Think back to two summers ago. The Boston Celtics, after enduring yet another round of criticism for failing to dig into their war chest of draft picks in order to make a trade for Paul George or Jimmy Butler, had swooped in to pluck Kyrie Irving away from the Cavs and team him up with Gordon Hayward. Now zoom ahead to last summer, when the Celtics had just finished a run to the Eastern Conference Finals despite injuries to both Hayward and Irving, and the team’s collection of young talent and savvy veteran contributors was the envy of every other team in the league. Irving, Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, and Al Horford seemed ready to take over the East as soon as the 2018-19 season got underway, and things were only supposed to get better from there. Irving was publicly making promises about staying in Boston longterm, and no team was better situated to make a winning offer for Anthony Davis once his trade demand became official. Everything was set up for the Celtics to rule the conference for the better part of the next decade.
Whew, boy, look where we all are now. After a season in which Irving’s crankiness and weirdo vibes destroyed the team’s chemistry, every young player on the roster got worse, and Hayward never stopped looking like a player better suited for a college intramural game, the Celtics are fully coming apart. Irving declined his player option and seems destined to sign with Brooklyn; reports indicate that he “ghosted” the Celtics as soon as the season ended. That’s all fine and expected—the Celtics probably didn’t even want Irving back at this point—but today brought some news that very few people saw coming: Al Horford wants the hell out of there!
Horford officially declined his $30.1 million option for the 2019-20 season last night, but it was widely assumed that he did so simply to renegotiate a longer term deal to stay in Boston. That is not the case, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski:
Talks on a new deal with the Celtics have perished, with too great of a gulf between what the team is willing to offer and what Horford wants on a long-term deal, league sources said.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge and Horford’s agent, Jason Glushon, aren’t expected to restart talks again, league sources said. Horford is entering free agency with the full expectation that his three-year Celtics career has ended, sources said.
Horford was maybe the one player on the Celtics roster that provided any joy to the home fans this past season. While Irving and Brown and Rozier and Smart and Marcus Morris took turns sulking, and while Tatum was failing to fight off the advanced stages of Kobe Brain, Horford was out there every night doing all the things that Al Horford does. Amid the broader funk of bad vibes and disappointment, Horford was rebounding, setting great picks, hitting threes, and swallowing up opposing centers who are much bigger and faster than he is on the defensive end. He was the one Celtic you could point to and say, “Hey, that’s a good dude to have on your team,” about.
The Celtics are not doomed, at least not in the non-negotiable eternal way the Orlando Magic or New York Knicks are doomed. It’s entirely possible that Hayward will return to form next season, and Tatum and Brown will get back on the glittering career arcs that were once laid out for them, and the Celtics will again be a well-drilled team that grinds its way to a four-seed. There’s nothing wrong with being that kind of team, but man, this is not at all how it was supposed to go! This damn team was supposed to be heading into the future with Irving, Davis, and some combination of Hayward, Brown, and Tatum guaranteeing them multiple trips to the Finals. Now they have to start thinking about how to keep Terry Rozier, and if they can woo Nikola Mirotic or Al-Farouq Aminu in free agency. That’s not a worst-case scenario, but it’s pretty damn far from the best.
UPDATE: Danny Ainge suddenly cannot buy a win.