By Not Trading Jayson Tatum for Anthony Davis, Celtics Admit to Uncertain Future

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJune 16, 2019

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 17: Jayson Tatum (0) and Kyrie Irving (11) of the Boston Celtics celebrates after the game against the Indiana Pacers in Game Two of Round One of the 2019 NBA Playoffs against the Boston Celtics on April 17, 2019 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE  (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)
Brian Babineau/Getty Images

Rarely do moves not made immediately say anything, let alone everything, about an NBA team's future. The Boston Celtics' decision not to trade for Anthony Davis is an overwhelming exception.

Davis was dealt to the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday night, ending a months-long will-they, won't-they, when-will-they saga that featured myriad rumors, hypotheticals, conflicting agendas, front-office turnover and so much more.

In exchange for sending their superstar to his preferred destination, the New Orleans Pelicans will receive Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, this year's No. 4 pick, two additional first-rounders and swap rights, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne. The details on additional draft obligations are as follows, per the Los Angeles Times' Tania Ganguli:

The impact this blockbuster has on the rest of the league cannot be overstated. The Lakers will have near-max cap space if Davis waives his no-trade clause and they wait to complete this deal until the free-agency dust settles. Signing a third star instantly vaults them to the top of the Western Conference arms race, especially with the Golden State Warriors' short-term trajectory worse for wear following injuries to Kevin Durant (Achilles) and Klay Thompson (ACL).

No team outside New Orleans and Los Angeles will feel this outcome more than the Celtics. Davis joining the Lakers arguably affects them more than the Pelicans. They have been after him for years, well before his trade request and official availability. Losing him to a franchise he won't leave in free agency next summer (player option) is huge—for all the wrong, awkward reasons.

Whether the Celtics passed on Davis or were simply outbid is a matter of debate. They "refused to make Jayson Tatum available in trade talks with New Orleans," according to the New York Times' Marc Stein, and they were never going to beat the Lakers' kitchen-sink offer without him.

Maybe Boston's stance would've changed deeper into free agency, once Kyrie Irving (player option) hashed out his future. It might not have mattered. The Lakers' package for Davis was widely, and unfairly, panned at February's deadline, but between jumping to No. 4 in the draft lottery and offering the Pelicans control over the other first-rounders, they cobbled together an asset base Tatum's inclusion alone wouldn't trounce.

Still, if the Celtics wanted to, they could have assembled the league's best offer.

They have Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Robert Williams, three 2019 first-round picks (14, 20, 22), Memphis' 2020 first-round pick (top-six protection) and all their own future selections. Attaching some combination of these players and chips to Tatum, almost universally considered the top Anthony Davis trade asset, would have given the Pelicans more to think about.

In that way, the Celtics opted out of these sweepstakes. They didn't allow the Lakers to land Davis, but they sure as hell didn't do their damnedest to stop them.

BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 10: Kyrie Irving #11 of the Boston Celtics and Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans talk after the game between the Celtics and Pelicans at TD Garden on December 10, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Gett
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

That might say something about their faith in Tatum. He's working off a lateral, if slightly regressive, sophomore season, but he's still just 21 years old. He remains a cornerstone prospect. 

More than anything, though, the Celtics' restraint speaks to their suddenly fragile future.

Few people expect Irving to stick around this summer. A source told the Boston Herald's Steve Bulpett the All-NBA point guard is "prepared to sign" with the Brooklyn Nets. This comes with the caveat that Irving's intentions are impossible to decode, but the threat of his leaving feels genuine after Brooklyn forked over two first-round picks to dump Allen Crabbe onto the Atlanta Hawks.

This noise is even harder to ignore now. The assumption all along was that Celtics president Danny Ainge believed landing Davis guaranteed Irving's return, per The Athletic's Frank IsolaBy that logic, Boston had every incentive to go toe-to-toe with Los Angeles by building packages around Tatum.

