This week, Al Horford opted out of his $22 million contract for next season, and has made it clear that he will be seeking a contract elsewhere. Honestly, I don’t blame him. He’s 33, and if he wants to win a title, his window is shrinking very, very quickly, and it’s clear after last season Boston just doesn’t make much sense. Al has been a stalwart for this team and has provided the quiet, steady leadership that the young core needed. He deserves a shot at a title as much as anyone. I know that wherever he signs, Al has earned himself a standing ovation from the Celtics faithful. He was a consummate professional, content with doing the dirty work required to win games and play at a high level.
In stark contrast to Al’s bittersweet goodbye is the unceremonious exit of one Kyrie Irving. Reports have suggested Kyrie has ghosted Danny Ainge and the Celtics all summer, and all indications are that he will be signing with the Brooklyn Nets this summer. He mostly likely already living in a dilapidated 2 bedroom Williamsburg sublet with 6 other people and a medium sized dog. For someone who has been such an enigma and so confrontational with the media, it only makes sense he take his talents to New York City, the largest media market on the face of the earth, where the media is notoriously friendly and empathetic. I am sure the friendly folks in the New York media will totally understand when he decides he doesn’t want to answer their questions, and instead goes on a tangent about the time abstraction of money or the merits of the theory of the space-time continuum. A man who on one hand declares his desire to just go out and play ball, unconcerned with the fame and stardom of an elite NBA player… while simultaneously starring and producing in an objectively terrible film (49% on RT) based upon a character from his Pepsi commercial. A man who got in front of his hometown fans and declared his desire to spend the rest of his career in Celtics green, to see his number retired alongside the greats… and then within 3 months tells the media he doesn’t owe anyone shit. Yeah, this is going to go over well for him. Good luck Nets fans, that’s all I can say.
Celtics fans should have seen this writing on the wall. In our ravenous desire to cash that treasure trove of rebuilding assets in, we weren’t concerned with things like fit and chemistry. We just assumed a proven champion like Kyrie would be capable of leading a team on his own. He even said as much, that he wanted to be the guy on his own team. But he clearly wasn’t capable of doing it on his own. Just look back at his early days with Cleveland. He couldn’t win more than 30 games on his own. Sure, those teams were pretty shitty, and he was young. I understand it’s tough to win when your second best players are Tristian Thompson or Dion Waiters or Antwan Jamison (even though he is a future hall of famer). But he basically won the same amount of games as Devin Booker with a slightly better team around him. I’ll take any of those guys over Josh Jackson or TJ Warren or Dragan Bender any day of the week. Even now, reports are surfacing that the Nets have trepidation about bringing Kyrie in without also signing another star like KD or Jimmy Buckets to be the de facto #1.
His skill and talent are without question, and those were clearly not part of the problem. Kyrie had statistically the best season of his career. Kyrie is perhaps the greatest ball handler of all time. Around the rim, he does things with his body and the ball that seem to defy the laws of physics. He is one of the greatest shooters in the greatest generation of shooters of all time. He can basically score at will. But this only proves that all the talent in the world doesn’t mean shit without chemistry, without leadership, without the intangibles. He alienated a young team that frankly was better off without him anyways. By all accounts he was uncoachable. His isolation, usage heavy style of play was not conducive to the movement-oriented and egalitarian philosophy preached by Brad Stevens. A philosophy that unexpectedly brought a team in year 2 (!!!) of a rebuild, a team that was probably as bad as any of his Cleveland teams, to the playoffs in 2015. A philosophy that, when Irving and Hayward were both out, brought basically the same core of players they are currently going to build around (Tatum, Brown, Smart) one possession away from defeating Lebron Fucking James en route the NBA Finals.
Other people aren’t blameless in this disappointment either. Tatum didn’t quite take the step we expected after such an excellent rookie season, perhaps a victim of the collective expectations around him. He also probably spent a little too much time around Kobe last offseason to boot, falling in love with the analytically infuriating long two point jumper. Jaylen was basically useless until February. Marcus Smart couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn until after the new year. It took Hayward basically the entire season to look like he belonged on a NBA court, even after months of being force fed minutes and possessions by Stevens. After they lost Theis for the season they really needed another big man, and Ainge couldn’t deliver, which jacked up the workload on Al Horford and Aron Baynes which ultimately killed them come playoff time. We were told time and time again that the regular season doesn’t mean shit, and that they would figure it out once the playoffs rolled around. But they were .500 after the All Star break. They never hit that switch probably because that switch didn’t exist.
I don’t think any criticism of the deal to bring in Kyrie was warranted either. Not to say that trading IT away was ruthless and cold-blooded and perhaps this whole season is some kind of karmic payback for what happened. But let’s face it. Isaiah was damaged goods, and we were about to pay him a fuck ton of money. Imagine where we would be had we not done it. He has barely played in the past two seasons. It would be as bad as the Hayward injury situation. Crowder was the benefactor of an overachieving team, and keeping him would have most likely meant Tatum wouldn’t have had such a great rookie year. He was also butthurt about Hayward. And the Nets pick didn’t ultimately turn out to be that valuable in Colin Sexton, who is a nice player and may very well be good down the road, but his timeline of development didn’t quite line up with our win-now mentality after we signed Hayward. And at the end of the day, when you have a chance to trade for one of the best 15ish players on earth, you fucking do it. Just look what the Raptors did. They put their nuts on the table by trading away Demar Derozan, the greatest player in Raptors history, for Kawhii Leonard and it paid off. You worry about roster construction and chemistry later. Those players very, very rarely become available, and even if it’s only for a year (or two) you have to take your shot.
It would seem that this Celtics team, who at the beginning of the season seemed poised for an extended title contenting run in the East, are now on the precipice of another rebuild. But as a fan, I am honestly extremely hopeful about the future. We have a coach who gets the most out of his players and a proven system that works. A GM who is bold and time and time again wins deals. A complimentary and exciting young duo who we can build around for at least the next 5 years. We can sign or trade for a max guy this offseason. Two if we decide to part ways with Hayward. There are many routes they can go.
Personally I’d like to see them go after a guy like Bradley Beal. He’s a St. Louis guy, and is a mentor to Jayson Tatum. I think Hayward + 14th pick + Grizzlies pick can do the job. Plus it still leaves them the flexibility to fill out their roster with some near-max guys. D’Angelo Russell is also out there, and I think he would be a nice fit too. He’s only 23, and his development timeline kind of fits with Tatum and Brown. Plus we have a First Team All Defender in Marcus Smart who can mask his defensive deficiencies. Maybe they throw Boogie or Kemba the max. Or maybe another star somewhere else suddenly becomes available. There’s always one that comes out of nowhere. This time in 2017, Kyrie Irving was still a contented Cleveland Cavalier. You never know.