Celtics' Irving expected to officially become free agent tonight

Celtics' Irving expected to officially become free agent tonight

BOSTON -- Barring an unexpected change of heart that no one - including the Boston Celtics - anticipate, Kyrie Irving will officially become an unrestricted free agent at midnight by not opting into the final year of the five-year, $94.3 million deal he signed in 2015 while in Cleveland.

By hitting free agency, the six-time All-Star is bypassing the $21.3 million he would have been due for the 2019-2020 season, to instead sign a longer deal that could pay him significantly more regardless of whether he re-signed with Boston or plays elsewhere.

It became clear months ago that Irving had every intention of becoming a free agent this summer, when he explained why not signing a four-year, $101 million extension didn’t make any sense.

But who Irving signs with, remains a mystery.

On October 4, Irving indicated he wanted to re-sign with the Celtics this summer which was well received by Celtics fans and ownership.

But a few months later, “Ask me July 1” was his response when asked about a return to Boston.

Despite the opt-out, Irving still hasn't ruled out Boston as a destination, according to a Boston Herald report late Wednesday. 

Still, the uncertainty is why a handful of teams such as the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets made sure they created enough salary cap space to sign Irving to a four-year, $141 million max deal as well as leave enough room for a second, max-salaried player to join him.

Most league sources have for months talked about Irving taking his talents away from Boston this offseason, with the plan being to team up with at least one other perennial superstar - New Orleans’ Anthony Davis or Golden State’s Kevin Durant being the two most talked about. Irving reportedly parted ways with his longtime agent and joined Roc Nation Sports, the agency that represents Durant.

But this offseason has brought about unexpected developments that make the chances of Irving leaving Boston to play with either Davis or Durant, far more complicated.

Davis’ current team, the New Orleans Pelicans, won the NBA draft lottery and will select Duke phenom Zion Williamson which makes it more daunting for any of the teams pursuing Davis who were planning to use having the top overall pick (New York Knicks; yup, I’m talking about you) as a trade chip to get a Davis deal done.

And when New Orleans’ recently hired president of basketball operations David Griffin reportedly told teams what he’s looking for in a Davis deal - a proven All-Star, a young player with All-Star potential, and a pair of first-round picks - that shrunk the number of potential teams significantly which is why there’s more talk that a third team would have to be involved.

As for Durant, his Achilles injury has the potential to sideline him for most if not all of next season.

When he does return, there’s no telling how much of an impact the injury will have on his overall game.

Still, multiple league sources told NBC Sports Boston on Wednesday that regardless of the diagnosis and timetable for his injury, there will still be teams besides Golden State willing to offer the future Hall of Famer a multi-year, max contract.

But the injury certainly makes it more of a jump ball as to whether he will indeed hit free agency or pick up the $31.5 million option he has for the 2019-2020 season and spend it rehabbing with the Warriors.

However, let’s for a minute buy into the narrative that regardless of his health, Durant is out of the Bay after this season.

And let’s keep with the popular theory that he takes his talents to New York and signs with the Knicks.

Knowing he would be out for most if not all of this upcoming season with no assurances he would be the same dominant player we have seen for years, would Irving be willing to take that chance?

Because if Durant is out, would Irving be in a better situation basketball-wise with that team than the one he is in now?

And if you’re the other New York team in the mix for Irving - Brooklyn -  are you willing to sign Irving and Durant knowing one will be out for a significant period of time?

Irving hitting the free agency market, that was a no-brainer.

But the next move he makes?

Not so much.

Anthony Davis' agent sends C's warning amid trade rumors>>>

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Jayson Tatum, Celtics officially playoff ready after win vs. Grizzlies

Jayson Tatum, Celtics officially playoff ready after win vs. Grizzlies

Jayson Tatum, sporting some sort of cyborg, choke-sign Reggie Miller T-shirt that Indiana native Brad Stevens would certainly approve of, plopped down in a chair for his postgame Zoom conference Tuesday night and was asked to assess Boston’s postseason preparedness.

"I think we’re ready,” Tatum declared, hammering home what Boston’s play over the past four games had already confirmed.

The Celtics can comfortably put their core players in, ahem, bubble wrap for Thursday’s seeding-game finale against the Washington Wizards. Everything has fallen into place for Boston over the past week, not the least of which is August Tatum playing like February Tatum while scoring a game-high 29 points on 10-of-13 shooting over 29 minutes as the Celtics handed a desperate Grizzlies team a 122-107 loss on Tuesday night.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Wizards, which begins Thursday at 11 a.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at noon. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

The Celtics, sluggish and rust-filled early in the bubble experience, have clicked on most cylinders the past seven days. The ball has zipped around the court, the team displaying increased ball movement and highlight-quality passing that has keyed Boston’s offensive surge, which includes owning the second best offensive rating in the bubble (120.3, trailing only playoff-pushing Portland).

When one of Boston’s usual offensive weapons has had a rough night, others have stepped forward. Case in point: As Jaylen Brown labored through a 3-for-13 shooting performance Tuesday, Gordon Hayward — his bubble alter ego Stache Gordon slowly emerging — shook off his own 3-point woes to put up 19 points behind four triples. Tatum hit some absurdly tough shots (negating his five turnovers) and Kemba Walker showed more signs of being back to the All-Star form from the start of the season.

