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Can the Celtics Get Back to the Top of the East? Despite Struggles of 2018-19, It's Still Possible

It looks like Kyrie Irving is as good as gone for the Boston Celtics. Last Wednesday afternoon, the Celtics star and apparent team leader opted out of his Celtics contract option and is now officially a free agent. While it isn’t yet official that Kyrie won’t be in Boston next season, it sure looks that way as of right now. Facing the loss of their star player and after a disappointing second round exit in the 2019 playoffs, the Celtics team that was supposed to be a Finals contender in the East is now heavily weighing their options.

It comes as no surprise to most that Irving opted out of his contract. Rumors have been flying since the winter that Irving wants out of Boston after the tough ‘18-’19 season the Celtics had. In 2018, the Celtics barely missed a trip to the Finals after losing Game 7 to Lebron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, while missing their two best players, Irving and Gordon Hayward. Despite the loss, many in Boston were already getting excited about next season, with the return of their two stars there was no way they’d miss the Finals next time around. Flashforward to the winter and the Celtics were clearly struggling, with rumors of a bad locker room and low team spirit.

Danny Ainge, the Celtics General Manager, was confident Kyrie would return, describing their relationship as an “engagement” on July 1. Kyrie himself even stated in October, “If you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing here.” His words were completely different in late January, when asked about his impending free agency he uttered his famous words, “Ask me July 1.”

With Kyrie’s opt-out, it looks as though he’s leaning toward the Brooklyn Nets as his next destination. This makes sense considering the Nets were Kyrie’s favorite team growing up in New Jersey. The Nets have been clearing cap space in order to give a max contract and could make room for another by giving up D’Angelo Russell, who plays a similar role to Kyrie anyway.

If Kyrie leaves, it would make sense for the Celtics to resign Terry Rozier. Rozier filled Kyrie’s shoes in the 2018 playoffs when Kyrie was injured and took the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals. Easily a starter on many other NBA teams, Rozier was upset about his lack of minutes this year with Irving healthy again. With a starting position, Terry could likely gain more rhythm and improve. His career stats show that he is better as a starter and what better opportunity to prove himself than with Kyrie gone.

It would be a bad decision for the Celtics to trade either of their young core players of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Both are extremely talented and haven’t even hit their prime yet. Tatum was a break-out star in the 2018 playoffs as a rookie with huge responsibilities. Brown has steadily improved each year on the team and is an intelligent addition to Boston’s roster.

It has been mentioned that the New Orleans Pelicans would want Tatum in a potential Anthony Davis trade, but Tatum has the potential to be Boston’s star instead. As great as AD is, it might not be worth it to give up such a valuable young player for someone with a long history of injuries and who consistently rejects the idea of playing in Boston. AD’s agent Rich Paul told media, “They can trade for him, but it’ll be for one year.” If Davis is going to leave Boston after just a year, why would they give up some of their most valuable assets? Though Ainge was initially undeterred by these statements, Davis got his wish and is headed for Los Angeles. He was traded there over the weekend, and thus is off the table for the Celtics.

Although a trade for Davis had been the Celtics plan A for quite some time, the C’s have also expressed interest in taking Clint Capela off the Houston Rockets’ hands. The best way to make this trade work would be Gordon Hayward and some picks for Capela. The Celtics have three first round picks in the NBA Draft this year, and certainly don’t need three rookies on the bench next year. In order to make the money work, the Rockets would probably need to throw in another player from their bench. This would be a great trade for Boston because of Capela’s size, speed, and offense. Hayward has been inconsistent since his ankle injury, but has shown flashes of the player he could be which Houston would have to roll the dice on.

Along with Tatum and Brown, another player the Celtics should keep is Marcus Smart. His skill and grit on defense earned him All-Defensive First Team honors this year. When Smart isn’t playing, it shows. The Celtics shouldn’t give up an elite defender. Not to mention, Smart loves the city of Boston, and Boston loves him back. Smart won the Red Auerbach award for 2019, given to the player or coach who best exemplifies the Celtic spirit.

Speaking of players who love Boston, Isaiah Thomas is a free agent this summer. Thomas has publicly expressed his desire to return to Boston for quite some time now, most recently on Twitter stating “Let me get the same opportunity and I’ll do that s*** again,” referring to his 53-point playoff game against the Wizards as a Celtic. Thomas has proven on the Nuggets this year that although he’s recovering from injury, he can still provide some quick offense. Thomas’ time may be well over, but if the Celtics are desperate for a backup point guard he could be a cheaper option.

Al Horford will likely opt in to his player option this summer. Ainge has stated that keeping Horford is a priority this summer. The 33-year-old’s player option is more than he would make as a free agent, making it probable that the Celtics will entice Horford to stay. If the Celtics can score Clint Capela this summer, he could be Horford’s eventual replacement.

As for other question marks on Boston’s roster this summer, Aron Baynes opted in to his player option this summer, with an understanding that he will not be included in trade packages this summer. Baynes has expressed his desire to stay in Boston and it looks like he will be, for the time being.

As the Toronto Raptors have proved this offseason, teams don’t necessarily need to create superteams to make a deep run in the playoffs. Toronto has great players, but more importantly they have role players who can deliver and excel in their roles. If the Celtics decide to focus on their young core and build around them, they could create a powerful team that meshes well together and solves this past seasons’ woes.

Swiftie, first and foremost.