The best thing we can say about the current state of the Celtics is that the worst-case scenario they’re facing is still a decent situation.
Decent. Not thrilling, as it could have been if circumstances (lottery luck found the Lakers rather than them), NBA All-Stars (including one in their own locker room), and an agent with a specific directive (get Anthony Davis to LA even if it tarnishes his image) hadn’t conspired against them.
Decent. Not satisfying, even if you do believe that Jayson Tatum, who picked up more bad habits than new tricks as a sophomore, and Jaylen Brown are ready to be this franchise’s front men, or that Gordon Hayward will look like the Utah version of himself after the ups and downs of his first season post-horrific injury.
Just decent. I suppose that’s a tribute to those remaining on the Celtics roster for sure, as we wait for the all-but-certain news that Kyrie Irving is taking his extraordinary talent and exasperating moods elsewhere.
Of course, we also await Tuesday’s word on whether Al Horford — who gathered the respect Irving coveted because he actually, you know, led — will opt out of the final year of his deal. [Update: Horford on Tuesday declined to exercise his $30.1 million option for next season and will become a free agent.]
If Horford stays on a new contract at a lesser rate, and Tatum, Brown, Marcus Smart, and Hayward remain, this is still a pretty good basketball team with an interesting summer ahead in terms of adding complementary pieces.
It could be worse. Most teams wouldn’t be able to survive the frustrations and lousy breaks that have gone against them and still have so much to look forward to. It’s not like they’re going to be running Nate Driggers and Brett Szabo out there next year. They still have a lot.
But above all else, at least for the moment, their situation is more frustrating than anything. It’s decent, maybe even good. But it could have been so much more. It was designed over the long-term to be so much more. And circumstances and machinations beyond Danny Ainge’s control destroyed the blueprint.
The plan was designed in 2013 with the megatrade with the Nets that brought back three first-round picks and the rights to swap a fourth for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry. Ainge essentially got Tatum and Brown with two of those picks, and used a third to acquire Irving from Cleveland after the 2016-17 season.
He signed well-rounded All-Star Hayward that same offseason, a year after Horford came aboard as the first coveted free agent ever to choose Boston. The 2017-18 Celtics, without the injured Irving and Hayward, advanced to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Ainge had hoarded assorted other picks along the way, and the Celtics looked set up for the present and the future.
It’s hard to come up with anything that has gone according to plan since. Hayward was tentative in his first year after his ugly injury, and coach Brad Stevens made a mistake of giving him too much playing time early, which caused a chasm with younger players who lost minutes to a player they knew wasn’t yet right. Irving, such a joy to watch when engaged, became defensive, isolated, accusatory, and unaccountable, and his effort expired long before the final buzzer during their second-round loss to the Bucks.
He does some things on a basketball court better than any player I’ve ever seen, but his most spectacular achievement here was turning Celtics fans that wanted to love him against him with his enigmatic, egocentric ways. His final approval rating as a Celtic is going to be somewhere in the Sidney Wicks range, and he’s going to be booed like Roger Clemens in ’97 when he comes back.
I’d say good riddance, but right now I still can’t help but think of what might have been. Had Irving embraced the Celtics experience the way he pretended to in a Nike commercial, had he been an actual leader rather than someone who just coveted the image, the Celtics might be a genuine championship contender entering the wide-open 2019-20 season rather than a good team that is probably going to run into a better one long before the stakes are highest.
If Irving had committed to the Celtics, perhaps all of agent/LeBron consigliere Rich Paul’s transparent manipulations to get Anthony Davis to the Lakers wouldn’t have mattered. At the least, the Pelicans would have had a fascinating decision to make: Take Ainge’s offer, which almost certainly would have included Tatum, or accept the Lakers’ offer of several talented, flawed players and a gift-pack of draft picks.
I wanted Ainge to make a play on Davis anyway, but I respect the discipline. Ainge was wise not to offer Tatum in a Davis package without a player like Irving already on the roster, especially since Davis can walk away after this year. I still think he would have loved it here, though.
I’m not sure where the Celtics go from here to enhance this roster, which looks an awful lot like the one that made the East Finals in a weaker conference two years ago. Maybe Terry Rozier gets a reprieve. I get the sense that appealing players such as Julius Randle will get more money elsewhere. Bringing back Isaiah Thomas isn’t the right move; he’s not the same player, and that’s a memory best left alone. Ricky Rubio would be a nice pickup if you want to feel better about Marcus Smart’s shooting.
The Celtics have three first-round picks Thursday, though those are also a reminder that things didn’t go right. The Lakers vaulted up to the No. 4 pick during the lottery, while the Celtics’ most appealing pick (No. 14) seemed like it would be much higher when they acquired it from the Kings.
Ainge, with his habit of winning trades, isn’t getting much sympathy around the league. Neither are the Celtics. And they don’t really need it. They’re still in decent shape, with a pretty good team, especially if Horford sticks around.
I don’t know if they’d be better off being lucky than good. But I do know that with a little more luck these last few months — and a little less petulance from a certain star — they could have been great.