So Much for Kyrie and AD: Where Do the Celtics Go From Here?

Chris Mannix
Sports Illustrated

BOSTON — So … now what?

Between congratulatory back slaps for Lakers GM Rob Pelinka and universal praise for the haul Pelicans VP David Griffin scored in the agreed-to Anthony Davis deal, after lauding Davis’s polarizing agent, Rich Paul, and wondering who the next big name to join Los Angeles will be, the public eye turned to Boston. And the public reaction to the Celtics missing out on Davis can aptly be described as glee.

What is it about the Celtics? Is there asset-fatigue? Or exasperation at hearing over and over (and over) again about how many trade chips Boston has? The Celtics' landmark deal with the Nets in 2014 will go down as one of the most lopsided trades in NBA history which, coupled with a handful of other draft–pick headlined deals have filled Boston’s war chest with first–rounders. So whenever a top tier player became available (Davis, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard) the Celtics have naturally been listed as a possible destination.

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Is it the perceived value of the young talent? No team executive would argue against Jayson Tatum as a top–tier prospect. Tatum’s development stalled last season, but he’s a gifted scorer capable of averaging 20-plus points in the right situation. Jaylen Brown isn’t a Tatum-level scorer, but he’s a strong two-way player who showed tremendous talent during Boston’s 2018 playoff run.

Is it team president Danny Ainge? The Trader Danny nickname can be off-putting outside of the Boston market. Is it Brad Stevens? The Celtics coach has had a meteoric rise since Boston plucked him out of Butler in 2013. There have been some waiting for Stevens to fail for the opportunity to tear him down.

Regardless, there’s a social media euphoria to the Celtics missing out on Davis, a giddiness that in a couple of weeks Kyrie Irving almost certainly will be wearing another uniform. After years of being touted as the masters of the rebuild, Boston was going to fall back to the pack.

Or are they?

Make no mistake, getting beat by the Lakers to Davis—a player Boston has hoarded assets to make a run at for two years—is bad, while the rapid deterioration of the relationship with Irving is stunning. A Davis-Irving pairing would have made the Celtics championship frontrunners for years to come.

But Boston never landed Davis and there is a blueprint for what the Celtics are without Irving: A conference finalist that pushed Cleveland to seven games in 2018. The growth of Tatum and Brown might make them even better in some respects. Gordon Hayward, with a full summer to work on his game again, will be better too. The idea that without Irving Boston will descend into a No. 7 seed is far-fetched.

There are variables for Boston, new ones. Terry Rozier, for starters. With Irving gone—and it feels like a foregone conclusion that Irving signs on with one of the New York teams, with the Nets looking like the leader—Rozier’s situation becomes more complicated. Rozier struggled mightily in his return to a backup role last season, alternating between guard spots. He also aired out his feelings on ESPN, an action that caught Celtics officials off guard.

Still, Rozier is a restricted free agent, and it would be a shock if Boston didn’t extend him a qualifying offer. The market for Rozier would have been robust last summer, when Rozier took on a leading role in Irving’s absence. “He was talked about as an $18-20 million per year player,” an executive from a team with interest in Rozier told SI.com. Rozier’s struggles this season has cooled interest, and with Boston likely to match offers up to a certain number, Rozier could dangle on the free agent market for a while, as Marcus Smart did last summer.

“I’m a big fan of Terry’s,” Ainge told reporters earlier this month. “I think that if Terry was in the right circumstance and the right role, I think he would love playing in Boston, in my opinion. And if not, then I think Terry would let me know that. But Terry and I have a very good relationship, as Terry does with Brad as well.”

But what is Rozier? Is he the player who averaged 16.5 points and connected on 35% of his three’s during the ’18 playoff run? Or did last season’s struggle’s permanently damage his chances of succeeding as a starter in Boston? And if not Rozier, is there another player out there to stabilize the all-important point guard position?

There's also Al Horford, Boston’s glue guy, who has been worth every nickel of the four-year, $113 million contract the Celtics signed him to in 2016. Horford has a $30 million player option for next season, and the Celtics have reportedly had discussions with Horford about an extension. At 33, Horford is coming off a third straight steady season in Boston, and his game figures to age reasonably well, particularly if the Celtics can limit his minutes at center. But the clock is ticking on Horford as a frontcourt player.

And there is this: Boston can still make a deal. Owner Wyc Grousbeck told the Boston Herald  last week that the team is actively discussing multiple trade scenarios. The Celtics have three first–round picks in Thursday’s draft. They have the Grizzlies pick next year (top-six protected), which could be valuable as Memphis continues to rebuild. The young talent—whatever you make of it—remains.

Again: Tough week in Boston. They watched the player they didn’t want to go all-in for (Leonard) win a championship with the team that did and the player they did want to go all-in for traded someplace else. All with the knowledge that Irving is on his way out the door. A chance to be a title contender next season probably slipped away.

But this team is still pretty good, and it’s not a stretch to think with better chemistry—and really, it couldn’t get any worse—the Celtics can match or even exceed last season’s 49-win regular season total. Meanwhile the three teams that finished ahead of them (Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia) have significant free agent issues of their own.

Boston’s pursuit of a title took a hit, but there will not be another rebuild. The one the Celtics began in 2013 continues.

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