The Boston Celtics have gone from perfectly set up for the future to uncertain about the present. Here’s why this summer could be a triumph or a disaster.
It’s 6 p.m. on Oct. 4, 2018.
The NBA season is still almost two weeks away from kicking off, and 29 teams are feeling varying degrees of hope.
The Warriors hope that Kevin Durant will put an end to the faint, barely discernible murmurings of his potential exit. The Lakers hope LeBron James and the children will play nicely in the sandbox. The Raptors hope Kawhi Leonard has packed his long johns. The Wizards hope John Wall and Dwight Howard can reclaim their All-NBA form. The Sixers hope Markelle Fultz’s long recovery process is finally over. The Rockets hope Olympic Melo is even better than advertised. The Timberwolves hope this Jimmy Butler thing will blow over. The Knicks hope Joakim Noah will join the next cast of Lost before opening night. The Pistons hope people remember they exist.
One team, however, one team has no need for hope. One team can stand tall, bask proudly in the shadow of the most masterful organizational rebuild the NBA has ever seen, and brush aside the need for hope like extra second-round picks it barely has a use for.
The Boston Celtics sat atop the throne. No, they probably wouldn’t win it all this year, but no team was better positioned to own the league for the next decade. With arguably the best starting five outside the Bay Area, an unrivaled war chest of assets and perhaps the best coach in the NBA, it was hard to see any scenario where things would not continue along the path that Danny Ainge had so deftly paved.
There was only one question left to answer…a vague semblance of uncertainty about one thing that lay ahead. And then, on that fateful Friday night, perhaps the only thing that could derail this runaway freight train was dispelled in the span of 10 seconds:
Kyrie Irving’s assertion felt like the final stone falling into place. Instead, it might wind up being the last truly joyous moment of this Celtics season — one that hadn’t even started yet at the time. Consider some of the things that have transpired in the ensuing five months:
- The Sacramento Kings — pegged by Vegas to have the second-worst record in the league – are actually good, significantly devaluing what was once thought of as the best draft asset in the NBA
- After shooting under 30 percent from deep and below 40 percent overall, Gordon Hayward lost his starting spot after a month and is now 67 percent of the way towards becoming “Gordon Hayward’s contract.”
- Terry Rozier has followed up his star-ish turn through the playoffs with a shooting regression, and the Celtics turn into the worst offense in the league when he is on the court.
- Jaylen Brown went from someone the Celtics maybe wouldn’t trade for Kawhi Leonard to someone hitting less than a third of his 3-pointers that has been plagued by inconsistency all year long
- Thanks to all of the above, the Celtics — currently losers of four in a row — sit fifth in the East, closer in record to the 10th place Heat than the first place Bucks, and only one spot above the franchise they so thoroughly fleeced just six years ago.
To top it off, the man who made Celtics Nation euphoric on Oct. 4 sat in front of a group of reporters less than four months later and backtracked on his words juuuuuuust a tad.
Since that night at the Garden, the Celtics have lost more than they’ve won. Irving was caught on tape over All-Star weekend maybe saying something and maybe saying nothing to Kevin Durant, the speculation over which Kyrie did not take kindly to. Just this week, Irving’s leadership has been questioned and onlookers are already predicting his departure.
So no, things have not gone according to plan, although blaming Irving for it may be unfair. The Celtics actually won three straight following Irving’s Feb. 1 comments. This slide really began on the day of the trade deadline, since which the Celtics have the 25th-ranked net rating in the league.
That brings us to the unibrow-shaped cloud hovering over all of this. How much or how little Boston’s poor play has coincided with all of the Anthony Davis trade smoke is anyone’s guess, but it’s beyond ironic that the man who has long been theorized as the final piece of the Celtics next dynasty could be the thing that causes their undoing.
