Kyrie Irving and Al Horford are out. Kemba Walker and a bunch of tall guys who are not Horford are in. Also gone are Terry Rozier, Aron Baynes, and presumably Marcus Morris. One by choice, one by trade, and the other by market forces. That’s more than half the rotation of the most disappointing team in the league gone in a week.
Still in Boston, somewhat surprisingly given what the Celtics hoped to accomplish this summer, are both of the Jays: Brown and Tatum. With Brown entering his fourth season and Tatum his third, their development becomes the most important franchise consideration for the first time in their careers.
Also, still in Boston: Marcus Smart, who is the team’s conscience and soul to such a degree that he was at the top of everyone’s please do not trade this guy list. Oh and Gordon Hayward too, another year removed from the catastrophic leg injury that did as much to derail their fortunes as any other variable you care to mention. And finally, in are a trio of rookies who will compete for rotation minutes with a handful of other young holdovers.
This wasn’t the summer the Celtics envisioned, but it’s the one that became reality whenever Irving decided to check out of their orbit. Some say that was around February. Others say it was earlier than that. Maybe it was May. Doesn’t matter, really. Kyrie didn’t vibe with the C’s and they didn’t meet him on his level. Or maybe it was the other way around.
Irving’s exit heralded Horford’s departure and thus concludes a bizarre mini-era in Celtic basketball that veered wildly between gritty overachieving and sadly underwhelming. When the environment was positive, their culture was the envy of the league. When it turned negative, the Garden was depressing as hell.
Considering the way it ended, with Irving leaving for Brooklyn and Horford signing with Philadelphia, they will not be remembered fondly. In the decade or so I’ve been around the team, this was easily the most reviled Celtic team I’ve covered. They were booed often and honestly. The fans here are many things, but dumb is definitely not one of them. They know bullshit effort when they see it and that was the case far too often.
All of that is a shame because for a while the Celtics were the embodiment of a connected basketball team: smart, tough, and unselfish. That they couldn’t build on that momentum will go down as one of the great missed opportunities in recent memory.
Left in its wake is a franchise in transition. This should still be a playoff team, but most importantly, the 2019-20 Celtics have a chance to rebuild the spirit of a team that lost its way amid the cacophonous calamity of weirdness that consumed everything else in sight.
The Celtics that we will see this season will be a little bit different from the ones we’ve seen the last few years, and markedly different from the superteam dream scenario that never actually materialized.
Their offense with Walker in place of Irving and Enes Kanter in for Horford could be tremendous. They have shooting, spacing, and shot creation with Walker, Brown, Tatum, and Hayward. They drafted players who actually get to the free-throw line and they signed Kanter for whom offensive rebounding is like breathing.
Their defense without Horford and Baynes figures to take several steps back. They still have a handful of tough defenders — Smart, in particular — but Horford and Baynes erased a lot of mistakes.
They should still be a playoff team, especially if Hayward can recapture his form. If all goes well, they might even be a top-four seed in an Eastern Conference that once again lacks clarity beyond the handful of top few contenders.
Getting there will be tougher, though. With or without Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors will be formidable. Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are running back a 60-win team. The Pacers got better. The Sixers arguably got better, and at Boston’s expense. The Heat added Jimmy Butler and figure to be a lot better.
The Nets will also be better with Irving. It will be endlessly fascinating to see which team has the better season, considering Irving’s joining another young team on the rise while Kevin Durant recovers from his Achilles tear.
And here we are getting dragged back into Kyrie’s world.
Let’s stipulate here and now that Irving is a better player than Walker. Kyrie is a better shooter, and a craftier playmaker. He’s also two years younger and owns a far deeper postseason resume, one that includes an iconic shot in Game 7 of the Finals.
If you are trying to become a bellwether franchise, one that attracts prime free-agent talent to your side, you absolutely prefer Kyrie over Kemba. Over the years we’ve heard that Butler, Anthony Davis, and Kevin Durant would all love to team up with Kyrie in a market to be determined.
The Celtics thought that would be Boston with AD. Turns out the place was Brooklyn and the teammate was KD. That’s a gut punch for a franchise that dreamed up big plans even when the future seemed bright enough to light its own path.
It was a high-wire act that ended badly, but because the Celtics operated on multiple levels, the recovery isn’t as gruesome as one would have suspected. They still have an array of young talent to build around, and in Walker they have an All-NBA replacement for their departed All-NBA guard.
Because he’s played in Charlotte throughout his career with a personality that is best described as low-key, Walker has never been thought of as one of those guys. “Basketball royalty,” as Danny Ainge put it to me several years ago describing Kyrie back when everything was wide open and accessible for the Celtics.
But Kemba is very, very good. A self-made shooter who has never enjoyed the benefit of playing with a second star with the Hornets, Walker turned himself into a franchise player. A three-time all-star and third-team All-NBA performer, Walker was in line to sign a supermax deal that would keep him in Charlotte throughout his prime. The Hornets balked, the Celtics pounced, and now Walker is in Boston.
He arrives with a reputation as rock solid as his game: a no-nonsense clutch player who leads by example. Walker should thrive playing in Brad Stevens’ offense, much like Isaiah Thomas several years prior. The trick for Walker and Stevens will be developing a comprehensive strategy to unleash Kemba and empower the talented trio of wings as they try to get their careers back on track.
Brown and Tatum didn’t really regress. It’s true that their development stalled last season, but their production was more or less in line with what they’ve achieved in the past. Now it’s time for Tatum to progress as a scorer and Brown to continue working toward becoming a star caliber two-way threat.
Hayward also holds the promise of a stronger season, one that looks a lot more like the player the Celtics thought they were getting in the summer of 2017. They, along with Walker, represent the strength of this team. Figuring out how they all play together without Horford’s steady and unselfish presence is the point of this season.
Replacing Horford will be much, much tougher. A consummate pro, a wonderful defender, and a skilled playmaker, Horford was the epitome of a great teammate. That some people didn’t appreciate his many contributions is their problem, and their loss, frankly. Watching Horford play night after night was like witnessing a masterclass in positioning and spacing.
There was no way to replicate all the elements Horford brings to the equation given the limited means to acquire big men under the cap. They settled on Kanter, who is to offense what Horford is to defense. A skilled offensive rebounder with a nice touch, Kanter would be a superstar if not for his defensive limitations, which have been considerable throughout his career.
There will be opportunity for Robert Williams, who flashed a handful of holy shit moments in limited minutes. Holdover Daniel Theis and Euro import Vincent Porier are big, defensive-minded centers. Rugged Semi Ojeleye will also get a chance to prove he is more than just a matchup player who earns spot minutes.
The rookies are interesting, too. Romeo Langford was touted as a top-five pick before a thumb injury distorted his freshman season at Indiana. Grant Williams left Tennessee as a decorated tough-minded forward. Point guard Carsen Edwards was the breakout star of the NCAA Tournament. There’s a lot of talent for Stevens to absorb into a cohesive rotation, which again, is the point of this season.
Add it all together and the Celtics aren’t really rebuilding. They’re retooling. Few franchises have that luxury after experiencing their disaster scenario, but that’s the benefit of laying a solid foundation. Now we’ll see just how far that can take them.