Don’t cry for the Boston Celtics.
Sure, their biggest free agent splash of the decade — Gordon Hayward — suffered a horrific injury in his very first game with the team and hasn’t been close to the same since, despite the Celtics pushing him to the forefront of their gameplan. Sure, their second biggest free agent splash and actual biggest free agent acquisition of this era — Al Horford — appears to be walking away amid a contract impasse this summer. Sure, foundational superstar Kyrie Irving, acquired in a blockbuster trade two summers ago, appears to be walking away in free agency to join a division rival. Sure, the Celtics failed to acquire Anthony Davis, the generational superstar Boston has been lusting after for half a decade. Sure, the Celtics watched their mortal enemies, the Los Angeles Lakers, add Davis to their team.
But don’t cry for the Boston Celtics.
This is brutal blow after brutal blow after brutal blow, to be sure. The dreams of the Celtics becoming the NBA’s next superpower are dead. That’s not happening after Boston loses both Irving and Horford for nothing, after missing out on Davis, and assuming that Hayward doesn’t transform back into the player he was three years ago.
The lightning is out of the bottle. But the room isn’t dark.
The Celtics still have Jaylen Brown (age 22) and Jayson Tatum (age 21) on rookie deals. The Celtics have three first-round picks (Nos. 14, 20, and 22) in Thursday’s NBA Draft. Marcus Smart, one of the league’s premier perimeter stoppers, is on a team-friendly contract. Boston has a future Grizzlies draft pick that will become unprotected in 2021 if it hasn’t been conveyed by then. The Celtics will have loads of cap space this summer assuming Irving and Horford both do walk. They have Danny Ainge and one of the most well-respected front offices in the league. They have Brad Stevens, still a well-respected coach even if a bit of shine came off this year.
The Celtics are going to be fine.
We’ll see what tact Ainge and the Celtics deal with the triptych of picks on Thursday and the rest of this free agency sprint. Boston could continue to hunt big game — there are suggestions that the Celtics could chase Bradley Beal by packaging picks and a prospect to the Wizards — or that Ainge could slide into the free agency mix.
The most intriguing path, though, is the path of least resistance: simply resetting expectations and building around Tatum and Brown.
Remember that a huge reason for the Celtics’ sure ascendance was the way the team looked with Irving and Hayward out of commission at the end of the 2017-18 season and through a plump playoff run. Tatum looked like a future All-NBA caliber player. Brown looked like a future Defensive Player of the Year. Stevens looked like a genius. Of course, that team had Horford, an integral defender on a team that relied on defense, and Horford is a special player that will be mighty difficult to replace. But Boston has time.
Tatum regressed this season — the old sophomore slump hit him — but there’s nothing structurally wrong with his game. It’s a matter of refinement and role. He’ll learn to take better shots. Assuming the C’s don’t keep Irving and don’t add another ball-dominant guard, Tatum’s role will be back in a more natural place as a No. 1 or 2 scorer.
Brown finished the season really strong and looked like the most valuable Celtics at times during the playoffs. His combination of intelligence and athleticism is hard to match among young wings — not because there aren’t many other smart young wings, but because Brown is so cerebral.
Ainge doesn’t nail every draft pick, but Boston is among the better teams in that realm. (Leveraging the No. 1 pick in the year Markelle Fultz was the consensus No. 1 pick into Tatum and this year’s No. 14 pick is a nice win.) One expects that with three picks on Thursday, the Celtics will come out with something of good value, whether it’s a single prospect Ainge trades up for, a couple of lesser prospects, or a veteran trade target like Clint Capela.
Another reason everyone was so high on Boston was the fragility of the Eastern Conference. That hasn’t changed. The Raptors are champions, but there’s no indication as to whether Kawhi Leonard will remain. The superteam Knicks aren’t going to happen, after all. The Sixers and Bucks remain strong, but have major, major free agency tests to pass in the coming weeks. Even with everything falling apart, the Celtics do not appear to be at major risk of falling down to No. 9 or worse. They won’t be the favorite barring a major swing, but they will remain in the mix even if they reset.
This isn’t how the Celtics or the Celtics fandom expected things to go in 2019. On the whole, it’s a bad beat. But that’s relative to expectations. Reset those, and it all looks a little brighter.
The Celtics probably won’t be great for at least a couple more years, if then. But the Celtics will be fine. Take solace in that.