Moments after Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals ended last month, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown embraced.
“They said we couldn’t play together,” Tatum said with a grin.
It was the most pressing issue facing 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 less than two wins after reaching the Finals. Since then, they must have wondered if Boston could be a championship-caliber team built around them.
These questions were at their strongest earlier this year – dominating TV billboards and podcasts – when the Celtics were 18-21 and on the verge of missing the playoffs. Instead, a remarkable turnaround propelled the Celtics to the Finals, against Golden State, for the first time since 2010.
“We certainly thought about and had conversations about trading for a number of great players that were kind of available over the last 10 years,” Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck said in an interview. “It would be wrong to say that we never entered into trade negotiations with player X, Y or Z.”
But, he added, “we value our guys more than, apparently, the market.”
The trend in the NBA over the past 15 years – although not born then – has been to chase the creation of so-called superteams at the expense of developing continuity and educating young people. players. The 2007-08 Celtics, who brought in Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to complement Paul Pierce through blockbuster trades and won a championship, are a prime example.
Since then, several teams have emptied their cupboards of draft picks and young players to acquire marquee stars – as the Celtics did – in a league-wide arms race to compete for championships. mercenaries. This coincided with the player empowerment movement, where top players tried, often successfully, to be traded for teams with other stars.
It left the players’ new teams on edge, wondering if giving up all the picks and young players was worth it.
The Celtics tried to follow the trend – they traded for Kyrie Irving and signed Gordon Hayward to a big free agent deal right after drafting Tatum in 2017 – but today’s team is the result of a investment of several years in young players. The Celtics are on the doorstep of a championship with a foundation that goes against what has become conventional wisdom about building teams in the NBA. Whether it’s luck or shrewd front office work, or both, the Celtics’ approach pays off.
In recent years, All-Stars Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, Ben Simmons, James Harden, Anthony Davis and Paul George have been among those who have made engineering careers. Irving forced a trade from Cleveland to land in Boston.
Almost any time a star wanted out of their predicament, the Celtics would be tied into trade talks. Few teams could offer young players as talented as Boston’s or as many draft picks, including some acquired by Boston as part of a contract with the Nets as they created their own superteam in 2013. .
Grousbeck declined to comment on the deals Boston was about to make. In at least one instance, the star apparently made the decision for the Celtics. Davis’ father, Anthony Davis Sr., has publicly stated that he does not want his son to play in Boston – a signal that even if Davis were traded to Boston, he would not re-sign once his contract expired, which which would make it less attractive for the Celtics to part ways with their best players as part of a deal.
“I think what’s happening is you want to trade interim capital if you get the right deals and feel like you’re close enough to winning,” said Danny Ainge, who served as president of operations at Boston basketball from 2003-21, at Sports. Recently illustrated. “None of us know what would have happened under different circumstances.”
In some cases, superteam bets have worked – at least in the short term. The Toronto Raptors won the championship in 2019, led by Leonard; the Lakers won a title in 2020 with Davis. But the Nets only won one playoff series with Harden before forcing a trade to the Philadelphia 76ers in February. To get Harden from Houston, the Nets had given up 24-year-old center Jarrett Allen, who made his first All-Star team this year with Cleveland.
The Nets’ only series win with Harden came against Boston in the first round of the 2021 playoffs, with Brown injured. The Celtics, left behind in the superteam arms race, seemed adrift. Some of their recent first-round picks, like Romeo Langford (2019) and Aaron Nesmith (2020), looked like duds. Irving and Hayward were gone. Kemba Walker, a former All-Star whom the Celtics had signed a maximum contract to replace Irving, had been injured and was playing poorly. Suddenly, Boston looked like a team that had, unlike the title teams of the Raptors and Lakers, kept its young players 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 and Brad Stevens would replace him. Stevens had been the team’s head coach for eight seasons, but he had no front office experience.
Grousbeck said he offered Stevens to replace Ainge, citing Stevens’ tenure with the team and a “personal connection” he had with the property. At the press conference announcing the move last June, Stevens said he discussed the possibility of returning to the job with Ainge and Grousbeck, and said to Grousbeck, “I love the Celtics. I want to do what’s best for the Celtics.
One of Stevens’ first decisions was to hire Ime Udoka as a coach, Udoka’s first leading role after nine years as an assistant. Grousbeck said he wasn’t worried about Stevens and Udoka’s inexperience in their new jobs.
“I went to see Ime and Brad before the start of the season and specifically said in person, ‘I’m not stressed about the start of this season,'” Grousbeck said.
There are countless examples of professional sports owners preaching patience but not practicing it. As the season progressed, the Celtics mostly kept faith that they could win with Tatum and Brown as the centerpieces.
“Now did I start to worry in the first half? Yes I did it. But I kept it to myself,” Grousbeck said.
After their 18-21 start, the Celtics went 33-10 and won the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Most players in their final rotation were drafted by the Celtics and are 25 and under, 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 named Defensive Player of the Year this season.
That would seem to leave the Celtics in great shape for years to come. They are in the final and many of their players have not reached their bonuses. But championship windows can be slim. After this year, the NBA will have crowned at least five different teams as 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 locked in mediocrity, the Phoenix Suns came within two wins of a championship, only to slip into the second round of this postseason when they were the No. 1 seed in the West.
But if Boston wins, maybe the next team will think twice about making a deal when the next Harden or Simmons tries to force a trade. The Celtics aren’t quite the model of patience – a fluke, it seems, brought down their superstar trade negotiations – but what they have seems to be working very well.
Not that Grousbeck is interested in taking a victory lap.
“I don’t think anyone needs our advice on building a team,” Grousbeck said.