The scene is the Celtics locker room after Game 1 of the second round in 2019. Boston had just thumped the Milwaukee Bucks on the road 112-90 to take a 1-0 series lead. Franchise cornerstone Kyrie Irving led the Celtics with 26 points and 11 assists in Game 1. Al Horford had 20 points and 11 rebounds while Jaylen Brown scored 19. Brad Stevens had appeared to have found a winning formula by having Gordon Hayward come off the bench with Terry Rozier. Hayward and Rozier combined for 25 points, 13 rebounds and 8 assists coming off the bench.
The Celtics looked poised to make a run to the NBA Finals and perhaps secure the franchise’s first championship since 2008. They also had one of the NBA’s most respected coaches in Stevens and General Managers in Danny Ainge. Add that to Brown and Jayson Tatum being All-Star caliber players under 25, the Celtics had the makings of a budding dynasty.
Fast forward two years and all that is left from that game is Tatum and Brown (Marcus Smart did not play due to injury). The Celtics got blasted in the next four games against Milwaukee, blew a great opportunity to make the Finals in the NBA Bubble (Boston blew double digit leads in Games 1 and 2 of the Conference Finals) and then got dominated by the Irving-led Brooklyn Nets in the first round this year.
Instead of being in the midst of a dynasty, the Celtics are an above average team that is still at least one significant piece from a championship. In a span of 15 months, Irving, Horford and Hayward all chose to leave Boston. The only significant free agents signed, Kemba Walker, Tristan Thompson and Jeff Teague, have all been disappointments. Walker made an All-star team in his first season, but has missed 45 games in two years. Thompson has been inconsistent and Teague is no longer with the team.
Ainge is also gone, and Stevens has been promoted to take his place. To get the Celtics back to contention, Stevens must get two things right: who to hire as head coach and what to do with Tatum and Brown. The coaching search will likely be expansive and the first major move of Stevens’ tenure as GM. Getting the right coach is critical for obvious reasons: Tatum and Brown need to continue to grow and the potential of the cast around them needs to be maximized.
Once a coach is hired, Stevens will have to decide what direction to go with the roster. Tatum is untouchable and Brown is close to it. The problem for the Celtics is that Brown is by far their best trade chip. Moving Brown would be a massive risk, the Celtics could be letting a superstar go as he enters his prime. Not moving him would signal that Stevens believes that Tatum and Brown can lead the Celtics to a championship and only need better pieces around them. The Catch-22 is that without trading Brown, it will be difficult to get those other pieces in place. Smart and Walker are prime candidates to be moved, however it is unlikely that any team will want to take on Walker’s contract and Smart only makes sense for a handful of teams close to contending.
Two years ago it looked like the Celtics were on the verge of another great run. Now, they are at a crossroads. They can still win championships in the coming years, but what they have in-house is no longer the answer. A new coach will be added. The roster will be adjusted and perhaps overhauled. If Stevens gets these moves right, the Celtics could be back on the path to a championship. If not, they will be continue to be a pretty good team that won’t play in June.