At this time last year, there was no more attractive collection of NBA assets with which to enter the next decade than those held by the Boston Celtics. Now, they are rebuilding at the very moment they were supposed to take over the league.
So, what the hell happened?
“S---,” a team source told Yahoo Sports when posed that question in the aftermath of Al Horford’s reported free-agency turnaround on Tuesday night, “I don’t know.”
There is no quantifying just how much of a shock Horford’s increasingly likely exit came to the franchise. In the days before his decision to decline a $30 million player option for the 2019-20 season, sources close to Horford offered no indication of his intent to leave the Celtics, and even in the hours before the news broke, the All-Star big man’s camp told Yahoo Sports, “All I can say is Al really does love Boston!”
After Horford officially entered free agency, all signs still pointed to a Celtics reunion on a win-win deal that lowered his salary next season, provided financial security into his mid-30s and granted Boston some cap flexibility in the process. As recently as two weeks ago, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge publicly pegged restructuring Horford’s contract as “one of the priorities on our list.”
That all changed when the Boston Herald’s Steve Bulpett tweeted this:
Major change in the Al Horford situation:
Per source close to Horford, his side is no longer discussing a new 3-year deal to stay with the Celtics. He is expected to sign a 4-year free agent contract elsewhere...
Story to come.
— Steve Bulpett (@SteveBHoop) June 18, 2019
The Celtics had come to accept that Kyrie Irving is planning to leave when free agency opens on June 30. He has “essentially ghosted” them since the unsettling end to their season, The Boston Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach reported on Monday. That was bolstered by Tuesday’s reports from The Athletic’s Shams Charania and The New York Times’ Marc Stein that Irving is expected to join the Brooklyn Nets.
The Celtics had already begun reimagining a road to contention with Horford and a fully healthy Gordon Hayward, along with the further development of promising prospects Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, all freed from the usage constraints of Irving. This was, after all, the same core that nearly reached the 2018 Finals, plus Hayward and whoever else they might have added by restructuring Horford’s deal.
Now, there is a belief among some inside the organization that the Los Angeles Clippers may be the team preparing a lucrative offer for Horford. It certainly appears the Celtics either severely underestimated his value or are simply unwilling to meet his market rate. Either way, they have reportedly reached an impasse, even if there is a glimmer of hope that they can resurrect renegotiations at some point.
Horford’s exit would change everything. Oft-criticized for his overpriced contract, he is one of the NBA’s most under-appreciated stars, the linchpin of a roster that exceeded expectations to reach back-to-back conference finals. He epitomizes the evolution of the center position, ranking among the league’s best passing, shooting and defensive bigs. His ability to stop anyone from Giannis Antetokounmpo at the arc to Joel Embiid in the post allowed everything else to fall into place for a Celtics team that beat their Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers in the 2018 playoffs.
His departure would wreak symbolic havoc, too. It was his belief in the team’s culture and ability to build a contender that led him to sign a max contract with the Celtics in 2016, alleviating the real concern that Boston could not attract top-tier free agents. Hayward followed a year later, and Ainge finally cashed in some of his assets for Irving, cementing an All-Star trio that could further be bolstered by recent and future lottery picks. Now, Horford’s departure would signal to future free agents that the culture and ability to build a contender are no longer worth believing in.
The Celtics will then be left with Hayward, Tatum and Brown as the cornerstones of the franchise. They are all capable of reaching elite levels, but questions still remain after Hayward failed to return to All-Star form and both Tatum and Brown fell back to flat earth after proving to be top-flight playoff options in Irving’s 2018 absence.
Behind closed doors, the Celtics are still trying to put a positive spin on Tuesday’s developments. A contingent of the current Celtics was already in the gym when the Horford news broke. In addition to their talented wings, there is First Team All-Defensive guard Marcus Smart, restricted free agent Terry Rozier and 2018 first-round pick Robert Williams. They can create something close to max cap space if Horford leaves, and they have three more first-rounders in this week’s draft, even if those, too, are less valuable than they imagined a year ago. A lightly protected future pick from the Memphis Grizzlies, who could be among the league’s worst teams after just trading their best player, gives Boston one more high-end trade chip.
“We have decent young players, Gordon will be better, have cap space and some picks,” a source told Yahoo Sports in the aftershocks of Tuesday’s news. “It’s not the end of the world, just different than what we thought it would be. Don’t panic.”
The Celtics are suddenly back to being the sort of scrappy underdog that coach Brad Stevens has overachieved with in years past. Does it even make sense to chase a max-level free agent and package picks for another piece if Horford is no longer there to serve as the backbone of a championship contender? What might those pieces look like? Are you trading in your few remaining assets for the likes of D’Angelo Russell, Bradley Beal or Clint Capela? That is worlds different than the dream of Irving and Anthony Davis that they believed was a reality until recently.
As a result, Ainge must take a long look in the mirror to figure out how a team built to contend for the next decade dropped into the dreaded middle. For the most part, it is a confluence of seemingly random events that were not easy to see coming:
October 2017: Hayward’s ankle injury and subsequent rehabilitation prevented the Celtics from reaching their ceiling in the only two years Irving was under contract.
April 2018: Irving’s own season-ending surgery and the ensuing playoff run inflated perceptions of roles for several young Celtics, leading to friction when he returned.
October 2018: Irving committed long-term to Boston in front of a horde of season-ticket holders, encouraging the Celtics to continue building with him in the picture.
December 2018: The Sacramento Kings were actually good, severely decreasing the value of the top-one protected pick the Celtics owned from a perennial loser.
May 8, 2019: Irving all but quit on the Celtics, both in a second-round playoff collapse against Milwaukee and by immediately distancing himself from the team.
May 28, 2019: The Lakers jumped from 11th to fourth in the draft lottery, considerably improving the competition’s best trade asset in a rival offer for Davis.
Each event bled into the other, and it tore apart Boston’s chemistry. As one member of the organization suggested to Yahoo Sports, a book could be written about the team’s dysfunction this season. The details may not be known, at least until Irving officially leaves in free agency, but it does not take an insider to see he was the Jenga piece that toppled the franchise’s carefully laid plans these past six years.
Much has been made of Ainge’s past failures to pull the trigger for star talent, but there were real concerns about acquiring Jimmy Butler, Paul George or Kawhi Leonard without assurances any would re-sign. The decision not to include Brown in a deal for Leonard looks ill-advised in retrospect, but we might feel differently if Kawhi’s shot does not fall against Philadelphia or Milwaukee wins an overtime or even if injuries do not ravage Golden State. The Celtics genuinely felt they had a contender without Leonard last summer and a real shot to land Davis this summer.
Second-guessing is a sport to itself, and who is to say acquiring any of those stars alters the chemistry enough to make a difference. Every path could have led back here. Does Ainge deserve blame for not seeing any of this coming? Absolutely. He hitched his wagon to a famously fickle superstar, overvalued his assets, misjudged the Davis market and did nothing to address a disconnected roster this season.
At the same time, this is the impossibility of roster-building in an NBA era when the whims of max-salaried players shift with the wind, altering the entire landscape with a change of heart. The Celtics can make countless correct decisions, only to come undone on a Tuesday in June, just after Davis and LeBron James join forces on a Lakers team that has made an equal number of blunders over the same timespan.
As one Celtics source told Yahoo Sports, “What a difference a year makes, man.”
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