New Jersey homecoming videos. Cryptic captions on Instagram. A Nets cap-clearing trade. Firing agent to join Jay-Zee’s ROC Nation. Everyone is reading so deep into Kyrie Irving’s summer, they’re even second-guessing if the sure signs of a departure are ruses.
Such is the frenzied coverage trail on Irving. Every signal is not necessarily a sign. Even his season-opening announcement that he would return to the Celtics apparently was not meant for face value. The Celtics must begin imagining life without Irving no matter his intentions. Though hungry to make a big splash, Danny Ainge may need to step back and see who his young players actually are.
That includes Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Robert Williams, Semi Ojeleye and even the restricted free agent Terry Rozier. The Celtics reportedly remain engaged with Rozier. Despite a disappointing season for him and the youth, the rift between them and the veterans on the roster makes prejudging their futures nearly impossible. All have past histories of success in different environments and roles.
Reinstating Rozier, Tatum and Brown at the front of the team is a fun and underrated prospect. Their spot greatness, like Tatum’s dunk on LeBron and Brown’s on Giannis, is complemented by longer stretches of success. Tatum nearly averaged 20 points per game in his first 19 playoff games. Brown shot 53% from the field and 50% from three to shut down the 76ers in 2018 on a bum hamstring. He scored 20 or more points in four of the seven East Finals games, and shot 50% after the all-star break off the bench in 2019.
They bought into Brad Stevens’ system to nearly reach the NBA Finals. In tandem with Gordon Hayward, assuming a bigger role and another year removed from injury, they could win more games. Al Horford’s return opens the door to a deep playoff run.
Ainge plays for championships though. That’s why Anthony Davis and the idea of a one-year Irving deal remain alive. Rich Paul nixed the idea of Boston again in a Sports Illustrated interview. A risk-averse Ainge could trade for Davis anyway. Depending on Kevin Durant’s health, that could force Irving into a one-year deal if he doesn’t want to move to New York alone.
Without Irving in tow though, relinquishing Tatum, Brown, or Smart while also trying to rebuild the culture in Boston could be devastating on two fronts.
A youth movement is a fun idea, but one that presents slim championship aspirations. Last year may not represent the true potential of a player like Tatum. It does say something about their ability to man back-seat roles.
That’s the worry with Rozier. His ability to make the most of limited touched and command the point fell into legitimate question. He’s also a player with value that Ainge drafted and likes he Celtics have rights to through restricted free agency. They could keep him around for the sheer purpose of maximizing him as asset.
If Boston matches an offer sheet, Rozier will have little choice but to make the most of it. Then the specter of Tatum and Brown, formally 7/11, as stars themselves remains. That’s the unknown the C’s may have to roll the dice on. If those two reach stardom, the roster can fill out around them how it may. They can be retained for the foreseeable future. Draft picks like the Grizzlies’ carve out the future core around them.
Other teams have done it this way including the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder never won a championship and Golden State may have benefited from Kevin Love and Irving injuries, but both put themselves in position to win. The Celtics need to consider culture and the strengths of Brad Stevens.
Davis is a generational player that should rightfully elicit dreams of him in green. The chase resembles that of Kevin Garnett. He could have a similar impact in Boston, only there’s no Ray Allen and Paul Pierce in place. Kevin McHale is not in NOLA. Boston will need to send Tatum, Brown and maybe even Marcus Smart. Without Irving, what’s left then?
As other options like Mike Conley emerge as backup plans, it’s worth asking what the Celtics can reasonably accomplish next season. If it’s not a championship, then it should be about rebuilding the atmosphere lost on that faithful night Isaiah Thomas bumped his hip against the Timberwolves. A youth movement, while not fireworks, is a way to get there.