The Celtics are on Plan A this offseason, as in accept, adapt, and adjust. That’s all they can do because their actual Plan A from a team-building standpoint has gone up in smoke, and not the kind that used to come from Red Auerbach’s celebratory cigars. This is the kind emanating from a building engulfed in flames.
Kyrie Irving has both sneakers out the door. Anthony Davis is LeBron James’s best supporting actor in the Lake Show in Los Angeles. Venerable forward Al Horford opted out of his contract and is prepared to flee the parquet premises. Free agency, fortune, and fate are rejecting the Celtics, wagging their finger Dikembe Mutombo-style at what once appeared to be a foolproof blueprint for Banner No. 18.
Given all the upheaval and uncertainty, the most important franchise figure for the Celtics for 2019-20 is a guy who hasn’t taken a shot on an NBA court since 1995, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. Danny the Dealer has his work cut out for him. Nothing that happened in Thursday night’s NBA Draft changed that. The Celtics’ future hinges on what moves Ainge has up his sleeve, because the hand the Celtics are playing isn’t as strong as expected.
If the draft was any indication, there are no quick fixes for Ainge and the Green. They’re going to have to bide their time and wait for the NBA soap opera to spin in their direction like a roulette wheel, providing them their opportunity to steal a scene and a difference-maker.
The good news is that no GM in the NBA is as good at enhancing and extolling the value of his assets as Ainge. He’s a crafty and convincing salesman, master of the pump-and-dump stock strategy. So Ainge is back in asset-accumulation mode. He’s up for the challenge of reconfiguring his roster and figuring out the path forward.
“Yeah, this is fun. I’m surrounded by a great staff, coaching staff and scouting staff,” said Ainge in his post-draft press conference at the Auerbach Center. “We’re prepared for this, like we knew what is before us coming into July was very possible, and we’re prepared. Yeah, I’m very confident.”
Ainge professed optimism about the state of the Celtics in the wake of a disappointing season and a difficult preamble to the official start of the NBA’s player-movement period. Ainge displayed a stiff upper lip.
“I’m excited about our team going forward,” he said. “I like where we’re headed. I like the core young group of guys, and I think it’s going to be really fun. I think we’re going to be a really competitive team again.
“I don’t know exactly what the team is going to look like when it’s all done. But free agency starts in 10 days or so, and we’ll have more answers then. But I really like the core group of players that we have.”
The Celtics were supposed to be the envy of the Eastern Conference, positioned to contend for an NBA title for years to come. Now, they’re picking up the broken pieces, relying on the development of the young players who drew Irving’s ire, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and the possible rebirth of Gordon Hayward as an All-Star. Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck went on NBC Sports Boston and used the word “retool” in reference to his team.
There was no course-altering, Earth-shattering move from Ainge during the draft. The Celtics entered with three first-round picks — Nos. 14, 20, and 22. They ended the draft with four new players — Romeo Langford and Grant Williams in the first round, and Carsen Edwards and Tremont Waters in the second round.
Ainge was wheeling and dealing a bit, but he didn’t acquire any brand-name NBA players like Bradley Beal. Danny the Dealer selected University of Washington wing Matisse Thybulle for the Philadelphia 76ers with the 20th pick, shipping Thybulle to Philly for the 24th pick and the third pick of the second round (No. 33). He then packaged No. 24 (Virginia’s Ty Jerome) and center Aron Baynes to the Phoenix Suns for a protected 2020 pick via Milwaukee, clearing additional cap space for the Celtics and essentially rolling over a first-round pick to next year.
ESPN’s Bobby Marks calculated that Ainge had carved out $25.8 million of cap space after discarding Baynes. That number rises if the Celtics renounce the rights to restricted free agent Terry Rozier and are freed of his $9.15 million cap hold.
The questions are: How can Ainge employ that cap space, and does anybody want to come to Boston? Ainge rebuffed the idea that Boston is a less desirable destination now.
“Maybe the players and the names on the jersey change, but the approach is the same, which is we have a very attractive franchise to play for,” said Ainge. “There’s a lot of people that will be dying to come play here.”
The good thing about the draft is that the players can’t really reject you. You choose them.
With the last pick of the lottery — a Sacramento Kings selection that was symbolic of the Celtics’ best-laid plans not panning out — the Celtics tabbed Langford, a guard from Indiana, at No. 14.
The 6-foot-6-inch Langford fits Ainge’s preferred profile. He was a big-time high school recruit who stayed home and tried to resurrect an Indiana University program that has fallen and can’t get up.
Langford was fifth in the ESPN 100 recruiting rankings for 2018, behind the Duke trio of R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, and Cam Reddish, plus Bol Bol. Both he and the Hoosiers had a bit of a disappointing season, causing Langford’s stock to drop.
Langford has star raw materials. He could make someone like Brown expendable in a deal to bring back a brand-name All-Star type. But he has to improve his shaky outside shot after shooting just 27.2 percent from 3-point range at Indiana. Langford’s shooting woes at IU were exacerbated by a torn ligament in his thumb he suffered in November during practice.
With the 22nd pick, the Celtics took Williams, an undersized and overpowering power forward from Tennessee. The 6-7½, 240-pound Williams was a first-team All-American and earned back-to-back SEC Player of the Year honors, leading the conference in scoring last season at 18.8 points per game. He recorded the most bench press repetitions of 185 pounds at the NBA Draft Combine with 20.
Williams’s mother is a NASA engineer, and he chose Tennessee over Ivy League offers from Harvard and Yale. He’s already an NBA All-Interview team candidate.
Maybe there is a Kawhi Leonard/Giannis Antetokounmpo-type find among the Celtics’ picks. They would settle for unearthing a Pascal Siakam at this point. That would provide Ainge with a shortcut as he reinvents his team.
What was once set up to be a treasure hunt is now a salvage operation.
Ainge suffered a heart attack in Milwaukee during the playoff series against the Bucks. Thankfully, he has recovered well. His health supersedes any hoops issues. But if Ainge didn’t have a history of cardiac issues, the way his roster and plans have unraveled this offseason would be enough to put anyone under serious stress.
The pressure is on Ainge to solve for all the unknowns in a revised Boston equation. Where many see abject disaster, Ainge sees opportunity.
The draft is over, but Ainge remains on the clock to make the right choices.