The Celtics offseason has begun, following a flop in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, a loss to Miami that saw stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown combine for 13-for-36 shooting from the field and just 33 points. The fact that the Celtics were able to rally from a 3-0 East deficit was impressive—only four teams in NBA history have done so—but their inability to finish off the deal after a season in which they seemed destined for a second straight Finals appearance leaves a taste of bitter disappointment.
So, what’s next? The kneejerk reaction is to plunge into a major move, whether that means swapping out first-year coach Joe Mazzulla, who was criticized for being over his head at times in these playoffs, or diving hard into the offseason trade market. That would most likely mean dealing All-Star wing Jaylen Brown, whose comments about his relative happiness in Boston late in the season raised questions about his long-term future with the Celtics.
The best advice, though, is probably the thing fans and local media least want to hear now: Be patient.
“It’s a hard sell, it’s an unpopular choice, especially with everything we have seen in recent years in terms of superteams and major stars going to different places,” one NBA GM told Heavy Sports before Monday’s Game 7. “But a team like Boston, they need to just keep going at it. That’s what they’re going to do. Look at the Nuggets. They stuck with it, and here they are.
“Boston, they’re on the doorstep. They know it. You don’t get to the doorstep and then say, ‘Nah, I will try a different house.’ No, you keep beating on that door. Again, it’s unpopular with the fans. But it’s the right thing.”
Adversity Struck Early for Celtics
Another Eastern Conference executive agreed with that notion. The Celtics reached the NBA Finals last season and reached the brink of the Finals this year, despite offseason tumult that saw coach Ime Udoka suspended and replaced by Mazzulla over an inappropriate relationship and a significant knee injury to center Robert Williams that limited him to 35 games.
Both of those haymakers from the basketball gods landed just before training camp began.
“Ime gets fired, Rob Williams goes down, if you asked anyone at that point, ‘Hey if the Celtics get to the seventh game of the East finals, will this year be a success?’ they’d say yes. Of course,” the exec said last weekend. “Now, you want to fire the coach? Or better yet, you want to trade one of the best 15 players in the game? They will trade Jaylen Brown—if they have to. If he says, ‘I am not staying here.’ But not before that. He’d have to ask out.
“What do you think you’re gonna get for Jaylen that is gonna improve you? Trae Young? Jordan Poole? Throw out a name, and the answer is almost definitely, no. No, it’s not there. Giannis (Antetokounmpo), (Nikola) Jokic, Luka (Doncic). Maybe those guys. But really, no one else.”
A Piece or 2 Away for Celtics
As for Mazzulla and the overall tenor of the offseason, the expectation is that cool heads—like that of Celtics boss Brad Stevens—will prevail. The GM came back to the Nuggets comparison.
“They were calling for Mike’s (Malone) head in Denver last year, and even before that,” the GM said. “You’re going to get some bad breaks sometimes and it is so hard to get people to understand that there might be rough edges that have got to be smoothed out. And it might be a player here or there. Danilo Gallinari got hurt. Maybe they can get something for Pritchard, maybe they should have. The Nuggets got Christian Braun as a second-round pick and signed Bruce Brown for the (tax) mid-level last summer, and that made a huge difference for them.
“There is some luck in it all. They caught some bad breaks, losing the first two games at home the way they did. They need to come up with a player or two no one is expecting. That is what happened with Denver. They stayed the course. The Celtics have got to do the same.”