When the Boston Celtics acquired Evan Fournier at the trade deadline, eyebrows were raised due to his expiring contract. The common train of thought was that Danny Ainge would prioritize long-term help when pulling the trigger on using some or all of the Gordon Hayward TPE.
Instead, Ainge rolled the dice on short-term help, hoping that additional scoring, playmaking, and perimeter defense would be enough to see Boston deep into the playoffs. Of course, a deep playoff run is usually enough to convince players to stick around long-term and commit to a project of championship contention.
Unfortunately, Fournier’s addition didn’t go quite as planned. The Celtics couldn’t stay healthy. From Jayson Tatum’s battle with COVID, Fournier’s own tussle with the virus, and Jaylen Brown’s season-ending injury, the basketball gods had other plans. Fournier essentially became a Jaylen Brown replacement rather than an addition to an already talented wing unit.
Before the trade deadline, the Celtics wing rotation consisted of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart (combo guard), Romeo Langford, Aaron Nesmith, Grant Williams, and Semi Ojeleye. Irrespective of how highly you value Boston’s recent two lottery picks, the talent drop-off after the Jays (and Smart) was prominent, which forced Stevens’ to continue staggering his lineups to mitigate the bench’s shortcomings.
In Fournier, the team added a player with experience in leading and supplementing offenses throughout his career. That experience is what allowed the 6-foot-7 wing to operate as Jaylen Brown’s replacement so admirably. Ask yourself, had the Celtics decided to stand pat at the trade deadline, who would have taken over the starting 2-guard spot, and more importantly, where would the bench cover have come from?
There was a clear need on the roster; the Celtics had a “get out of jail free card” with the TPE and the Orlando Magic hit the reset button. The timing was too good to pass up. Fournier was a high-upside rental that the franchise hoped could sell on a longer-term project, costing only two second-round picks. At that point, there was still hope the team would get healthy and make a strong push to end the season.
Fast forward a couple of months, and the Celtics' entire landscape has changed. Brad Stevens is now running the show in the front office, and the team is focused on cap flexibility rather than immediate contention. Outside of anyone not named Tatum (and hopefully Brown), no one's roster spot is safe.
The uncertainty surrounding players' long-term security isn’t exactly enticing for free agents, especially ones who had just moved mid-season. Nobody likes moving, especially when they’re settled. So why would Fournier risk re-signing in Boston knowing that his days were potentially numbered due to the team positioning itself as players in an upcoming free agency?
For his part, Fournier did say his initial inclination was a return to the Celtics, but the two parties couldn’t reach a deal.
Evan Fournier said his first intention was to re-sign with #Celtics: "That was my priority going into the summer. Because I knew the place. I talked to Brad and we couldn't get a deal done, obviously. I was more inclined to sign there because they traded for me." Story to come— gary washburn (@GwashburnGlobe) August 3, 2021
The Celtics did move to add some “Fournier insurance” shortly before the free agency period started, bringing in veteran Josh Richardson from the Dallas Mavericks. But, with Fournier now residing down the road in New York, Ime Udoka will need to lean on some of the young talents at his disposal.
Both Romeo Langford and Aaron Nesmith are capable of filling the void left by Fournier, not individually, but collectively their skillsets more than bridge any remaining gap once Richardson is also filtered into the equation. Developmental time isn’t a luxury the Celtics have been able to afford recent draft picks, and while the clock will always be ticking due to the presence of Tatum, giving the lottery talents time to figure it out is imperative to the Celtics future.
If the Celtics plan is to pursue a Moby Dick in next summer or beyond, then having high-value young talent on the roster is a must, and for every month that Langford and Nesmith spend playing developmental minutes, their value and upside hopefully increase. There’s a method to the madness, it would seem.
Beyond the benefits of affording the young wings more playing time and understanding the Celtics took an educated risk when signing Fournier, there's one more aspect to explore. If Ainge had chosen to stand pat, the Celtics would be days away from seeing the Gordon Hayward TPE expire. When looking around the NBA landscape, can we really point to any specific player and say, “we could have got him!”?
Stevens addressed the need for spacing at the five by bringing back Al Horford, whose partially guaranteed contract allows for the elusive flexibility we’re all being told about. So, while not biting on Aaron Gordon or Nikola Vucevic was frustrating at the time, it’s actually worked in Boston’s favor — assuming Stevens’ plan has a clearly defined end goal.
For now, though, the Celtics can’t feel too aggrieved by Fournier’s decision, they didn’t match the money on offer from New York, and they had already moved to cover their back in case this scenario arose.
All that’s left is to chalk it up as a loss on the roulette machine and keep pushing forwards towards Banner 18.