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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 wide smile.
That had been the most pressing problem facing the Boston Celtics since Tatum, 24, and Brown, 25, were given the reins before the 2019-20 season. That year, Tatum’s third and Brown’s fourth in the NBA, brought the team within two wins of reaching the finals. Since then, they have faced questions about whether Boston could be a championship-caliber team built around them.
Those questions were at an all-time high earlier this year, dominating television panels and podcasts, when the Celtics were 18-21 and on pace to miss the playoffs. Instead, a notable turnaround propelled the Celtics to the finals, against Golden State, for the first time since 2010.
“We definitely thought about and had conversations about trading several of the great players that were thought to be available in the last 10 years,” Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck said in an interview. “It would be wrong to say that we never entered into business talks with player X, Y or Z.”
But, he added, “we value our guys more than the market apparently did.”
The trend in the NBA over the past 15 years, though it didn’t originate then, has been to pursue the creation of so-called superteams at the expense of continuity development and nurturing of young players. The 2007-8 Celtics, who brought in Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to complement Paul Pierce through successful trades and won a championship, were a prominent example of this.
Since then, several teams have emptied their closets of draft picks and young players to acquire big-name stars, as the Celtics did, in a league-wide arms race to compete for mercenary championships. This has coincided with the player empowerment movement, where top players have tried, often successfully, to be traded to teams with other stars.
This has left the players’ new teams nervous, wondering if it will be worth giving up all the young teams and players.
The Celtics tried to jump on the bandwagon (they traded for Kyrie Irving and signed Gordon Hayward in a big free-agent deal right after they drafted Tatum in 2017), but today’s team is the result of years of investment in young players. The Celtics are on the brink of a championship with a foundation that flies in the face of what has become conventional wisdom about team building in the NBA. Whether as a result of luck or astute front office work, or both, the Celtics’ focus is paying off.
In recent years, All-Stars Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, Ben Simmons, James Harden, Anthony Davis and Paul George have been among those who designed trades. Irving forced out of Cleveland to land in Boston.
Almost every time a star was rumored to want out of his situation, the Celtics would be tied into trade talks. Few teams could offer as many talented young players as Boston or as many draft picks, some of whom Boston acquired in a deal with the Nets when they created their own superteam in 2013.
Grousbeck declined to comment on what deals Boston came close to making. In at least one case, the star apparently made the call for the Celtics. Davis’s father, Anthony Davis Sr., said publicly that he didn’t want his son to play in Boston, a sign that even if Davis were traded to Boston, he wouldn’t re-sign once his contract expired, which would make him it was worth it the Celtics to part with their best players in a deal.
“I think what happens is you want to trade draft capital if you get the right deals and if you feel like you’re close enough to win,” Danny Ainge, who was Boston’s president of basketball operations from 2003-21, told Sports. recently illustrated. “None of us know what would have happened under other circumstances.”
In some cases, the super team bets 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 won just one playoff series under 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 under Harden came against Boston in the first round of the 2021 playoffs, with Brown injured. Lagging behind in the superteam arms race, the Celtics seemed adrift. Some of his recent first-round picks, like Romeo Langford (2019) and Aaron Nesmith (2020), seemed like failures. Irving and Hayward were gone. Kemba Walker, a former All-Star whom the Celtics had signed to a max contract to replace Irving, was injured and playing poorly. Suddenly, Boston looked like a team that, unlike the champion Raptors and Lakers, had held on to its young players for far too long.
The day after the Celtics were eliminated from the playoffs last year, Boston simultaneously announced that Ainge would step down as team president and Brad Stevens would replace him. Stevens had been the team’s head coach for eight seasons, but had no managerial experience.
Grousbeck said he suggested Stevens replace Ainge, citing Stevens’ tenure with the team and a “personal tie” he had to ownership. At the news conference announcing the move last June, Stevens said he had discussed taking over the job with both Ainge and Grousbeck, and that he told Grousbeck, “I love the Celtics. I want to do what’s best for the Celtics.”
One of Stevens’s first moves 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 Ime and Brad before the season started and specifically told them in person, ‘I’m not stressed about how this season starts,'” Grousbeck said.
There are countless examples of professional sports owners who preach patience but don’t practice it. As the season wore on, the Celtics mostly kept faith that they could win with Tatum and Brown as their centerpieces.
“Now, did I start to worry in the first half? Yes, I do. But I kept it to myself,” Grousbeck said.
After their 18-21 start, the Celtics finished 33-10 and earned the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Most of the players in their final rotation were drafted by the Celtics and are 25 years old 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 would appear to leave the Celtics in good shape for years to come. They are in the final and many of their players have not reached their best moment. 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 out of the second round of this postseason despite being the top 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 exactly the poster child for patience — a fluke, it seems, brought down their superstar trade deals — but what they do have appears to be working well.
Not that Grousbeck is interested in taking a victory lap.
“I don’t think anyone needs any advice from us on how to build a team,” Grousbeck said.