It appears increasingly likely that the Boston Celtics will lose Kyrie Irving to free agency, which would leave them without a superstar player. But if Irving bolts, the Celtics shouldn’t make a move to fill the void his departure would create. They should instead build through their core.
The 2018-19 NBA season didn’t go as the Celtics envisioned. After being considered the favorite to win the Eastern Conference, they finished 49-33 and claimed the four seed in the conference. After sweeping the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the playoffs, they proceeded to lose to the Milwaukee Bucks in five games the ensuing round.
The sky is now falling. Irving may leave in free agency, and there’s recurring chatter that Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris could be on the move as well. Despite the panic, the Celtics will be just fine because Irving’s free agency and Gordon Hayward’s return from an ankle injury has distracted many from the talented core they possess.
One year ago, the basketball world was drooling over Jayson Tatum. He was thriving as the Celtics go-to scorer in the wake of Irving and Hayward’s absence. He was playing in isolation and operating with aggression on the way to averaging 18.5 points per game in the postseason while also playing at a high level defensively. Tatum still has that skill set.
Jaylen Brown is one of the most underrated wings in the NBA. He’s a tenacious defender, provides an athletic presence on both ends of the floor, and has found success in the starting five and off the bench. A two-man game on the outside of Tatum and Brown would be deadly as the featured part of an offense.
Al Horford is one of the best centers in the NBA. He has a smooth midrange game, can play in the post, hits the boards, is a lockdown defender, and a superb passer. Horford is the glue that keeps the Celtics together, and general manager Danny Ainge realizes that.
According to NBC Sports Boston‘s A. Sherrod Blakely, the Celtics are looking to re-work the big man’s contract to keep him in Beantown for the long-term.
Marcus Smart is an elite on-ball defender. He’s a pest on his cover, dives after loose balls, and while he’s not known for his offensive abilities, Smart is coming off a year where he shot a career-best 42.2 percent from the field and 36.4 percent from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, Hayward is going to have the training wheels removed and, when healthy, has been one of the most steady scorers in the association in recent memory.
These players — minus Hayward because he was out during this period of time — were glorified after the Celtics took the Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Then Irving returned, and nobody cared about the effort and grit they play with because the NBA is a league and landscape obsessed with stars.
So, let’s play out a couple of scenarios the Celtics may pursue this summer. The first is they look to replace Irving in free agency by forking over a max contract for a top-flight point guard such as Kemba Walker, or give a youngster such as Malcolm Brogdon an enormous offer sheet. How much better are the Celtics? They’d be swapping Irving for another very good/elite player, but are they better than the Milwaukee Bucks with such change? The Philadelphia 76ers? Heck, what about the Toronto Raptors if they re-sign Kawhi Leonard?
The other scenario is trading for Anthony Davis. According to Sports Illustrated‘s Chris Mannix, the Celtics are going to continue to pursue a trade for the big man. And they could easily pull off a deal, as it has been mentioned that the New Orleans Pelicans love Tatum. Plus, they have intriguing players such as Brown and Smart, as well as a boatload of draft picks they could put on the table. However, what do the Celtics have left if they trade their assets to the Pelicans?
The point of acquiring Davis for the Celtics has been to pair him with Irving, but if the latter is leaving in free agency, it defeats the purpose of making the trade. After executing the deal, the Celtics would be left with few, if any assets given how the Pelicans would have leverage with the Celtics — who would be making the deal to replace the star void created by Irving’s departure. Is Davis, Horford, and Hayward really an upgrade over what the Celtics had this season?
Earlier this decade, the Celtics were enamored with the prospect of acquiring Kevin Love to pair with Rajon Rondo. However, instead of depleting their roster for Love, they embarked on a rebuilding project, traded Rondo for a haul, let their youth grow, and, when the time came, made big moves. These included trading for Isaiah Thomas and signing Horford. Two seasons after Love was traded to the Cavaliers, the Celtics made the Eastern Conference Finals.
Tatum, Brown, and Smart is an advanced young core of players who will become more productive and improve in larger roles. Having veterans such as Horford and Hayward makes that core even more dangerous. Concurrently, the Celtics have three first-round picks in this year’s NBA Draft (14, 20, 22). Now, could those picks be used to make a blockbuster trade? Of course, but they could also be used to move up in the draft for a player the Celtics love.
Or, if they keep the picks, the Celtics add three players to fill out their rotation and maybe become focal points of their future. How many teams in the NBA can lose their best player and say they have blossoming young players, accomplished veterans, and multiple first-round draft picks in the present? The answer: none.
Let’s also not forget the people calling the shots upstairs and on the sidelines for the Celtics. Ainge is always working the phones and looking for ways to improve their roster. With that said, he rarely makes panic decisions and is adept at building teams with depth, both before and after Irving’s arrival. Brad Stevens is regarded as one of the best head coaches in the NBA, as he gets the most out of his players, and the Celtics have been an elite defensive team under his watch.
More often than not, teams develop buyer’s remorse from panic decisions. Boston can do damage control by sticking with the players that have been forgotten — who are also the ones that can bring them back to prominence.