Boston Celtics: What comes next if Kyrie Irving and Al Horford leave?

Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images /

With Kyrie Irving and Al Horford all but guaranteed to play elsewhere next year, it’s important for the Boston Celtics to map out a long-term plan.

How quickly things have flipped for the Boston Celtics in just one year is pretty remarkable. Following the conclusion of the 2017-18 season, the NBA world marveled at how well they managed to play on their way to the conference finals even without All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.

With what seemed to be a perfect mix of talented vets and youthful up-and-comers, they were confidently dubbed the team of the future and a popular preseason pick to dethrone the Golden State Warriors in a potential Finals matchup.

Fast forward to the cusp of 2019 NBA free agency, and everything Danny Ainge has built over the years is crumbling right before his very eyes. It’s looked like Kyrie Irving will be playing elsewhere for months now with the rumor mill as hot as ever. Al Horford was supposed to re-sign, but contract disputes now have him in pursuit of a better deal somewhere outside Boston.

Ainge was methodical in constructing a contender, waiting ever so patiently for the right time to release the mountain of assets he’s been sitting on since 2013. It’s why he didn’t go after available stars like Jimmy Butler, Paul George or even Kawhi Leonard. After failing to land Anthony Davis, he may have waited too long and will pay the ultimate price.

The traditional method following the loss of a star player is to start at the bottom and work one’s way back up. Luckily for the Celtics, part of what made them so unique is what will ultimately keep them afloat in the Eastern Conference.

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are still very much a part of Boston’s long-term plans. They may have struggled at times in supporting roles, but also showed promise when given the chance. As the new heads of the Celtics franchise, their immense potential will assuredly bubble to the surface.

Two foundational building blocks already in place isn’t a bad place to start in this new era of basketball for the Cs. The trick now for Danny Ainge and the front office is using potentially over $30 million in cap room to find suitable replacements for their lost All-Stars.

Boston may be 26-11 in his absence, but there’s no denying the talent Irving brings to the table. A ball-handling wizard and shot-maker extraordinaire, he provides a much-needed luxury of creating shots out of thin air when called upon. Had he played in Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals, he may have been able to save the Celtics’ sputtering offense and help them to the Finals.

No team can easily substitute the 23.8 points and career-high 6.9 assists per game Kyrie provided, although it looks like Boston is trying its best with recent reports linking the team to Kemba Walker. A three-time All-Star and unrestricted free agent, Walker averaged a career-best 25.6 points per game last season with a style of play that doesn’t differ much from Irving’s.

Some have even given the Charlotte Hornets floor general the edge over his conference counterpart, more specifically in the leadership department. The odds of such a pairing are unknown, but it would certainly help lessen the sting of losing Kyrie to another squad.

Replacing Horford is an entirely different ballgame. His two-way versatility is something not found in many players and he’s served as arguably Boston’s most valuable contributor since coming over in the summer of 2016.

That doesn’t mean the Cs aren’t going to try. The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported an intended pursuit of Orlando Magic big man Nikola Vucevic. Coming off his first All-Star appearance, Vooch isn’t one to protect the rim, but he’s made great strides defensively. An effective low-post presence, he also averaged a career-high 3.8 assists per game last season and continues to expand his range beyond the 3-point line.

Walker will turn 30 this coming May while Vucevic will be 29 by the start of the 2019-20 season. Conventional wisdom may suggest going after younger players to better complement Brown and Tatum. Call it wishful thinking, but after consecutive conference finals outings and a second round appearance, Boston still feels it can compete at a high level.

Aside from the fact that no free agent pursuit brings with it even a sliver of a guarantee, what comes next for Boston will depend largely on the direction it chooses to go in. There’s something to be said for remaining competitive, but none of the top teams in the Eastern Conference appear to be going anywhere soon.

Meanwhile, Brown is 22 and Tatum is 21. Even Marcus Smart is just now entering his prime years at 25. The free agent class of 2019 is one of the largest ever — roughly 40 percent of the entire league — with the Celtics able to free up some of the most cap space. Surely there have to be talented players (perhaps D’Angelo Russell?) that would be willing to come to Beantown who better fit a more long-term vision.

This is not the situation the Celtics expected to be in heading into the offseason. The return of both Irving and Hayward, coupled with continued internal development, was supposed to vault them into the realm of championship contenders.

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Why that failed to materialize is an entirely different subject. In the present, where Ainge chooses to spend his money this summer will shape the future of the Celtics. It may not be about directly replacing his two best players, but instead embracing a new path with every move after acting in accordance with it.