It would be one thing if the Celtics were only without Irving. But combined with the absences of Gordon Hayward (the team’s all-star forward has been out since the season opener in Cleveland, when he suffered a gruesome ankle injury) and Marcus Smart (out for the first round after right thumb surgery), Boston realistically has little chance of making the kind of deep playoff run it had hoped.
In fact, it makes escaping the first round — despite an impressive 53-25 record that locks the Celtics into the Eastern Conference’s second seed — far from a sure thing. And, in the short term, it will make what already was a competitive (and complicated) race among the Miami Heat, Washington Wizards and Milwaukee Bucks to finish in seventh in the East even more so.
But in the long term, Irving’s latest injury also casts doubt on the project the Celtics have slowly, and expertly, been building in Boston.
From the moment Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge sent the last vestiges of Kevin Garnett’s and Paul Pierce’s careers to the Brooklyn Nets for the rights to four first-round draft picks five years ago, it has felt as if everything Ainge has touched has turned to gold. That same summer, Ainge hired Brad Stevens to succeed Doc Rivers as Boston’s coach, and Stevens has turned out to be one of the league’s best.
He later made a pair of slick trades to turn Rajon Rondo, Marcus Thornton and a late first-round pick into Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and another first-round pick — moves that, with Stevens at the helm, turned Boston into a top team in the East while having possession of those Brooklyn first-rounders — picks that became extremely valuable as the Nets sank to the bottom of the NBA just as Boston moved to the top.
Ainge landed a pair of potential franchise cornerstones with the third overall pick in each of the past two drafts — Jaylen Brown in 2016 and Jayson Tatum last year — and even got another valuable first rounder from the Philadelphia 76ers for moving down from first to third — where they got the player, Tatum, they wanted with the first pick, anyway.
Throw in the free agent signings of Al Horford in 2015 and Hayward last summer, and it’s been as good a five-year stretch as any NBA front office could have.
But the signature move of this entire retooling of Boston’s roster was the stunning trade to acquire Irving last summer. In turning Thomas, Crowder, center Ante Zizic and the final pick from Brooklyn for Irving, Ainge and the Celtics put Irving at the center of their plans to raise banner No. 18 to TD Garden’s rafters.
Irving’s talent is undeniable. He’s one of the best scorers in the league, and his ability to hit clutch shots — as he did to win Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, helping LeBron James deliver the city of Cleveland its first title in more than 50 years — is unquestioned.
But Boston will have to decide whether to offer Irving a max contract next summer. And offering a five-year deal worth close to $200 million to someone with Irving’s injury history — despite his talent — is not a sure thing.
This is Irving’s seventh season, and he’s missed more than 15 games in four of them — and more than 20 three times. That doesn’t include him playing just 11 games in his lone season at Duke because of a toe injury.
That’s an awful lot of injury history for a player that turned 26 last month. And players typically don’t get healthier as they get older.
But that is a decision Boston doesn’t have to think about right now. Instead, it has to try to prepare for the playoffs without him — as well as Hayward and Smart — while the teams at the bottom of the East do their best to draw the Celtics.
Given finishing sixth means facing the Cavaliers and James or the streaking Sixers, and finishing eighth means getting the Raptors — one of two teams (along with the Golden State Warriors) in the top five in both offense and defense — it’s easy to see why the wounded Celtics make for the best option for the Heat, Wizards and Bucks.
All three teams entered Thursday with 36 losses, making the fight for seventh a complicated affair.
The Heat have a pretty clear path to sixth place. Miami holds a tiebreaker over Washington because of a better division record, and over Milwaukee by virtue of winning all three meetings. Miami has played one more game — and has one more win — than its competitors, and should get another win Friday when it plays the tanking New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
And while Monday’s game at home against Oklahoma City will be a tough one, a game to end the season against the Raptors at home should mean Miami finishes with at least 45 wins.
That is exactly the same number the Wizards could be looking at, as well. Washington has a game it should lose Thursday night, when it plays the Cavaliers in Cleveland (though the Cavs will be without two of its three point guards, George Hill and Jose Calderon, due to injury). The Wizards then have two games against tanking teams, the Atlanta Hawks and Orlando Magic, sandwiched around a game at home Tuesday against, yes, the Celtics.
Milwaukee, on the other hand, has three straight games against bad teams — the Brooklyn Nets, Knicks and Magic — followed by a season finale against the Sixers. All of this could come down to that game — and whether Philadelphia has anything at stake.
It should make for a thrilling final few days of the regular season — as well as a far more compelling first round than a team with Boston’s pedigree normally would have. That’s just the first of many ripple effects of Irving’s latest surgery — ripple effects that will last until next summer, and potentially far beyond that.