player option.
How does adding Richardson affect the Celtics’ willingness to bring back unrestricted free agent Evan Fournier? And why is Kyle Lowry a big winner of the Mavericks’ moving Richardson’s contract?
Celtics get: Richardson
Mavericks get: Future second-round pick
This is the third consecutive offseason in which Richardson has been traded, and his value is trending the wrong direction. After being a key part of the return for the Philadelphia 76ers in the Jimmy Butler sign-and-trade in the summer of 2019, he was dealt to Dallas for Seth Curry last offseason. Now, the Celtics are getting him for free (using the trade exception created in the Gordon Hayward sign-and-trade) just to take his $11.6 million salary off the Mavericks’ books.
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There’s some hope for the Celtics that Richardson can recapture his average-ish 3-point shooting from when he was with the Miami Heat. He shot 38% in 2017-18, which now looks like something of a fluke, and 36% in 2018-19. The past two seasons, that has dropped to a below-average 33.5%. Even when Richardson was shooting better than average from 3, however, he was never a particularly efficient scorer on medium volume. Now that the league standard is so much higher for efficiency, Richardson might not keep up.
More interesting than Richardson’s own value is what he means for Boston’s efforts to re-sign Fournier, an unrestricted free agent after he was acquired at the trade deadline. If the Celtics don’t bring back Fournier, Richardson represents a reasonable hedge and allows Boston to still utilize its taxpayer midlevel exception in free agency instead of spending that on a Fournier replacement.
Alternatively, the Celtics might still hope to bring back Fournier but want a backup plan in case the bidding eventually gets out of hand. If Boston ends up adding Richardson and re-signing Fournier, there’s a crowd on the wing. Depending on how new coach Ime Udoka decides to handle things, both of those veterans might end up fighting for minutes off the bench with recent first-round picks Romeo Langford and Aaron Nesmith and newly acquired Kris Dunn.
If Fournier does return, the Celtics’ roster will also start looking awfully pricey. Adding Richardson puts them just into the luxury tax with the non-guaranteed salaries of forward Jabari Parker and center Moses Brown, so a deal for Fournier sure to start in the eight-figures would imply a tax bill north of $20 million for a team that doesn’t look like a legit contender at the moment.
Ultimately, I don’t like the value for Boston. Richardson surely picked up his player option because he didn’t think he had a better offer out there. Granted, the market for free agents isn’t efficient, but that suggests other teams didn’t see Richardson as worth his salary. (We can be confident Dallas didn’t.) So it’s surprising the Celtics would add him without getting any pick compensation in return.
The Mavericks would surely love a mulligan on the trade they agreed to at last year’s draft sending Curry to the Sixers for Richardson. They had to watch Curry emerge as a key starter on the East’s top seed, while Richardson fell to the fringes of Rick Carlisle’s rotation in the playoffs.
Barring a time machine, wiping Richardson’s salary off the books entirely was as well as Dallas was going to do here. Crucially, it brings the Mavericks to $34-plus million in potential cap room if they decline a team option on center Willie Cauley-Stein and renounce their other free agents — enough to get Dallas in a bidding war for Kyle Lowry if they wish.
Nobody in the NBA has had a better week than Lowry, who now has two potential suitors sitting on $30-plus million in possible cap space after money-saving trades by Dallas and the New Orleans Pelicans (up to nearly $37 million). It’s not entirely clear those teams will use all that money to bid on Lowry, as both teams have their own free agents they might want to bring back (Tim Hardaway Jr. for the Mavericks) but it certainly looks like Lowry is getting paid.
If Dallas does try to re-sign Hardaway first at a lower starting salary than his $28.5 million cap hold, the Mavericks could be looking at a situation in which they could bring back last year’s core and still have $15 million to $20 million to spend improving their depth. No matter which direction Dallas takes, the extra $11 million in cap space will likely do more to help win in 2021-22 than Richardson would have done. As a result, the Mavericks look like winners here.