The NBA season technically ended Thursday night with the Toronto Raptors fending off the great, hobbled champion Golden State Warriors to win the first championship in franchise history.
But even though the confetti fell, Toronto rejoiced, and the incomparable, stoic Kawhi Leonard may have even cracked a smile, it really wasn’t an ending at all, but rather a series of cliffhangers that already have basketball fans anticipating what comes next.
The NBA landscape is going to change significantly. The Celtics, who should look at what the Raptors did as a blueprint for their own offseason approach, should be in the middle of the action, especially if Danny Ainge does what we believe he will do and what he should do and go to all means necessary to acquire Anthony Davis from the Pelicans. Now let the Woj bombs begin.
It would be pretty easy for Celtics fans to wallow in Raptors envy this morning. They achieved what we hoped, back in that optimistic November, that the Celtics might. They gelled around one supremely talented if enigmatic star, with a core of high-end semi-stars and savvy role players forming a team that was greater than the sum of its already quality parts.
They took advantage of injuries to the Warriors — the heavy favorite to start the season as two-time defending champs, and now an utter mystery going forward due to injuries to Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant, both free agents — and they played their best when the moment demanded it.
The Raptors put it all together. The Celtics, in a season that feels like it ended six months ago now, fell to pieces. Now Irving, an all-time joy to watch when he’s engaged and a self-absorbed hypocrite who doesn’t make his teammates better on too many other occasions, is headed to free agency.
City of Boston:
Kyrie Irving ❌
Anthony Davis ❌
Stanley Cup ❌
$67 million worth of Gordon Hayward ✅
— Tyler Conway (@jtylerconway) June 13, 2019
While anything is possible with him, the tea leaves right now seem to indicate he’s headed to Brooklyn, which puts a whole different coda than we expected on Ainge’s famous franchise-altering trade with the Nets.
For all of the annoyances that come with Irving, I’m in the minority in hoping he comes back, because it’s still the best option for the Celtics to maximize this window of opportunity. They simply cannot replace him with a player of similar value and ability, insufferable though he may be.
(I’m even willing to pretend I like the Uncle Drew sequel if that what it takes, though I think we can all admit now, youngblood, that Shaq’s prosthetic butt gave a better performance than Irving in the original. It’s true.)
But it feels like the separation is about to become a divorce, and it sure seems like Ainge and the Celtics already know the outcome isn’t going to involve him filming a follow-up to this disingenuous commercial, unless it’s one telling Nets fans how he always dreamed of being the player Micheal Ray Richardson was supposed to be or something.
Yeah, Irving is probably gone. But the Raptors’ achievement still can be instructive for the Celtics when it comes down to how to proceed next. The Raptors won it all for a lot of reasons, but none bigger than general manager Masai Ujiri’s beyond bold decision to trade for Leonard in the offseason.
It might be easy to forget now since his excellence and endearing awkwardness has made him one of the most beloved players in the league, but he played just eight games for the Spurs a year ago due to a quad injury and an unbecoming disagreement between the player and team regarding its severity. (For future reference, it’s wise to give the player the benefit of the doubt in such scenarios.)
The further risk in Ujiri’s deal was the reality that Leonard could head to free agency following this season. That’s still a reality, and he’s so matter-of-fact about everything that I half-expected him to say in the postgame Thursday night, “Well, Doris, I guess I’m going to be a Clipper now.’’
This much is clear today: If Leonard leaves, there will be no regrets in Toronto about any of this.
And it’s why I’m convinced today that Ainge should trade for Davis, and take a real shot at winning banner No. 18 in a season that could end up being a free-for-all.
— Fletcher Mackel (@FletcherWDSU) June 12, 2019
I know, it’s going to be costly, and it would be a bummer to see someone like Marcus Smart, who embraces Boston in a way Irving only briefly pretended to, have to go. And any suggestion that the Celtics could do this without giving up Jayson Tatum sounds an awful lot like those green-tinted daydreams 11 years ago that hoped Ainge could acquire Kevin Garnett without parting with Al Jefferson.
But the price should be steep. Davis is 26 years old, and might be the best heading-into-his-prime player in the league, at least among those that don’t hail from Greece or have 13 letters in their last name. Players like him very rarely become available at their peak; it’s like the Bucks trading Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the Lakers in 1975, if Kareem was a free-agency flight risk.
Forget the sack of misfit toys and the No. 4 pick in a three-player draft that the current Lakers are supposedly offering the Pelicans. Ainge can top their offer if he’s bold enough, and his boldness is unquestioned. Garnett was lukewarm on playing here before Ainge got him in July 2007. He’d fully embraced the Celtics culture before his initial press conference was complete.
Davis may not be wired the same way, and agent Rich Paul’s machinations to get him to LA or New York have been both obvious and damaging. But he’s a superlative player, a seemingly good dude despite some recent miscalculations, and even though the Celtics would have to give up an agonizing amount of resources, it’s worth the shot.
With Davis, and with or without Irving, the Celtics could put a team on the floor that looks an awful lot like the one that claimed the championship Thursday night.
Get it done, Danny. The NBA landscape is changing. Time to drop a bomb and claim a prime place.