Tom O’Leary

As I have been writing this column over the past two semesters, I have often analyzed the current state of the professional sports teams I am most passionate about. But due to the structure of our production schedule, the subject matter can be outdated by the time each issue is released. So, for the final “Tomfoolery” of the semester I am going to stray from this style and discuss the future of the Boston Celtics.

For context, the Celtics are currently battling the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round of the playoffs, and regardless of whether they advance or not, they have exceeded expectations. Although this team had championship aspirations early on, the roster became so ravaged with injuries that that hasn’t been a reality for months. Star free agent signing Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending broken ankle just six minutes into his Boston debut. Then came backup center Daniel Theis’ torn meniscus and sixth man Marcus Smart’s thumb ligament tear. The fatal blow to their shot at another championship occurred when all-star point guard Kyrie Irving was lost to knee surgery on April 7.

Despite the devastating depletion of their roster, the Celtics still managed to defeat the Milwaukee Bucks in round one, although it took a full seven games. Smart was able to return at the end of the series, but the team then lost its leading scorer in the playoffs, guard Jaylen Brown, to a hamstring injury. While they have continued to persevere, the squad no longer has the star power or depth to compete with the remaining elite teams. Anything they are able to accomplish from here on out should be viewed purely as gravy to Celtics fans, while providing even more hope and excitement for what this team can achieve upon their return to full strength.

While the 2017-2018 season was undoubtedly derailed, the extended absences of so many key players provided an unexpected silver lining. From the moment Hayward went down, an opportunity was created for Brown and rookie forward Jayson Tatum to fill the void of production and leadership left in his wake. Both players, who are age 21 and 20 respectively, seized the increased responsibility and performed far beyond their years. The same goes for third year point guard Terry Rozier, who was buried on the depth chart until the Irving and Smart injuries. Upon being thrust into the starting lineup for the first time in his career, he went on to lead the team in minutes, points, rebounds and assists per game. All three players took their game to unprecedented levels and have emerged as foundational cornerstones of the Celtics going forward. It will be intriguing to observe if they can continue to excel when their minutes are naturally reduced next season to accommodate the returns of Hayward and Irving.

Another noteworthy future storyline is roster construction. President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge has proven himself entirely unpredictable after keeping only four of the 15 players who were on the 2016-2017 squad that lost in the eastern conference finals. With minimal salary cap space to maneuver, Ainge must determine if they can re-sign impending free agents Smart, starting center Aron Baynes, reserve center Greg Monroe, and reserve guard Shane Larkin. All four will most certainly be seeking pay raises, but the toughest decision will be Smart. While he is the Celtics best defensive player, his offensive limitations were further magnified by Rozier’s performance. Rozier himself will be up for a new deal after next season, so the team will be forced to choose between the two. If a rival team offers Smart around market value, it won’t be surprising if Ainge lets him walk.

However, the largest upcoming hurdle of the future Celtics is the looming free agency of Irving, the face of the franchise whom Ainge has built the roster around. In all likelihood, Irving will opt out of the final year of his contract after next season and seek the maximum salary he is allowed under the current collective bargaining agreement. The team paid a high price to acquire him from the Cleveland Cavaliers last summer, so they will likely do whatever is necessary to create the salary cap space to keep him around. But at the same time, he must shed his well-deserved injury-plagued label for Ainge to confidently invest the required resources.

The present Celtics roster is comprised of several players most teams would deem “untouchable,” but with Ainge a blockbuster trade can never be ruled out. He also has a bevy of upcoming first-round draft picks he can manipulate to fill out the depth chart as he sees fit. In addition, there are always skilled veteran players who will sign with top teams for the league minimum salary in order to chase a championship. Regardless of how free agency plays out, the team is flush with options to help bring the NBA title back to Boston.

As much as I have yearned for the Celtics to win another championship this year, I am honestly at peace with however the rest of the playoffs unfold. They have faced a level of adversity that no team could overcome. All that matters is next season, when they can hopefully combine good health with the development of their young talent, and make a legitimate run at the ultimate goal.