Should the Boston Celtics have invested deeper in Terry Rozier’s future in the summer of 2019?
The Charlotte Hornets visit Boston on Sunday for the first of three matchups between these two very intertwined teams over the next 25 days. And, invariably, Celtics fans will wonder what could have been both with old friend Gordon Hayward but especially with Rozier.
When Al Horford and Kyrie Irving departed after a disappointing 2018-19 season, the Celtics found themselves with tough decisions about a new path forward. Coming off a tumultuous season in which the team didn’t come close to meeting lofty expectations and players struggled to sacrifice for the betterment of each other, Boston moved quick to clear the necessary cap space to add Kemba Walker.
That meant moving on from Rozier, who had blossomed from a perceived reach at No. 16 in the 2015 draft into a player that shined whenever he was thrust into the spotlight, but especially during the 2018 playoffs when he quite literally filled Irving’s shoes. It’s ironic, too, that Rozier might not have even ended up in Boston if Michael Jordan and the Hornets hadn’t stiff-armed Danny Ainge’s offer of four first-round picks in the quest to add Justise Winslow.
After landing Walker, the Celtics were toasted for their ability to change direction and add the All-Star on a four-year, $141 million contract. The Hornets caught grief for both letting face-of-the-franchise Walker depart then splurging to add Rozier on a three-year, $58 million pact.
How ironic that, less than two years later, the narrative around both signings has shifted dramatically.
Walker, despite an All-Star start to his Boston tenure, has battled knee issues since January 2020. As Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have emerged as the stars of Boston’s offense, there are questions about whether Walker is the ideal long-term fit beside them. This with Walker still owed $73.6 million over the next two seasons (he holds a $37.7 million player option for the 2022-23 season) while Boston’s payroll bloats after Tatum and Brown signed big-money extensions.
Rozier is having a career year while averaging 20.3 points per game and shooting 41 percent beyond the 3-point arc. His development is a major reason the Hornets sat fourth in the Eastern Conference — four spots ahead of Boston, though just 1.5 games in the standings — entering Saturday’s action.
A headline in the Charlotte Observer’s Hornets mailbag last week read, “Terry Rozier has outperformed his Hornets contract; should the team address that now?” The 27-year-old Rozier has emerged as such a key piece of Charlotte’s sudden success that Hornets fans are already fretting about how the team can retain his services beyond his current pact.
It is, of course, a bit too easy to simply proclaim that the Celtics made a mistake in not investing in Rozier. Despite his brilliant 2018 postseason — averaging 16.5 points, 5.7 assists, and 5.3 rebounds over 36.6 minutes per game while strutting around in Drew Bledsoe jerseys — Rozier had labored through that miserable 2018-19 campaign and wasn’t shy about voicing frustration at his reduced role.
Would Tatum and Brown have morphed so quickly into All-Star talents with Rozier alongside instead of Walker? While it’s easy to get hung up on Walker’s current knee woes, his presence allowed the Jays to tap into their potential and he was a primary supporter of their development. Would Rozier have embraced it the same way, or would he have been trying to make his own star turn?
Ultimately, Rozier might have needed new scenery and the opportunity to be a focal point in order to develop as he has in Charlotte. The Jays might have needed Walker’s presence to make their own leaps as quickly as they did.
Rozier’s age and skill set surely would have aligned nicely with the current Boston core. His more manageable contract could have provided the team with additional flexibility in filling out the roster.
The Celtics could use a little of Rozier’s swagger, too. He’s been particularly clutch this year and ranks 17th in the NBA in clutch-time scoring with 67 points in 58 minutes. He’s shooting over 50 percent from the field and beyond the arc in those clutch situations. Tatum has 72 clutch points in 91 minutes; Brown has 51 in 95 minutes but Boston has struggled to get contributions from others.
Alas, much like it’s fair to wonder how this Celtics season might have been different if Hayward came back for the final year of his deal, there are simply too many variables to know for sure how it might have played out if Boston had invested in Rozier. Few argued for that path in the aftermath of the hellish 2018-19 season.
One thing that is undeniable: The Hornets are a whole bunch of fun to watch because of what the former Celtics have infused on that team. Injuries, including the season-ender for rookie LaMelo Ball, will make it tough for the Hornets to sustain their success but, hey, Rozier is no stranger to elevating his game in those type of situations. Celtics fans should join the brigade who make the Hornets appointment viewing on League Pass.
It’s remarkable how intertwined these franchises have become. Would anyone be against a Celtics-Hornets playoff matchup in May? We can play the what-if game forever with guys like Rozier and Hayward. The Celtics miss a lot of what they brought to the court and this year’s team is still hunting for ways to replace those characteristics.
But there’s no sense in lamenting what might have been and the Celtics have to figure out how to get the most out of what they’ve got.