Celtics' murky future gets a bit of clarity


BOSTON — A short time before 1 a.m., in the early hours of Friday morning, Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge emerged for his post-draft press conference and playfully chided reporters.

“What are you guys still doing here?” Ainge asked, acutely aware of what reporters truly desired: A little insight into the direction of a team that’s preferred offseason plans got shredded this past week.

An apologetic Ainge tapdanced around questions about trades and looming free agency. “Need to wait,” he offered. “I wish I could [say more]. I wish I didn’t have to have my counsel [assistant general manager Mike Zarren] here to protect me from getting fined. I wish I could tell you everything I know, but I can’t.”

But what Ainge didn’t say helped paint a picture of a team that’s pivoted in the aftermath of a tumultuous week. If the Celtics entered the offseason with dreams of pairing Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, and Al Horford at the helm of the roster, they were dashed in short order.

The Lakers won the Davis sweepstakes by submitting a future-mortgaging bid to David Griffin and the Pelicans last Saturday night; Al Horford opted out of his deal Tuesday morning and soon word spread that he would be seeking a long-term deal outside Boston when free agency began. Amid it all, it was suggested that Irving had essentially gone incommunicado as the Celtics tried to figure out a path forward.

But Thursday night — and the early hours of Friday morning — provided some clarity into where Boston is headed. It appears the team is indeed embracing Plan J and the opportunity to build around a young core headlined by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

Boston further supplemented that young core Thursday by completing two trades and drafting four players, emerging with the rights to Romeo Langford (14), Grant Williams (24), Carsen Edwards (33), and Tremont Waters (51). The Celtics will also send veteran big man Aron Baynes to Phoenix as part of a deal that’s expected to net a future first-round pick (via the Milwaukee Bucks) but it cannot be finalized until after the league’s moratorium lifts in early July.

Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck, appearing on NBC Sports Boston after the team's first three picks, began the process of shining a light on the team’s thinking, especially when asked to characterize the current state of the team.

“Building or re-tooling — we’re starting with a core of Marcus Smart, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum,” said Grousbeck. "Start with that and add in the rest of the roster, not to slight anybody, and then restricted rights on Terry.”

While Grousbeck was careful not to close any doors, the insinuation was clear. The Celtics have braced themselves for the likelihood that neither Irving nor Horford will be back next season.

And the team is embracing the opportunity that could provide both Boston’s young core but also players that the team might be able to entice with its potential cap space.

"Listen, I’ve always said that when somebody goes, then somebody else gets a new opportunity, and we’ve seen that happen here many times,” said Ainge. "I’m very excited about what the possibilities are over the next month, and we’ll be able to talk a lot more about all of it over the next month.”

The Celtics, if they eventually renounce their rights to their unrestricted free agents including Horford and Irving, can essentially open roughly $25.8 million in cap space. That would allow the team to wade into the early stages of free agency with room to add an impact body. 

The team could elevate to as much as $34 million in cap space if it was to then renounce its rights to restricted free agent Terry Rozier (or otherwise move him by trading him to a team with cap space). 

The Celtics added to their wing depth by drafting Langford and Williams and restocked some deep point guard depth by tabbing Edwards and Waters. They generated a future pick that could be paired with the Memphis pick to hunt potential deals when stars become available.

There’s an obvious need at the big-man position for Boston and that would seem a likely target for summer spending.

Could the Celtics make a run at free agent Nikola Vucevic, last with the Orlando Magic? Is there a player on another roster that Boston could absorb into cap space in order to aid another team in its quest to shed salary, while adding to Boston’s collection of assets?

The future is still murky and the path to obtaining elite-level, top-tier talent that would put the Celtics back on track to title contention remains obscured. But the team’s primary path seems a bit more clear now.

Throw the keys to the kids, build with a focus on draft and development, and be ready to pounce when a star becomes available.

Will Rozier be back? It could hinge on what kind of offers he gets in restricted free agency (Boston can match whatever is available). If the team needs that cap space to chase a top-tier free agent, they can simply move on from Rozier. Otherwise, they have the right of first refusal and can always bring him back a reasonable number and he becomes a trade asset further out.

An awful lot is going to have to go right next season for Boston to remain super competitive, even with the possibility that the East could be wide open pending Kawhi Leonard’s future (with the Clippers?) and whatever happens with the Sixers.

The Celtics are eager to stay in the contender fray. There’s hope that Tatum can make a third-year leap, that Brown can develop the two-way consistency of a player who knows a big payday looms, and that Gordon Hayward can find his All-Star form in a summer that won’t be sapped by surgery.

The team’s ceiling could be further dictated by just how quickly the draftees can contribute, or the development of young role players like Semi Ojeleye and Robert Williams. The quality of potential free-agent addition would go a long way towards determining the success level as well.

At the start of the week, it was hard to see a desirable path forward. Make no mistake, this wasn’t the preferred path but Boston is ready to maximize what it has.

"I think that everything is an opportunity, right?” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. "It’s been pretty well documented how this year went and how, in the moment, it was pretty disappointing. It was something that we all were disappointed by. I think if I take a step back and look at it from a big-picture standpoint, you say, 'Okay, we've been to a couple of Eastern Conference finals and a second round,' and that wouldn't feel as bad. 

"Obviously, the way this year went, it didn't feel good. With that said, because of the great work that our front office has done over the years, even when we are in a position where we'll have some uncertainty as we move forward, we are in pretty good shape. I think that, obviously, these are new opportunities. An opportunity to really evaluate where we are, what we need to do and everything else. We feel good about our foundation and want to learn from the disappointment that we all shared. Also, we're optimistic and positive as we look towards the future."

Ultimately, the goal hasn’t changed — maybe just the timeline that the team had hoped to operate upon.

"Maybe the players and the names on the jersey change but the approach is the same,” said Ainge. "We have a very attractive franchise to play for, and there’s a lot of people who would be dying to come play here.

"This is fun. I'm surrounded by a great staff, a coaching staff and a scouting staff. We're prepared for this. We know what is before us coming into July was very possible and we're prepared. Very confident.”

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