Anthony Davis is off the market, so the Celtics must find a new path forward
Nothing and everything happened to the Celtics on Saturday. Their organizational future has a little more clarity now that Anthony Davis is headed to the Los Angeles Lakers for three veteran players and three first-round picks.
The Celtics pursued Davis over the past several months but the price for a potential one-year rental was too high, as Davis’s agent Rich Paul reiterated that Boston would not be a permanent stop once his contract expired after next season.
Any deal involving Davis had to include Jayson Tatum, according to an NBA source, and once the Celtics were reluctant to include the third-year swingman in the deal, Pelicans general manager David Griffin shifted his focus to the Lakers.
The Celtics no longer have the assets they had in the past. Blame that on the success of the Sacramento Kings this season, since Celtics owned their first-round pick from the Tatum deal with the Philadelphia 76ers and the Kings nearly made the playoffs.
While they own three first-round picks in Thursday’s draft, that wasn’t enough cache to facilitate a Davis deal unless the Celtics included Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and perhaps even Marcus Smart.
So the deal died before it could even develop into a Twitter rumor and the Celtics move forward with most of the younger core of their roster returning.
What Davis’ absence does for the Celtics is ensure that Tatum and Brown will be the franchise cornerstones barring an unexpected deal for another superstar. Brown and Tatum are homegrown players. The Celtics nabbed each with the third overall pick in consecutive drafts (2016 and 2017) despite neither player being the most popular choice.
And there was no guarantee that the Celtics would be a championship-caliber team with Davis despite the success of Kawhi Leonard in Toronto (the circumstances are different) or that Kyrie Irving would be encouraged to stay if Davis was acquired.
It seems Kyrie is passive-aggressively offering hints to his next free agent destination without really telling the Celtics, so president of basketball operations Danny Ainge is prepared for his departure. Plan B of building the franchise through youth, a rejuvenated Gordon Hayward, veterans Al Horford and perhaps Marcus Morris, and another free-agent addition, may be a more viable path.
It was far too much of a risk to acquire Davis just for one season, and if Irving doesn’t want to be a Celtic, the organization can’t lament his departure and concern itself about last season and what would have kept him happy.
It’s uncertain whether Irving knows what makes him happy. Is being the starting point guard on a young Nets team — without D’Angelo Russell, their best player from last season — a better scenario than helping the Celtics win the East? If Irving believes Brooklyn offers him a more conducive atmosphere because the Nets wouldn’t be favored to win the East with him anyway, then so be it. He should go and the Celtics should move forward. Tatum and Brown are talented enough to lead a franchise and perhaps last season was a prohibitive lesson for both about lack of leadership.
And finally, if Irving signs with the Nets, Brooklyn may have to rescind its qualifying offer to Russell. So perhaps the Celtics could pursue Russell if they are able to work out a salary-cap friendly extension with Horford.
Russell is four years younger than Irving and just averaged 21.1 points, 7 assists, and 3.9 rebounds in an All-Star season. It may take some real roster and salary shuffling but it’s a possibility.
So there should be excitement amongst the Celtics faithful about next season or the future. Unlike last season, they won’t have a major free agent’s status hovering over them and poisoning the locker room fabric.
It is important that Tatum and Brown work feverishly this summer to take the next major step. And the Celtics will have to figure out what to do with Terry Rozier, a restricted free agent who said he wants out if Irving returns.
This should be an exciting time in Boston. The Celtics have a chance to get younger and more athletic with their three first-round draft picks. It’s unlikely Boston will use all three on players who will be in training camp (a trade or draft stash is a possibility) but they do have a chance to bring in two quality rookies who could contribute next season and offer more optimism for the future.
It’s possible for Ainge to build a championship-contending team without acquiring another superstar. It won’t be easy but the Celtics have enough overall talent — minus the dysfunction — to compete next season. Even if Irving leaves, the Celtics don’t have enough salary cap space to acquire let’s say, Kemba Walker, or another premium player.
Trading for a superstar was their only means of landing a premium player and the Davis idea was something to consider until Paul’s comments about Davis wanting to be in Los Angeles. There shouldn’t be disappointment about not acquiring Davis because you never want a player coming to Boston who has plainly said he doesn’t want to be here.
Of course, Kevin Garnett said that 12 years ago but Ainge put him with Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo — and their chemistry and dominance and Garnett’s affinity for the city encouraged him to stay until he was traded away.
That same magic couldn’t be expected for Davis, who only wanted to go to one place.
Honestly, there should be a sense of relief for Celtics fans. Tatum, who is 21 and an emerging star, is staying. Brown is 22 and should take more of a leadership role if Irving departs. Ainge will have a chance to shape this young roster, hope that Hayward returns to All-Star form, and actually acquire players who want to be Celtics.
It’s not a major reboot for the organization but an opportunity to make some much-needed changes and make this a likeable team again.