BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics weren't supposed to be players in free agency this summer.
But, now that both Kyrie Irving and Al Horford seem headed out the door this summer, the Celtics could have $25 million or more to spend in free agency. And, as Danny Ainge prepares for what is to come when free agency kicks off Sunday at 6 p.m. ET, he is excited about the possibilities that come with that unexpected space.
"I like the fact that we have different opportunities," Ainge, Boston's president of basketball operations, said after the team introduced its four draft picks at its practice facility Monday morning. "We have some flexibility, but I don't really know what is realistic yet. That's what we'll spend the rest of this week trying to figure out.
"What even do we have a chance to do, and where should be our priorities? But I'm excited about the opportunity. I'm excited about the flexibility that we have. I'm excited about the youth that we have, and some of our returning players.
"I think it's going to be a really fun year. Looking forward to it."
Ainge said all of that with a smile, but it is safe to say this isn't what anyone expected Boston would be dealing with at this time a year ago.
Back then, Boston was coming off an Eastern Conference finals appearance without Irving and Gordon Hayward, both of whom missed the 2018 playoffs with injuries, and the Celtics were the favorites to supplant the Cleveland Cavaliers as the best team in the Eastern Conference after LeBron James chose to head west and join the Los Angeles Lakers. Irving, meanwhile, was expected to re-sign this summer, and Boston appeared to be the favorite to land Anthony Davis if he was traded away from the New Orleans Pelicans.
Things didn't quite work out that way.
After a tumultuous season, Irving seems headed out the door. After Horford opted out of the final year of his contract last week, it now appears likely he, too, will be leaving next month. Davis, meanwhile, joined James with the Lakers, rather than coming East to be the next great big man to play for the Celtics.
So, where does that leave the Celtics? Rather than being a team that seems destined to compete for championships right away, Boston has holes at point guard (which could be filled by restricted free agent Terry Rozier, whose rights Boston still controls) and center now that Irving and Horford are leaving. Meanwhile, the Celtics sport a roster that -- including the four players the team picked (forwards Romeo Langford and Grant Williams and guards Carsen Edwards and Tremont Waters) in last week's draft -- features 11 players who are 25 or younger.
Still, Ainge said he hasn't been caught off guard by anything that's happened in recent weeks.
"Blindsided? No," he said. "Not at all."
Also, when asked about the attitudes of the four players drafted, and whether character and having good people around is important, Ainge made a comment that -- depending on how it is taken -- could be seen as an indictment of the up-and-down nature of the 2018-19 version of the Celtics -- a group led, for better or worse, by Irving.
"I think it just makes life more enjoyable when everybody is humble, hardworking, and will play any role they have to to help the team succeed," Ainge said.
"You do have to have a certain amount of talent to win in our league, as we all know, but good people makes coming to work more fun."
While having good people might make coming to work fun, it is talent that bridges the gap between winning and losing in the NBA. And the departures of Irving and Horford have left Boston with multiple holes to fill on the roster.
Ainge said the next several days will be spent figuring out exactly what the best path is.
"We have a busy week to prepare now," Ainge said. "It's clarified in the fact that the draft is over, and the draft is a grueling process of background checks and draft workouts and we had well over 100 players come in. So, yeah, so that part of it is clarified, now we can focus on free agency. And we have this entire week to prepare for that.
"We have a really good feel for all the players in the league, who they are and how they might fit with us and our needs and so forth. I wouldn't say a lot more homework, but we will have a lot of conversation. That's probably the biggest thing, just to get as organized as we possibly can for all the possible scenarios in free agency."
He also said he isn't worried about the dysfunction that followed the Celtics throughout last season affecting his pitches to free agents next month.
One thing it does appear Ainge will be selling them on, though, is a bounce-back season from Hayward. After missing all but the opening six minutes of the 2017-18 season because of gruesome leg and ankle injuries suffered in the season opener against the Cavaliers, Hayward -- understandably -- had a rocky first full season back from injury last year.
Ainge, however, said Hayward has been working out regularly at the team's facility, and didn't hold back when asked about what he expects from the former All-Star forward now that he's going to get an entire summer to train and work on his game, rather than having to rehabilitate his injuries and knock rust off.
"I think Gordon is going to have a great year," Ainge said. "He's putting in as much work as anybody, and we get to see it.
"I mean, he's here a lot. I'm very excited for Gordon's upcoming year."