BOSTON — At this time last year, the Boston Celtics were in a state of chaos we undersold in retrospect. They suspended Ime Udoka, the coach who led them to the 2022 NBA Finals, for an alleged inappropriate relationship with a female subordinate. The mood around the team was a blend of sorrow and confusion.
That turmoil festered beneath a 57-win regular season and rose to the surface in the Eastern Conference finals, where they lost their first three games to the eighth-seeded Miami Heat. They crumbled under the weight of expectations, and no rally to force Game 7 could mask the decay from a season’s worth of rot.
Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens could have laid the blame on replacement coach Joe Mazzulla and run back the roster under one of the many coaches who found jobs elsewhere over the summer. Instead, Stevens drew a different conclusion, one made clear by the bookends to his offseason.
The Celtics just weren’t good enough.
If that was not obvious when, three weeks removed from losing to the Heat, Stevens swapped Marcus Smart — the longest-tenured member of the Celtics — for Kristaps Porziņģis, it was in plain view on the eve of this year’s media day, when they flipped Robert Williams III and Malcolm Brogdon for Jrue Holiday.
“There’s a list of guys in the league that you always think that you’ll never have a real chance to get, that you think are perfect fits, that you’d love to be a Celtic,” Stevens said, “and Jrue is one of those guys.”
No more excuses. The Celtics surrounded in-their-prime All-NBA wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown with two more All-Star-caliber players to form the league’s most talented six-man front. What becomes of it is on them, not the loss of one coach or inexperience of another, and they are embracing the responsibility.
“We’ve got really good players,” Tatum said. “People expect us to get to the championship and win, and when you don’t, we didn’t necessarily meet expectations. There are a handful of teams that can realistically win a championship, and we’re in that mix, so that’s what we’re aiming for and that’s what we should be.”
There was a sense of satisfaction in the smile Stevens unfurled when faced with a question about the price the Celtics paid in depth for Porziņģis and Holiday.
“We’re here to try to be as good as we can be. You have to pay a good price for things, right?” he said. “That’s the way it goes. We’re trying to win a championship.”
The Celtics also paid their proper respects to their departed brethren, particularly Smart and Williams.
“I’ve spent my entire career thus far with Smart,” Tatum said. “He’s somebody I thought I might’ve played my entire career with. He was the most beloved Celtic we had on this team, the heart and soul, and it’s going to be different not having him on the court and in the locker room. He was a big part of the culture.”
“Regardless of what jersey he has on, that’s still my brother,” Brown said, “and I feel the same about Rob.”
Any sense of loss this time around was overshadowed by the excitement around who arrived in return.
“Jrue is fantastic,” Brown added. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Jrue from somebody who he’s guarded and I’ve had to guard. He plays with a certain force that you could just feel. He’s just super solid, man. As a competitor, he’s an assassin, so to be playing alongside him is a tremendous honor.”
“Honestly, it’s pretty unbelievable watching [Porziņģis] go through workouts,” veteran Al Horford said. “I’ve played against him over the years, but when you really see a guy like that — he’s really 7-foot-3, maybe a little taller — the way he moves, his feel for the game and some of the things he brings, I’m just really excited. We’ve been here already for a few weeks, trying to get to know each other, develop that chemistry, so I’m very excited for what’s ahead for him, because he is that player that’s going to have a big impact.”
Everyone is optimistic on media day, but the Celtics are not just paying lip service. “Jrue beat me to the gym this morning,” Stevens said. The rest of the roster has been scrimmaging for weeks. That process began even earlier for Tatum and Brown, who worked out in tandem this summer — something they had not done in years for reasons related to COVID, shortened offseasons and the growing demands of stardom.
“It’s always good to show it,” Brown joked, “because if you don’t post it, it didn’t happen.”
They sought the counsel of Paul Pierce, the last homegrown star to deliver Boston a championship, who stressed the importance of developing a cohesive roster, top to bottom, to resist fracturing under adversity.
“It was about four weeks,” Tatum said. “He came to the gym every day, and it was cool to have him around. He told us a lot of stories about the championship team and other things we can apply to this year.”
There are holes left by the departed Celtics, but they are not running from self-reflection about how to fill them. Smart’s leadership is one, and both Tatum and Brown are committed to accepting that responsibility.
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“I’m just stepping into it,” Brown said. “We’ve got a lot of voices that are no longer with us — Blake [Griffin], Grant [Williams], Smart, all very vocal guys — so I think definitely you’ll hear my voice a little bit more and JT’s voice a little bit more this season. Also, making sure we’re all on the same page, we’re all focused on the main objectives, etc. … The chemistry is going to be important. We can’t just throw some guys out there and expect everything to work. Our habits are going to create our future and our success, so we’ve got to build some great habits during training camp. I’m excited about that and excited about the journey.”
Stevens expressed confidence in the reserves who will round out the rotation, and they are embracing it. The backup point guard position Payton Pritchard craved last season is his. Oshae Brissett leaped at the opportunity Stevens and Mazzulla presented him: “We don’t need star players. We have star players. We want guys like you, who can come in, make a quick change or add what we feel like we’ve been missing.”
“Honestly, having our stars here, working out and playing and really contributing to the summer work and grind, I think that goes a long way,” Brissett added. “I feel like it really helps the younger guys seeing JT, JB, Porziņģis all being here doing their work. I think that stuff really helps because it shows that we’re not really just focused on games or playing. Those guys are really focused on building a family unit here.”
Even Porziņģis understands he is a supporting cast member to the team’s preexisting stars.
“What we have to keep in mind is the ages most of us are, and that makes a difference,” said Porziņģis, now six years removed from his breakout All-Star campaign. “Everyone realizes we want to be on the same page and achieve the ultimate goal. We’re going to put our stuff to the side. There are a lot of players who can put up crazy numbers. All of these guys can score, and it doesn’t really matter as much for me. Most important is that we find our rhythm as a group, and we work towards what we are brought here to do.”
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Pritchard, Sam Hauser and Luke Kornet are seeking significant minutes across the rotation, and Stevens is armed with two more first-round picks and a plethora of seconds to seek reinforcements if they fall short. Team ownership is pot committed for $180 million to Boston’s top six players, and that demands results.
“We’re still in pretty good shape from the standpoint of what we can do moving forward,” Stevens said. He cautioned, “We are obviously mindful of, if we have an injury or two, where our biggest needs might be.”
Mazzulla was not without blame for how last season unraveled, either, and Stevens addressed that concern, adding respected veteran assistants Sam Cassell and Charles Lee, among others, to the staff. They developed a “tribal leadership” strategy, forming groups of four to coordinate offense and defense, working with players as a legion, rather than leaving any one player or coach to develop on an island.
“This time last year was new for all of us,” Tatum, entering his seventh season, said, “and I think Joe did a hell of a job managing all of that, managing expectations, managing being in a new role so quick. He had a hell of a first year, in my eyes, and I think now having time to prepare properly as a head coach for the upcoming season and taking ownership of this being his team and him being head coach — I’m not saying he wasn’t comfortable, but I just feel like he’s a lot more comfortable and confident heading into this year.”
The energy has shifted, and if the Celtics can carry this mood into the playoffs, lifting the cloud that enveloped last season, they should accept nothing shy of a championship, and that cannot be undersold.