Backing off that stance suggests the Celtics view Irving as already gone, or that they never had any intention of offering the moon in the first place. Either way, their open-ended takeover of the NBA, buoyed by their return in the now infamous 2013 trade with the Nets, is on hold. It might even be dunzo.

Boston's master plan was already coping with one reality check. Reintegrating Irving and Gordon Hayward into a rotation that came one win shy of making the 2018 NBA Finals without them was supposed to be a cakewalk. It ended up more like a slog.

Hayward didn't look like himself, save for a few fleeting moments and end-of-season stretches. Brown, Tatum and Terry Rozier all grappled with role reductions. None of them ever really figured it out. Brown came closest. Tatum looked more comfortable but faded in the playoffs. Rozier never found himself.

Attributing the Celtics' 2018-19 struggles to an excess of talent feels counterintuitive. That doesn't make it wrong. They at the very least had too many mouths to feed and an overabundance of warring timelines.

Irving's fortune-cookie speak never once negated the fact that he was a 27-year-old superstar trying to prove he can headline a contender. Brown (extension-eligible) and Rozier (restricted) were playing for their first big paydays.

Tatum is barely old enough to order his own cotton-candy cosmos and was ordained a future All-NBA megastar in his rookie season. Hayward was trying to recapture form after suffering a dislocated left ankle and fractured left tibia that cost him all but five minutes of 2017-18.

All of these moving parts created a dynamic unsuited for collective sacrifice. Al Horford was the only player hardwired to adapt—to concede. Boston's roster was begging for consolidation. Davis represented not only the chance to land a second top-10 player but also simplify the pecking order.

Then again, even without him, the Celtics may no longer have that problem. Irving might be a goner. Rozier is more likely to come back if he leaves, but he too could wind up elsewhere. Marcus Morris is a free agent. Horford is still undecided on his player option, per the Boston Globe's Adam Himmelsbach

Turning over the keys to Brown and Tatum wouldn't be the end of the world. The cupboard is far from bare. Hayward will be better next season, Horford's return guarantees playoff contention, and the Celtics remain ripe for a splashy trade if they dangle Smart, Aron Baynes' expiring contract, this year's picks and that Memphis selection.

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 17: Jayson Tatum #0 hugs Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics Game Two of Round One of the 2019 NBA Playoffs against the Boston Celtics on April 17, 2019 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowle
Brian Babineau/Getty Images

Surviving a worst-case offseason won't be a major problem. Entering the championship conversation is a different story. The Celtics do not have the cap flexibility to replace Irving if he bolts. They'll have a clear path to ducking the tax and opening up the full mid-level exception ($9.2 million), but they won't enjoy major spending power with Horford on the books.

Waiting out their cap sheet isn't an option, either. Brown will be on a new contract in 2020-21, and Tatum's next deal kicks in the year after, when Hayward's pact comes off the ledger. And keeping any combination of Horford, Morris and Rozier would only eat into long-term projections.

Other teams have it worse. The Celtics are not screwed. Their longstanding and open lust for Davis deserves to be a punchline, but if they know he'll be a one-year rental or that Irving is walking, they shouldn't be killed for exercising extreme caution.

Halfheartedly entering the Kawhi Leonard trade talks last summer is the bigger stain on the Celtics' trajectory. He was no less a flight risk, but he didn't cost as much as Davis, and they weren't dealing with Irving's free agency. They had an entire year to recruit both from the inside. 

Perhaps it wouldn't have mattered. Leonard just won a championship and Finals MVP with the Toronto Raptors, and no one is prepared to promise his return.

But the Celtics were in more of a position to take that chance last summer. They cannot justify it now—not with Irving's loyalty billowing in the wind and Davis fetching an ultra-premium price.

That doesn't make this any easier to stomach. It isn't that Boston missed out on Davis. It's what that whiff implies.

In the span of one season, the Celtics could go from the toast of the East with an indefinite title window to a middle-rung playoff team or worse.

And they don't just know this, they appear to be counting on it.

       

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.

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