The order of events here is going to be fascinating. As many have noted, when and how the Celtics’ season ends could have an immense impact on what happens next. A second-round sweep at the hands of the Bucks could leave a much more sour taste in everyone’s mouth than a six-game bout with the Warriors in June. Regardless of when it happens, there will be a period of time between when the playoffs end and free agency begins. Then the dance begins. The problem is that the parameters of the dance floor may change as the music is playing.
What, really, do we know for sure at this point?
We think we know the Celtics will give up whatever it takes to get Anthony Davis. We think we know that Jayson Tatum will be a part of that package. We think such a package trumps anything else anyone can offer (barring the Knicks landing the first pick in the draft) and that if they don’t offer Tatum, someone else will beat them out for Davis. We think we know Kyrie Irving wants to test free agency. We think we know that Anthony Davis also wants to test free agency a year from now, but have no idea how much, if at all, that decision will be altered by what Kyrie decides to do this offseason.
All of these maybe’s lead to a question that the Celtics brass probably never thought it would have to ask itself before this season began, one that Bill Simmons and Ryan Russillo posed on Simmons’ podcast earlier this week: Do the Celtics need to trade for Anthony Davis?
It sounds silly to even propose that a team which just a few months ago seemed better positioned for the future than any in the league could be backed into a corner, but here we are. Either path they take is fraught with peril.
On one hand, if the Celtics trade Tatum and a whole bunch of stuff for Anthony Davis before July 1, and that isn’t enough to convince Kyrie Irving to hang around, the countdown to AD’s own exit begins before he’s even moved his stuff into a locker. On the other hand, if the Celtics season ends poorly and they don’t trade for AD, it may be the final straw that pushes Irving out the door.
In Scenario B, assuming Al Horford opts in to his $30 million player option (no sure thing, granted), the Celtics wouldn’t have anything close to max cap space, and could find themselves over the cap simply by bringing back Terry Rozier at what figures to be his market cost. Depending on what happens in New York, Toronto, Brooklyn and a few other places come July, Boston could enter next season as a bottom tier playoff squad.
And that might be better the better of the two outcomes. In Scenario A, come July 1, 2020, the Celtics could be left with a whole lot of cap space and an empty cupboard. Sure, they’d be in prime position to tank, but really, is that an outcome anyone would be happy about given what the last few years have been building up to?
So ultimately it comes down to this: How much luck does Boston really think that the lucky shamrock will bring them? Right now, none of the tea leaves point in the right direction, whether it be the comments from Davis’ father saying he wouldn’t want his son to play in Boston, Irving’s worsening disposition, or a team that would be hovering just above .500 were it not for an eight-game winning streak against squads that are all currently out of the playoffs.
Perhaps there is a path to sunlight — one that doesn’t involve massive risk, just a good bit of careful timing:
- Agree to a deal with the Pelicans — one that involves Tatum — before free agency begins
- Force whoever is running the Pelicans at the time to sign a blood oath not to let the news get out
- Let the Pelicans know that the deal is contingent on Kyrie re-signing with the team
- Go to Kyrie and let him know you have a deal ready for Davis that they’ll pull the trigger on the moment he re-signs
- Hope for the best, and prepare for the worst
This, of course, could get incredibly tricky, especially if the Pelicans get an offer from a different team that will be pulled off the table once free agency begins…perhaps a team in their own division, with their own designs on signing Kyrie Irving, who also knows that the best chance to sign Irving long-term is to agree to an AD trade before free agency begins, using the Brow as the ultimate carrot…
Oh, hello Scott Perry, Steve Mills and $74 million worth of cap space.
Yes, the Knicks could make this all even more complicated, whether or not they end up with KD, the first pick in the draft, both, or neither. One could argue that even without Zion, New York could put together a package of young players and picks that beats a non-Tatum Boston offer. Will they? Who knows, but they are a legitimate player in these sweepstakes.
If only the Celtics could plant a mole in the Pelicans’ front office…someone who learned from the best about how to play these high stakes games of chess, holds Tatum in incredibly high regard, and wouldn’t mind doing Boston a solid…
Oh. Well then.
Only three months ’till July 🙂