There appeared to be a sigh of relief whenever Payton Pritchard set his feet and reared back for a 3-pointer in Sunday’s preseason opener. He no longer needed to play as if his Celtics career depended on every bucket.
Pritchard’s first three years in Boston were uneven at best, looking like a capable complement during his rookie season, then playing little under Ime Udoka, and then spending long stretches in Joe Mazzulla’s doghouse last season.
When the Celtics traded Marcus Smart to the Grizzlies, creating a void at point guard, Pritchard’s skill set suddenly became more in demand. He wanted out of Boston last season, telling the Globe in February that he was disappointed he wasn’t traded before the deadline.
Pritchard leaned on veteran Blake Griffin, who told him to stay professional and dedicated because there could come a time when the course of his career will change.
Griffin was a prophet because Pritchard agreed to a four-year, $30 million extension Sunday, cementing his future in Boston after it appeared this would be his last season as a Celtic.
And it’s another step in Boston’s plan to secure their core players to long-term extensions because they have eclipsed the second salary cap apron following the acquisition of Jrue Holiday, limiting their ability to sign outside free agents.
After the 2023-24 season, the Celtics won’t be allowed to use their mid-level exception, use trade exceptions aggregated from multiple players, send cash to another club to complete a trade, or execute a sign-and-trade deal.
The Celtics have exhausted their salary cap flexibility for the sake of putting together a team they believe can compete for a championship in the next five years. Jaylen Brown signed a maximum extension making him the league’s highest-paid player in July. Kristaps Porzingis signed a two-year extension soon after he was acquired. Al Horford signed a two-year, $19.5 million extension last season.
Jayson Tatum will sign a five-year maximum extension next summer and the club is interested in signing Holiday after his contract expires next season.
The investment in now is admirable. The Celtics have built a championship-caliber team, acquiring Porzingis and Holiday, adding bench pieces Oshae Brissett, Wenyan Gabriel, Svi Mykhailiuk, and Lamar Stevens on moderate deals or training camp contracts.
Economic feasibility and astute roster moves run hand in hand in today’s NBA. The Celtics made a significant decision in pursuing Holiday, and re-signing Pritchard has as much to do with salary flexibility as his ability to help the team win a championship.
Pritchard’s deal is a boost in salary for the fourth-year guard and a tradable contract in case the Celtics decide to move forward or need to include a contract to complete a major deal.
Those are hypothetical situations. Pritchard is very much in Mazzulla’s plans at point guard with the Celtics lacking a true floor leader besides Holiday. He played Sunday as if he was gliding on the TD Garden floor, scoring 26 points on 9-for-14 shooting in the 114-106 win over the 76ers.
While most of his damage occurred against backups, Pritchard displayed why he could be a useful part of Boston’s second unit. He shot the ball with confidence, ran the offense with precision, and was the best player on the floor during his second-half stints.
“I wouldn’t call it pressure,” Pritchard said hours after his new deal was announced. “When I signed it, it was almost a relief, a feeling of being secure and that was my mindset, lock something in so I wasn’t playing this year out.”
Pritchard has spent the past three seasons seeking an opportunity to prove himself. He entered the 2020 NBA Draft as a 22-year-old after four seasons at the University of Oregon. He doesn’t have much time to waste. He’s nearly 26, two months older than seven-year veteran Jayson Tatum.
The league is not as inviting to mid-20s players who haven’t proved they can claim consistent rotation minutes. So there was a sense of concern with Pritchard entering this season. He said he didn’t want negotiation details from his agents, just contract numbers.
The Celtics renewed dedication to Pritchard has been reciprocated. After expressing disappointment about staying in Boston last February, he said he appreciates his situation and the opportunity to win a championship. It’s been a rocky three years for Pritchard. He’s played for three coaches, was essentially banished to garbage-time minutes by Udoka, and saw his playing time decrease further last year.
But the past has been forgotten.
“I tell you what, Payton is one of my favorite people,” Mazzulla said. “Most guys in his position, the league breaks them. When you go into Year 1 playing a little bit, Year 2 not playing, Year 3 kind of playing and the league can break you. But he’s not one of those guys. He just continues to be a tough SOB for us and I’m happy that I get to coach him this year.”