O’Sullivan: Needed change of perspective for Celtics fans

  • The Celtics will need more from Jayson Tatum (above) next season. AP file

  • With veterans leaving the team, Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge (left) and his team will have to rely on more young players, like Robert Williams (right), next season. AP file

Published: 6/19/2019 10:02:08 PM

The Celtics fans in your life might be irritable at the moment, muttering about Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis and Al Horford. Maybe they’re whining about what might have been. Maybe that Celtics fan is you. Or me.

The annoyance is understandable. A year ago, Boston looked ready to dominate the NBA for a decade. A year later, with Irving and Horford on their way out (reportedly) and Davis on his way to L.A., the Celtics have slipped down the line of succession from probable heir to second-tier contender.

But things can change quickly in the NBA, as Boston proved over the course of last year and Golden State proved over the course of its last series. And the Celtics have the means, and men, to make those changes.

They still have young players with elite talent and potential. They still have extra draft picks to maneuver. And they still have Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens, who now have to do what they do best – find top talent with mediocre draft picks and/or swing big deals (Ainge) and coach up a cohesive team instead of a trying to harness a star (Stevens).

So, things could be worse in Boston. The Celtics may not be first in line for the throne, but they’re not that far away, and that line is going to get cut, re-cut and all mixed up as the league gets transformed by what is about to be a wild summer of free agency. Before we get to the ways Ainge, Stevens and the young talent can help Boston get back to the front of the line, let’s remember something else that might ease some frustration in Celtics Nation – there is not now, and there never was, a “what might have been” with Irving and Davis in Boston.

Irving was never going to be the leader, the No. 1 player, the alpha dog for the Celtics. He was focused on how the team fit around him, not how he could fit into the team. The young players around him didn’t get better, they got worse. The Celtics clearly played harder when he wasn’t on the floor, and Irving played hard only when he wanted to…which didn’t include much of Boston’s season-ending playoff series against the Bucks.

And Davis was never going to commit to Boston long term. Both his father and his agent made that clear.

The dream of an Irving/Davis foundation was just that, a dream. Feeling frustrated about it is like being frustrated you aren’t taller, or that dogs can’t talk.

Ainge understands that. Boston’s basketball boss was smart not to mortgage the future for a Davis rental. He made the right choice by not doing whatever it took to appease the petulant Irving.

Horford and his likely departure feels different than Irving leaving or Davis never coming. Horford was committed to the Celtics, he gave real effort, and we know he could have made this team better because he already did it. Having a selfless veteran like Horford who is also a defensive-minded big man has been and would have continued to be an ideal complement to Boston’s young talent. It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen now, so it’s time for Ainge to build a team without Horford in the foundation, and he can start picking out some new building blocks in Thursday night’s draft.

Before he traded for, and then traded away, Kevin Garnett in two deals that were great for the Celtics, Ainge was best known for finding talent in a place where many people could not – the middle of the first round. That’s where Ainge and the Celtics will be to begin Thursday night with picks 14, 20 and 22 (plus No. 51 in the second round).

That draft position is reminiscent of 2004 when Boston had 15, 24 and 25 and wound up taking Al Jefferson, Delonte West and Tony Allen. That was an incredible 3-for-3 night for Ainge. It will be hard for the former Blue Jay to replicate that batting average, and it’s worth noting he’s had some misses in the middle of the first round since then (James Young at No. 17 in 2014), but we know Ainge is capable of uncovering some gems in the middle of the first.

We also know he’s capable of a winning trade if he decides to deal any of those picks, or the future first-round Memphis pick Boston owns, or any of his young talent, or any package involving some or all of those assets.

No matter what kind of roster Ainge builds, it seems safe to assume that Stevens will get the most out of it. If it’s a hodgepodge of rookies, stars-in-waiting and veteran castoffs, we know Stevens can win with that mix because he did it in Boston in 2016-17 and 2017-18, and he did the college version of it for years at Butler. If Ainge somehow lands a veteran superstar (one of those always seems to be unexpectedly sliding onto the market these days), Stevens will have a better idea how to handle him after living through two years of Irving.

If none of that can help ease the pain of Celtics fans, just remind them that the team still has Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. And Gordon Hayward. And Marcus Smart.

Tatum may have regressed last year, but it’s hard to blame him. With Irving dominating possessions, the offense had no rhythm. Players like Tatum did out-of-character things with the ball because they knew they weren’t getting it back. Returning to Stevens’s up-tempo, ball-movement, team-movement offense should unlock Tatum’s potential, which should still be considered at the superstar level.

If his development goes right, Tatum could turn into the No. 1 player on a title team. If his rehabilitation goes right, Hayward could return to his 2017 All-Star level when he looked like a solid No. 2 for a title team.

Brown showed off his willpower, athleticism and adaptability by somehow getting better during the second half of last season despite all the dysfunction. And the biggest flaw in Smart’s game was his outside shooting, and he improved there last season. Smart shot 36.4% from 3-point land in 2019-20, a dramatic increase from the career 29.3 3-point percentage he had to start the season. Do those two have a chance to be the third and fourth best players on an NBA champion? Of course they have a chance to become that.

Boston still has work to do and breaks to catch, but not nearly as much work or as many breaks as most teams. And without Irving’s sullen attitude and ball-hogging ways, without the specter of Davis’s departure looming over everything, and with the young core that made 2017-18 team so likeable, the upcoming season should be fun. After last season, this Celtics fan is ready for likeable and fun.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3391 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20)

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