The Celtics Got Lucky By Not Getting What They Wanted

Shortly after the end of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals last month, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown hugged.

“They said we couldn’t play together,” Tatum said with a big smile.

It was the most pressing issue for the Boston Celtics since Tatum (24) and Brown (25) handed the reins to the team ahead of the 2019-20 season. That year—Tatum’s third and Brown’s fourth in the NBA—they led the team to within two wins of reaching the Finals. Since then, they’ve wrestled with the question of whether Boston could be a championship-caliber team built around them.

Those questions were loudest earlier this year — dominating TV panels and podcasts — when the Celtics were 18-21 and on course to miss the playoffs. Instead, a remarkable turnaround propelled the Celtics into the Finals against Golden State for the first time since 2010.

“We’ve definitely thought about it and had talks about trading some of the great players that were believed to have been available over the past 10 years,” Wyc Grousbeck, the Celtics’ owner, said in an interview. “It would be wrong to say that we have never had any trade talks with player X, Y or Z.”

But, he added, “we valued our guys more than the market seemed to.”

The trend over the last 15 years in the NBA – although not yet emerging at the time – has been to pursue the creation of so-called super teams at the expense of developing continuity and nurturing young players. A prominent example of this was the 2007-08 Celtics, who took Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett through blockbuster trades to complement Paul Pierce and won a championship.

Since then, several teams have emptied their closets of draft picks and young players to—like the Celtics—take on big-name stars in a league-wide arms race for mercenary championships. This coincided with the player empowerment movement, where top players often tried successfully to be traded into teams with other stars.

This has made new teams of players nervous, wondering if it’s worth giving up all picks and young players.

The Celtics tried to jump on the trend – trading for Kyrie Irving and signing Gordon Hayward for a big free-agent deal shortly after drafting Tatum in 2017 – but today’s team is the result of years of investing in young players. The Celtics are on the verge of a championship with a foundation that defies conventional wisdom about team building in the NBA. Whether it’s through luck or smart front office work or both, the Celtics’ approach is paying off.

In recent years, trades engineers have included All-Stars Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, Ben Simmons, James Harden, Anthony Davis and Paul George. Irving forced a trade out of Cleveland to land in Boston.

Almost every time a star has been rumored to want to get out of his situation, the Celtics have been linked to the trade talks. Few teams could offer as talented young players as Boston, or as many draft picks, some of which Boston acquired in a deal with the Nets when they formed their own superteam in 2013.

Grousbeck declined to comment on the deals Boston was close to. In at least one instance, the star appeared to make the decision for the Celtics. Davis’ father, Anthony Davis Sr., said publicly that he didn’t want his son to play in Boston — a signal that even if Davis were traded to Boston, he wouldn’t re-sign after his contract expired, making him less would make it worthwhile for the Celtics to part ways with their top players in a deal.

“I think what happens is that when you make the right deals and you feel like you’re close enough to winning, you want to trade draft capital,” said Danny Ainge, who was Boston’s president of basketball operations from 2003-21 , to Sports Illustrated Recently. “None of us knows what would have happened under different circumstances.”

In some cases, Superteam gambling worked — at least in the short term. The Toronto Raptors won the 2019 championship led by Leonard; The Lakers won a title with Davis in 2020. But the Nets only won one playoff series with Harden before forcing a trade to the Philadelphia 76ers in February. To bring Harden out of Houston, the Nets had dropped 24-year-old center Jarrett Allen, who made his first All-Star team with Cleveland that year.

The Nets’ only straight win with Harden came against Boston in the first round of the 2021 playoffs, with Brown missing out through injury. Left behind in the superteam arms race, the Celtics seemed helpless. Some of her recent first-round draft picks, like Romeo Langford (2019) and Aaron Nesmith (2020), looked like misses. Irving and Hayward were gone. Kemba Walker, a former All-Star whom the Celtics signed to replace Irving on a maximum contract, was injured and playing poorly. Suddenly, Boston looked like a team that, unlike the titular teams Raptors and Lakers, had been hanging on to their young players for too long.

The day after the Celtics were eliminated from last year’s playoffs, Boston simultaneously announced that Ainge was stepping down as team president, with Brad Stevens replacing him. Stevens was the team’s head coach for eight seasons, but he had no front-office experience.

Grousbeck said he suggested Stevens replace Ainge, citing Stevens’ tenure with the team and a “personal bond” he has with the ownership. At the press conference announcing the move last June, Stevens said he had discussed the possibility of taking on the position with both Ainge and Grousbeck, and he said of Grousbeck, “I love the Celtics. I want to do what’s best for the Celtics.”

One of Stevens’ first moves was hiring Ime Udoka as his coach, Udoka’s first starring role after nine years as an assistant. Grousbeck said he’s not concerned about Stevens and Udoka’s inexperience in their new jobs.

“I went to Ime and Brad before the season started and I specifically said personally, ‘I’m not stressed about how this season is starting,'” Grousbeck said.

There are countless examples of professional sports owners preaching but not practicing patience. For the most part throughout the season, the Celtics believed they could win with Tatum and Brown at their core.

“Well did I start to worry in the first half? Yes, I have. But I kept it to myself,” Grousbeck said.

After their 18-21 start, the Celtics went 33-10 to secure third place in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Most of the players in their finals rotation were drafted by the Celtics and are 25 or younger, including Tatum (24), Brown (25), Robert Williams III (24), Grant Williams (23) and Payton Pritchard (24). Marcus Smart, 28, was drafted by the Celtics in 2014 and was named Defensive Player of the Year this season.

This appears to leave the Celtics in strong form for years to come. They’re in the final and many of their players haven’t hit their best yet. But championship windows can be narrow. After this year, the NBA will have crowned at least five different teams champions in seven years. The Celtics could end up regretting not trading for Davis or another big name if they don’t win a title this year. After all, just a year ago, when the Celtics seemed stuck in mediocrity, the Phoenix Suns were only two wins away from a championship only to slip away in the second round of this postseason despite being West No. 1.

But if Boston wins, the next team might think twice before making a deal if the next Harden or Simmons tries to force a trade. The Celtics aren’t the epitome of patience – a stroke of luck, it seems, saw their superstar trade deal fall through – but what they have seems to be working out well.

Not that Grousbeck would be interested in a lap of honor.

I don’t think anyone needs advice from us to build a team,” Grousbeck said.

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