NBA Notebook: Kyrie Irving’s free agency timeline could make planning complicated for Celtics

The NBA offseason is always a treacherous road for any front office to manage, particularly when it comes to the timing of roster moves. The NBA Draft comes ten days before the start of free agency, a timeline that forces teams to make big decisions about filling holes on their roster before they know the fate of their own free agents.

No team in the NBA will be in a trickier situation on that front than the Celtics in the summer of 2019. Danny Ainge will head into draft night with three or four first-round picks at his disposal (he’ll know the exact specifics after the draft lottery on Tuesday), but those picks represent the very end of his future draft stash that he has spent years stockpiling. Draft night presents a deadline on using those assets and on the Celtics future to a degree. If the Celtics want to land Anthony Davis or another top-tier star this offseason, they are going to have to use some of those picks in the trade package.

The best odds of a potential big deal being agreed upon (in principle) comes on draft night for that reason. That way the Pelicans (or another team the Celtics are trading with) will have the ability to choose what players they want with some of the C’s selections. Any trade for Davis can’t be official anyway with Irving under contract for his current deal with Boston (expires June 30th), so it would have to be a handshake agreement if the two sides come to terms on draft night.

However, any price the Celtics would want to pay for Davis will probably be influenced in some form by whether or not Kyrie Irving is in the team’s plans, and that’s where the biggest problem lies for Boston. At this point, getting some kind of indication from Irving before the start of free agency about his intentions seems to be a long shot.

For as bad as Irving was against Milwaukee and how he demonstrated he can’t be a No. 1 scoring option against an elite defense in the postseason, there’s a track record that shows he can be a capable No. 2 on a title team.

Let’s walk through three of the most likely scenarios that the Celtics front office could run into in the next few weeks and how Irving’s communication with them (or lack thereof) could set the stage for bigger decisions to come.

Scenario 1: Celtics come to Irving in June before the draft and ask for a verbal commitment before they agree to trade for Davis at the draft. Irving says he will stay.

BSJ Analysis: This has always been the dream scenario for the Celtics since trading for Irving two years ago. Ainge has always been a big-game hunter and his moves over the past few seasons have been building toward cashing them in for a guy like Davis. The problem with the way this Celtics season has ended is that this degree of certainty attached to Irving in June, even with a Davis acquisition looming, is a long shot. Several reports have the Celtics as a firm underdog to retain Irving when free agency begins on July 1st. This is also the first time Irving will be an unrestricted free agent in his career, so some kind of ‘free agency tour’ will probably come into play as he’s sure to garner offers from many of the top players (Lakers, Clippers, Knicks, Nets) with max cap room. The decision for the Celtics to trade for Davis is very easy with this commitment, but it can’t be expected to happen. Even then, if Irving wants to sign a one-year deal with a player option, this scenario could still result in plenty of risk for the C’s with both Irving and Davis on expiring deals entering the 2019-20 season.

Scenario 2: Celtics come to Irving in June before the draft and ask for a verbal commitment before they agree to trade for Davis at the draft. Irving gives them no indication on whether he is leaning toward staying or leaving.

BSJ Analysis: Irving is under no obligation to relay his thought process to Ainge and it will leave the Celtics in a brutal situation if he doesn’t. Trading for Davis without Irving returning to Boston next year is a possible scenario, but there is no question that Irving’s decision on his future in Boston will factor into: 1) how much the Celtics are willing to offer for Davis and 2) who exactly the Celtics offer. For instance, including Marcus Smart in a trade for Davis could be a dangerous choice if Irving also walks, leaving the Celtics point guard depth chart virtually empty outside of a restricted free agent like Terry Rozier. The Celtics may also put less of a premium on acquiring Davis if Irving does not remain in Boston if they believe the chance of them retaining Davis is diminished without him. Additionally, their title odds on a team led by Davis, Hayward and Horford won’t be nearly as good as a team that also has Irving on it, which could cause them to hold firm on including a piece like Jayson Tatum in an offer (holding the line with Jaylen Brown and picks as a centerpiece instead). This remains the most probable scenario and will force the Celtics to roll the dice with Davis or risk the possibility of losing the ability to trade for him if they decide to wait on a decision from Irving before pulling the deal. The fact that other teams may be more eager to get into the bidding and present a take it or leave it offer to New Orleans around the draft will only up the pressure for the C’s.

Scenario 3: Irving indicates he won’t re-sign with the Celtics before the NBA Draft

BSJ Analysis: While this is the nightmare scenario for the front office, it also allows them to pursue some alternative plans at the draft. Not only can the Celtics pursue help in the backcourt with their own 2019 draft picks, but a trade offer for Davis or another lower-tier star (Bradley Beal?) can be adjusted without any hesitation about what the depth chart for this team looks like. Perhaps Ainge re-works the roster to go with a defensive-minded group without Irving in the fold, leaning on the strengths this young group showed two years ago. Either way, opportunities to re-tool the roster come far easier at draft time, which makes this scenario more preferable to Boston than No. 2 if Irving ends up walking in that scenario as well.

The Al Horford domino effect

Irving’s plans won’t just impact the pursuit of a star for Boston via trade. Al Horford has a player option to decide upon by June 30th, and there’s no doubt he could have some reservations about returning to Boston if there is no path to contending for him at age 33. Irving indicating he is leaving or being uncertain about his future before July 1 will make negotiations that much tougher for the C’s with Horford, especially in their attempts to lower his annual salary for a long-term deal. Getting Horford to sacrifice for a championship core seems far more reasonable when that path is realistic. Without Irving in the fold, the Celtics will be underdogs in the East no matter what heading into next season, even with a splashier acquisition like Davis. Irving leaving doesn’t mean Horford will necessarily follow him out the door, but the guess here is that the Celtics will have to pay closer to full sticker price for him, a less than ideal scenario with another luxury tax bill looming.

NBA News and Notes 

  • Having an opportunity to coach LeBron James is an enticing proposition but it’s tough to already feel for the situation that Frank Vogel has agreed to with the Lakers after accepting their head coaching job with the stipulation that Jason Kidd would be attached as a top assistant. Given Kidd’s track record as a guy who has tried to position himself for takeovers in the front office with both Brooklyn and Milwaukee, I’d be surrounding my staff in Los Angeles with a bunch of guys I could trust if I were Vogel.
  • No one likes to see injuries occur but after Kevin Durant suffered a calf strain last week, getting a chance to see the old-look Warriors in a closeout game against the Rockets was a treat on Friday night. Houston was viewed as heavy favorites (seven points), which is just a wild number against the defending champions even without their best player. Golden State unlocked some of their old-school ball movement amid clutch performances from Iguodala and Curry, giving the world a reminder that they will still be contenders until further notice even if Durant walks in free agency.
  • Patrick Patterson exercised his $5.7 million player option for next season after yet another dismal year with the Thunder. His inability to give Oklahoma City any kind of consistent production as a stretch four has helped sink the team over the past two seasons since the team used the full mid-level exception on him as their one big free agent addition in 2017.
  • Huge night for the futures of the Sixers and Raptors on Sunday as Game 7 looms in Toronto. With free agency decisions looming for Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and Kawhi Leonard, the stakes couldn’t be much higher. Most of the pressure has to fall on Toronto however given homecourt and the fact that Leonard has always be considered an underdog to commit there for the long-term. Any step closer to the NBA championship helps build their case though.