With the most valuable piece removed from the chessboard, the Boston Celtics find themselves headed towards a future filled with uncertainties.
They seemed like such a surefire championship contender just one year ago. With no Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward in the fold, instead led by their young stars, the Boston Celtics found a way to come within one-quarter of the NBA Finals.
All of last summer, the talk was about the inevitable showdown between the Golden State Warriors and the Boston Celtics in this years NBA Finals. These Celtics serve as proof that this league is far from black and white.
Teams don’t always operate with an upward trajectory. Boston’s Cinderella playoff run in 2018 seemed like a blessing at the moment, but ultimately became the root of the issues they now face.
After playing like bonafide all-stars in those playoffs, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Terry Rozier didn’t warm up to going quietly into the night as Irving, and a hobbled Hayward take the reigns.
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Now, with no Davis, and likely no Irving, the Celtic’s path is more unclear than ever. Many have already started to question Danny Ainge’s decision making, and wondering why the Celtics still haven’t cashed in on a star yet after being linked to Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, and Anthony Davis.
It’s easy to say that in hindsight that Ainge royally screwed up by not acquiring one of these top 15 players when he’s always had the asset advantage over other GMs. Context needs to be applied, and rightfully justifies Ainge’s decision not to go all in.
Indiana reportedly turned down an offer from the Celtics that, at the time, was far better than what Indiana received from the Oklahoma City Thunder for George. Boston signed Hayward and traded for Irving later that same summer.
Much of the same occurred when the Chicago Bulls made Butler available. Boston made an attempt but was unwilling to part ways with a draft pick that turned into Jaylen Brown. Boston signed their biggest free agent in franchise history, Al Horford that same summer.
Kawhi Leonard is a more sensitive topic given recency bias after watching how he turned the league into mush while capturing his second NBA championship and Finals MVP. Once again, the Celtics had the assets to outbid Toronto for Leonard’s services but ultimately chose not to.
Leonard had only played in 9 games the previous year with a significant quad injury and was going into free agency the same year as Irving. Too high of a risk. Especially when factoring in the Celtics coming freshly off the playoff run without Irving and Hayward.
The package San Antonio wanted for Leonard was allegedly centered around Brown, draft picks, and probably another valuable player like Marcus Smart or Terry Rozier.
With Brown and Tatum looking like future all-stars still on their rookie deals and given the health and contract concerns surrounding Leonard, it made sense for Boston to keep sitting on their chest of assets. A much bigger prize loomed in the distance.
As was reported for much of the past three seasons, Boston’s primary focus has always been on Davis. However, in what seems like the first time in years, Lady Luck was not on Boston’s side.
The lack of confidence in Irving’s return to the team after a frustrating year made Ainge unwilling to part ways with Jayson Tatum for a player whose contract expires in one year, and showed zero interest in playing for the Celtics long term.
For a GM that’s not afraid to take risks, using Tatum as the sacrificial lamb for a year of Davis appeared to be too much for Trader Danny to come to terms. The Celtics wanted Davis, but Davis did not want them. Sometimes that’s just how the cookie crumbles.
None of these moves made sense for the Celtics at the moment. People will attempt to direct blame, but know at the end of the day; it didn’t make sense.
Now, Boston has more pressing issues to attend to, where do they go from here? Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are the guys moving forward. It’s time to see what they can do as the focal point of a team full-time.
The core group that reached the Eastern Conference finals can still be maintained, but with the addition of a healthy Gordon Hayward (fingers crossed), and a bit more depth.
Realistically the Celtics could bring back a roster of:
Ball Handlers: Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart
Wings: Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, Semi Ojeleye
Bigs: Al Horford, Aron Baynes, Robert Williams, Guershon Yabusele
That’s an 11 man roster already, and can easily be expanded with draft picks(Boston has three first rounders), and the Mid-Level Exception.
That’s not the only available path, and it won’t be possible to know what plan Ainge and the ownership will concoct behind closed doors.
Celtics majority owner, Wyc Grousbeck likens the uncertainty of this off-season to that of 2007. That was the summer that Boston pulled off the acquisitions of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and formed the eventual NBA Champions in Boston.
The only Kevin Garnett-esque player in play was Anthony Daivs, so dreams of a 2007 repeat are more or less dead. However, Grousbeck stated that the Celtics would enter this summer with an “aggressive” mindset. Does that mean Ainge and his staff will find another star to chase after, and eventually acquire? Tough to say.
“I don’t have any interest in being mediocre for the next 10 or 15 years,” Grousbeck added. “I’d rather go for it, hit the driver, off the fairway, I occasionally do that. Absolutely that Kyrie trade (with Cleveland in 2017) felt like the right thing to do and was the right thing to do.”
Boston has been linked to Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley as of late. Many Celtics fans are unsure of Terry Rozier’s skillset after his recent display this past season. Some members of Danny Ainge’s staff could share a similar belief.
A deal involving Conley would be tricky, as he is penciled in to make $32.5M in 2019-2020. The only realistic trade scenario would have to send out Gordon Hayward, and one of Boston’s first round picks. It may not be too crazy either if the Celtics want to maximize Brown and Tatum’s opportunity.
Both Conley and Hayward would be set to become free agents in 2021 assuming Hayward picks up his player option, so the Celtics are not hurting themselves financially in the long run.
Whatever decisions are made this summer, it’s safe to say that everyone that follows the Celtics are glad the circus is over. There is some sense of direction, and with any luck, watching the Boston Celtics will be fun again!