Two of the louder ovations during pregame introductions at TD Garden on Wednesday went to players who are no longer Celtics. For Boston fans watching their team face the Hornets, it was easy to look down on the court and think about what could have been.
There was Gordon Hayward, now healthy and thriving two years after declining his fourth-year option with Boston and signing a four-year, $120 million deal with the Hornets. And there was Terry Rozier, who has emerged as a force for Charlotte since agreeing to a three-year, $56.7 million deal with the team in the summer of 2019.
Hayward’s decision to leave the Celtics felt more significant at the time. He was a former All-Star and he had shown flashes of his dominance when healthy. When he signed with the Celtics and reunited with his former coach at Butler, Brad Stevens, it was viewed as a free agent coup.
But his departure also made some sense. In addition to the significant payday he received with the Hornets, his role during his three injury-plagued seasons in Boston had become somewhat murky. At the start of his first season he was viewed as a clear No. 2 option alongside Kyrie Irving.
But then he shattered his ankle just a few minutes into the season-opener and missed the entire season. And over the next few years two other wings, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, emerged as All-Star-caliber players. The position was crowded and as the ceilings of Tatum and Brown continued to rise, their development became a top priority. Also, there was a sense that Hayward simply needed a fresh start and a change of scenery.
Rozier’s situation, in retrospect, probably set Boston back even more. When Irving left the Celtics to sign with the Nets in the summer of 2019, the Celtics brass scrambled to find his replacement. It seemed fortuitous when they were able to instantly replace one All-Star with another by signing Kemba Walker to a four-year max deal.
That, for all intents and purposes, ended Rozier’s time with the Celtics. He ultimately slid in and became Walker’s replacement in Charlotte, landing there in a sign-and-trade.
Rozier was just 25 years old then, and although he had shown flashes of his potential and his athleticism was obvious, his play was sometimes erratic. There was nothing erratic about Walker, who had made three consecutive All-Star teams.
Walker had an excellent first half of the season with the Celtics in 2019-20, but his left knee issues worsened as the year went on and were probably exacerbated by his grueling All-Star game performance.
Last season the Celtics tried to preserve Walker and his knee and he never played in games on back-to-back nights. His playing time was limited and the lack of continuity made it difficult for him to truly develop a rhythm, and to define the hierarchy alongside Tatum and Brown.
Last summer, Walker was dealt to the Thunder for Al Horford in what was essentially a salary-clearing move to shed his max contract that had become an albatross.
Rozier, meanwhile, has mostly shined for Charlotte. Over the last three seasons he is averaging 19.1 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.1 assists while shooting 39.4 percent from the 3-point line.
“Terry, he has continued to get better as a player,” Horford said Wednesday. “I’ve been following him. I’ve been impressed, because some guys reach a certain point or certain level and they kind of taper off or stop working. But Terry, you know he’s putting in the work, he’s putting in the time, he’s having fun with it. He continues to get better.”
Rozier is just 27, and he could be in position to thrive alongside rising star LaMelo Ball in Charlotte’s backcourt for years to come. And as he has ascended, Boston’s backcourt has become a significant question mark.
Marcus Smart has handled point guard duties but his shooting remains an issue and his assist numbers have actually dipped since last season, from 6.2 per game to 5.6. Dennis Schröder has been an asset as a scorer, but the ball tends to stop when it reaches his hands, and he is unlikely to be in Boston’s future plans anyway.
On Wednesday night, Rozier provided a few more reminders of what the Celtics let get away. He erupted for 28 points and 10 assists in his team’s win at TD Garden that pushed the Hornets 2½ games ahead of Boston in the conference standings.
“He’s made some shots in this building before, so he got hot,” Brown said. “We can’t let that happen. But Terry Rozier has been playing well, he’s had a great season. That’s what T-Ro does. For the most part, we have to do better.”