This isn’t what the Celtics had planned this offseason.
Not at first. Not even second or third.
But, with Kemba Walker apparently ready to join up, they could still wind up being pretty damn fortunate relative to how bad things could have been.
Considering how the Celts awoke from their championship dream in a cold sweat this season, it still was their first choice to run it back with one large addition — a 6-foot-10 addition in Anthony Davis. But before they could try to bring The Brow to The Bean, they got ill wind of Kyrie Irving’s imminent departure. That curtailed what the Celts would be willing to offer New Orleans for Davis — his camp’s loud pronouncement that he’d never re-sign here also was a factor — and ultimately allowed the Lakers to complete its drawn out heist of the star.
OK, so Plan A to keep Kyrie: gone. Plan B to get Davis anyway: gone.
The third idea was to follow through on Al Horford’s desire to refuse the last year on his contract but stay if the Celtics would give him a three-year deal. The sides seemed to be moving in that direction until Horford was surreptitiously informed he could get a better shake on a team with a better chance to compete for a championship.
So Plan C: gone.
Left with the opportunity to create a maximum salary slot by the departures of Irving and Horford and a few additional moves, such as trading Aron Baynes, the Celtics then had to hustle to get in the free agent game. They say they had prepared for all offseason eventualities, but it’s probably fair to assume they studied this one the least.
Would there be anyone seemingly available to them who could step in and bring back even a whiff of the sweet cologne of contendership they were wearing last summer at this time? It certainly didn’t look that way.
And it still might not to some people now. But the Celts have to be feeling lucky that Walker became a possibility.
The All-Star point guard wanted to stay in Charlotte, but when the Hornets, who were able to give him a longer deal for more money, didn’t come in with a large enough offer, they invited Walker’s eye to wander. And the Celtics seem a good fit.
Assuming the C’s can complete this pass, perhaps as early as Sunday, they still are well shy on paper of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Then again, what did “good on paper” get the Celtics this past season?
More moves will be necessary. There is a very good returning core in Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown, and people around the team are cautiously giddy of what Gordon Hayward could be as he gets further away from his horrible injury and plays a crew that hopefully is interested in sharing the ball more. But that still leaves a major need for an experienced big person.
As for point guard, Green fingers are crossed that the move to Walker could actually prove to be a positive. While you’d be hard pressed to find anyone that wouldn’t say Kyrie Irving is a better individual talent than Kemba Walker, turning talent into wins comes down to fit. And in this regard, it would be hard to argue Walker won’t be able to surpass what became by the end an unhappy situation for both sides.
One league exec who’s dealt with the Celtics even went as far as to tell the Herald he knows for a fact the club would have been willing to trade Irving for Walker during the past two years. If he’s right, it would indicate the Celts knew there were issues with Irving’s approach to leadership and general ability to help cool the fires of young players whose image might have surpassed their actual abilities following the 2018 conference finals run.
Having Walker with Horford would be ideal, but the salary cap won’t allow that to happen, even if the latter was willing to stay. So now the onus falls on Tatum and Brown — and Danny Ainge. The first two have to show they are capable of being unfailing producers. They cannot occasionally lurk in the shadows of veteran teammates. What they do will be perhaps the most telling barometer of whether the Celtics succeed on a given night.
And if they indeed get to play with Walker, they should have the space to play.
Speaking of space, if the Celts get Kemba to take up all of theirs on the salary cap, it will leave Ainge limited resources to get a big man. Unless he is able to find someone worthy with the $4.7 million exception or pull off some magical trade, the club will be left with a center-by-committee approach that’s far from comforting. It’d be nice if Robert Williams takes a giant step toward matching his obvious skills to the consistency required at this level.
Otherwise it’ll be a case where some people are simply not going to realize what Horford meant until after he’s gone.
But all that said, the Celts will still be in an interesting position when the dust settles — a position that’s a bit better than perhaps could be expected.
Said one Western Conference source, “You tell me how many teams could have two max contract guys walk with no return and still be looking at a pretty damn good team.”
Fair point, but of course, “pretty damn good” isn’t the easiest ensuing course to digest after you’ve been fed a year of “championship contender.”
It’s therefore probably best to wait until all the offseason moves are made before planning to judge all the Celtic plans.
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