Five reasons that the Celtics should feel good about their future

A. Sherrod Blakely
NBC Sports Boston

Five reasons that the Celtics should feel good about their future originally appeared on nbcsportsboston.com

BOSTON -- Kyrie Irving is all but a goner with Al Horford reportedly not too far behind. Aron Baynes was traded to the Phoenix Suns on draft night, leaving major holes in the roster.

Most teams are overly optimistic this time of year, and the Celtics are indeed no exception.

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But their feel-good vibes fly in the face of an uncertain reality in both the short and long-term.

Being hopeful, that's one thing.

But the optimism by the Celtics now?

What's up with that?

Here are five factors that are contributing to Boston's sunnier-than-expected outlook heading into this season filled with way more questions than answers.

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FREE AGENTS WARMING UP TO BOSTON

For years, the Celtics, among free agents, were about as popular as a vacation to Siberia.

But the narrative that Boston was not the place to go as a free agent, began to shift in the summer of 2016 when the Celtics landed a meeting with then-free agent Kevin Durant and were able to nail down a four-year deal with Al Horford.

And they followed that up the following summer by landing Gordon Hayward who was coming off his first all-star selection, with the Utah Jazz.

Boston will be hard-pressed to land a similar high-impact player like they did in 2016 or 2017, but they are at least at a point where it won't be a total shock for a high-profile, difference-making player to at least grant the Celtics an audience to make their pitch.

By no means does that guarantee they will land one of the top-tier free agents, but the success in recent years has paved the way so that Boston is no longer seen as a basketball Siberia to free agents.

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YOUTH MOVEMENT

With the expected departures and the trading away of Aron Baynes, 29-year-old Gordon Hayward is now the old man of the roster. But the Celtics charging ahead with youth leading the way, is a little different than most youth movements.

When teams typically go young, they do so with players still trying to figure out how to win as a collective unit while still maintaining their own growth curve.

Boston seems to be somewhere in the middle with a number of players having three years or less experience, but part of that experience was advancing to the Eastern Conference finals without arguably their two best players - Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.

This team that Boston will trot out this season will likely resemble that 2018 squad with a number of players still growing as individual players with a greater opportunity now to expand upon their past success because there's no clear-cut, No. 1 player now.

Success now has to be more about the team than any individual, something that seemingly worked well for this team in 2018.

Can they do it again?

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SALARY CAP SPACE

There's the potential for Boston to clear more than $30 million in salary cap space which would allow them to pursue a top-tier player.

Adding a player of that caliber to join a roster full of young veterans, could potentially be the quickest path for Boston to return back to being an elite team in the NBA.

Among the many names you'll hear in the coming days is Charlotte's Kemba Walker.

The former UConn star is eligible for a super max contract worth more than $200 million, but it's doubtful that Hornets owner Michael Jordan will invest that kind of money in Walker. That could open the door for one of the more below-the-radar superstar free agents to be scooped up by another team; a team like the Celtics who have a void at the point with Irving likely to sign elsewhere.

Boston also has a huge hole to fill in the frontcourt, with a number of potential replacements available either through free agency or via trade.

On the free agency front, Orlando's Nikola Vucevic is a player on the Celtics' radar. Boston also has some interest in Oklahoma City's Steven Adams who is reportedly available to be traded for.

While the Celtics loved what Baynes stood for prior to trading him, moving him along increased the amount of cap flexibility the Celtics have and because of that, they now have at least one more option at their disposal as they begin the process of rebuilding the team into a title contender.

If Boston wants to swing a trade, don't be surprised to hear names like Oklahoma City's Steven Adams or Los Angeles Clippers forward Danilo Gallinari.

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UNDERDOG ROLE

Because of the anticipated roster defections, the Celtics won't be favored to come out of the East by anyone.

In fact, they will be hard-pressed to be perceived by anything other than a playoff contender which is a significant drop-off from where we were a year ago when Boston seemed poised to be a title contender for many years to come.

But as we've seen with head coach Brad Stevens and his teams in Boston, the Celtics have seemingly been at their best when others were deemed better teams, teams closer to winning a championship.

There's little doubt this team will play with an edge; the kind of edge we did not see often enough from them.

And it is that edge that will propel them to winning more games than most will anticipate.

This past season was Brad Stevens' first as head coach in which the team took a clear and undeniable step backward.

But with the bar set a little bit lower for the 2019-2020 season, it makes achieving success relative to expectations, much easier to come by as Boston will relish in the role of underdog.

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GORDON HAYWARD

Arguably the biggest X-factor to what happens this season with the Celtics, lies in how well or woeful Gordon Hayward plays.

He was a human escalator last season, having stretches where he just kept raising and raising his game to great heights, only to hit a downward spiral that seemingly had no end in sight and came at the worst time (second round of the playoffs versus Milwaukee, for example).

But that was his first year back after a gruesome left ankle injury, an injury that the Celtics did all they could to ensure would not be an issue last season and by and large, it wasn't.

For the most part, Hayward's ankle held up well to the pounding he put on it this past season, and he has attacked his offseason conditioning with renewed vigor.

"Gordon has been in every day working out and putting a lot of time in," Ainge said. "And he looks good."

But will we say the same about the Celtics this season.

Stay tuned ...

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