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Doomsday scenario: who are the Celtics without Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving?

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National media buzz has reached a crescendo about the Celtics future. What might that look like?

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

(Part I on the “Davis Deadline” can be found here)

“Two roads diverged at a trade deadline
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one blogger, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where all the players were still under contract”

That’s a quote that I projected from Robert Frost were he still alive today, hung out with me, and only talked to me in weak parodies of his most famous poems. You might think that Robert Frost, a poet famous for his intense love of rural life, would actually not care about the NBA trade deadline at all, and instead primarily watch The Weather Channel. However, even if he couldn’t care less about the actual sport of basketball, I think he’d find the deadline fascinating, for how an individual might react to its fruits or bleakness.

For teams, the NBA trade deadline is forced examination of self by teams in the cold, honest reflection of a mirror. Team leaders must look at the strengths and flaws of their rosters in the harsh, unrelenting light of day and ask themselves, “are we okay with this?” If that answer is “no’, they shuffle onto the panicked deadline dance floor, looking for a partner before the music stops and the lights come back on.

The Boston Celtics find themselves in a bizarre position ahead of the trade deadline. It’s public knowledge that Danny Ainge and the front office have Anthony Davis at the center of their summer plans. However, due to arcane cap rules (and Ainge’s own style of hoarding assets for when disgruntled stars become available), the Celtics are unable to trade for the market’s current top prize. As a result, they find themselves in a strange holding pattern.

NCAA Basketball: Miami at Boston College Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

For other teams that want Davis, a Celtics offer this summer that would include Jayson Tatum and the Memphis pick (among other assets) has become the Jaws theme, lightly playing the background only to accelerate and become louder the closer to the deadline we come. The Lakers continue to try to use their, ahem, own agency combined with media pressure to force their less appealing offers. Thus far, New Orleans isn’t biting, and seems to have wisely read their desperate situation as an opportunity to gouge the Lakers. Besides calling out for the Pelicans to wait, however, the Celtics don’t have much of a role over the next half week besides sitting and waiting.

The national media has dragged Kyrie Irving into the national spotlight, confronting him at multiple media availabilities about his summer plans. Some might say this increased spotlight on Irving ramped up after the Knicks trading franchise cornerstone Kristaps Porzingis for gobs of cap space.

Side note, but looking at the particulars of that Knicks deal, Porzingis’s injury history paired with his impending restricted free agency, and what we know about James Dolan, I find it far more likely the Knicks were tired of Porzingis being rude to them and found a good deal at a time that created ample political cover to move him.

In fact, there were media rumors that Irving was going to leave the Celtics to reunify with LeBron in LA until New York’s moves provided a more feasible option. I’m not sure who has something to gain by calling into the question the Celtics team construction going forward and their willingness to trade for Anthony Davis, but I guess that’s a question we’ll never have answered.

Anyway, this maelstrom of reporting, (whether earnest or nefarious) has heightened anxieties across New England that the Celtics could have dealt a top-10 pick for one playoff run and Irving might leave in the summer. I’m here to tell you that, while it might be quite bad, not getting Davis and/or Irving’s departure would not be an apocalyptic result for Gang Green. Let’s take a look at the scenarios.

No Anthony Davis

NBA: Indiana Pacers at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

While reporting over the last 24 hours has seemed to indicated the Lakers are unlikely to end up with Davis before the deadline, it’s not realistic to consider the Celtics a perfect lock as this summer’s Davis heir apparent. Other teams could come forward with compelling Davis offers, including the to-be-determined destination of the #1 overall pick and Zion Williamson. Ainge has been preparing for this day since the 2013 NBA Draft and he’ll definitely make the strongest pitch that he can. That said, some factors are beyond the Celtics control and there’s not much to be done if other teams make a hard pivot such as a suddenly-cornered Philadelphia putting Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons on the table.

In that scenario, the Celtics find themselves right back where they started the season. It’s likely that Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier won’t be back, especially in the scenario where the Celtics retain Kyrie Irving. That said, it’s not like the Celtics wouldn’t have options going forward for team improvement. Consider that the Celtics have all their own picks, to go along with two likely lottery picks in the Kings and Memphis picks and a possible “middle first round” pick from the Clippers. Outside of a funny-money top-55 protected pick to Memphis this year, the Celtics even have all their own seconds. Compare this, for example, to the Dallas Mavericks, who will now have two great young players, but a Nets-esque impact of their future first round picks through at least 2023.

A “standing pat” Celtics team would lose some of their incredible depth, but would likely get even younger, with the Kings pick rookie and the Celtics own pick rookie joining the team. Ideally, the Celtics would give Robert Williams a bigger role in the center rotation and find another big to shore up the position. The Celtics would be firmly in the tax, but will still have no real glaring holes outside of perhaps back up point guard, where Marcus Smart or even a (hopefully) improved Gordon Hayward could absorb some minutes.

