Discover more from BASKETBALL FEELINGS
Exits: A therapy session between two Celtics fans
A seesaw of cautious optimism and confusion, wherein no one feels particularly good.
Michael Pina: Hi Josh! When I talk to Celtics fans in my life, and try to process what exactly this team has become, emotions and thoughts continue to swirl in some expected and complicated forms. So let me kick our pseudo-therapy session off with a simple albeit impossible question: How do you feel about this team?
Are you disenchanted? Hopeful? Curious? Depressed? All or none of the above? How would you describe your state of mind when considering where the Celtics are, coming off the two largely successful and confounding seasons they just had, in the midst of dramatic change and, still, sky-high expectations?
Josh Gondelman: Hi, Michael! Thanks for asking! You know, when the last few Celtics seasons have ended, I've mostly felt a mixture of hopeful and defensive. Obviously, this iteration of the team hasn't won a championship (yet!!!), but I get a little prickly when people act like this core has been a failure. They've been to one NBA Finals and four conference finals in the past six seasons. It's been really exciting to watch them trade uppercuts with the Bucks and Heat and also to watch them suplex the James Harden Sixers and the Recently James Harden-less Nets straight to hell. Jayson Tatum (25) has been to one fewer NBA Finals than Jimmy Butler (33, but allegedly the winningest winner who only knows how to win) and has the same number of championship rings. So even after the Heat jumped on that seesaw of an ECF and catapulted the 2023 Celtics into the sun, I felt strangely optimistic. We got pancaked by the dump truck of destiny, but we had the chance to regroup and come back next season tougher and more prepared.
But now, given how the offseason has gone, I am firmly in the "Depressed" camp. Trading Marcus Smart and (to a lesser extent) bailing on Grant Williams feels like the Bar Rescue-ification of this Celtics team. Which is to say, management took something that could have used a few improvements, ditched a major part of what was successful about it, and replaced it with some efficient but bland new features. Kristaps Porzingis may be a unicorn, but I'd rather have a wolverine in my corner. (And it's worth mentioning the dissonance of a franchise that took a hard and seemingly principled stance towards Ime Udoka's alleged misconduct now bringing in a player with a 2019 rape allegation that has not been publicly resolved as far as I can tell.)
How are you feeling about the way the season ended? Which made the bigger impact on you: Coming back from 0-3 only to lose Game 7 to the Heat or trading the player widely considered to be the heart and soul of the team for a talented guy whose "Winning Plays" bona fides are, let's say, not legendary?
MP: The struggle between patience and change is one every team knocking on the door of a championship endures, but, honestly, I’m still shocked Boston upended its identity by trading Smart!
It’s not a “bad” trade, just one that felt desperate and unnecessary (after they tried and almost succeeded to participate in a less messy deal involving Malcolm Brogdon). I know financial factors were in play, but, to agree with your point, there was more evidence of this core being able to win it all than proof that they couldn’t.
What was their fatal flaw? Outlandish shooting by a Heat team that may ultimately be remembered as a historical anomaly? Jayson Tatum spraining his ankle on the first play of the season’s biggest game? Joe Mazzulla being allergic to Grant Williams (easily one of Boston’s eight best players)? Jaylen Brown’s inexplicable shooting slump? A ligament in Brogdon’s arm fraying at the worst possible time?
The Celtics had flaws, sure, but winning is extremely difficult! Had they run it back with the same personnel, while adding Sam Cassell and Charles Lee to Mazzulla’s staff, are they not the Eastern Conference favorite in 2024? Is Tatum not better in ways that can ameliorate a sluggish offense? Is Brown—someone who improves each season and just made second-team All-NBA—at his ceiling, conclusively worse than Caleb Martin?
I never bought the doubt about their mental toughness, either. You can’t be fragile and levitate through the end of Game 6 in Philadelphia like they did, or rattle off three straight wins against the Heat after that embarrassing Game 3 massacre. Had it not been for the signature performance of Steph Curry’s legendary career, this group would’ve gone up 3-1 in the NBA Finals two seasons ago. They were, in my opinion, so clearly capable of winning it all. The ingredients were there. But instead of being showing faith, Boston opted for a radical shift that doesn’t come without even more risk than would’ve been the case had they sat on their hands.
All that said: Porzingis can raise their ceiling in ways Smart could not. And watching his fit unfold will be one of the more fascinating experiments in the league.
Do you think they’re the favorite? How excited/concerned are you about Brown’s supermax extension? Should Brad Stevens go out of his way to acquire even more second-round picks? Do you already miss Grant Williams as much as I do?
JG: I’m with you on all of this!!! And I know part of this is emotional attachment to the team as it was, but isn’t that why we watch the games? If I wanted to spend three hours having no feelings, I’d watch Tenet, not basketball. Grant Williams, in addition to being a really crucial member of that Finals team was such an important personality guy. Who will Deuce Tatum feud with now? Who’s going to go to talk shit to opposing stars in pivotal moments whether they can back that shit up or not? Who’s going to have a semi-ironic nickname that catches on with teammates, media, and fans? This sounds sarcastic, but this team needs someone… silly. Is that ridiculous to say? I’m worried it’s going to be tough to replace Grant and Marcus’s combined energy with a guy who has the vibes of a cinderblock. I am looking forward to more D-White and Time Lord than ever before though!
Also, re: toughness. This same team won a Conference Finals Game 7 on the road in Miami the year before and people only talk about how they almost didn’t win. Cool! Let history show they won a CLOSE Game 7 on the road against the top seed in the east. Miami’s dominance over narrative is out of control.
As for Jaylen Brown’s extension, I’m basically always team Pay The Man. This new CBA makes it sliiiightly more complicated with the aprons and the team building restrictions which imo were negotiated for by the owners because too many people were realizing, Hey, it’s not my money. But still, every team owner should be paying the luxury tax out their eyes, nose, and ass if it helps put them into championship contention. I know it feels like the first $300 million contract should go to LeBron James in his prime or something, but it’s JB’s turn right now. Hopefully this off-season he’ll deepen his bag of dribble moves and delete Kanye West’s phone number. Where are you on this? They couldn’t NOT extend him, right?
All that said: Until/unless Dame Lillard makes his way to a contender, I’ve got the Celtics at the top of the Eastern Conference, but in typical Boston fashion… I don’t feel GOOD about it.
MP: I think overall I’m cautiously optimistic; more optimistic than cautious. They generally upgraded their talent and made some critical additions to the coaching staff (it’s not bad when you add the two top assistants from two teams you’re likely to meet in the playoffs!). No roster is deeper. No roster (in the conference) has more offensive firepower. And even though I fundamentally believed that they would be favorites to win it all had last year’s team been rolled over into 2024, the fact that Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are still young enough to improve in dramatic ways is what should really strike fear in every other team’s heart.
There’s a world where Brown averages 5 assists per game on a team that has no “real” starting point guard. There’s a world where Tatum shoots 40% behind the three-point line and wins MVP. There’s a world where Rob Williams looks like he did two years ago. There’s a world where Derrick White, Malcolm Brogdon, Brown, Tatum, and Kristaps Porzingis is the best five-man unit in the league, and an absolute monster in crunch time.
Nobody really knows how the new pieces will mesh, or if their locker room will be able to ride through a rough patch without the key personalities that were lost. But if you focus on best-case scenarios (as I’m wont to do) Boston’s two-way talent, experience, and upside separate it from everyone else. Can the season start tomorrow?
BASKETBALL FEELINGS is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.