Walker put a Grizzlies defender on skates with a ruthless jab-step pull-up late in the fourth quarter. Later he noted, "Today is probably the best I’ve felt out there. I was really comfortable making my moves and stuff like that.” The next time Walker plays, the minute restriction that caused some of Boston’s early bubble turbulence will be a thing of the past. And it’s no coincidence that, as that restriction loosened, Boston started to find its groove.

Boston’s net rating inside the bubble is now plus-10.3, second only to the undefeated Phoenix Suns. The next closest Eastern Conference team is Toronto at plus-3.7.

“We’ve definitely come a long way, and we’re gelling really well,” said Walker. "Having fun, competing at a very high level.”

Not only has Boston’s core players looked ready to go but the team has found a little something in its complementary pieces as well. Second-year big man Robert Williams, who did little to kick down the playing-time door during scrimmage work, has been a revelation the past four games. He went from not getting off the bench in Boston’s early seeding games to putting together four straight eyebrow-raising efforts. In that span, Williams has averaged 11.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks over 14.8 minutes per game. He’s made 19 of his 23 shot attempts (82.6 percent) with many of his finishes coming north of the rim.

Stevens' bench, once perilously thin, looks like it can confidently lean on at least four options in the postseason. Smart and Brad Wanamaker will handle backup guard minutes while Williams and Enes Kanter should split center reps based on matchups. Stevens can mix in the occasional doses of Semi Ojeleye or Grant Williams or Romeo Langford on nights he must go deeper.

The Celtics have proven they can hang with the best of the Eastern Conference, putting a scare into Milwaukee despite spotting them a big early lead early in scrimmage play, and taking down Toronto at the height of their bubble buzz.

A matchup with injury-battered Philadelphia seems inevitable to open the playoffs. The Sixers still have plenty of talent, including old friend Al Horford, but the absence of Ben Simmons, and some uncertainty about the health of Joel Embiid, makes Philadelphia a far more agreeable foe than maybe it seemed even a week ago.

Boston’s improved level of play has helped boost the team’s confidence as well, regardless of first-round opponent.

“Obviously, we continue to get better, and I think we have from Game 1 playing down here to now,” said Tatum. "I think we just continue to get better each and every game, and that’s what you want this time of year, to continue to get better at the right time of the season.”

Barring the bizarre during Thursday’s matinee finale, the Celtics will head into the postseason playing some inspired ball and operating with a contender’s confidence.

The last four games haven’t been perfect but the Celtics have shown their potential during them. With Stevens’ ability to hone in on an opponent and an added level of focus required by the postseason, Boston has a chance to take its play even a level higher.

The last four games have shown that the Celtics are ready for what’s next.

Stars, Studs and Duds from Celtics' impressive win over Grizzlies

Stars, Studs and Duds from Celtics' impressive win over Grizzlies

With the No. 3 spot locked up and no chance of moving up or down, there was not a ton of incentive for the Boston Celtics in their next-to-last seeding game, against the Memphis Grizzlies.

But you would have thought it was the Celtics -- not the Grizzlies -- who were playing for their postseason lives.

This Celtics team has shown itself to be more than just one of the best teams talent-wise we’ve seen since Brad Stevens took over in 2013.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Wizards, which begins Thursday at 11 a.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at noon. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Watching the way this group has grown throughout the season and even more so during the league’s restart in Orlando, Fla., the Celtics have shown a level of focus on the task at hand – winning games – that has allowed them to not just survive in the Bubble but thrive against any and all the competition.

The latest to fall by the wayside against the Celtics was the Grizzlies, who were no match for Boston as the Celtics pulled away for a comfortable 122-107 win.

It was a performance that like so many we’ve seen of late from Boston, consisted of players stepping up to contribute in a multitude of ways.

And the Grizzlies, one of the feel-good stories of the season, were unable to make it much of a game.

Jayson Tatum: Memphis became the latest team that simply had no answer on how to contain Tatum. He led all scorers with 29 points in addition to grabbing six rebounds.

Ja Morant: For most of this season, Morant has been the best first-year player in the NBA. You can chalk up Tuesday’s game as yet another strong performance by Morant who led the Grizzlies with a double-double of 26 points and 13 assists.

Kemba Walker: After a rough game against Orlando, Walker bounced back with an efficient game with 19 points coming on 7-for-10 shooting to go with four rebounds and three assists. 

Marcus Smart: He put up a near double-double of 11 points and nine assists, but Smart’s impact was so much greater. His floor leadership, attention to detail, defense, intensity ... Smart brought it all to the floor and the Celtics were so much better off for it.

Jonas Valenciunas: If there’s one area of concern for the Celtics going forward, it has been the ability of opposing big men to put up big games with most of their work getting done around the rim. Valenciunas had a double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds.

Robert Williams III: The days of being in and out of the lineup because of ineffective play or injuries appear to be behind Williams. He didn’t play a ton of minutes but Williams once again made his mark, finishing with 10 points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots in just 14 minutes of court time.

Brandon Clarke: The play of Clarke is one of the many reasons why the Grizzlies feel their best days are ahead of them. Clarke had 15 points on 7-for-14 shooting to go with six rebounds and a blocked shot.

Daniel Theis
: One of the not-so-bright spots for Boston was the play of Theis who had two points on 1-for-3 shooting along with struggles defensively.