After being embarrassed by the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round of this year’s playoffs, Boston Celtics fans have been left with a sour taste in their mouths. The expectation was, after pushing Lebron James and the Cavaliers to a game seven in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, that this team would at the very least, make it to the NBA finals.
The impressive thing about last year’s run was that the team was without arguably when their two best players, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. The band of youngsters led by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, along with the emergence of Terry Rozier propelled this team to heights people thought unimaginable without their two stars.
The consensus this season was that with Kyrie and Hayward, this team would be virtually unstoppable. Boy, was everybody wrong about that. There are numerous clips of so-called sports experts picking the Celtics to represent the eastern conference in the NBA finals before the season started.
Now, at the time, it was hard to argue against them. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown had in the eyes of many “arrived”, Al Horford had proven his worth, and Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier proved they were at the very least, starting caliber NBA players. Add a stone-cold killer like Kyrie Irving and an athletic scoring wing like Gordon Hayward and you have a recipe for a championship team.
However, there was one small thing that everybody overlooked, and that was the chemistry. First, Gordon Hayward. While yes, before his gruesome leg injury the season before, Gordon Hayward was an all-star player.
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His injury, however, is very tedious and has a long recovery process. Paul George had a similar type of injury and it took him an entire season to fully get back to his old self.
One would think that Gordon Hayward would start the season coming off the bench, and as he got his legs back under him, would eventually work his way back into the starting rotation, right? Wrong. Right off the bat, Brad Stevens, who had previously coached Gordon Hayward at Butler, decided to stick him in the starting lineup in favor of Jaylen Brown.
This created issues because many players felt that Jaylen, at the very least, deserved to be the starter until Gordon was back to his old self. Unfortunately for the Celtics, this was just the tip of the iceberg.
The other huge chemistry issue they had was with Kyrie Irving. When Kyrie was out, it was easy to see how the Celtics operated. The ball was moving a lot more, and Jayson Tatum was essentially their number one option. In other words, the offense felt freer flowing.
When Kyrie returned, however, the ball seemed to stop with him at some points and players like Jayson Tatum would be left standing in the corner not doing anything while Kyrie dribbled out the shot clock and then ultimately threw up a bad shot.
The Celtics found a winning formula without Kyrie, and when he came back, they veered away from that formula to let Kyrie be the center piece.
When players like Tatum and Brown see their touches significantly drop after having an outstanding playoff run just the year before, there is no doubt going to be some unrest in that locker room and it showed the way they played in the regular season and in the playoffs, particularly against the Bucks.
So, what do the Celtics do now? As far as I see it, they have two options. Their first option is to try to convince Kyrie to stay by packaging Tatum, Brown, Marcus Smart and the 14th overall pick for Anthony Davis and hope he commits long-term to Boston.
The combination of Kyrie and AD along with Gordon Hayward having another year to recover (See how Paul George did in his second season back from injury), is a combination that can compete with Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Toronto (assuming Kawhi stays, which I think he won’t).
The other option the Celtics have is to let Kyrie walk and build around the young core of Tatum and Brown. With this option, you re-sign Terry Rozier and let him be the starting point guard. If you can pick up at least a rotation player with the 14th pick, the future looks bright in Boston.
There are clearly two different lines of thought with these options. If you trade for Anthony Davis (assuming you land him), you are absolutely in win now mode and anything less than an NBA finals appearance would be a monumental disappointment. If you elect to let Kyrie leave, Boston is still a strong enough team to make the playoffs in the east, but it will be a few years before they are ready to compete for a championship.
Personally, I would let Kyrie leave for a couple of reasons. First, there’s no guarantee you land AD. For that trade to work, a few things need to happen. David Griffin needs to accept that Anthony Davis is leaving in free agency and AD would have to agree to stay with the Celtics long-term. Even if you can pull off this trade, there is no guarantee Kyrie stays.
Second, as great a player as Kyrie is, he has proven to be a bit of a headcase. Couple that with his at times poor decision-making on the court and letting him walk doesn’t seem as painful as originally thought.
By keeping Tatum and Brown, you can let them develop and gain not only regular season experience, but playoff experience as well because as I said earlier, this team without Kyrie is still good enough to make the playoffs in the east. By the time Tatum and Brown have hit their primes, they will have ample playoff experience and will be ready to make several deep playoff runs.
To put it in simpler terms, Tatum and Brown appear to be a surer thing at the moment than a big 3 of Irving, Davis and Gordon Hayward.