At first, it seemed like it was going to be a special season with an offseason that would see Kyrie Irving re-sign with the Boston Celtics. In early October, at a season ticket holder event in TD Garden, Irving gave a speech that showed his commitment to Boston long term. Irving stated, “I’ve shared it with some of my teammates as well as the organization as well as everyone else in Boston. If you guys will have me back, I plan on re-resigning here next year.”
Why wouldn’t Irving be excited about the future of Boston? The Celtics fell one game short of the NBA finals the previous year, losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers in seven games. They did this without two of their biggest pieces on top of it. Kyrie Irving was lost towards the end of the year due to injury and prized free agent acquisition Gordon Hayward was lost in the first game of the season with a gruesome injury.
During that time young talent like Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylon Brown stepped up and grew in front of the world. The Celtics were favorites to escape with the East due to the addition of those young players combined with Coach of the Year candidate Brad Stevens.
LeBron James, who went to the NBA finals eight years in a row, moved west to go to Los Angeles. The door was now wide open for a new team to emerge and Boston, led by LeBron’s former teammate Irving, looked prized to take the crown. Then the season started.
Boston struggled under the pressure of the expectations and never put together the season everyone expected. Chemistry issues plagued the team all season long and every time it looked like they corrected it, the Celtics spun out again. The young core that had grown in front of our eyes in last year’s playoffs looked lost struggling to find their way led by Irving. Irving, new to the leadership position, never seemed to be able to find a way to do things the right way. Irving even went as far as reaching out to LeBron James to apologize about how he handled things in Cleveland. Everyone could see the tension happening first hand as well. In a blowout loss to the Miami Heat, cameras caught Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris getting heated with each other before being separated by Marcus Smart. Things didn’t improve from there as Kyrie Irving made his displeasure known to Brad Stevens about a play he drew up in Orlando at the end of the game. After Tatum missed, Irving unloaded on Al Horford and Gordon Hayward on the court. Moments like these would come to symbolize the tensions with the players on the team.
Irving repeatedly threw his younger teammates under the bus to the media. During the NBA All-Star break, Irving was not shy about opening up about how he felt. Irving stated, “We basically have a bunch of young men in our locker room that feel like they’re capable of doing a lot more than they’re doing. That’s ok, but there’s a maturity you have to have, there’s a professionalism you have to really showcase every single day. That’s what the great ones do.”
There were moments the younger players also took to the media to voice their frustration. Jaylen Brown stated, “We’ve just got to have each other’s backs at the end of the day. We can’t make comments, we can’t point fingers, we just have to continue to empower each other and have each other’s backs. If we don’t, if we start pointing fingers, everybody’s going to go into their own little shells. We’ve got to continue to play basketball. It starts from the top to the bottom. Not from the bottom to the top, but from the top to the bottom.”
The struggle showed itself on the court for the younger players. Rozier, the catalyst that drove the previous season’s playoff success, was regulated to a backup role. Brown and Tatum, the young stars on the rise, looked uncomfortable and often forced moves on the court. Tatum, a player that looked poised to be a breakout All-Star, often settled for contested iso jump shots which led to him being benched for stretches during Celtics games.
As the struggles for the Celtics continued, Boston hoped Irviing would remain firm in his commitment to the team. However, around the time Anthony Davis shook the NBA world with his announcement that he wanted out of New Orleans, Irving shook the world of the Boston Celtics. During a shootaround in a game before the Knicks in New York, Irving’s preseason commitment seemed to be breaking. When asked if he still planned to re-sign with the Celtics Irving kept it short saying “Ask me July first.” Irving seemingly had admitted that what he said back in October was just simply getting caught up in the moment. Irving stated, “I’ve spent the last eight years trying to do what everybody else wanted me to do in terms of making my demand trying to validate through the media, through other personnel, managers, anybody in this business and I don’t owe anybody shit.”
Meanwhile, the Celtics were hoping that the Pelicans would not deal Davis before the deadline. They held out hope that if Davis made it to the summer then they would be able to put together the most compelling trade package. So all the young players of the Boston Celtics got to hear their names thrown around in potential trade packages, an unsettling feeling for a younger player. While the Celtics put all of their chips into the Anthony Davis sweepstakes, the other three power teams in the East, Milwaukee, Toronto, and Philadelphia made deadline moves to strengthen themselves for the playoff push. Through all the turmoil of the regular season Boston never completely fell apart and bottomed out, but they never put together all the talent and expectations that the team had coming into the season finishing with the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
When the playoffs started nobody knew what to expect out of the Boston Celtics. The Celtics made quick work of the Indiana Pacers, sweeping them to move onto the second round. While the offense still had its struggles at times, Boston played with great defensive intensity and limited the Pacers to the lowest scoring output in the playoffs. After the decisive victory over Indiana, the Celtics turned their attention to the number one overall seed Milwaukee Bucks. During game one the Celtics dominated the Bucks with an impressive 22 point win. After that game, it looked like the Celtics finally had put it all together. It all fell apart though as the Bucks went on to dominate the rest of the series winning by double digits in all games but one, including a blowout victory to close out the Celtics.
The offense never really got it together and Boston fans saw Irving put together the worst shooting stretch of his postseason career, shooting 25-83 over the final four games. The Celtics as a team didn’t do much better outside of the close game three. The team shot poorly, especially from beyond the three-point line. So now the season ends with a lot more questions than they have answers.
Looking ahead there are a lot of things that could drastically reshape the future in Boston. The first is the status of Kyrie Irving. With him retracting his statements about re-signing, what happens with him is the first domino that needs to fall. If Irving re-signs the Celtics can feel better about putting together an aggressive trade package for Anthony Davis. Without a commitment from Irving, putting together an aggressive trade package for Davis would carry a lot more risk. Without Irving, getting Terry Rozier back would be a major priority.
Even if Irving does leave, the Celtics would be over the cap with little room to make any significant changes. They also would still need to address Marcus Morris, another player that they may lose to free agency if the other teams with cap space put in an aggressive bid. If Irving does resign, would Boston feel comfortable running the same roster next season if they strike out on Davis?
With all of the issues this season the Celtics could still make moves to try to get the right pieces in place to try to make this work. It’ll be interesting to see if the Celtics go all in on their roster considering the issues they currently face with the luxury tax. After a quiet offseason from Boston last year, this offseason can potentially be franchise changing. The major piece to the offseason all hangs on whether Kyrie Irving decides to return.
Featured Photo Credit: Christopher Evans/bostonherald.com
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