As the final seconds ticked away and the Boston Celtics' tumultuous season officially ended, they walked off the court at Barclays Center knowing a familiar face was at the heart of their postseason coming to an end.
Kyrie Irving was key to Brooklyn's 123-109 series-clinching Game 5 win on Tuesday. Just a couple of years ago when he played for the Celtics, Irving played an integral part in the C's demise that season, too.
When Irving decided to sign with Brooklyn, to the dismay of Celtics fans who remember his previous verbal commitment to re-sign with Boston, nobody could have predicted how Irving's decision would ultimately create a cataclysmic wave of decisions that ultimately put the Celtics where they are now: a franchise with no clear idea of where they're headed.
Former Celtics Al Horford and Gordon Hayward opted out of their contracts in Boston to sign longer-term deals with other teams, each with his own set of reasons. While there's no way to put their decisions 100 percent on Irving's move to Brooklyn, league executives believe Irving opting to leave Boston certainly played a factor in the departure of the franchise's two biggest free-agent signings, Horford and Hayward.
And while Boston's efforts were certainly hampered by being short-handed without Kemba Walker (left knee) and Robert Williams III (ankle) along with Jaylen Brown who underwent season-ending wrist surgery on May 12, there was an undeniable feeling among league executives Tuesday night that the Celtics were barreling towards a crossroads this offseason.
And sure enough, those feelings were validated Wednesday morning, as news leaked about President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge's retirement from the Celtics. Head coach Brad Stevens will reportedly replace Ainge as President of Basketball Operations, and a new coach will replace Stevens.
That was fast.
It was only a few years ago when the Celtics had the building blocks to be a perennial contender in the East, only to now enter what will surely be an offseason of uncertainty.
So where did it all go wrong?
Several factors have contributed to the Celtics' struggles this season and overall inability to take that last, all-important step in their growth.
But when you examine why there are far more questions than answers about this franchise, two words provide a simple summary:
When Danny Ainge traded for him in 2017, he was eager to get back in the title-chasing business after breaking up the Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen—a trio which led the franchise to an NBA title in 2008.
In adding Irving, Boston seemingly found the missing piece—a bona fide star who could take them to another level.
Along with being an All-Star regular, Irving had also won an NBA title with Cleveland. And while LeBron James certainly deserves a tremendous amount of credit for leading the Cavs, Irving's overall play and clutch shot-making were vital to Cleveland's title run.
Adding a player with that pedigree gave Celtics fans every reason to feel giddy about their chances of bringing home Banner No. 18 to Boston.
But that early optimism soon faded.
In its place came uncertainty about whether Irving was built to lead a young, talented team like the Celtics. And soon, the question wasn't so much about whether he could. The question was: did he want to be brilliant in Boston?
At no time was Irving's commitment to the Celtics brought into question more than Boston's second-round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks in 2019.
After sweeping Indiana in its first-round matchup, Boston continued its strong play by beating the Bucks by 22 points in Game 1. In that game, Irving had 26 points on 12-of-21 shooting.
From that point on, though, Irving and the Celtics were never the same.
Boston would lose each of the next four games, a series marred by Irving's ineffectiveness in the most fundamental aspects of his game, such as breaking down defenders and finishing at the rim.
He shot 35.6 percent from the field and averaged 20.4 points per game for the series. That shooting percentage was his worst in a playoff series in which he played at least five games, and his scoring average was his second-lowest in such a series.
Irving's decision to leave created some uncertainty in Horford's thinking as to whether the title-contending Celtics team he signed up to play for would remain among the league's elite.
And when it became clear the Celtics were not willing to re-sign him to a multi-year, nine-figure contract, Horford opted out of the final year of his deal to ink a four-year, $109 million deal with the 76ers.
This past offseason, the Celtics suffered yet another blow when Gordon Hayward opted out of the final year of his deal in part to have a more prominent role in Charlotte. But, like Horford, league executives believe he, too, wasn't sold on the Celtics remaining among the game's top-tier clubs.
So as the Celtics enter one of the most uncertain periods since head coach Brad Stevens came aboard in 2013, the fact that this season ended at the hands of Irving's new team seems like adding insult to injury.
Brooklyn is the overwhelming favorite to come out of the East this year, with Irving playing a prominent role in its ascension. Meanwhile, the Celtics no longer look as though they are an NBA power on the rise, even with a pair of All-Stars (Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown) who are both 24 years old or younger. Instead, Boston resembles a middle-of-the-pack team whose prospects for improvement are bleak.
Boston enters the offseason with a roster that offers very little flexibility for radical change. After barely avoiding the luxury-tax threshold this year, the Celtics head into the offseason with a number of TPEs (Traded Player Exception)—the largest is the $11.05 million that remains from the Hayward TPE—along with mid-level and bi-annual exceptions.
While those are all good assets when the goal is to supplement an established core, Boston still has to get a feel for what that core will look like going forward.
Tatum and Brown are as close to being untradeable as you will find, according to multiple league executives.
But beyond those two, the Celtics are expected to listen as well as propose trades involving the rest of the players who will be under contract next season.