Last season was supposed to be the start of something special. Championship or not, Kyrie Irving had intended on re-signing in Boston, the hope was that Al Horford would take a hometown discount, and a big trade for Anthony Davis for a package of picks and prospects would leave the young core largely intact. That was supposed to be the start of an extended championship window and the beginning of another Boston dynasty.
None of that happened and now we’re here.
With the fifth youngest roster in the league and eight rookies heading into training camp next month, the 2019-2020 season could be the start of a rebuild that nobody expected. There doesn’t seem to be a big move around the corner or a stash of draft picks that Danny Ainge could consolidate for a foundation-shifting trade. Gone are the days daydreaming about AD and Kevin Durant. As one CelticsBlogger put it in our Slack, this is now a “what you see is what you’ve got” team.
The Celtics seem committed to building around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Both had been rumored to be in different trade scenarios for Davis, but in addition to other mitigating circumstances--mainly that AD really only wanted to be a Laker--the Jays are still in Celtic green and look to be for the foreseeable future. The 21 and 22-year-old have been standouts representing Team USA at the FIBA World Cup this summer and in a wing-centric league, Boston has two of the brightest young stars.
Next season could mark the end of the growing pains portion of their careers. Not only have they developed their games over the last three seasons that included trips to the Eastern Conference Finals, both have outgrown the coddling that “promise” and “potential” afforded them and of course, last year’s telenovela of an NBA season. This is their time now and they know it.
Kemba Walker is also here on a four-year contract. While he may seem like some consolation prize in the wake of Kyrie Irving’s departure, the 29-year-old bet the rest of his prime on the Celtics and what they’re building. He’s been an All-Star for three consecutive years including an all-NBA 3rd Team election last year and played in 79, 80, and 82 regular season games before coming to Boston.
Of all the players that have been through the doors of Waltham, none were more successful than Isaiah Thomas. In a recent interview with The Athletic’s Joe Vardon, teammate Marcus Smart said, “(Walker) fits in perfectly. Everything that Brad envisions as players, (Walker) has it.” He may not have the resume or ultimate ceiling of Irving, but Kemba has proved his entire career that he’s a gamer with a blue collar mentality minus the bravado and baggage.
That trio along with fellow USA Basketball teammate Marcus Smart seem locked into the Boston’s plans moving forward. The wild card could be Gordon Hayward. After re-teaming with his former college coach two years ago, he suffered a gruesome leg injury in his first minutes as a Celtic and trudged through his second season on his comeback trail. After spending most of the summer in town at The Auerbach Center, Hayward returns for Year Three looking to prove himself, too.
Hayward has a player option next off-season and this is only speculation at this point, but I’d imagine that he’d either pick it up or return on a new long-term deal. In his thank you letter to Utah in The Players’ Tribune, he spoke of “unfinished business” with Stevens as a factor in his free agency decision; that “unfinished business” is still outstanding. Count Hayward as player #5 in the Celtics’ talented foundation.
Outside of that core, there are other signs that the Celtics are in it for the long haul. Instead of kicking the can down the road towards a future draft, Boston used all of their picks in 2019 and put together a solid class. Carsen Edwards, Grant Williams, and Romeo Langford ranked high as steals of the draft in the Rookie Survey and Edwards and Langford ranked in the top-15 in which rookies would have the best careers. Edwards, Williams, and Langford won’t be stashed at the end of the bench in favor of traveled veterans like Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes. They could all see significant minutes next season, not as developmental playing time, but contributors to an Eastern Conference contender.
Obviously, things could change. Hayward’s final guaranteed year could be used as trade flotsam. Someone from the summer’s underrated rookie class could pop, their perceived value could exceed their draft stock, and they could quickly become an enticing trade chip. The NBA middle class contracts of Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter could be cobbled together for an impact move. The last mutation of the Brooklyn trade is Memphis’s 2020 first rounder that’s top-6 protected and unprotected in 2021. Depending where it falls, that could be another way to add quality talent.
However, prepare for a long road. For the last few years, there always seemed to be a hand for Danny to play on a big pot. But now, the franchise seems to be settling in to a grinder position. Protect the small stack. Make the smart play. Since the end of last year’s disappointing playoff exit, Ainge has stressed--on more than one occasion--the importance of character and “good people mak(ing) coming to work more fun.” Those aren’t the words of a ruthless GM willing to do anything to win.