The funny thing about first-round picks is they lose value the second a team actually uses one to select a player. For years, the Celtics have been amassing picks in hopes of packaging them for something bigger. On the night of the 2019 draft, which lacked when it came to actual player movement, Boston’s draft assets finally became something tangible, as the team selected Romeo Langford, Grant Williams, Carsen Edwards and Tremont Waters with its four picks (while also trading back to pick up future selections.) The assets that were trade bait for so long are now living, breathing players who will need to be developed before they can be moved. And a Celtics team that went into last season as a Finals hopeful now finds itself in the midst of a mini-youth movement.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Boston as it trudges forward will be the timeline Danny Ainge puts on his team’s title aspirations. The Celtics may need to take a half-step back before taking two steps forward. Surely there will be lots of discussion this summer about what went wrong for Boston in 2019. One aspect of their disappointment almost certainly had to do with the natural tension between the young core and older players on the roster. The Jayson Tatums and Jaylen Browns of the world had to take something of a backseat with Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving healthy last season, which—instead of an up-and-coming team—made Boston something more of a title contender that was also trying to develop young players.
That’s a difficult task to pull off! Now Irving and frontcourt stalwart Al Horford both seem to be on their way out of Boston, but that could force Ainge down a path that has some advantages moving forward. Most notably, handing over the team to Brown and Tatum—a duo that beat Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid in back-to-back playoff series—could be beneficial in the long-term. Brown and Tatum almost certainly had to sacrifice too much last season with Irving and Hayward in the mix, and putting the team on their schedule makes a lot of sense for the future of the franchise.
For as much as I like to make fun of the Celtics for repeatedly deciding not to acquire a superstar, that hasn’t left the cupboard bare. Tatum and Brown have already been mentioned, while Marcus Smart also remains in the mix on a team-friendly (that means he’s underpaid!) contract. Robert Williams will get more minutes next season. Langford and Williams could prove to be useful. And management could try to bring back Terry Rozier to fill the expected hole at point guard. That group isn’t as sexy as a team headlined by Kyrie and Anthony Davis, but it’s not all doom and gloom for this team either. With Irving and Horford likely walking, Boston should also have some cap room to play with this summer, and if it renounces Rozier, the front office could end up with max space.
The interesting wrinkle in all of this is Hayward. Do the Celtics think he can be the type of player he was when he first signed with the team in 2017? If Hayward returns to All-Star status, then Boston’s hopes of competing for a title, especially as the league gets less top heavy, remain somewhat realistic. But not only does Hayward need to regain his form, he also apparently needs to regain the support of his teammates, who reportedly were upset with the way Brad Stevens handled his re-integration into the lineup last season.
Boston’s hopes of acquiring an Anthony Davis-type talent may be dashed in the short-term, but after catching my breath from laughing, the truth is this summer hasn’t been a complete and total disaster from the Celtics. Losing Irving isn’t ideal, but he also hasn’t proven he can be the best player on a title team—and there are already rumors the Nets don’t want to bring him in without a second star. Horford was Boston’s backbone for so long, but paying him max money when big contracts are on the horizon for younger players also doesn’t seem prudent.
The best thing the Celtics can do is not overreact. If anything, what this summer has done is put them back on a more natural path of team building. Brad Stevens can place the team firmly in the control of the young core, and Ainge can get a better read on the potential Brown and Tatum have to become their own star duo. If Hayward becomes Gordon Hayward again, then Boston will already have one star in place with money to buttress the roster around Brown, Hayward, and Tatum, ideally with more role players and less egos.
The lesson for the Celtics may very well end up being that Danny Ainge can’t have his cake and eat it too. It’s hard to have young guys the team expects to be All-Stars and pair them with vets who command the ball. And it’s hard for that whole team to stay in sync when the front office is repeatedly dangling some combination of them for another player. For at least one season, Ainge should commit to handing over his team to the emerging players on his roster and see what they can make of it. Maybe Tatum and Brown themselves can develop into the championship headliners the Celtics have been desperately seeking. Now that all the wheeling and dealing has left Boston with less stars and more young players, Ainge should try to find out what they can actually do instead of who else they could become.