By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
Now that the full NBA All-Star rosters have been revealed, we know Kyrie Irving will be the only Celtic to grace the Eastern Conference roster.
Preseason hype suggested the Green could boast the most selections they’ve had since the 2010-11 season, when Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen took the floor in Los Angeles, but a variety of circumstances eliminated that scenario for a team with an uninspiring fifth-best position in the East.
While five-time All-Star Al Horford has recently enjoyed a healthy resurgence, he spent much of the first half limited due to injury and a step behind on defense, historically one of the more valuable components of his game. Jayson Tatum has thus far failed to take the step forward many expected of him in his sophomore year. And Gordon Hayward continues to take uneasy steps as fans pine for consistency from a player who averaged a more-like-himself 12.3 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.1 assists on 45 percent shooting (39 percent from behind the arc) in December, then fell off a cliff in January. It’s gotten to the point where someone in the Warriors locker room described the veteran as a “liability” following Saturday night’s game.
Irving, Marcus Morris and Marcus Smart remain the only prominent Celtics to meet or exceed expectations this season.
Meanwhile, the elephant in the room of every conversation regarding the Future Celtics over the last several years has requested a trade (and been fined for doing so). While visions of Anthony Davis have danced in the heads of Boston fans for some time now, they’ll have to wait if the dream is to become a reality. LeBron James and Magic Johnson will likely get first dibs due to salary cap restrictions that prevent Boston from trading for a player of Davis’ caliber until the summer. Any GM with assets, roster flexibility and a heartbeat will also be in the mix.
It’s a near certainty that New Orleans will acquiesce to the demands of their franchise player. It’s just a matter of when, where, and for whom.
In a post-lockout era of increased player freedom, New Orleans fans are just the latest to steady themselves for the gut punch of a star player leaving the proverbial nest for a souped-up birdhouse. The Pelican brass tried lots of things to keep Davis in New Orleans; they just couldn’t outrun their inherent mediocrity. They’re coached by Alvin Gentry, leader of three playoff teams in parts of 15 seasons. Any biography of GM Dell Demps would be sure to mention the NBA vetoed his trade of Chris Paul to the Lakers because it was so terrible. They’re traded for and thrown money at countless past-their prime vets.
Toss in the bad luck of DeMarcus Cousins’ shredded Achilles, which prevented the two All-NBA talents from ever touching their collective ceiling, and Davis, like Paul nearly a decade ago, wants out.
He’s still just 25 years old. Sure, he’s spent a chunk of his prime not winning NBA titles, but plenty of great players, some several years older, who haven’t played for the Heat, Spurs, Cavs or Warriors since 2011 can say the same. Paul was just six months older than Davis when he orchestrated a partnership with Blake Griffin. He’s still trying to get a picture with the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Garnett, clearly one of the most intensely loyal employees in NBA history, labored for 12 seasons for the Timberwolves before getting what Davis is asking for now. It resulted in Danny Ainge landing one of the best big men of a generation and a streak of 14 consecutive losing seasons in Minnesota. Celtics fans weren’t too worried about that during the duck boat parade 11 months later.
Less than two years ago, Ainge nabbed a superstar point guard, a more common commodity than the do-it-all big man in today’s NBA, but a sure sign the Celtics were ready to make the leap from “good” to “great.” While Boston had an extended visit to the Eastern Conference Finals last spring and have won seven of its last eight games with this year’s model, it remains unclear if the current collection of talent is “great” or has the potential to be “elite.”
A team with Irving, a healthy Horford, focused and consistent efforts from Tatum and Jaylen Brown and something resembling pre-injury Gordon Hayward is good enough to outlast the Raptors, Bucks, or Sixers in the East. The question is, given what we’ve observed, if that’s a reasonable expectation this season and in the years to come.
Horford will be 33 next year. Hayward might be resigned to a future of being a supporting player making superstar money. Tatum has said he wants to be the next Paul Pierce but might be the next Jeff Green. It's perhaps an unfair comparison for a veteran of just 150 NBA games (including playoffs), but the disparity between those two potential outcomes at least gives one pause.
All-Star selections are inherently subjective – what else explains all the times Carmelo Anthony made it? Just because the Celtics will only have one All-Star this year doesn’t mean they can’t be successful. For evidence, look at last year’s postseason group. In fact, there are plenty of fans who still feel the 2017-18 team was better than this one, and that Irving’s presence, though electric, stifles the performance of his running mates.
Boston has won six of the last seven games he has sat due to injury, with Terry Rozier posting averages of 14 points, 5.6 rebounds and 6.6 assists in those contests. And Tatum and Brown combined for 44 points on 19-33 from the field in last night’s Kyrie-free blowout of the Hornets.
But the name of the game in the NBA is stockpiling talent. Whether or not Boston’s supporting cast is championship-ready, we know Irving has been to the mountain before, and that Davis is one of the top five players in the league. Ainge needs Irving to get an 18th ring for the franchise, and with his contract up after this season, Davis is not only the guy to keep him around, but the elite running mate that could cause the Warriors fits.
The dream is far from over for the 2018-19 Celtics, but the immediacy of the Davis situation makes it hard not to be distracted. Even without Davis, Boston has managed to split their last six games with the Warriors. Does the New Orleans big man tip the scales in that matchup? Current personnel have been key to past success, so it makes one wonder exactly who Ainge would have to give up to reel in the big fish.
Recent trades for franchise cornerstones Griffin, Cousins, Jimmy Butler (twice) and Paul George haven’t fetched hefty returns - at least in the initial evaluations. In the case of George, many would argue that the emergence of Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis means Indiana at least broke even on that deal. And in the wake of Cousins' injury, the Kings should feel pretty good about landing Buddy Hield.
Davis' own pending free agency should temper the Pelicans' expectations, but his otherworldy ability means they'll be looking for something significant in return.
In the meantime, the current Celtics have the opportunity to make their case that this is a Finals-ready roster for years to come. After the aforementioned preseason hype, we haven’t seen it so far. And thus the pressure continues to build for Ainge to deal for a player many view as the final piece to the next Celtics championship team.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.