Early on Wednesday morning, hours after being eliminated, The first WojBomb of the summer dropped: Boston Celtics’ President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge retired suddenly, and head coach Brad Stevens was replacing him. The same Boston Celtics that have made the Eastern Conference Finals three times in the last five seasons look to be making major changes. The Boston Celtics have two superstar talents under the age of 25, control of their draft picks and considerable draft capital for the next seven years, and one of the most historic franchises in the sport. The question has to be: what went wrong?
The 2017 Boston Celtics made it to the Eastern Conference Finals with a rookie Jaylen Brown, a young Marcus Smart, and Kelly Olynyk. That trio was carried by the famed heroism of Isaiah Thomas. Thomas played through a hip injury in the wake of his sister’s death before ultimately being sidelined. That summer, Boston drafted Jayson Tatum, signed All-Star Gordon Hayward, and shipped Thomas out in a package for All-Star and NBA Champion Kyrie Irving. In 2018 Hayward missed all but five minutes with a gruesome leg injury and Irving missed the postseason with his own surgeries. The Celtics still got back to the Eastern Conference Finals and fell to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7. The future seemed bright. The summer of 2017 appeared to be paying off.
In 2018, Boston had two young superstars growing into their own and two bonafide veteran ones, and a plethora of draft capital. That appeared to be a great place to be. Everyone was excited about a dynastic future in Beantown. The Celtics had stars in the present and future tense and should have been able to win a number of NBA titles.
That proved to be the opposite of the case. The Celtics lost to Milwaukee to follow a season of disappointment. Irving left for Brooklyn, and then Gordon Hayward went to Charlotte on a sign and trade. While Boston reached an Orlando Bubble Eastern Conference Finals, the “present tense” superstars of 2017-18 had left and the “future” superstars were replacing them. Now, after falling four games to one to Irving’s Nets in the First Round, fans are asking “what’s next?” And, even if the player piece is unknown, the answer is not Danny Ainge.
Where Boston goes from here is unknown, but their mistake seems painfully obvious. It’s impossible to both seize the moment and build for the future. At some point, the organization has to go all in… and that does require mortgaging the future.
For instance, the Celtics’ cross-country rival Los Angeles Lakers made that decision. Upon signing LeBron James, the Lakers went from a young rebuilding team to a team that needed to go all-in in the present tense. After failing to make the trade at the deadline, the Lakers threw their entire future at signing Anthony Davis. Sure, they didn’t have the future All-Star Brandon Ingram. Yes, the key developing role players of Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart were now in New Orleans. But LA made the move for the present star and won it all.
It’s not that Boston needed to move Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, or Kyrie Irving after the 2018 season. But they needed to make a decision for the franchise. If, after watching the Brown and Tatum combination in the playoffs, Boston wanted to go young then they needed to go all in on being young. If they wanted to capitalize on their value, then they should have shipped them off in deals for a star. Anthony Davis, the same star who hit game winning shots for LA last post-season, was rumored to be in trade packages with Jaylen Brown. Boston wouldn’t do it without knowing what Davis would do long-term, so they missed out.
Instead, in the summer of 2019, the Boston Celtics watched the Toronto Raptors win an NBA title. Toronto sent off one of their star players for a single year with superstar Kawhi Leonard, knowing he was likely not staying. Boston was scared of losing the future of Brown for a shot to be great in 2019. Toronto, and Masai Ujiri, swapped a fan favorite for a shot at greatness. And they were great- like NBA Champion level great.
Celtics Need to Proceed with Caution
Since the 2017 summer, whenever Boston made a move they tried to “win now” without sacrificing their future. They make a trade for Kemba Walker but then swapped Gordon Hayward for second-round picks in the sign-and-trade. They signed Tristan Thompson but sent Enes Kanter out for picks. The constant balance made for a team that is good and will be good, but continues to be a piece away from great.
This is worth noting for a handful of NBA franchises. On the West Coast, the Golden State Warriors are dealing with the same issue. They have Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, who are good enough to carry the team far (if not to a title) with veteran and savvy role players around them. They also have James Wiseman and a handful of early draft picks coming their way. Which direction should the franchise move? Can the Warriors really play through the mistakes of their young talent and take the lumps in Steph’s twilight? Will they really sacrifice the growth and development of young players by having them sit and watch vets?
At the bottom of the league, the Houston Rockets find themselves in the same conundrum. They’re heavily financially invested in veteran John Wall. But should they really build a contender around him now? At the expense of the growth of Kevin Porter Jr., KJ Martin, and Christian Wood? And if they go young, when are they ready to switch gears?
A team that may find themselves here soon is the New York Knicks. With a star like Julius Randle and rising stars like RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley, does the organization decide to bring a win now to pair with Randle? Or should they dump Randle “while the iron is hot” to double down on the younger, developing talent?
The Philadelphia 76ers, for instance, went in on the now. They brought in veteran Coach Doc Rivers, GM Daryl Morey, and a handful of shooters around their All-Star caliber guys. They went all-in on right now. And what’s it done for them? Joel Embiid is hurt. Once they put away Washington they have to eventually play either Brooklyn or Milwaukee to win the East. Can they do that with a banged-up roster?
There is no magic formula here. As the Oklahoma City Thunder are doing, going all-in on the rebuild may not actually play out. Going all-in on the present might not either. But one thing is certain: “scared money don’t make no money.” At some point, whether it’s the youth or the vets, the organization needs to go all in. Or else the franchise will continue to fall out.