Detroit Pistons v Boston Celtics

BOSTON, MA – NOVEMBER 27: Al Horford #42 and Kyrie Irving #11 of the Boston Celtics low five during … [+] the game against the Detroit Pistons at TD Garden on November 27, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)

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Kyrie Irving is making $31 million this season, the first of a four-year, $137 million contract he signed in the summer with the Nets. He has averaged 27.4 points per game, a hefty number, but has done so in only 20 games with Brooklyn. The Nets have won just eight of those games in which Irving has appeared.

Bothered by shoulder and knee injuries much of the season, Irving finally was shut down for the season when he had shoulder surgery last month. When the Nets come to town Tuesday, Irving won’t be uniform, again missing a chance to face the team for which he starred for two seasons. Celtics fans hoping to see Irving on the TD Garden floor—mostly for a less-than-cuddly welcome—will not be able to do so until sometime next season.  

Irving’s absence is a reminder of the unexpected good fortune that befell the Celtics last summer. Eight short months ago, the Celtics were in the midst of a calamity, their grand plans torpedoed by Irving’s eagerness to blow town. That wasn’t even the worst part.

No, the worst part was the departure of Al Horford, the tranquil star big man. Boston had never signed a major free agent before Horford inked a four-year deal to leave Atlanta in 2016. He had a successful three-year run with the Celtics, which included an All-Star selection, two appearances in the Eastern Conference finals and 25 playoff wins.

But Horford opted out of the fourth year of his contract and left for Philadelphia in free agency this summer, in part because he was put off by Boston’s chemistry issues and because the Sixers gave him a richer deal. A Boston Globe headline called the combination of the Irving-Horford moves a, “1-2 Gut Punch.”

It’s been a wasted season for Irving, who at least can blame his ordeal on injury (little surprise there, as Irving has missed 25 percent of his games in his career). It’s been plain miserable for Horford, who doesn’t fit with his new team, has been lambasted by the locals in Philadelphia and was yanked from the starting five before center Joel Embiid got hurt. Five months into his Sixers tenure, Horford is reportedly a candidate to be traded in the offseason.

Horford is making $28 million in his first year with the Sixers. He has three more years after this on a contract decorated with incentives, one that could be worth around $112 million total. He is averaging 11.7 points, fewest since his second NBA season, and making a career-low 43.5 percent of his shots. He will be 34 in three months. Good luck on the trade market.

The Celtics tried to get Irving to stay, willing to pay him $190 million over five years. Boston offered Horford in the range of $60 million for three years and bumped that to four years once word of Philadelphia’s willingness to add a fourth year leaked.

Irving first rejected the Celtics. Horford followed. If they stayed, this team’s present would be miserable and its future murky. Instead, the Celtics are 41-18, four games better than they were through 59 games last year. They have seven players, including two 20-points-per-game scorers, who are 23 or younger. GM Danny Ainge should send Irving and Horford each a basket of fruit and a nice card.

Eight months later, this was not a 1-2 gut punch. This was two bullets dodged.

What would life in Boston look like if the Celtics had kept Kyrie and Horford?

Keep Horford and Irving, Trade Tatum Or Brown

Without Horford and Irving, the Celtics reshaped the team around forward Jayson Tatum (who turns 22 today) and Jaylen Brown (23) which, in retrospect, was the right direction all along. From a basketball standpoint, the Celtics have seen Tatum rise to near-superstar status while Brown has not been far behind him. That probably would not happen with Irving and Horford on board.

From a financial standpoint, paying Irving and Horford a combined $250 million would have made substantial contract extensions for Brown and Tatum nearly impossible without sending the Celtics uncomfortably into the luxury tax. Boston’s young stars would have been stunted, both in their development and in what the Celtics could afford to pay them.

It’s hypothetical, of course, but it’s likely the Celtics would have had to trade either Brown or Tatum had they kept Irving and Horford. A look at their potential salaries over the next three years shows why.

2019-20: Just Over The Luxury Tax Threshold

Irving’s deal in Boston would have started at $32.7 million (same as his replacement, Kemba Walker). Horford’s 2019-20 contract likely would have been worth $20 million. That would have put the Celtics’ payroll around $140 million, well over the $132 luxury-tax threshold. Even if you remove Enes Kanter’s $4.7 million from the books (Boston would not have needed him with Horford on board), the Celtics would still be over the threshold.

2020-21: Six Players, $135 Million

Next year would be ugly, too, especially if Gordon Hayward opted in on the final year of his contract (for $34 million) and the team gave Brown the same extension he got this year. Brown would make $23 million for 2020-21, Irving $35.3 million and Horford about $20 million. With Marcus Smart’s $13.5 million and Jayson Tatum at $9.9 million on the last year of his rookie contract, the Celtics (with $135 million in salary) would be near the projected tax threshold ($139 million) with just six players. They’d be eight-figures into the tax by the time the roster was filled.

2021-22: Five Players, $135 Million

Go out two more years, with Hayward’s contract off the books. Brown’s extension would be up to $24.8 million and Boston would have to pay Tatum. He could be eligible for a Derrick Rose Rule exception that would allow him to collect 30 percent of the salary cap, potentially a deal starting at $37.5 million.

Irving and Horford would combine to make $58 million that year. With Smart’s $14.3 million, that is around $135 million for five players in 2021-22. The projected salary cap for that season is $125 million, with a tax threshold of $151 million. With guaranteed contracts for draft picks and veteran minimums to address the remaining 10 spots , the Celtics would again be over the tax line—unless there was a trade.

Had the Celtics signed Horford and Irving, someone would have had to go in the next three seasons or Boston would have been doomed to tax hell for a team with major chemistry issues. The Celtics would have had a hard time dealing Irving, the fragile philosopher with the nine-figure deal, or Horford, who is limping into his middle 30s.

No, it would have been Brown or Tatum on the block. Bullets dodged.

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