Not a few quarters have deemed the blockbuster Anthony Davis trade as a win-win development, and with ample reason. The Pelicans, thought to have a future ransomed by their erstwhile top dog, received an embarrassment of riches slated to propel them to respect and respectability through the medium term. Meanwhile, the Lakers, in the limelight for one dramatic on- or off-court misstep after another, found themselves hogging headlines in a manner befitting their storied past. The outlook became much brighter for both, their distance from their desired destination and their continued movement of pieces on the board notwithstanding.
Amid all the celebration, the deal’s negative effects on another prominent protagonist has gone largely unnoticed. Indeed, the plight of the Celtics has been viewed as an afterthought, never mind the not inconsiderable lengths they went through to prepare for Davis’ arrival. How ambitious was their aim to nab him? They set the wheels in motion as early as two years ago, with subsequent moves serving to reinforce the notion that they were his wealthiest and best-positioned suitor. And, for a long while, they looked well on their way to meeting their objective.
Unfortunately, the Celtics ran into a string of bad luck. First, Davis switched agents and latched on to Rich Paul, who just so happened to be LeBron James’ close friend and official representation. Second, they suffered from their overachievement in the 2018 playoffs. Having come close to reaching the Finals with stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward convalescing from injuries, they began their next campaign with outsized expectations that, as things turned out, they didn’t even come close to meeting.
That the Celtics managed to thwart the Lakers’ initial overtures for Davis prior to the trade deadline speaks to the value of the assets they hold. The Pelicans knew he had long been their target, and naturally wanted them to make a bid commensurate to their intentions once rules allowed their participation in the sweepstakes. When the offseason came around, however, they carried with them baggage borne of their postseason failure. And with Irving ghosting them and increasingly likely to bolt in free agency, they saw their best-laid plans going awry and thereby became compelled to exercise caution in negotiations with the Pelicans.
The rest, as the cliche goes, is history, and the Celtics can’t be happy with their prognoses. Never mind their inability to spread the welcome mat for Davis. Irving is most likely gone, with Al Horford, their most consistent competitor, not far behind. Left in the wake of presumptive departures — and non-arrival — is a roster replete with promise but not much more. A lot has been made of their capacity to come close to claiming a seat in the Finals last year; forgotten in the run-up is how close they likewise came to being sent home by the Bucks in the first round.
True, the Celtics can go after a bevy of free agents using the cap space the probable exits of Irving and Horford will yield, not to mention the draft rights they hold. Nonetheless, the fact that they still need to be active in the secondary market underscores the stunting, if not reversal, of their progress. At this point, they aren’t even sure restricted free agent Terry Rozier — who had a down season as a reserve after playing a starring role in their deep playoff run last year — wants to be back in the fold. For all the supposed frailties of the so-called Leastern Conference, a roster starring Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown projects to win six less games through their 2019-20 campaign, good for a low playoff seed and not enough for them to cast moist eyes on the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Certainly, the Celtics were wise not to go all in on Davis. Then again, they have to take a gamble sooner or later. Unless and until their assets are turned into marquee names, potential is all they’ll have. Not good in the immediate term, which features a wide-open race for the hardware in light of the dismantling of the Warriors dynasty. And not good in the longer term, which wrongly banks on their youth program netting them transcendent talents.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing the Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operation and Human Resources management, corporate communications and business development.