BOSTON — While many rushed to dance on the Boston Celtics' grave amid reports that the team was bracing itself for the departures of All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge defiantly pushed back after Thursday’s draft, expressing excitement about the team's new — though admittedly uncertain — path forward and suggesting that there’s players that would die to play in Boston.
Ainge would be the first to admit this wasn’t a banner stretch for the Celtics, particularly from an optics perspective. Anthony Davis’ representation dug in on the idea that the superstar didn’t envision a long-term future in Boston before the Los Angeles Lakers mortgaged their future to obtain him. Kyrie Irving appeared to go incommunicado as the Celtics started to road map their future (though Ainge would later deny that), and Al Horford — the very player that first erased the notion that superstars didn’t want to play in Boston when he signed here in 2016 — opted out of his deal with the intentions of seeking a longer-term deal elsewhere.
The Celtics’ future seemed limitless as recently as nine months ago. But the wheels came off quickly during a flabbergasting 2018-19 season and Boston’s car appeared to crumble like the BluesMobile this week.
Ainge, never short on confidence, seems unfazed by the pivot his team has been forced to make. The Celtics aggressively explored options to move up in Thursday’s draft and remain emboldened by the possibility of unexpected cap space this summer.
"I’m excited about our team going forward,” Ainge said after Thursday’s draft. "I like where we’re headed. I like the core young group of guys and I think it’s going to be really fun.”
Fun? That’d be a departure from last year. And in a press conference in which Ainge couldn’t say much about the future of some of last year’s stars, what he did say about what’s ahead was particularly telling.
Ainge simply seems ready to embrace the young core and essentially suggested that, if players don’t want to be here, he’ll find others that do.
"We have a very attractive franchise to play for, and there’s a lot of people who would be dying to come play here,” said Ainge.
Ainge certainly would have preferred Plan A, the one that delivered Davis and paired him with a core that would have likely included Irving, Horford, and Gordon Hayward, positioning the Celtics to be legitimate title contenders in a league and conference that could be wide open.
Instead, Ainge finds himself focused on the young core that might have otherwise been broken up by a Davis pursuit. Ainge negotiated one trade Thursday night that will not only equip the Celtics with another future first-round pick that could aid the pursuit of the team’s next star but Boston has put itself in position to open up as much as $34 million in cap space this summer.
For as fast as the wheels came off, there’s the potential to put it all back together with new parts. An awful lot has to go right for the Celtics in the short term — not the least of which is player development and Gordon Hayward returning to All-Star form — but the departure of two stars would leave most teams in far more uncertainty.
It was telling, too, the type of players the Celtics targeted in Thursday’s draft. The buzzwords in the aftermath were “good guys” and “workers.” These are players the team believes are ready to work and compete. They seem to fit the Brad Stevens mold (and it doesn’t hurt that Ainge got him two Indiana natives).
"Good people. Actually all four of [the picks].” said Ainge. "Very good guys. That played a very big part into why we selected them. Who they are, not just what they are capable of doing on the court. Very excited about their personalities and their character and I think they have the will to become great.”
In a league where talent is king, Ainge and Co. got a reminder last season about the importance of chemistry and the intangibles. Characterize this new path however you like — Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck accepted the suggestion of “building and retooling” — but Boston got a reminder last season that buy-in, coachability, and desire can be nearly as important as talent (though, to be sure, talent remains king and the Celtics clearly need more of it to be something more than a middle-of-the-pack squad).
At one point, Ainge was asked if he targeted leadership with this year’s draft picks.
"I've always said everybody is leading somebody — the right way or the wrong way,” said Ainge. "I'd say everyone is a leader. So, yes, character and leadership are very important as we look at players.”
There’s still a lot for the Celtics to figure out moving forward. The margin for error is not what it was with last year’s talent-filled roster and, yet, that didn’t work out either. The after-effects linger now and complicate matters moving forward. Ainge seems eager for his team to learn from what’s gone wrong and build a team that avoids those pitfalls.
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