Here’s the stomach punch that lingers in the aftermath of the Los Angeles Lakers trade landing Anthony Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans: The Boston Celtics and their always-forward-thinking front office spent years collecting assets and plotting a path to a superstar, with Davis a focal point, then watched the dysfunctional Lakers stumble their way into his services despite their well-chronicled ineptitude (much to the delight, undoubtedly, of LeBron James and Rich Paul).
Yes, the Lakers paid a ransom, one the Celtics were almost certainly never going to approach, especially with the uncertainty surrounding the All-Star they did land (who seems to have his bags packed for his own summer relocation). The AD trade might eventually leave the Lakers back in the throes of mediocrity but, at least for now, they’ll vault quickly to the top of the Vegas odds for potential 2020 NBA champions.
Meanwhile, on the 11th anniversary of Banner 17, the Celtics wake up with more questions than answers about what’s ahead. Boston will hear accusations of asset hoarding from those that have now seen the likes of Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, and Davis drift in front of the Celtics like marbles just outside the reach on a Hungry Hungry Hippo board.
The Celtics can still be competitive (heck, it’s not outlandish to think that even a youth-movement roster might win more than last year’s 49 games, especially with so much uncertainty about how the East will look) and they are still positioned to make moves with the assets they still cling to. Alas, there’s no obvious choice for the next white whale and patience — something the fan base expended a lot of while watching a head-slapping 2018-19 season — might ultimately be the best path forward.
There’s plenty of questions that linger and not a lot of definitive answers. But let’s try to assess some of what’s ahead for the Celtics in the aftermath of the AD trade:
What’s going to happen with Al Horford?
A Tuesday deadline looms for Horford to decide if he wants to opt into the final year of the deal he signed with the Celtics in 2016, one that will pay him a whopping $30.1 million (though, that deadline could be pushed to, say, after the draft, if both sides wanted more time to see what direction the team starts to head).
Horford opting out seemed like a strong possibility back when the Celtics had hopes of landing Davis and securing a commitment to return from Kyrie Irving. Signing Horford to, say, a three-year, $66 million extension, would have lowered Boston’s tax bill and given Horford some long-term security as he exits his prime.
Now the question becomes whether Horford wants to be in Boston. He’s consistently maintained that competing for a title is maybe the most important aspect for him at this stage of his career and, if he’s not particularly bullish on how fast the Celtics and their youth movement can get on a title track, he might desire an opportunity with a more surefire contender.
Suddenly, there’s a chance that Horford might be more intrigued to opt in, collect that big payday, and figure out his future further out. The Celtics and Horford could agree that he returns but maybe there’s a spoken agreement that the team can examine his situation should the team fail to show competitive form early in the 2019-20 season.
Or maybe Horford, after a season dealing with knee issues, yearns for the security of multiple seasons, still opts out and explores extension options. Even then, he could be sign-and-traded if he’s simply not on board with Boston’s path and it would seem the likes of Houston (a team he flirted with in free agency in 2016) and Oklahoma City (Horford won two national titles with coach Billy Donovan at Florida) might intrigue him.
If Irving departs for Brooklyn, can the Celtics sign D’Angelo Russell?
Possible? Yes. Likely? No. The Nets — or any team with cap space — have no reason to navigate a sign-and-trade with Boston (under that scenario, Irving cannot get the extra season and bulkier raises that he would if he simply re-signed in Boston). The Celtics would have to sweeten the deal by including picks and it’s hard to see it all coming together.
And, a reminder, the Celtics do not generate any sort of cap space with Irving’s potential departure. They’d need Horford to opt out and renounce his rights to have any sort of intriguing cap space.
So what’s the plan at point guard?
The most viable options are:
1) Be ready to match any offer Terry Rozier receives in restricted free agency and move him from the trunk to the driver’s seat. Ainge himself has maintained that he’s open-minded to bringing Rozier back, even after the young guard's scorched Earth tour on ESPN, and what Rozier showed in the 2018 playoffs makes that possibility intriguing. His attitude last season and consistency woes make it a little tougher for the Celtics to pay big money to bring him back. But, in the absence of options, it might be intriguing (while adding another mid-tier salary that could be traded further out to recoup value should the team desire to move on).