NBA: Boston Celtics at New York Knicks Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Despite their tax situation, the Celtics could still have the assets to make middling improvements on the edges of the roster. The biggest question of the off season would then be Al Horford, who has a massive player option he could take or leave. Right now, I would bet right now that Al opts into it, but I could also see he and the Celtics working out a deal wherein Horford opts out and loses some per-year-dollar value in exchange for the security of another long contract, perhaps something in the three-year, $70-80 million range.

As much as the Celtics harshest critics would want to will it into existence, the Celtics would still have plenty of upside and options if Davis went elsewhere, although much of the value is contingent on Ainge continuing his four year streak of nailing draft picks. Even a Celtics team in crisis this year has stabilized themselves as a contender in the East with the third highest point differential in the league. Missing out on Davis still creates a team with very good upside and moderate assets.

However, the reason Ainge has planned for a half decade is not to have “very good upside” but to become a possible title favorite. Missing out on Davis means missing out on an opportunity for the Celtics to put themselves in the rarefied air of dynastic opportunity. Players as young and good as Davis almost never become available, so once this opportunity is gone, it’s unlikely to happen again for some time. No Davis probably means an extended time in the contender-but-not-favorite tier.

An Irving Departure

Personally, I remain skeptical that Kyrie leaves. It’s a scary proposition that is ever-present in the news cycle, but many of Irving’s quotes and interviews in their full context seem to read more like a player who is frustrated with his choices becoming a news story. That said, I also think Irving is keeping his options open and I do think there is a timeline where he might consider finding greener pastures.

NBA: Boston Celtics at New York Knicks Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Something I keep coming back to (and a point that was also highlighted by Zach Lowe on a recent episode of his podcast) is how cataclysmically important post season success will be to this particular class of NBA free agents. It’s entirely possible that that the six top free agents this off season (Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Al Horford) will have their decision tremendously impacted by what happens in this year’s playoffs. At least one and possibly two of Philadelphia, Boston, and Toronto will not make the Conference Finals. What happens with their hopes around their big free agents if they lose in the conference semis in five games? What if the Warriors three-peat and Durant decides it’s time for his next challenge? What if Durant stays and the Warriors try to squeeze Thompson to trim their exorbitant tax bill?

In a worst case scenario, wherein the Celtics experience an early exit, and Irving decides that James Dolan is the owner for him, the Celtics will be negatively impacted but not totally annihilated. Irving leaving gives the Celtics no meaningful cap space in 2019, but it would trigger a reconfiguration of team’s veteran young-player emphasis.

Once again, the wild card for the Celtics is Al Horford, and how personally interested he would be in continuing with a team that didn’t have an All-Star player like Isaiah Thomas or Kyrie Irving. That may come down to the progress of Gordon Hayward’s recovery and the progress of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. If Horford decides to opt out and leave, the Celtics probably find themselves a middling East playoff team should the team remain the same. That said, the Celtics would then be able to open a max slot and recalibrate the team with a younger player that might fit their new core’s timeline better.

Even in a worst case scenario where Hayward never recovers, the Celtics will still likely be able use his massive deal as salary matching while they continue to pursue the next batch of possibly disgruntled stars like Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, or Bradley Beal. In this timeline, the Celtics would suddenly have the power/desire to match RFA offers for Rozier, which might suppress his market and make it possible for the Celtics to retain him. On top of all of this, the Celtics would still have some good picks on their way to put cheap young talent around their slightly-less-young core, even as Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum become expensive players.

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The worst case scenario for Celtic fans would be if they traded a king’s ransom for Davis, Irving left, and Davis followed him out the door the next year. That said, I just don’t think it’s realistic that Kyrie Irving would totally be out on a opportunity to play with Davis. A Celtics trade for Davis would almost certainly be agreed to on Draft Night and consummated later, so Irving would probably know that Davis was coming well in advance of his own free agency. Even if it’s something as simple as signing a “one plus one” deal that only extends his time in Boston a little, I would bet Irving re-signs with the Celtics should they acquire Davis, because it would simply be too tantalizing (not to mention get him the most money) to see what a season with Davis would bring.

Now, if THAT team flamed out in the playoffs, the Celtics would truly be in danger of having to totally start their team from scratch again if the two walked together in the summer 2020. However, at that point, Danny Ainge went all in for a title and got two of the best 10 players in the NBA on one team. It’s hard to argue that that gamble won’t have been worth the possible upside.

Winning a title in the NBA is tough, and the Boston Celtics are trying to navigate the complicated final stages of making that happen. It’s unlikely that the events of the next four months ruin the Celtics’ future, but it may mean the difference between being the Steve Nash Suns, the Post-Durant Thunder, or a true East rival to the Warriors final act. Celtics fans dreams might not be crushed, but they may be narrowed down.