In the end, both sides got what they wanted.
Terry Rozier got paid and a chance to start with a young team that will rely on him heavily. And the Celtics moved on from a player who had become a distraction and replaced him with a more mature upgrade.
So there were no hard feelings when Rozier returned to Boston for the first time as a member of the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday in the preseason opener at TD Garden.
“It was a great feeling coming back here playing against my old teammates, my boys, playing against my old crowd,” Rozier said after the Celtics defeated the Hornets, 107-106. “It’s unbelievable.”
Rozier, who spent his first four NBA seasons with the Celtics, clamored to leave Boston for more of an opportunity to shine, and he received that chance when the Celtics signed him to a three-year, $57 million deal and traded him to Charlotte for Kemba Walker.
Rozier is now one of the cornerstones for a franchise in rebuild. The Hornets could have brought back Walker if they had come close to the super max deal of $220 million over five years. Despite Michael Jordan being the team’s owner, the Hornets were not prepared to make such a commitment.
Instead ,the Hornets decided on the mercurial Rozier, who flourished during the Celtics’ run to the Eastern Conference finals in 2018, but struggled last season when Kyrie Irving returned from injury and reassumed the starting role.
Rozier tried playing the good soldier but his unhappiness reflected in his play and passion. He kept his thoughts private until after the disastrous ending to the Celtics’ season when he went on a national television tour to basically ask out of town.
“I’ve been learning, continuing to learn, continue to grow, grow with my teammates,” Rozier said. “Just learning from my coach. Obviously I’m in a different role, bigger role, but it’s something that I’ve always wanted. I’m ready for it and I’m just going to keep getting better as the time goes.”
The Celtics could have easily decided that Rozier was their point guard of choice when it was apparent Irving was going to sign elsewhere. But when Rozier made that media tour and started to express interest in the Knicks coming off what even he would admit was a disappointing season, the Celtics decided to move on.
The answer we’ll never know is whether the Celtics would have re-signed Rozier had Al Horford not chosen free agency. But when that money was freed up, they had a chance to pursue Walker, and also an opportunity to appease Rozier.
It was the right move for both sides.
The Celtics would have strongly considered bringing back Rozier if Horford didn’t elect free agency and he may have been the best option since they were over the salary cap. But this allowed Rozier to pursue his goal of being a frontline player, not limited by Brad Stevens’s system or players around him who were considerably better offensive options.
In Charlotte, Rozier can be a primary offensive option. And in his Hornets’ debut Sunday, he looked more comfortable and relaxed as a starter, picking and choosing his moments to score and distribute, finishing with 9 points, 9 assists, and 4 rebounds in 22 minutes.
Rozier always seemed to play frantically with the Celtics, believing if he made splash plays, it would earn him more playing time.
Would it have worked better if he was named starter for this season, knowing he needed to get the ball to Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, and Enes Kanter? It’s an interesting debate but it probably wouldn’t have worked out as well as the Celtics will operate as currently constructed with Walker.
“I know those guys don’t want to say it but they miss me,” Rozier said with a bright smile. “I miss them too. It’s all love.”
The path to happiness was difficult. The Celtics maintained Rozier’s rights six days into free agency, with the right to match any offer from other clubs. While the Celtics had agreed to terms with Walker and it was apparent they would have to rid themselves of Rozier’s contract, he had no idea of his destination.
Boston would eventually work out a sign-and-trade with Charlotte, giving Rozier the role and the financial security he sought.
“I had no idea how stressful it was going to be, the phone didn’t stop ringing,” he said. “It’s hard to get some sleep because you don’t know where you were going to be. It’s a life-changing decision. It worked out. I had no idea how it was going to be. People tell you about it but you still don’t know until you actually go through it.”
An important takeaway from Rozier’s Boston experience is proper leadership. The Celtics’ locker room was chaotic last season, with Irving’s various moods and several youngsters feeling slighted because their playing time and roles had been slashed from the previous season.
“Just connect with the guys, let everybody be themselves,” Rozier said when asked about his leadership strategy in Charlotte. “I’m not a guy that wants to step on anybody’s toes, tell them how to be a pro. Everybody gotta be a pro and they’ll find out their way. We have a lot of young guys on our team, but I’m young and I connect with them guys.
“We always had great locker rooms here. Last year was a little dip. Even the locker room last year was still good. Sometimes we didn’t get it done out on the court and it would affect [chemistry]. Just keep connecting with the guys, keep getting better with them every day.”
Rozier now gets his chance to back up his words and emotions from the past few seasons. His separation from the Celtics was best for both sides.