NBA training camps opened across the league Tuesday and with the return of basketball came a media blitz.
In Boston, Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens held lengthy sessions with reporters. In Charlotte, Gordon Hayward detailed his decision to sign with the Hornets.
So let’s sift through the noise and find the soundbites that mattered most in regards to the Celtics, their offseason maneuverings, and what’s ahead:
"Although there were conversations with lots of teams for sign-and-trade opportunities, it was one of those things where my agent was kind of working on those and I kind of just told him, ‘Let's do this thing in Charlotte, let's get this thing done." — Hayward
This is how Hayward explained the finish line of his free agency and the decision to join Charlotte. And this is what Ainge offered on the situation ...
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"I will just say that Indiana was one of a handful of teams, maybe three or four teams would probably be a more accurate description, that we talked about the potential of sign and trades. And, as you know, with sign and trades, the player controls that because, if we work out a deal with another team but Gordon doesn't want to go there, then he doesn't have to go there. It takes all three parties to be pleased.” — Ainge
Ainge mostly danced around questions about Hayward negotiations, especially when reporters pried about the much-scrutinized talks with Indiana. But Ainge did seem to push back on the suggestion that the Hornets swooped in and stole Hayward while Ainge was trying to extract maximum return from Indiana.
What seems to be clear in the aftermath is that the Celtics were never seemingly smitten with anything the Pacers could have offered. Our best guess is that, with Indiana quickly looking like an unlikely place to make a deal for all parties involved, the Celtics dug in with hopes that Hayward would see the Celtics as the best possible option based on money and chance to compete for a title.
Michael Jordan was able to lure Hayward away based on both money and a role that would better allow Hayward to reestablish himself as a star player in this league.
Ainge noted that bringing back Hayward was Boston’s top desire. In the absence of that, it appears the Celtics believed the benefits from Hayward’s exit — the larger midlevel to sign Tristian Thompson, a bulky trade exception, and staying out of the tax to ease future repeater penalties — was a better fallback plan than anything Indiana could have delivered.
"Maybe we didn’t do him justice by bringing him back too fast in the bubble, being hurt and finding some urgency during the regular season. We don’t want to make that mistake -- if it was a mistake — this time." — Ainge
After detailing how Kemba Walker will miss the start of the season after the Celtics put him on a 12-week plan to strengthen the balky knee that hindered Walker inside the bubble, Ainge admitted the team might have moved too fast with Walker coming out of quarantine. Walker clearly wasn’t the same All-Star player we saw at the start of his Boston tenure and looked hindered by his sore knee at times during the bubble playoffs.
Ainge went on to note how Walker met with multiple specialists in recent weeks to ensure no surgery was necessary and believes that brought peace of mind for Walker.
The Celtics put him on a plan to have him ready for an expected late January start to the season. Then the NBA jumped on the accelerator and decided to start the season on December 22. The Celtics have elected to play the long game with Walker in hopes of making sure the knee isn’t an issue deeper into the 2020-21 season.
Added Ainge: “It’s not a perfect science. It’s guesswork, and we’re trying to do the best with the information that we have and get him as strong and healthy as he can be, so he can make it through the year.”
"I feel like there’s nobody we want to cut or get off the team, and that’s the only way we can bring in more players. … This is an opportunity league, and there’s nothing I like more than when guys who don’t get a chance to play get a chance to step up and play.” — Ainge
With both Walker and Romeo Langford (wrist) sidelined to start the season, the obvious question is whether Boston has enough depth to stay afloat.
Boston already has to replace Hayward’s spot in the starting lineup and, if the plan there was to elevate Marcus Smart, then it takes away the most obvious choice to step in for Walker. Ainge noted that Walker’s absence will mean more time for newcomer Jeff Teague and rookie Payton Pritchard, along with two-way guard Tremont Waters. But it’s clear that all of Boston’s young players are going to get an opportunity early to audition for bigger roles.
That means a chance for guys like Carsen Edwards and Javonte Green to make an early case for roles. It means Robert Williams might be able to play through defensive lapses early in the season.
Player development is critical for Boston, not only to find complementary pieces that can play around the core of Walker, Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum, but also to develop tradable assets that would allow Boston to maximize the trade exception from Hayward’s departure.
Boston’s title hopes and desire for premium seeding has often run in conflict with player development. By easing into the 2020-21 season and not saturating the roster with veteran pieces, the team can lean heavier on young players and see what they can do when they’re tossed into the fire.
"Obviously, Jayson and Jaylen both have signed new contracts within the calendar year and both have already made a huge impact with their play on the biggest stage and all that they've done in their first couple of years in the league.” — Stevens
It was interesting that, when asked about Tatum’s recent max-contract extension, both Ainge and Stevens made it a point to loop in Brown. It’s more clear than ever that much of what this team accomplishes hinges on the continued development of the young duo.
Sure, Walker’s health is vital. The Celtics need their young players to develop and the veteran additions to make an impact.
But the season ultimately hinges on what Tatum and Brown accomplish. Remember, too, that the Celtics have thrived when Tatum and Brown are the focal points of the team — whether that was in the 2018 playoffs when Hayward and Kyrie Irving were injured, or last season when Walker’s health put them in the playoff spotlight again.
If there was any doubt, this team belongs to Tatum and Brown now. All the decisions the team makes for the next half decade are through the lens of maximizing that duo.