By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics haven’t had a great week. They just watched Kawhi Leonard, a player they chose not to go all-in for last summer, help their Atlantic Division rival Toronto Raptors win a title. Kyrie Irving is as good as gone, going to either a different division rival or Boston’s biggest rival. And over the weekend, the Los Angeles Lakers outbid Boston for Anthony Davis, a player Danny Ainge has coveted since before Davis was even in the NBA.
So, yeah, it wasn’t a great couple of days for Boston basketball, which now seems destined for a youth movement and a trip to the abyss that is known as NBA mediocrity. The Celtics should still be a good team if they roll back what they had last season, minus Kyrie, but they’re far from being a title contender. It could be worse, but it could have been a whole lot better.
However, Ainge was wise not to overpay for Davis. It would have cost him Jayson Tatum and a lot more for what could have ended up being just one season of Davis in a Celtics uniform. The Lakers just emptied the cabinets to pair the Brow with LeBron — sending three players, three future first-round picks and the rights to swap another — and the Celtics weren’t going to do that without security from the Davis, especially with Irving’s future in green looking so grim. Now they’re left to build around Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart, all of whom have shown some promise, but none of whom will be bringing Boston to the promised land in the next few years.
So Celtics fans are standing around like Idris Elba at the end of every season of Luther, quizzically asking “Now what?” to anyone who will listen. Davis rumors circled for years, and now they’re gone, and it didn’t end in the desired result. The Celtics still have their treasure trove of assets and will still find themselves in every imaginable trade rumor, but none will carry the cache that the Davis talks brought.
But that is where Danny Ainge will do his real work. There is a Plan B, C, D, and so forth out there for the Celtics, trades that we probably don’t even know are a possibility. Rumors of a Ray Allen trade didn’t start to surface until just before the NBA Draft in 2007. The Kendrick Perkins trade caught everyone off guard in the minutes after the 2011 trade deadline. And just two summers ago, when Ainge snagged Irving from the Cavaliers, it was a move that received very little talk until it was actually agreed upon.
That’s how Ainge operates, hiding in the shadows with all of his assets (and likely a burrito from Chipotle), ready to pounce. He had the chance to get Davis, but the price tag was much too high, so now he’ll be ready when the next star hits the trade market.
Until then, the Celtics have a few in-house matters to deal with. They’re reportedly trying to re-work Al Horford’s contract, lowering his 2019-20 salary while adding two more years to his deal. That would give them a veteran leader for three more seasons, and some flexibility to add another veteran to the mix this summer.
They also need to find a replacement for Irving. There aren’t many options on the free agent market, and trading for a veteran like Mike Conley would be complicated. They may end up bringing back restricted free agent Terry Rozier, who nearly talked himself out of town when Boston’s postseason run ended. But Rozier wants to be a starter, the Celtics need a starter, and they can match any offer he receives in restricted free agency. Rozier isn’t going to get the massive contract he wanted after last year’s successful stint in place of an injured Irving, and he proved to be more than serviceable whenever he filled in for Irving during off-nights last season. It’s not ideal, but it’s where the Celtics are right now.
Boston also has three first-round draft picks to work with on Thursday night. With the bevy of young talent already on the roster in Tatum, Brown, Smart, Semi Ojeleye, Guerschon Yabusele, and Robert Williams, chances are Ainge will not be adding three new players to his roster (not to mention Boston’s second-round pick). They could go draft-and-stash, as they did a few years ago, but it’s a better bet that Ainge packages a few of these picks to either move up Thursday night or land a veteran player. One way or another, Thursday night is going to be a busy one of the Celtics.
All indications are that the Celtics will pivot from building an immediate contender to building around their young core. That could mean bringing the band back for next season, but with Rozier starting in place with Irving. The hope is that with Gordon Hayward having a healthy offseason, he’ll look more like the player Boston gave a max contract to two years ago and not the player they got last season, and that will make a big difference. It won’t be nearly as talented of a roster they rolled out opening night last year, but maybe they won’t have the chemistry issues that plagued them all of last season.
Essentially, say farewell to any hopes for Banner 18 next season. But the rebuild the Celtics started with the Brooklyn trade in 2013 is still on track. They won’t be winning a title, which is always the ultimate goal in Boston, but they will still be building toward one. It’s just going to take a little bit longer once again.