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Will Moving on From Kyrie Irving Help the Celtics Become Fun Again?

The star point guard has opted out of his contract and seems bound to leave for a new team. Can Boston use that as a pivot point to retool itself into a more optimistic unit?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The blockbuster deal that sent Anthony Davis to Los Angeles will reverberate far and wide throughout the NBA, but the aftershocks might be felt most acutely in the home of the Lakers’ longtime nemesis.

Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge spent a half-decade amassing a cache of assets so robust that it seemed like Boston would be the top suitor for any disgruntled superstar it wanted. In the end, though—after years of open-secret coveting of Davis—Ainge watched as L.A. landed AD, handing over three cost-controlled rotation players and a flotilla of future first-round picks for the chance to give LeBron James a championship-caliber running buddy. Whether Rob Pelinka’s all-in move will prove fruitful remains to be seen; in the long run, Ainge and the others who missed out might wind up feeling justified in choosing to keep their powder dry. In the meantime, though, the Celtics need to figure out what comes next.

“What is Danny Ainge planning that we’re not thinking of right now?” a league source recently asked Jordan Brenner of The Athletic. “I’m sure Danny has something up his sleeve.”

It seems increasingly likely that the “something” will not include Irving, the titanic talent and mercurial personality whose peaks and valleys largely defined the Celtics’ disappointing 2018-19 season. Shams Charania of The Athletic reported that the All-NBA second team point guard, who has opted out of his $21.3 million contract for next season so that he can enter unrestricted free agency on June 30, is expected to meet with Celtics brass “soon,” and potentially before Thursday’s 2019 NBA draft, to “discuss his future.” From the sound of it, that’d be the first chat between Kyrie and Boston’s brain trust in a little while.

“The strangest part of the Irving situation right now is that it appears he has essentially ghosted on the Celtics,” Adam Himmelsbach of The Boston Globe reported on Monday. “The people within the organization I have spoken with have made it clear that they have had little, if any, communication with Irving in recent weeks. There had been some hope that trading for Davis would have given the Celtics a new vision to sell to Irving. But that, clearly, is not an option anymore.”

That doesn’t mean, though, that Boston’s out of options. Perhaps the closing of one hoped-for title window can open a door to something else. Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald and Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN both report that the Celtics are all but resigned to Irving leaving Boston after two seasons, with Brooklyn his most likely destination. That would create a hole at point guard—one that could be filled by the eternally-convinced-he’s-ready-for-prime-time Terry Rozier—and a chance to redefine what the Celtics look and feel like on the floor. The Celtics might soon add some more flexibility to redecorate, thanks to stalwart linchpin/giving tree Al Horford.

Woj reported Tuesday that the All-Star center won’t exercise his $30.1 million option for next season, preferring instead to become an unrestricted free agent with an eye “toward an agreement on a new long-term contract” to stay in Boston. The specifics of that re-up remain unclear, but presumably would secure more total money for the 33-year-old, who battled injuries last season, while also reducing the annual outlay, potentially giving Ainge more tools to use in revamping Boston’s roster:

There’s also the more pressing matter of how Ainge uses several other tools at his disposal—namely, the three picks Boston holds in the first round of Thursday’s draft. The latest update of the Ringer NBA Draft Guide mock draft has the Celtics selecting Virginia Tech guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Oregon center Bol Bol, and Virginia guard Ty Jerome if they stay put at nos. 14, 20, and 22. The expectation, though, is that Boston will go another route: Woj reported Monday that the C’s “have been really aggressive out in the marketplace” ahead of the draft, that “they don’t want to have three rookies on the team,” and that he’d expect “at least one, maybe two of those picks” to end up somewhere other than Boston.

That could mean that Ainge would consider using the picks on draft-and-stash prospects; the last time Boston had three first-rounders, in 2016, it used two on Guerschon Yabusele and Ante Zizic, both of whom spent time developing overseas before coming to the States. It could also mean that Ainge might look to use his unspent AD ammunition to move up, and will scour the upper reaches of the lottery for a partner willing to move down.

Like, say, New Orleans?

Multiple reports suggest that Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin is open to moving the no. 4 pick that he just imported from Los Angeles. The rumored goals of such a deal vary widely, ranging from getting up to the second spot to pair R.J. Barrett with former Duke teammate Zion Williamson, to targeting an established All-Star like Bradley Beal, to adding even more draft assets with which to construct the most complementary roster possible around Williamson’s electric talents in the years to come.

And sure enough, Jonathan Givony of ESPN reported on Tuesday that multiple teams are exploring the possibility of sending New Orleans multiple lower picks to move up to the fourth spot, including Atlanta … and Boston, who’d reportedly be making that move with one specific target in mind:

The 6-foot-2, 175-pound Garland was the top point guard in the 2018 recruiting class, and a McDonald’s All American coming out of high school. But he played only five games at Vanderbilt last season before suffering a season-ending meniscus injury in his left knee, and in the eyes of some evaluators, what he put on tape before going down was something of a mixed bag.

No. 4 might be a bit high for a small point guard who is far from a lock to be a success in the pros; none of our Ringer draft gurus have him higher than sixth on their big boards. But elusive pick-and-roll playmakers/accurate pull-up shooters with legitimate deep range are worth their weight in gold in today’s NBA. And with Kyrie gone, a Celtics attack that averaged just 107.9 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions with Irving off the floor last season—roughly equivalent to the Cavaliers’ 24th-ranked offensive efficiency mark, according to Cleaning the Glass—will likely need an infusion of creativity and shot-making. Maybe Ainge thinks Garland fits the bill.

It’s unclear what exactly Griffin would want in exchange for the no. 4 pick. Atlanta can offer the eighth and 10th picks on Thursday, both of which top anything Boston can bid this season, although the Celtics do have a top-six-protected 2020 pick from Memphis—which becomes wholly unprotected in 2021—to dangle if they really want to get serious.

Trading up for Garland’s not necessarily the type of move you make if you’re trying to follow ex-Celtic executive Daryl Morey’s advice about maximizing every opportunity you have when you think you’ve got at least a 5 percent shot of winning the title. But it would give Boston another exciting talent to build around moving forward—a cost-controlled 19-year-old who can grow alongside the likes of 21-year-old Jayson Tatum and 22-year-old Jaylen Brown. Put that young core with a re-signed Horford, Marcus Smart, a closer-to-100-percent Gordon Hayward, and maybe another smart acquisition or two made possible by Horford’s new deal, and Boston could have the makings of something exciting and competitive.

That Boston team might not be as upper-echelon-ready as the AD-and-Kyrie-led team of Ainge’s dreams. It might come with less existential angst attached, though, and be a heck of a lot more fun to watch. After the way last season panned out, I’d imagine there’s more than a few Celtics fans who’d sign up for that.