The acquisition of Kyrie Irving two years ago today was a turning point of sorts for what had been a superb Celtics rebuild. After years of selling high and buying low on player assets (Rajon Rondo, Jeff Green, Isaiah Thomas), Danny Ainge had successfully turned the franchise into one of the most appealing teams in the league just a few years after hitting the reset button with the Garnett/Pierce trade in 2013.
Two star free agents (Gordon Hayward, Al Horford) had picked Boston over their lifelong teams in 2016 and 2017 respectively, and Irving was the piece that was supposed to take Boston to the next level, both on the floor and attracting star power for the long-term.
The All-Star point guard failed on both those fronts in Boston thanks to injury, attitude and a host of other factors. We’ve covered those plenty. Ainge did an admirable job this offseason of recovering from Irving’s disastrous departure from a team-building standpoint, successfully landing an All-Star replacement in Kemba Walker, a bargain center in Enes Kanter and the beginnings of a promising rookie class. Yet, as optimism is prevalent around the organization in the wake of such a miserable year, it’s hard not to ignore the lack of talk about a Banner 18 heading into next season. It’s not that the Celtics aren’t working towards it, it’s that they are simply no longer in position to contend for it for the time being. 2020 was supposed to be the start of the Celtics new championship window. Now, it’s tough to see just when that window will open once more following subpar injury luck and asset management.
There have been a lot of mitigating factors that contributed to this reality (Hayward’s injury, a lack of chemistry last season). Still, most of the C’s current predicament can be traced back to two years ago when Ainge decided to cash in a number of key assets on Irving in a deal that some (including yours truly) thought was a risky gamble.
Instead of rehashing the past, it’s perhaps just as intriguing now to explore what could have been. What would the Celtics look like now if they had never pulled the trigger on Irving in the first place? Let’s examine the options that would have presented themselves in the interim, what the C’s could look like now and lessons learned on both sides of the coin.
The Celtics roster pre-Irving trade (August 2017)
Al Horford: $27.7 million
Jae Crowder: $6.8 million
Isaiah Thomas: $6.2 million
Jayson Tatum: $5.65 million
Marcus Morris: $5 million
Jaylen Brown: $4.96 million
Marcus Smart: $4.5 million
Guerschon Yabusele: $2.25 million
Terry Rozier: $1.99 million
Ante Zizic: $1.65 million
Semi Ojeleye: $1.34 million
Abdel Nader: $1.17 million
Not eligible to be traded until December 15, 2017
Gordon Hayward – $29.7 million
Aron Baynes – $4.3 million
Daniel Theis – $815,615
Key draft assets besides own picks: 2018 BKN pick, 2018 LAL/2019 SAC pick, 2019 LAC pick, 2019 MEM pick
The 2017-18 season
This was a very crowded depth chart at the time of the trade but that logjam would have been reduced thanks to Isaiah’s hip issues out of the gate. It’s fair to assume he would have missed half the season and would have played a reduced role whenever he did return to the floor due to the decreased production we saw in Cleveland and Los Angeles. A look at the hypothetical depth chart without him in the mix.
PG: Smart, Larkin, Thomas (injured)
SG: Brown, Rozier
SF: Hayward, Tatum, Ojeleye
PF: Crowder, Morris, Theis, Yabusele
C: Horford, Baynes, Zizic
Three thoughts on how 2017-18 impacts trade assets
1. It’s fair to assume Tatum’s breakout rookie campaign may have been impeded if Crowder was still around at the start of the 2017-18 season. He clearly wasn’t a happy camper after Hayward signed and knew his role was going to be diminished. The C’s moved on from him before things got ugly from a locker room standpoint, a lesson they perhaps should have followed with last year’s personnel in hindsight.
2. The Nets pick lost value pretty quickly out of the gate in 2018: Brooklyn began the year 10-14 before eventually finishing with the eighth-worst record. This was still an impressive trade chip as 2018 continued but declined in value a bit from August 2017.
3. For the sake of this exercise, end-of-bench rookies (Ojeleye, Zizic) get very limited opportunity and don't build up any real trade value. Even a guy like Theis only finds himself getting spot minutes. Thomas simply becomes salary filler in any hypothetical trade due to his hip condition. Hayward is presumed healthy since Irving wasn't here to throw him that alley-oop.
Other trade opportunities