2) Package picks and trade up in the draft. Moving up typically hasn’t been a good value play for teams. The Celtics nearly gave up four first-round picks in 2015 trying to wiggle from 15 (the pick that landed Rozier!) to 9 in hopes of landing Justise Winslow. Still, if there’s an obvious void at point guard and someone that intrigues Boston slides (Darius Garland? Coby White?) Boston might be willing to sacrifice swings of the bat to get another key young prospect to pair alongside Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
3) Take a flyer on a guard later in the draft and maybe seek a veteran in free agency (Ish Smith? Rajon Rondo?) to hold the fort if that player has potential to develop into the role. Boston still has Marcus Smart and Gordon Hayward on the roster for ball-handling chores.
What do the Celtics do on draft night?
In the absence of trading up, the Celtics might be most interested in pushing at least one of their first-round picks into future seasons. Not only is it hard to envision three first-round rookies making the roster but Boston is going to want assets to pair with the Grizzlies pick for when the next disgruntled All-NBA talent arrives on the trading block (and let Kyrie, Kawhi, and AD show that it happens more often than you think lately).
The Celtics can shop picks 14, 20, and 22 with the idea of pouncing if a player they like arrives at one of those spots, or trying to push the others out if they’re not overwhelmed by what’s available.
Remember this, too: If the Celtics agree to push Horford’s deadline out to after the draft, they’ll have extra motivation to make a move on draft night that might further encourage Horford to be back. Alas, in part because there’s so much potential free-agent movement this summer, and because the Celtics don’t have a great variety of salaries to work with, it’s harder to see how Boston can trade for more established talent.
That said, league sources have maintained that the Celtics' phones were quite busy last week, and it went beyond the calls about the Davis pursuit. Which is to say that Boston has examined many potential paths while recognizing they might find themselves in this position.
How do the Celtics land their next star?
A couple of potential paths here:
1) Develop and rehab. If Irving departs and the Celtics simply ride with the 2018 playoff core and a healthy Hayward, their best hope for success in the 2019-20 season is likely to have Tatum make a pronounced third-year leap and Hayward return to All-Star form. Alas, this still leaves the team without an obvious top-5 type talent, the one you typically need to be title contenders.
2) Patience. As noted above, stars seem to be landing on the trade block quicker than ever in this modern quick-change NBA. Maybe the Wizards’ next GM wants to move Bradley Beal (though that pursuit hinges a bit on what you believe Beal’s ceiling is, though childhood friend Tatum would love that pairing). Maybe new leadership in Minnesota decides they need to move Karl-Anthony Towns despite his new super-max deal (seems highly unlikely but a disgruntled star can accelerate that thinking). Either way, the Celtics could still have assets to pursue whatever star comes available over the next calendar year.
Have the Celtics missed their opportunities by being too cautious with their assets?
It seems fair to suggest that Boston’s unwillingness to push its chips all in for marquee stars has left it in a tenuous spot. It’s also fair to wonder what could have been if Hayward never got hurt and Irving didn’t brood for half the season last year. The Celtics put themselves in position to be more competitive in recent seasons but some of the circumstances they didn’t or couldn’t have planned for conspired against them.
We might need another decade to know whether the Lakers’ gamble here was worthwhile. If they win a title in 2020, maybe we’ll know sooner. But the Pelicans are playing the long game and if they win a title somewhere from 2022-2028 while the Lakers languish, we might view it all differently.
The Celtics have clearly treaded cautiously. They’re banked hard on the potential of the young core they’ve valiantly protected. Will those players reward Boston’s faith? Or does the perpetual asset collection phase continue while the rest of the Celtics’ rivals get rewarded for their risk-taking?
The Celtics wade into the offseason looking for answers to so many questions.
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