A week ahead of the trade deadline, the Knicks and Mavericks shocked the basketball world with a bold deal that featured superstar Kristaps Porzingis as the centerpiece in a seven-player swap that also included a couple of future first-round picks. That deal came together as everyone keeps its eye on New Orleans, where the transcendentally talented Anthony Davis has demanded he be dealt as the whispers of his desire to link up with LeBron James in Los Angeles grow louder.
There are big moves being made in the NBA, involving some of the association’s bigger names.
And Danny Ainge‘s priority between now and Thursday should be to determine whether it might make sense for Boston’s biggest name to be on the move, too.
Back in October, Celtics fans never fathomed their team would face this scenario in less than four months. It was then that Kyrie Irving told a TD Garden crowd of season ticket holders, “If you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing here next year.” Met with raucous applause, it assuaged the fears he would leave when he became a free agent in the summer, and thus spoil the plan that projected him as the anchor of Boston’s pursuit for an 18th banner.
At that same time, that plan seemed to be blossoming beautifully, with the C’s considered by many to be favorites in the Eastern Conference before the season began. Fast forward 51 games and, as Ainge charts the course for the franchise, the definitive answers he needs to get aren’t from rival executives on trade proposals.
The answers he needs are from Irving, himself.
Ainge needs to determine — even by mere instinct, if Irving won’t directly commit to anything — what the All-Star point guard is thinking about his future. And if he decides there is truth to this week’s pair of reports that Irving is leaning toward playing elsewhere next season, Trader Danny shouldn’t be shy about living up to his aggressive reputation and moving on from Kyrie before Kyrie moves on from the Celtics.
“Ask me July 1,” Irving told reporters, referring to his contract opt-out date, on Friday morning at Madison Square Garden. “At the end of the day, I’m going to do what’s best for my career and that’s just where it stands. That’s just where it stands. And my focus this season is winning a championship with the Boston Celtics. Obviously, we had goals coming into the season and the primary goal is to win a championship. So that’s where my focus is.”
Ainge told The Sports Hub on Thursday he “feel(s) like Kyrie likes it in Boston,” that his own feelings haven’t changed about the situation, and that he’s “optimistic” about the team’s chances of retaining him. But both ESPN and Bleacher Report have suggested, within NBA circles, Irving is hardly considered a sure bet to remain with the Celtics., and taking it one step further by saying Irving has some interest in going to join James in Los Angeles.
Hollywood, and rejoining James in Los Angeles, becomes a scarier possibility for C’s fans considering Irving apparently so enjoyed making his “Uncle Drew” movie that he has plans to act in a horror film after this season. If he believes having a bigger presence on screen is the next phase of his personal brand, LA is certainly an appealing destination. Even more so if the basketball side of his career is spent alongside James and, presumably, eventually, Davis.
What’s also scary is the B-R piece, from Ric Bucher, cites Irving’s interest in rejoining James as “for real” from “a source close to the Celtics.” Not a so-called league source, or a “Lakers source,” or “the general sense in talking to executives.”
Taken as truth, “a source close to the Celtics” suggests while Ainge may publicly be dismissive of Irving being a flight risk, there may be private unease. Especially when a subsequent ESPN report says the Celtics have spent about 18 months researching Davis in hopes of making a run at him, but that his interest in committing long-term to Boston is entirely predicated on the presence of Irving.
So, if Irving isn’t on board, the Celtics could theoretically trade their best assets for Davis this July, then watch him walk after a season and be back in rebuilding mode by the 2020 draft without Irving, Davis, or potentially Jayson Tatum.
That’s doomsday for a process that began with the epic return Ainge seized sending Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Nets back in 2013. But after the Bleacher Report story Tuesday and ESPN’s corroboration of parts of it Wednesday, it’s a scenario that drew even closer to reality on Thursday when the Knicks traded Porzingis.
New York has always been considered a tantalizing destination for Irving, who grew up in New Jersey and who could potentially find the same type of spotlight in the Big Apple as he would in Hollywood. And now the Knicks have money to play with.
By unloading Porzingis, the team has the salary cap space to acquire not one, but two max-money players. That turns Madison Square Garden into a ripe breeding ground for the NBA’s next super team. If Irving is exploring options, he could suddenly find himself — rather than trying to lead a group of young and talented-but-unproven upstarts in Boston — paired with Davis, or Kevin Durant, or Kawhi Leonard, or Jimmy Butler under the bright lights of the world’s most famous arena.
If Ainge gets the inkling that’s become more appealing, there’s no time to waste. He should change the purpose of his pre-deadline pursuits from trying to add a piece to put around Irving to trying to get whatever he can for a pending free-agent point guard. He should try to parlay his star into something — anything — that serves a purpose in trying to ensure one player’s free-agent whims can’t derail the master plan.
It may seem like a drastic measure. It would be, undoubtedly altering the direction of the franchise in the bigger picture. But trading Irving in the next week, with the playoffs just a couple months away, would not necessarily mean Ainge was punting this season.
The 2018-19 Celtics are fast approaching the point where (in the parlance of the welcome-distraction Patriots) it is what it is and they simply are who they are. They enter Friday night at 32-19, tied for fourth in the East and 5.5 games back of the conference-leading Bucks. They’re good at home, but they’re a losing team on the road (11-13), and in the postseason were to begin today they wouldn’t have home-court advantage for one round of the playoffs, let alone two or three.
They’re a team whose pieces haven’t yet fit together properly, and doesn’t appear all that much closer to figuring it out than they were at the start of the year. And that’s been with Irving available for 43 games. The Celtics are 6-2 without him, and while that’s not a sizable enough sample to draw any meaningful conclusions, the team did advance within a win of the conference title without him last season. The Tatums, Browns, and Terry Roziers seem to thrive in his absence, most recently due to a supposedly minor hip injury.
If Ainge were to look at his roster and identify a couple of spots where a role player could come in to serve a specific purpose — say, a designated sharpshooter, and either a rim protector or veteran bench scorer — is it possible that the Celtics could actually be better suited for a playoff run without Irving? He’s so good, so skilled, and such a gifted individual scorer it’s hard to make that case in the modern NBA.
But given what they’ve been to this point, are they really suited for a significant playoff run anyway? That’s an unexpectedly hard case to make, too. And if Irving is gone at the end of the year anyway, what’s there for the Celtics to lose? Either way, they’re going to the playoffs, will need to win on the road, and haven’t yet proven the capacity to do so. At least trying to fill the holes in the roster, while hopefully also adding something of long-term benefit, gives them a fighting shot.
That said, it’s now Ainge’s job to figure out in the next five days where Irving’s focus will be in five months.
And to be ready to act quickly if the answers he’s getting privately aren’t more convincing than the ones being proffered to the public.