Anthony Davis didn’t want to come here. Kyrie Irving doesn’t want to stay here. Where the Celtics go from here as they regroup and reassess realistic paths to superstar players and Banner No. 18 is a fascinating dilemma for Danny Ainge & Co.
The NBA offseason hasn’t begun in earnest yet, and already the Celtics feel like one of the biggest losers. Instead of picking up the mantle as rulers of the East from LeBron James — the projection at this time last year — the Celtics are now left picking up the pieces of their master plan, which shattered before their eyes like a porcelain vase plunging to its concrete doom.
Barring a last-minute, mercurial change of heart, Irving is fleeing in free agency, with Brooklyn the rumored destination. Davis, Ainge’s white whale, is headed to the rival Lakers in a trade to join James, part of a coup orchestrated by Davis’s agent, longtime LeBron confidant Rich Paul. It was Paul who fired a warning shot to Ainge not to trade for the New Orleans Pelicans center, conveying that Davis would view Boston as a pit stop, not a final destination.
The Celtics were supposed to be set up to contend for an NBA title for years to come. Now, they’re hitting a reset button of sorts, relying on the evolution of their young players, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and the re-emergence of Gordon Hayward to be relevant in the Eastern Conference.
Where there was once certainty and confidence about the future, there is now uncertainty and uneasiness. Adding to the uncertainty is Al Horford’s looming decision about opting into the final year of his deal. Popularity points for having homegrown players that Celtics fans can connect with and emotionally invest in aren’t going to count on the scoreboard. In the end, maybe, this will be a serendipitous recalibration of the Celtics roster, but right now it feels like a setback.
This wasn’t the primary plan. Boston has backslid and is scrambling for traction. A future once tethered to Irving feels untethered. The young guys that Irving clashed with during a 49-win season of bipolar basketball have gone from trade chips to putative franchise cornerstones.
But Tatum and Brown aren’t ready to lead a title team yet; even the most optimistic of Boston basketball observers would have to concede that. Now, the Celtics must move on to pursuing alternate basketball blueprints involving varying degrees of established NBA commodities from an All-NBA talent in Karl-Anthony Towns (the next best thing to Davis) to a two-time All-Star in Bradley Beal (sign me up) to a borderline All-Star in Clint Capela (no thanks) if they want to expedite contention.
Since February, the Celtics have been fooling themselves if they thought this was going to end any other way than without Irving and Davis, engaging in fantasy basketball. Any objective perusal of the tea leaves indicated they were far more likely to end up without either Kyrie or AD on their roster for 2019-20 than to end up with both of them. Yet the Green were still clinging to Kyrie’s preseason pledge to stay in Boston and the parquet pipe dream of pairing him with Davis and convincing both men to hang their hoops shingles long-term.
The Lakers’ unexpected rise to the fourth pick in May’s NBA Draft Lottery was detrimental to the Celtics’ cause because it bolstered the trade package for Davis. It upped the ante for the Celtics and forced Tatum’s inclusion in any deal to deliver Davis. With Irving all but certain to abandon ship, it was a price the Celtics wisely weren’t willing to pay. Ainge showed restraint. He absolutely made the right decision not parting with Tatum to roll the dice on Davis, making the best of a bad hand.
The Lakers, operating on a timeline of exigency because of LeBron’s ticking athletic biological clock, showed no such restraint, paying a ransom to acquire the 26-year-old Davis: Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, three first-round picks, and the right to swap draft positions for two others.
The situation is not totally dire for Ainge. Even the Celtics’ fallback plan is one most NBA teams would feel good about long-term. If the Celtics ran it back with their roster from last year, minus Irving, they could approximate that 49-win season and second-round exit. They aren’t sinking to the bottom of the East, but they are drifting back to the middle of the pack instead of being the East Coast answer to a healthy version of the Golden State Warriors.
The eternal optimism of the Celtics fan’s mind will gravitate toward the notion that with both Irving and Hayward hors de hoops for the 2018 playoffs, the plucky, young Celtics were a game away from the NBA Finals, losing Game 7 of the conference finals on their home floor. That playoff run has taken on almost chimerical stature among Parishioners of the Parquet eager to shed Irving and his petulance and impetuousness.
The reality is the Celtics were as close to being eliminated in the first round as they were to making the NBA Finals, and that run occurred in a weak Eastern Conference. While fortunes in the NBA can shift suddenly like prevailing winds in a wildfire, and the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, and NBA champion Toronto Raptors are all facing free-agent fallout of their own, the likelihood that the East will be as weak as it was in the spring of 2018 is unlikely as long as Giannis Antetokounmpo is still breathing.
There has been a longstanding tendency here to overstate and inflate the value and potential of rising players in a Celtic uniform — from Al Jefferson, to Rajon Rondo to Jae Crowder to Terry Rozier. Without the addition of a veteran star, the Celtics will need Tatum, Brown, and, possibly, self-proclaimed minutes martyr Rozier (a restricted free agent) to improve at a much more rapid rate than they displayed last season.
In fact, the Celtics could be in line to get even younger next season. They have three first-round picks (Nos. 14, 20, and 22) in an NBA Draft that isn’t viewed as particularly deep. No doubt, Ainge will try to parlay at least one of the picks into a proven player who can boost the present or a future asset.
But this isn’t the NFL. First-round picks are not intrinsically valuable. The word is out about the Celtics’ cache of draft picks; only the outstanding Memphis pick (top six protected next year and unprotected in 2022) matters.
This wasn’t the way it was supposed to go for the Celtics. They built a plinth, only to see it crumble as they went to place their work of art upon it.
The Celtics can still be contenders, but their path and their timeline have changed. Their initial path is now a dead end. They have to back it up and find another way.