This was supposed to be the season these Celtics took one final step forward and hang banner 18. Last June, Boston reached the NBA Finals, only to fall to a more disciplined and relentless team. In the wake of that loss, all the right words came out of the Boston locker room about lessons learned.
This season, the Celtics lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to a more disciplined and relentless team.
Boston’s Game 7 elimination on their home court is the kind of loss that makes a franchise re-evaluate itself. It’s also a loss that summed up much of the Celtics’ season: Inconsistent play, struggles when their 3-point shots didn’t fall, and a defense that was strong in the regular season but struggled in the playoffs.
Now the Celtics head into the offseason with big questions about what is required to take that finals step.
The answers will be likely to essentially run it back. For now.
Those questions start with Jaylen Brown, who was second-team All-NBA during the regular season but against the Heat, to use his own words, “We failed. I failed.” Because of his All-NBA status, Brown is eligible for a five-year, $295 million supermax contract. Some of his public comments this season could be read as him telling the Celtics he expects that max.
Expect the Celtics to pay it.
While the book may still be out on the ceiling for the Brown and Jayson Tatum pairing, the fact remains the Celtics have the kind of elite wing duo around which a championship roster can be built. Or so it would seem. Some of the concerns about this team’s inconsistency have to fall to its stars, but having those stars entering their prime gives this team a chance for growth.
There have been calls from corners of the fan base to trade Brown, and his name did come up in trade rumors — for Kevin Durant. If the Celtics can land an all-time great still playing at a high level they have to consider the trade, but if it’s not KD or someone of that stature, who is Boston getting back in a trade that is better than Brown?
The smart move by Boston is to re-sign Brown, try to win, and if in a couple of years it doesn’t work consider their options.
This leads to the next big question: Is Joe Mazzulla the coach who can lead this team to a title?
Expect the Celtics to be patient and give him time to prove he can.
That said, also expect changes in his staff, something now reported out of Boston. Mazzulla was thrown into this hot seat after the unexpected suspension (and later release) of Ime Udoka days before the start of the season, there was no time to remake his staff. It makes sense to put an experienced head coach by his side to help smooth some rough edges. The Celtics are a patient organization, one more likely to support a young coach and help him grow rather than cut him off too young. That’s how you end up with Erik Spoelstra one day.
Also, expect changes in the role players on the roster. Some of that is financial — with 12 people on the roster next season (assuming Danilo Gallinari picks up his $6.8 million option), the Celtics are already more than $4 million into the luxury tax (that is this season, with the extension for Brown kicking in next season and a future max extension for Tatum looming). The repeater tax and the second “lead apron” in the new CBA could hit this team hard in the coming seasons without some spending reduction.
Expect one of the team’s three rotation guards to be traded: Marcus Smart, Derrick White or Malcolm Brogdon. While the Celtics might want to move on from Brogdon and his $22.5 million next season, finding another team willing to take that on without a pick as a sweetener would be difficult.
Can Boston afford to re-sign restricted free agent Grant Williams? That may depend on what happens with the guards above, but if a guard is traded the Celtics could free up enough money to offer Williams something in the $10-12 million a year range. The risk is that another team that sees him as a good fit — San Antonio next to Victor Wembanyama? — might come in with a higher offer.
Boston is looking for size in a backup center who can give them solid minutes and take on a larger role when needed to keep Robert Williams III healthy. They may want a more traditional, play-making point guard to help unlock Tatum and Brown. But these are role players, Boston can’t afford a third star.
The Celtics are largely going to run it back.
Whether they can take that final step forward next season will depend more on internal growth — can Tatum and Brown finally find that consistency this team needs — than tweaks around the edges of the roster.