I’m not sure Danny Ainge saw this outcome coming, even in his nightmares. The Boston Celtics have had the worst 2019 possible so far. Their team, pegged as a title contender, slowly collapsed over the course of the year, and they were knocked out of the second round of the playoffs without so much as a whimper. Now, Kyrie Irving is almost guaranteed to head to Brooklyn after spending all year criticizing his teammates, Anthony Davis is on the Lakers, and even Al Horford, the paragon of veteran mentorship, plans to leave Boston and sign with another team.
The future has never been murkier. But they can’t afford to linger on past mistakes. Ainge and Co. must look to the future and consider what to do next. A championship isn’t in the near future, but it’s entirely possible to set themselves up for long-term success. Here are the steps the Celtics should take to recover from their no-good, very bad season and start fresh come fall of 2019.
Use their draft picks
The Celtics were widely considered to be a top candidate to trade at least one of the three mid-round draft picks they have in this year’s draft. Now, however, it might be time to use them. This is a weak draft, and in an ideal world they flip the No. 20 and 22 overall picks for a future first. But that’s what everyone is trying to do, and finding a trade partner will be almost impossible. The Celtics are better off using them all and hoping one lands. The draft is light on potential superstars, but seems to be stocked with solid rotation players, and the Celtics are now on a timeline where they’ll have several years to develop whatever talent they find.
Ideally, they end up with a point guard and a stretch big man prospect, with a wild card thrown in between. Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Nic Claxton are two names that come to mind as potential targets, and if he’s still there in the 20s, Bol Bol is worth taking a chance on.
Stay out of the free agent market
If the Celtics renounce all of their free agents, they’ll have around $30 million in cap space to make a move. They should not. Any player who’s both talented and young is going to command a huge deal in this year’s coveted market, and there’s no use in getting into a bidding war over someone like D'Angelo Russell. If some veterans want to come in and make some money on a short deal, then the Celtics have nothing to lose but financial flexibility. But there’s no one player who would realistically consider Boston that will take this team from a middling but young squad to a championship contender.
The cap will roll over into next year, and Ainge likes to keep his options open. Cap space lets him do that. There’s no use in overpaying for a mid-tier player, and options like Kawhi Leonard are completely out of the question. Stand pat and watch the madness unfold.
Let next year unfold, and what happens, happens
What can be lost in the kerfuffle of Irving and the dismantling of Ainge’s grand plan is that the Celtics have a pretty exciting young core. Marcus Smart is a first-team All-Defense player who just turned 25, and it was only last year Jayson Tatum was declared The Next Big Thing. Jaylen Brown has grown steadily, Robert Williamshad a year of blocking everything in sight, and even rotation players like Semi Ojeleye showed promise.
Letting this team run loose without the burden of expectations or public undressings by older players should result in a fun year, as it did when Hayward and Irving went down several years ago. A playoff run of that caliber was a fluke, but they were fun to watch, at the very least. The Jays could become a pair of All-Stars soon. Next year should be the closest thing to a true evaluation they’ll get, and it’ll be indicative of how the team moves forward. If they are indeed as good as they looked in 2017, Boston doesn’t have a lot to worry about.
Plus, Ainge’s war chest of picks somehow isn’t even empty yet. They own the Memphis Grizzlies’ 2020 first-round pick that will be unprotected in 2021 if the Grizzlies end up in the top five next year and keep the pick. This seems even more likely after the Mike Conley trade, which means the Celtics might end up with yet another top-five pick without having to tank.
The Celtics no longer have the brightly-lit path to contention that was the envy of the league. It’ll be dark and filled with holes and problems you can’t see until it’s right in front of you. But it’s still there. Ainge just needs to find it.