In one year, Celtics have gone from promise to problematic
The best-laid plans of basketball fans and GMs often go awry. Such is the case for the Celtics.
President of basketball operations Danny Ainge did it all right to set up the Celtics for championship contention for years to come, but now holes have been poked in that foolproof plan for Banner 18. Like the 2018-19 Celtics, its execution has become unpredictable, its fit unclear, its future uncertain. Brace for disappointment, Green Teamers.
It’s hard to gauge exactly what type of team the Celtics are going to have after a disastrous 49-win, second-round-exit season that saw a Kyrie Irving-led Celtics future unravel like a sweater caught on a protruding nail. The Celtics were the hoops Hindenburg, a vessel full of hot air and passengers that went down in flames in spectacular fashion.
In the wake of that calamity, they have to find a way forward and back to the NBA’s Final Four. How can they do that with Irving noncommittal at best about a return engagement on the parquet and the value of some of their trade assets depreciating because of fickle fate?
Plan A remains teaming Irving and longtime object of Ainge’s desire Anthony Davis. But that’s a microsurgery-delicate operation. You have to assure Davis that Irving is staying. But to coax Kyrie into staying, you have to convince him that Davis, who has a year left on his lame-duck deal in New Orleans, is coming and dedicated to Boston long-term. It’s a tough needle to thread in today’s player-centric NBA power structure, and Tuesday’s draft lottery only made it harder.
After an unfavorable bounce of the Ping-Pong balls for Boston’s purposes, the cost to acquire Davis has increased. It now includes sending both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, plus team conscience Marcus Smart for salary-cap purposes, to New Orleans for Davis, whose desired destination is LeBron James’s Los Angeles Lakers. That’s a lot to risk to unite two players who appear ambivalent about a future in Green.
It’s hard to believe the Celtics are a salvage operation this offseason.
Last offseason, the NBA was the Celtics’ oyster. Conventional wisdom was that the Celtics were better positioned than any other NBA team to follow the parallel paths of constructing contenders for the present and the future.
They had two budding young stars in Tatum and Brown. They had a bona fide NBA alpha in Irving and were adding Gordon Hayward, who was surely going to return to All-Star form after his grisly ankle injury. They were armed with valuable future lottery picks from the Sacramento Kings — a shoo-in to deliver a top 10 pick this year — and the Memphis Grizzlies, who owe Boston a selection that was top-eight-protected this year, top-six-protected in 2020, and unprotected in 2021.
It was all perfectly planned. Then fate swatted it away with a Dikembe Mutombo finger wag.
Irving is a free agent flight risk. His Confucian commentary and mood swings blighted the season and blunted his leadership aims. Tatum and Brown had their development stunted by a dysfunctional roster with too many mouths to feed. Hayward is still grappling with the aftereffects of his injury. He displayed equal parts diminished athleticism and confidence.
The Kings nearly made the playoffs and sent the very last pick of the 14-team lottery to the Celtics in what’s regarded as a weak draft. It’s one of three picks the Celtics own between 14 and 22 in a year when those picks have never appeared less valuable. Bring on the next James Young.
Then the draft lottery took its turn kicking the Celtics while they were down. OK, maybe it didn’t rise to the level of a disaster. But what transpired Tuesday night was bad news for Boston. It’s a subtle confluence of circumstances aligning against the Green, instead of a big-bang flash of misfortune like the Knicks or Lakers snagging the No. 1 overall pick to ship to the bayou for Davis.
The Pelicans got the first pick and the rights to Duke phenom Zion Williamson on their own. They also got emboldened to try to convince Davis to stay and potentially extend the trade derby into next season. That’s not helping Boston keep Kyrie.
LeBron’s Lakers were still big winners, jumping up from 11th to fourth with only a 9.4 percent chance of landing in the top four under the revised format. That provided LA another valuable asset to try to sway new Pelicans vice president of basketball operations David Griffin to bite the bullet and unite Bron and The Brow. Respected NBA scribe Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer wrote that the Lakers now have the best package to offer New Orleans, with that pick and young players such as Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, and Jason Hart.
The Knicks, long-rumored as the beneficiaries of a plot by close friends and free agents Kevin Durant and Irving to share an NBA address, were one of three teams with the best odds to capture the No. 1 pick. The owners of the NBA’s worst record slipped to third, but that’s still high enough to take Williamson’s Duke teammate R.J. Barrett and offer New Orleans the opportunity to reunite Williamson and Barrett in the NBA as part of a trade package for Davis.
Making matters worse, one of the Celtics’ most valuable trade assets got devalued by the dance of the Ping-Pong balls. After Memphis pulled out the No. 2 pick, moving up six spots, that ballyhooed unprotected pick owed to the Celtics in 2021 looks like it could be the Sacramento pick 2.0. It’s a key asset the Celtics plan to dangle for Davis.
The Pelicans have to think twice about accepting that pick now, knowing in two years the Grizzlies could be a borderline playoff team with Jaren Jackson, presumptive No. 2 pick Ja Morant, plus another lottery talent next year.
If you’re the Pels, do you take a guaranteed top-five pick now from the Lakers or the Knicks to pair with Zion and other young talent or do you buy into the 2021 dream Ainge is peddling with the Memphis pick? With Williamson in tow, if the Pelicans deal Davis, they’re looking at a rapid rebuild.
Given the cost, it makes zero sense for the Celtics to get into an arms race for Davis, sacrificing Tatum and Brown, unless they have a clear commitment from Irving.
Ainge deserves blame for curating talent instead of assembling a cohesive, functional team with clear rotations and roles. It’s fair to wonder whether the team did its due diligence on Irving’s demeanor before handing him the keys.
But you can’t charge the Celtics with organizational improvidence. There’s no way they could have foreseen fortune abandoning them so utterly and so quickly in one year.
Ainge set it all up, perfectly.
But you know what they say, the best-laid plans . . .