There are two types of Boston sports fans: those who yell about firing or trading everyone after any loss — and those who, in a quieter voice, call for firing or trading everyone after any loss.
So the Boston Celtics losing in six games to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals — a series that Boston was favored in — was not ideal for the blood pressure of either kind of fan. It was Boston’s best chance to get to the finals since the 2011-12 season, when the Celtics also lost to Miami, in seven games. But in that case, the Heat, led by LeBron James, were by far the more talented team.
Let’s remember, though, the expectations for the Celtics entering the season: They had just lost Kyrie Irving (Nets), Al Horford (Sixers) and several other key players. Of the 17 players on the Celtics this season, seven were rookies. Yes, they added point guard Kemba Walker — a solid replacement for Irving, but last fall they were not expected to make much noise in the playoffs.
Instead, the Celtics went on a surprisingly strong regular-season run, going 48-24 for the third-best record in the East. They overachieved.
“It was a fun run,” Walker said after Sunday’s loss. “A tough finish, obviously, but we fought hard and that’s all you can ask for. You want guys to compete at a really high level, and I’m just proud of all these guys.”
Even with a disappointing playoff loss, the Celtics washed off the stain from last year’s torturous campaign in which they lost in the second round amid whispers that Irving was unhappy. Now, they have one of the youngest rosters in the N.B.A. If all goes well, they are equipped to make deep postseason runs for years to come.
If all goes well.
You cannot help but wonder whether they have enough to get over the hump. For years, Danny Ainge, the president of the Celtics, has resisted trading players or picks for stars like Jimmy Butler, Paul George and Anthony Davis; the trade with Cleveland for Irving in 2017 was a notable exception.
The Celtics have not won a title since 2008. At what point does a rebuilding team become rebuilt? And will it be strong enough to withstand the returns of several top opposing players who have been injured, including Irving and Kevin Durant for the Nets — another obstacle in Boston’s way?
This off-season is crucial for Ainge. After this draft, he won’t have the treasure chest of picks he has typically accumulated. He can either pick around the edges and hope the young players improve enough to get to the finals or he can cash in some chips and hope to acquire more top-level talent.
Two Celtics stars made significant leaps this year: Jayson Tatum, 22, and Jaylen Brown, 23. They are outstanding on both ends of the floor and solid building blocks for a winning team. Tatum, in particular, showed superstar potential in the playoffs. One of Ainge’s first priorities this off-season is likely to be signing Tatum to a maximum contract extension. (On Sunday, Tatum said he hadn’t thought about this yet.) It’s an easy decision for Boston, given Tatum’s uncommon talent and skill. Brown is locked in through 2024.
But the Celtics have some other choices to make. They need better playmaking off the bench and shooting. Boston was 13th in 3-point shooting percentage this season and 29th in bench scoring. The team was top-heavy — and toppled over against Miami without reliable bench contributors.
They have three first-round draft picks, which Ainge could package to move up higher than his best pick at No. 14 or combine with a veteran in a deal to get another piece for the bench. Ainge has been deft at giving himself flexibility during his Celtics tenure.
There is also the question of what the Celtics should do about Gordon Hayward. He has a player option for next year that is slated to be roughly $34 million. Hayward, 30, had a good season, averaging 17.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists on 50 percent shooting from the field, looking fully recovered from his horrific 2017 leg injury. But he struggled against the Heat after returning from a serious ankle sprain he sustained in the first round against Philadelphia. (He missed the birth of his son to stay with the team for the series, so hopefully Boston fans — known for being rational — cut him a break.)
Hayward is unlikely to get that much money from any other team this off-season, or ever again, given his age and the recent playoff performance. However, even if he stays, it’s an open question whether he fits with the Celtics going forward. He is still a starting-caliber player, but so is Marcus Smart. It would be hard to justify bringing Smart off the bench for Hayward, but starting both of them would mean that Boston couldn’t play a center for extended stretches. That strategy has its own drawbacks, as we saw in the playoffs.
The Celtics won’t have much room to sign free agents beyond cap exceptions. If Hayward opts in, Boston will have about $70 million tied up in Walker and Hayward, more than half the cap. And that’s just a projection: The salary cap may be a bit lower next season as a result of lost revenue from the league’s dispute with China and not playing in front of fans because of the pandemic.
It’s also possible that Boston’s roster shortcomings could be solved by the improvement of their young players who did not see the court much this season. Grant Williams, 21, showed promise on both ends as a reserve forward. Robert Williams III, 22, made the most of his limited minutes in the playoffs as an athletic, rim-running shot blocker. Guards like Carsen Edwards — a 22-year-old undersized sharpshooter — and Romeo Langford, a 20-year-old with a penchant for getting to the rim — should be ready to play larger roles next year.
Either way, this season should be seen as a step forward. The Celtics have all the ingredients for success: a young stud (Tatum), strong complementary pieces to surround him with (Brown, Walker), several draft picks and talented young players.