BOSTON — Last week, hours before the Celtics' game against Charlotte, Danny Ainge settled into a seat along the Celtics bench, his top lieutenants—assistant GM Mike Zarren, Director of Player personnel Austin Ainge and Director of Scouting Dave Lewin—alongside him and did the only thing Boston really can do in the days leading up to the Feb. 7 trade deadline: They waited. Indeed, the Celtics—no strangers to big deals and roster shakeups—are hoping this deadline comes and goes with little fanfare.
As the Pelicans field offers for Anthony Davis, Boston’s message to New Orleans has been direct: Wait. Wait, and we will come to you with an offer that will make it worth it. Wait, and you can raid our stash of draft picks. The Celtics have refused to directly dangle Jayson Tatum, two sources familiar with the situation told SI.com, but the Pelicans have been left with the impression that if Davis remains on the roster past Thursday, nothing is off the table.
These are interesting days in Boston, with the Celtics efforting to solve their season-long chemistry issues on the court while the front office is contemplating ways to reshape the roster off of it. Boston intends to be relentless in its pursuit of Davis, a player they have eyed as a top trade target for more than a year. The Celtics sat out the Jimmy Butler trade talks and were reluctant to fully engage on Kawhi Leonard, when they knew a Jaylen Brown–headlined package likely would have got a deal done. Davis is this year’s biggest prize, and the most desirable player on the trade market since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. If given the opportunity, Boston won’t be outbid.
Davis’s agent, Rich Paul, has shrewdly tried to maneuver Davis to Los Angeles, to pair Davis with Paul’s top client, LeBron James, in an effort to squeeze a few more championship runs out of James’s career. Paul went public with a trade request nearly two weeks before the deadline, knowing that Boston—which can’t have Kyrie Irving and Davis on the roster before July 1, due to a contractual clause in the CBA—could not get into the mix. It’s a gamble, because if the Pelicans hold onto Davis past the deadline, it will all be for nothing. Davis easily could have waited until July 1, rejected the Pelicans' extension offer and waited until New Orleans made a deal. Instead, he cast himself as the villain, creating what could be a very uncomfortable few months with an organization he has said he no longer wants any part of.
The Celtics have monitored all this, and the reactions have been muted. There’s little that could be leaked out of Davis’s camp that will dissuade Ainge from making a substantial offer after the deadline. The list of teams Davis would welcome a trade to grew to include the Knicks, Clippers and Bucks on Monday, and Ainge simply doesn’t care. He went through this, in 2007, when Kevin Garnett initially resisted a trade to Boston. KG eventually relented, agreed to a contract extension—and won a championship in his first season. “It’s about creating an environment where they can reach their goals,” Ainge said in a radio interview last week. “That’s usually how you keep players.” Boston has been painstakingly researching Davis over the last year. They believe he badly wants to win, which Davis affirmed in a gaggle with local reporters last week. And they believe he wants to play with Kyrie Irving.
Irving created a stir in New York last week, when he appeared to backtrack on a preseason proclamation that he intended to re-sign with Boston this offseason. “Ask me July 1st,” Irving said, prompting speculation that Irving could now go elsewhere. But the Celtics remain quietly confident that they are on the same page with Irving, maintaining constant communication with the All-Star guard. “A partnership,” is how one source described the Celtics relationship with Irving, who has been frustrated—like many inside Boston’s locker room—by the uneven play this season but has been positive, publicly and privately, about the direction of the franchise.
The root of his frustration, a former teammate of Irving’s told SI.com, could have little to do with Boston at all. Irving hates the narrative that other players (Kevin Durant in New York; Davis in Boston) can influence his decision, the ex-teammate said. He gets frustrated when he feels people are trying to manipulate him. In his mind, it doesn’t matter if it’s Davis or James—he’s going to do whatever he wants to do, and to assume otherwise is disrespectful.
Two days before the deadline and Boston will be on pins and needles until it passes. They know the Pelicans are enamored with Tatum, whose potential to develop into a franchise forward dwarfs that of any player the Lakers have to offer. The Celtics have pushed New Orleans on the idea that all the offers they are getting now will be there come July, and Boston’s offer could trump all of them. It’s a high stakes game with franchise changing implications.