The Celtics entered the offseason with a lot of different options but few could have foreseen the choices that they ended up making.
Boston was coming off an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals and equipped with the top overall pick. It was obvious that they were still a level below the Cavs and Warriors so they were determined to raise the talent level on the team.
Usually the most straightforward path makes the most sense. Danny Ainge could have simply added Gordon Hayward, picked Markelle Fultz, and worked around the edges to fill out the roster and everyone would have called the offseason a rousing success. Questions about Isaiah Thomas and his contract situation could have been dealt with next offseason.
“What if” questions are always dicey. Anyone familiar with the Butterfly Effect understands that any decision along the way could have ripple effect changes to every decision that followed. If the Celtics pick Fultz, does Irving encourage the Celtics to make a trade for him later in the summer?
I suppose if you really want to go down a rabbit hole, you could wonder if Hayward would have gotten injured if Isaiah was tossing him that alley-oop. At some point these things border on the ridiculous and ultimately none of it really matters as it is all make believe.
Still, I think there’s value in considering the unchosen alternatives when evaluating the front office’s decisions. The Celtics took the road less travelled, but was it worth the trip?
To me it all centers around two major decisions. Trading the #1 pick and trading Isaiah Thomas (and other pieces) for Kyrie Irving. Gordon Hayward was the plan all along so I’m putting that aside as a constant (I’m going to leave out the injury in this analysis, which was a freak accident).
Markelle Fultz was widely considered the top overall talent in the draft. He’s had some early bumps in the road thus far, but it is way too soon to make any relevant determinations on his career trajectory and point guards are prone for longer take-offs than most. Would Thomas’ tutelage have put him in a better position to succeed?
Isaiah Thomas had a better season that Kyrie Irving last year. He was due for a payday but he’s far from old and as long as he comes back from his injury without any long term damage, there’s reason to believe he’ll keep performing at an All Star level. We wouldn’t have had him for the first half of the year and the Gordon Hayward injury would have been doubly hard to take. Still, in a weak East they could have still tread water for a few months and still make the playoffs finishing with a similar core to what they had last year. Note that they’d also still have Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the Nets pick.
So the lineup in October might look like this. Smart, Brown, Crowder, Horford, and Baynes. Fultz could come in off the bench along with Marcus Morris, Zizic, and the rest of the young guys. They would add Thomas whenever he’s ready (mid season?) and next year they’d add Hayward and the Nets pick. Or they could have used that Nets pick in another trade.
The team wouldn’t have had Kyrie Irving’s upside, but they also wouldn’t have had to painfully part ways with a National treasure like Isaiah Thomas. They’d have Fultz and the Nets pick instead of Tatum and the Lakers pick.
Personally, I think the Celtics would have been perfectly fine with that outcome. But being pragmatic, they left themselves open to other opportunities. The Sixers really wanted that top overall pick. It seems that the Celtics were looking at Tatum all along and were happy to make the swap and pick up an extra pick in the process. Then they were open to the idea of moving Thomas and other pieces for Kyrie Irving in order to align their timelines better.
Did they make the right choices? Will this version of the Celtics be better than the one that could have been? We’ll never know.