The Boston Celtics had no
business going out so unceremoniously -- a.500 finish to the season
and a first-round exit where they were thoroughly outplayed and
Not long ago, this team seemed
poised to become an East juggernaut after advancing to the Eastern
Conference Finals in three of four seasons. Instead, they are left
with liberal dashes of shame and what-ifs by the ounce.
After the gentleman’s sweep by
the Brooklyn Nets, Danny Ainge stepped down as president of
basketball operations. Head coach Brad Stevens has been promoted to
that role and the team will now look for a new coach, and a new
The shame of it all is that the
Celtics could have been so much better. They shouldn’t be in this
position. While the young nucleus of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and
Robert Williams has promise and potential, this iteration of the
Celtics pales in comparison to the team that they could’ve been,
considering the players they had an opportunity to land.
In the midst of the
player-empowerment era in which free agency rules, any team that
has title aspirations must be able land superstars. For whatever
reason, under Ainge, the Celtics have failed to do that in recent
Ainge assembled the Big Three of
Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen that won a championship in
2008, and he deserves credit for that. He drafted Tatum, Brown,
Marcus Smart and Co. He also acquired Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward,
Al Horford and Kemba Walker among others.
However, this doesn’t negate the
fact that in recent years, the Celtics had prime opportunities to
trade for superstars and turn this solid contender into a potential
super-team, but they didn’t.
Rodger Sherman of The
Ringer compiled a list of star players that Ainge “nearly” acquired,
and the list includes James Harden, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard,
Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Nikola Vucevic, Myles Turner and more.
Each time, we’d hear about how they “almost” made the move, but they ultimately
This is why the Celtics are
where they are today.
Afraid Of Calculated Risks
The Celtics struck out on James
January and Kawhi
Leonard three years ago. Why? Because Ainge let a “scared-money”
approach cloud his judgment, and these two superstars slipped
through his grasps.
In the case of Harden, Sam Amick
of The Athletic reported that the Celtics' “level of interest and
involvement” behind the scenes “far surpassed” what Ainge admitted
publicly. Ainge says that the Celtics had talks with Houston, but
they backed out because they felt the Rockets were asking for too
much. For a talent like Harden, the Rockets obviously wanted a
“haul” in return for the former MVP, and rightfully so. According
to Brian Robb of the Boston Sports Journal, the haul
in question was Jaylen
Brown, Marcus Smart and picks.
It’s understandable that Ainge
was apprehensive about parting with Brown and Smart. Brown has the
potential to be a great cornerstone for the franchise, and Smart is
often described as the heart and soul of the team. However, when
you have an opportunity to add a talent like Harden, who’s a
virtually unguardable weapon that can attack in multiple ways
offensively, you find a way to get that deal done.
For Leonard, there was a similar
deal on the table in 2019. The Celtics could have traded Brown and
Smart to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for the two-time Finals
MVP. According to Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix, the
Spurs actually liked the Celtics’ proposed
In hindsight, this deal would
have been even better for the Celtics than the Harden deal.
Granted, the Celtics would’ve had to give up the heart of their
defense in Smart and a promising player in Brown, but look at what
they’d get in return! Leonard is a two-time Defensive Player of the
Year and a walking bucket. That’s a deal that should have been made
The reluctance to part with
Brown and Smart in these circumstances seemed to be less about
giving up key pieces and more about possibly losing Harden and
Leonard since they would have been rentals.
The Celtics passed on Anthony
Davis for the same reason. Rich Paul, Davis' agent, told
S.L. Price of Sports
Illustrated: “They can
trade for him, but it’ll be one year. If the Celtics traded for
Anthony Davis, we would go there, and we would abide by our
contractual obligations, and we would go into free agency in 2020.
I’ve stated that to them.”
But despite Harden, Leonard and
Davis potentially being a one-year rental, the Celtics should’ve
taken the risk regardless. Boston could’ve leaned on their winning
culture to try to persuade Harden or Leonard or Davis to stay.
Best-case scenario, they’d buy into the culture and re-sign. When
the Los Angeles Clippers initially acquired Chris Paul, he was
viewed as a one-year rental too; instead, he re-signed on a
five-year, $107 million deal.
Even in the worst-case scenario,
if Harden or Leonard left after one year, it’s possible the Celtics
could’ve won a championship in that lone season (as the Toronto
Raptors did after landing Leonard or the Los Angeles Lakers did
after acquiring Davis).
Focused on the Wrong Priorities
Before Jimmy Butler was dealt to
the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2017, the Celtics, as usual, were in
the mix to nab him. However, ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported that the
Celtics had concerns about how Butler would mesh with Gordon
Locker-room chemistry is
important, but it’s not more important than talent. Teammates don’t
have to like each other; they only have to respect each other and
unite for a common goal. That’s it. (Three-time champion James
Posey wrote a terrific piece outlining this exact same thing
Hayward and Butler are
professionals and they could’ve made it work, uniting to pursue a
championship. They would have found a way to co-exist on the
Remember, this is a team that
had Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Jayson
Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris and so on in 2018. They advanced
to the Eastern Conference Finals three times in four seasons (and
lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 in 2018). Imagine adding
a star like Leonard or Butler to that group; sure, Brown and Smart
would’ve likely been gone, but the team still would’ve been
In a comically sad twist of
fate, Hayward eventually left for Charlotte in a sign-and-trade.
Boston only received a protected 2022 second-rounder and a $28.5
million Traded Player Exception (which was used to add Evan
Fournier); but the Celtics also gave up unprotected 2023 and 2024
second-round picks in the deal.
Failure To Follow Through
The Celtics’ habit of pursuing
stars only to back out of the trade talks became a running joke
among fans and media members. However, it started to impact their
dealings with rival executives.
According to ESPN’s Adrian
Wojnarowski, other teams
became wary of dealing with the Celtics because of the front
office’s history of not following through with transactions. Boston
developed a reputation for never following through with deals that
The narrative of the Celtics not
closing deals is out there and, fair or not, it was affecting their
trade talks. What’s worth examining is why were the Celtics so
duplicitous in their dealings? Was it just apprehension because
they didn’t want to part with Brown and Smart? Did he feel he
needed to overwhelmingly "win" every deal?
Regardless of the reasons, teams
didn’t want to waste their time with the Celtics’ indecisiveness.
Perhaps this played a role in the team’s decision to revamp the
Ainge’s Celtics were the
undisputed champions of almost doing big things. They almost made blockbuster moves to complement their
young core. They almost made the NBA Finals three out of four years.
But almost doesn’t count. Perhaps a fresh voice in the front office
(in Stevens) and soon in the huddle will help the Celtics get back
to contending for championships.