Today's team: Boston Celtics
2016-17 Record: 53-29
Who’s new: Kyrie Irving (trade), Jayson Tatum (draft), Gordon Hayward (free agency), Marcus Morris (trade), Aron Baynes (free agency), Semi Ojeleye (draft).
Who's gone: Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Kelly Olynyk, Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko.
The Lowdown: They won a conference-best 53 games and raised expectations in Boston before falling to LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the East finals.
You’d be hard-pressed to find the last No. 1 conference seed to drastically change its roster from one year to the next, but such was the case with the Celtics, who took a blowtorch to 2016-17.
The face of the franchise changed suddenly when Hayward and Irving blew into town and instantly became the core players of a franchise that’s trying to overcome the obstacle known as LeBron James.
Are the Celtics better? Hard to tell right now. They’re certainly different, that’s for sure, than the club led by Thomas, who became an All-star and fan favorite after delivering a breakout season.
That still wasn’t enough for GM Danny Ainge, who evidently didn’t want to deal with the tricky task of re-signing Thomas in 2018, considering Thomas will demand major dollars and will not grow a few inches taller between now and then.
Thomas made no secret of his desire to “break the bank” in his words, which was understandable given Thomas ($6 million this season) is by far the most underpaid star in basketball. His height, lack of defense and a hip injury, combined with the fact he’ll be 30 when his new deal begins, was enough to intimidate Ainge.
However, the bigger question is why Ainge felt compelled to trade so much for Irving, who’s a marginal upgrade at the position with an extra year of contract.
Ainge had the chance to get Paul George or Jimmy Butler earlier in the summer. Both were on the market because their teams wanted to jump-start rebuilding. It’s clear why Ainge refused to deal for George, a free agent next summer who could’ve been a one-year rental. But Butler has a very team-friendly contract that runs three years, and the Bulls took far less from the Wolves than the package Ainge gave Cleveland for Irving.
A lineup of Hayward, Butler, Thomas, Al Horford and Jaylen Brown would’ve been Boston’s better option than the one it has now (assuming the Celtics would’ve kept Thomas in any deal with Chicago).
Perhaps Ainge had a tinge of regret and simply caved to Cleveland by surrendering the prized 2018 No. 1 pick that belonged to the Nets. That pick, Crowder and Thomas was necessary to get Irving, even though the Cavs were nearly resigned to trade Irving to someone before fall camp.
At least Ainge gave himself a cushion with a clever bit of trading just before the draft when he traded down two spots from No. 1, grabbed Tatum and also received a 2018 first-rounder from the Sixers in the process. That pick is the Lakers’ pick and it’ll likely be valuable since the Lakers are rebuilding, but probably not as good as the Brooklyn pick.
Boston felt it was all worth it to get Irving, a four-time All-Star and perhaps the best one-on-one guard in several years. Irving can create his own shot and attract double teams, which should open scoring chances for teammates. Yet he's not a top-notch defender by any stretch, and his ball-dominant personality could clash with coach Brad Stevens’ philosophy.
A far less controversial yet equally satisfying addition was Hayward, who brings a fine all-around game and growth that will go over well in Boston. Hayward should be a good compliment to Irving because he doesn’t need plenty of shots, nor does he demand to be the focus of the offense, even though that was his role in Utah.
However, in order to sign Hayward, the Celtics had to trade Bradley, their best defender whose presence will be missed in the backcourt. They did get Morris from the Pistons, and he’s a tough guy from Philly who’ll be a welcome addition to the front line, which lost Olynyk.
It’s almost an afterthought that the Celtics also added Tatum from the draft. Ainge hinted that he would’ve drafted Tatum over Markelle Fultz had Boston kept the No. 1 overall pick. Tatum is a smooth swingman with a solid mid-range game who impressed during the Vegas summer league. He could find a role in the rotation, even though rookies struggle to find time on title contenders.
All told, it was a dizzy summer for the Celtics and a team coming off a 53-win season. It didn’t necessarily make Boston a better team than Cleveland and arguably the Celtics, with the trade, made Cleveland better.
But if the new pieces fit, the Celtics will give themselves a chance to reach the NBA Finals and should gain pole position in the East should LeBron leave Cleveland next summer as a free agent.