Much of the chatter since lottery night has focused on whether the Boston Celtics should be willing to go all-in with their pursuit of Anthony Davis. Boston still owns maybe the most intriguing blend of young talent and draft picks to offer New Orleans, should the Pelicans be unable to convince Davis to stick around to play alongside Zion Williamson.
Boston’s willingness to push all its chips in, however, could hinge heavily on one factor: Will Kyrie Irving re-sign with Boston this summer?
Without Irving, the risk associated with trading for Davis, who has only one year remaining on his current deal, is elevated. Danny Ainge might still be crazy enough to pursue him. But there would be the very real chance that, if Irving did not return and Davis bolted after the 2019-20 season, the Celtics could find themselves star-less and with bare cupboards after trading away their best young players and much of their best draft capital.
If Irving simply elects to walk this summer, spurning the roughly $50 million extra he can pocket by signing a five-year, $190 million maximum-contract extension with the Celtics, it might be safer for Boston to embrace a youth movement and focus on building the team through their young core.
What exactly would the Celtics’ roster look like if Irving departs?
Irving’s exit, as stressed in this space, does not open any sort of avenues to immediate cap space for the Celtics. They’d be watching an All-NBA talent depart and almost certainly without compensation (even a sign-and-trade seems unlikely if Irving desired to sign with a team with cap space). Boston would get some luxury-tax relief but, if Al Horford elected to return (either by opting in or signing a long-term extension), Boston would remain over the salary cap and would have limited avenues to add impact talent.
Still, the Celtics could essentially rally themselves around the notion of building around the 2018 playoff core — Horford, Tatum, Brown, and, yes, maybe even Terry Rozier — while hoping that a healthy Gordon Hayward and some tweaks to the complementary pieces could keep this team competitive.
Some Celtics fans might actually embrace this path, particularly as frustration lingers about Irving’s attitude throughout a maddening 2018-19 season in which the Celtics fell woefully short of expectations. Despite the fact that Irving put together one of the best statistical seasons of his NBA career and is likely to land a spot on the All-NBA team, his inability to consistently get the best out of the talent around him leaves some yearning for a less ball-dominant presence.
We’d argue that those yearning for Irving’s departure are a little too focused on his struggles against Milwaukee and assigning too much of the blame for Boston’s woes this season to the All-Star guard. To be sure, Irving is not without fault and might even deserve the lion’s share for the way his leadership struggles impacted the locker room. But those clinging to the idea that Irving’s departure would solve a lot of what ailed this team are likely misguided and are overlooking a lot of the good vibes that existed two seasons ago. Winning cures a lot of what ails you and, ultimately, you need star talent in the NBA to have success.
The Celtics will be ready to welcome Irving back should he hold true to his preseason suggestion that he intended to re-sign here. If he doesn’t, Boston’s championship desires take a hit and the quest for the next star gets murkier.
Despite his repeated suggestions that he might have to go if the roster looks similar, Rozier could be brought back to fill Irving’s loss at point guard, a particularly agreeable course for Boston should Rozier find a lukewarm market in restricted free agency. The Celtics can match any offer he receives, or try to find a price point that helps both player and team in the short term.
Boston could also consider splurging to retain Marcus Morris, though he might find a better blend of pay and playing time elsewhere (LeBron’s Lakers might have some money to spend if they can’t fetch another star). Aron Baynes has a $5.5 million option to consider, while the team can guarantee the bargain salary of Semi Ojeleye.
The Celtics would also enter June’s draft with three first-round picks (Nos. 14, 20, and 22) and could either fill out the back end of the roster with young talent or, more likely, try to explore deals that push those assets to future seasons when they might help facilitate a deal for impact talent. Boston struggled to find time for Robert Williams despite his obvious raw talents this season and it’s hard to see the benefit of three more first-round picks trying to develop in the land of DNPs.
That’s why the Grizzlies pick rolling over to future seasons was so important this week. Yes, Memphis getting Ja Morant in this year’s draft at No. 2 could accelerate their rebuilding process, but it’s unlikely that the Grizzlies will climb too far before that pick conveys (and the Celtics could always move it before that becomes an issue if they fear any sort of KingsPick 2.0 situation).
The Celtics could examine the progress of their young core and would still have some nice assets to pounce when the next star became available (in much the same way they were ready when Irving surprisingly became an option in the summer of 2017). Invariably, you’d hear suggestions that the team should look into the likes of Bradley Beal, but so much depends on the price tag and the landscape of the league after this potentially seismic offseason.
Things get a little murkier for next year’s Celtics if Horford opts out and departs. Then the Celtics’ youth movement likely gets even youthier. There might be a path to cap space in that scenario but not without losing multiple All-Stars without compensation (which is to say it wouldn’t be ideal).
The bottom line is that Boston has options to remain competitive regardless of how exactly the summer plays out, but so much hinges on Irving and how the dominoes fall from there.
It should be stressed again: Boston’s best option to maintain a championship-level team is keeping Irving. Even if things fizzled again next season, there would be opportunities to move him down the road while recouping the assets you’d otherwise sacrifice if he simply walks.
It takes star talent to win in the NBA. Maybe players like Tatum and Brown reach that level if thrown the keys to the car, and maybe a healthier Hayward changes the calculus entirely for these Celtics. But there’s a lot more ifs without Irving.
Instead of dreaming about a two-star headlining tandem in Irving and Davis, the Celtics would prioritize development while trying to figure out whether the next face of the franchise exists in-house, or must be extracted elsewhere.
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