Slightly over a year ago, the overachieving Celtics were competing with LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the conference finals. The landscape in the Eastern Conference has changed dramatically over the ensuing 13 months and Boston has not been left out of the league-wide shake-up.
The franchise is now operating as if Kyrie Irving and Al Horford won’t be back. Irving has been in communication with the Celtics since the season ended and the point guard has been “forthright” about his intentions, sending both public and private signals that he’ll be departing in free agency, Shams Charania of The Athletic tweets. Brooklyn will likely be Irving’s next destination.
Early in the season, Irving declared to a packed crowd at the TD Garden that he would be re-signing the club once his contract expired. That was before a 2018/19 season in which ‘chemistry’ became a buzzword akin to the words ‘disrupter’ or ‘synergy’ in corporate speak.
A number of factors contributed to the uneasiness in Boston’s locker room. Jackie MacMullan (via Dane Delgado of NBC Sports) hears that coach Brad Stevens’ dedication to Gordon Hayward caused some issues. Stevens wanted Hayward to regain confidence and he gave the wing opportunity after opportunity on the court to show his pre-injury form.
Stevens has a history with Hayward from their Butler University days, though the coach would have taken the same approach with any player coming back from a major injury. Hayward continued to struggle, proving he wasn’t ready for the minutes and with many mouths left unfed, the crabs-in-a-barrel mentality festered.
Next season, different elements will contribute to the team’s locker room chemistry. Hayward will outlast Irving in Boston, as the veteran wing has two more years left on his deal (the final year is a player option worth slightly less than $34.2MM). Horford appears set to be elsewhere, and new faces will surround the tandem of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown as the team hopes of remaining competitive in an enhanced Eastern Conference.
Last spring, the narrative out of Boston centered around how the team was ready to compete in the present but was also built for the future. The Celtics’ story is a lesson in never underestimating how much things can change in just one year.