“Contractually, financially, an extension just doesn’t make any sense,” Kyrie Irving stated on June 12, four days following the end of the NBA Finals which saw a completely unmatched Cavs squad flounder to the Warriors. This should have been the Celtics in the Finals, with or without Kyrie, which provides the perfect path forward for a young player who wants to be the star of his own team and get them over the hump. Why would Kyrie not want to sign an extension? Granted, it would cost him north of $80 million extending his contract this summer versus waiting for unrestricted free agency the summer of 2019. But he could be the missing piece on an extremely versatile, switch happy, athletic defense which may happen to contain a future superstar on the offensive end in Jayson Tatum and a Scottie Pippin like role player in Jaylen Brown. This leads us to our discussion of the day, what in the world should the Celtics do about their Kyrie Irving dilemma?
Looking ahead to the future, the Celtics have a penchant for patience. Danny Ainge is quite possibly the greatest GM in NBA history with his theft of the Nets decade of basketball relevance and build-up of draft picks keeping his team salary costs at a minimum. The result – reaching the conference finals with an all-star role player in Al Horford on a semi-max contract and the two other max players out with injury – wow. Currently, the Celtics assets include three All-stars (Gordon Hayward, Horford, Irving), three lock down defenders and up and comers (Smart, Brown, Tatum) and multiple young players not costing Danny Ainge any commitments or salary (Marcus Smart is restricted this summer, which adds to the likelihood of letting him walk). Draft picks upcoming over the next couple years include:
· 2018 1st round pick from Lakers – now will turn into, most likely, the Kings pick in 2019 (which of course they won’t be good so top 10)
· 2019 1st round pick from Clippers – protected in the lottery – so very possible if the Clippers can stay in playoff hunt next season, or else will convey in future draft
· 2019 1st round pick from Grizzlies – protected top 8 in 2019, top 6 in 2020, and unprotected in 2021. This one is interesting because the Grizz most likely will be one of the worst 6 teams in the league for the foreseeable future, limiting the chances the Celts keep this pick until likely 2021 – but could be the top pick in two years!
· The Celtics have all their own future first round picks (will be late first rounders).
With all this draft capital in the books, the Celtics could potentially see themselves gaining a lottery 2019 Kings pick, 2020 Clippers first round pick, 2020/2021 lottery pick from Grizzlies, and all their own picks which will most likely be bottom of the first round. That is a nice stash to keep refilling the end of the bench at a low cost going forward to maintain cap flexibility with the likes of Tatum, Brown, Hayward, and Horford if they want to keep him moving forward. With the future in mind, it appears the Celtics would be able to give out a max contract for Kyrie this summer or next summer.
Now looking at the future with Kyrie Irving on board: NBA Finals or bust for the next four seasons due alone to the fact of having blossoming Tatum, Brown, Hayward, and possibly Irving mixing with the role players of Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier including Horford if they choose (unrestricted free agent in 2020). Outside of the Warriors, this team has the highest ceiling and highest likelihood of reaching the Finals and achieving championship glory. From a basketball standpoint, the Celtics will boast a starting lineup of: Irving, Hayward, Brown, Tatum, and Horford. They could also choose to use Tatum/Brown as a 6th man and insert Marcus Morris to starting lineup (big fan and highly impressed following his defense and toughness in Conference Finals vs LeBron, just don’t let him be a playmaker with ball in his hands). The depth chart will include Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart (if Ainge decides to spend on him, only could see him staying if he is around 8-10$ million per season- so I doubt he will still be around), Semi Ojeleye, Daniel Theis, and who knows – Aron Baynes?!?! This could be one of the most dynamic offensive teams with an attacking Rozier/Irving, creativity and leadership from Horford and Hayward, unstoppable one on one play from Irving or Tatum, and quality defensive personnel with Brown, Tatum, Hayward, Horford, Morris, Ojeleye, and so on. This is all not including the incredible coaching of Brad Stevens. But in the end, this group will easily be one of the top three teams in the NBA for the next half decade. With the draft picks incoming (6 possible 1st round picks over next three years) and ingenuity of Ainge, things could get even better for this team.
Now looking at why would Danny Ainge possibly think of trading a superstar such as Kyrie Irving. First, the most obvious reason if you have followed the NBA in the past decade – to obtain future assets and salary cap flexibility. Danny Ainge is obsessed with bringing in first round picks to always keep his option open moving forward. Second, defense. Kyrie is undersized in the modern NBA’s crop of point guards and lacks the defensive edge of a top tiered superstar in his prime which would inhibit the Celtics deep in the playoffs. He is a liability when playing the Warriors (without LeBron at his side, at least), or any other dynamic offense which can exploit mismatches. Third, as we heard on June 12th, Kyrie does not intend to sign an extension, which would give the Celtics more flexibility in cap space moving forward if they moved him for draft picks and role players. He would command a max offer from most teams in the NBA in 2019 and cost the Celtics a pretty penny for the next five years as one of the highest paid players in the league, with Hayward already making max level money. And fourth, does this team need Kyrie to achieve ultimate glory of one, if not more, championships? They came within a few minutes of reaching the finals, and most think they would have pushed the Warriors to 6 or 7 games based on their defensive make up.
What would a deal for Kyrie Irving bring to the Celtics? This is the most interesting question. This summer brings all kinds of craziness to the NBA landscape, including LeBron-mania, what will happen with Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs, where will Paul George end up, will the Raptors deal DeRozan or Lowry, is Anthony Davis on the trading block, will Andrew Wiggins change uniforms, and once again, where will LeBron end up? The first domino to fall will dictate how the rest of the NBA looks in October, which is whenever LeBron makes his decision. Then teams will start to realize what they need to do to challenge him. (The LeBron decision will be discussed in next weeks post).
· For Danny Ainge, a deal for his superstar player would have to include multiple first round picks or one of the names mentioned above: Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis. Those names are the most likely names to look out for when discussing the Celtics. Paul George is a lock on Ainge’s radar, having nearly materialized a deal for him last summer before getting Irving into a green uniform. He would be a possible pick up, but just as an unrestricted free agent on a max contract, without giving up Irving or any other players or picks. Which makes us ask the question, does Danny Ainge value Paul George more than Kyrie Irving?
· Kawhi and AD would have to arrive via trade package, which would most likely cost Irving and one of the young assets of Brown/Tatum and probably a first round pick or two. Those trades are possible, especially considering the turmoil of the Spurs over this past season. If I was Ainge, I would not be able to bet on Kawhi/AD being an upgrade over Irving AND Tatum or Brown (even though Kawhi is my favorite player in the league and will be the best all-around player and best two-way player when healthy). Tatum and Brown are too young, too cheap on their rookie deals, and too talented at this point in their careers as switching wing men who can shoot and put the ball on the deck to move on from, as well as including Irving.
After analyzing all the options looking the Celtics in the face over the next season, if I was Danny Ainge, I would be looking for the highest bidder in a deal for Irving this summer. This is not an easy choice, since Irving is one of the top ten offensive players in the league. But Danny Ainge does not want to give a point guard that could be a liability on the defensive end deep in the playoffs supermax money, he would rather keep his options open, and bring in young studs that have the potential to be groomed into next level talent via Brad Stevens, with one of the best cultures in the league. My verdict:
Celtics deal Kyrie Irving to the Lakers for Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and a future 1st and 2nd round draft picks.