The 15 steps Boston basketball took to rise and fall before reachIng greatness.
The Boston Celtics spent three years building a well-advertised future juggernaut that never really contended, and now that foundation is all but gone. With the news that the team is preparing to lose both Kyrie Irving and Al Horford this summer, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, Boston basketball is in shambles.
With its two best players gone and cap space only available to recoup one star over the summer, the Celtics may have their cards played out for them. After holding tight to young forwards Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum while running for a title, they may become the star pieces of a rebuild instead.
This isn’t what general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics wanted. The fever-pitch dream that the collection of assets gained from the 2013 trade with the Nets would coalesce into a perennial title contender is over. Back-to-back years of signing premier free agents and drafting prospects with star-potential will amount to zero NBA Finals appearances, much less titles.
Here’s how the Celtics failed to go from good to great.
June 2017: The Celtics miss on Paul George
In pursuit of adding another superstar, Ainge reportedly offered the Brooklyn Nets’ pick which eventually turned into the No. 1 selection for George before the 2017 trade deadline. The Pacers passed. Then, on draft night, the team offered three first-round picks and two starters (one being Jae Crowder) to get George, per Jeff Goodman.
Why didn’t Boston offer more of its war chest for George? Several factors contributed, including the fear of George being a one-year rental and the forthcoming addition of Gordon Hayward in free agency. But the unexpected news that the salary cap number would come in lower than initially projected also made it difficult for the Celtics to script a scenario where they got both George and Hayward. In a sense, they had to choose one or the other.
In the end, the Celtics’ initial offer was strong, but Indiana ultimately accepted a deal with the Thunder before free agency officially began.
But later that summer, Boston got its star. Ainge executed a controversial deal when he shipped fan-favorite Isaiah Thomas in a package for a younger and more proven superstar in Irving. The Cavaliers guard had requested a trade in the month prior, and Ainge took a gamble by dealing the leading scorer from a 53-win team, along with solid role player Jae Crowder and the final Brooklyn unprotected first-round pick.
Thomas’s health was in question, though, after suffering a hip injury that kept him out of the last three-and-a-half games of the Eastern Conference Finals. In the end, he didn’t return for the Cavaliers until midway through the 2017-18 season. Thomas was a fraction of himself at that point, and was subsequently traded to the Lakers after 15 games.
From a purely basketball perspective, this deal turned into a robbery for Boston.
Oct. 18, 2017: Gordon Hayward fractures his tibia
In the opening quarter of the Celtics’ first season with its championship-ready roster, Hayward suffered an infamously gruesome injury. A fractured tibia and dislocated ankle ended his season before it really began and robbed Boston of its prized free-agent acquisition.
He missed the rest of the season and hasn’t been the same player since.
March 24, 2018: Kyrie Irving’s knee trouble
The Celtics stayed near the top of the East despite losing Hayward, but their luck changed when Irving had a “minimally-invasive procedure to remove a tension wire in his left knee.” The procedure was related to the torn patella he suffered in the 2015 Finals, and though he was only supposed to miss six weeks at most, he was eventually ruled out for the season.
May 2018: The Celtics go on a postseason run anyway
Despite losing two stars, Horford, along with the kids — Brown, Tatum, and Terry Rozier — went on a postseason run that shocked most. They knocked off the Bucks in seven games in the first round, the Sixers in five in the second, and fell just short to LeBron’s Cavaliers in seven. Tatum averaged 19 points per game, Brown 18, Rozier 17, and Horford 16.
Surely a healthy Celtics team could win it all.
June/July 2018: The Celtics refuse to offer the pieces to land Kawhi Leonard
Leonard’s trade request was complicated and messy, and his long-term desires and health status were murky at best. In Ainge’s mind, trading for a player who’d seen the floor just nine games in the season prior was a risk, and that risk only multiplied with Leonard set to become an unrestricted free agent. So, per ESPN’s Zach Lowe, Boston refused to add either Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown into an offer for the eventual Finals MVP.
That looks like a bad decision now.
Oct. 4, 2018: Irving pledges his commitment to the Celtics
Unprompted, Irving told a TD Garden audience before the season begun that he’d re-sign with the team when his contract expired in 2019.
“I’ve shared it with some of my teammates as well as the organization as well as everyone else in Boston. If you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing here next year,” he said.
Nov. 12, 2018: Irving sounds off, part 1
After a loss in Portland dropped Boston to a 7-6 record, Irving threw shade at his teammates. “We’re not as good as we think we are,” Irving said. “That’s what it comes down to.”
Then he stated the need for an older presence. “Right now I think it would be nice if we had someone that was a 15-year vet” Irving said. “A 14-year vet that could kind of help us race along the regular season and understand it’s a long marathon rather than just a full-on sprint.”
Nov. 20, 2018: Hayward offers to come off the bench
Hayward’s recovery from injury was slow and trying. He offered to play a role off the bench, and Boston obliged.
But according to ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan, Hayward’s play, and the way Stevens handled his return from injury, was at the root of the Celtics’ locker room problems.
“You hate to pick on Gordon Hayward because he was coming back from injury and he was doing the best he could in a tough situation,” MacMullan said in an NBC Sports Boston video. “But I really think that’s where it started. They were force-feeding him on his teammates. Brad [Stevens] knew Gordon well. He wanted to get him his confidence back.
“He gave the benefit of the doubt over and over and over to a player that wasn’t ready, to a guy who had history with him, and it rankled that locker room, and it bothered that locker room.”.
Jan. 12, 2019: Irving sounds off, part 2
In the closing seconds of a road game against Orlando, Irving wasn’t given the last-second shot. The ball landed in Tatum’s hands instead, and he missed a baseline fadeaway.
After the game, Irving went off.
“The young guys don’t know what it takes to be a championship-level team,” Irving said, per Yahoo’s Keith Smith. “What it takes every day. And if they think it is hard now, what do they think it will be like when we’re trying to get to the Finals?
“There were no expectations last year. Everyone played free and easy. Everyone surpassed whatever they expected for themselves. This year? We all have high expectations. The players, the coaches, everyone. And that’s good, but we aren’t doing it yet.”
Jan. 17, 2019: Irving apologizes to LeBron James
Just days after his meltdown after Tatum’s missed shot, Irving stole the spotlight from his Boston teammates, who’d just beaten the eventual champion Raptors by nine points. Unprompted, Irving told the media he made up with James after the trade request from Cleveland.
“I apologized for being that young player that wanted everything at his fingertips, and I wanted everything at my threshold. I wanted to be all that and the responsibility of being the best in the world, and leading your team is something that is not meant for many people. Bron was one of those guys who came to Cleveland and tried to show us how to win a championship.”
Feb. 1, 2019: Irving goes back on his verbal promise
Four months after he said he’d re-sign in Boston, Irving, while in New York for a game against a Knicks team linked heavily with him in free agency, changed his mind. “I don’t owe anybody shit.”
Feb. 10, 2019: Marcus Morris said the team isn’t fun
Morale sunk another notch when Morris spoke out after a loss to the Clippers, in which Boston forfeited a 28-point lead to lose by 11,
“We don’t have no attitude. We don’t have no toughness. We ain’t having fun. It’s going to be a long season.”
“It hasn’t been fun for a long time.”
Feb. 20, 2019: Irving doesn’t like questioning about conversation with Kevin Durant
Later, Irving sounded off on a reporter who asked about a conversation that went viral between Kevin Durant and the Celtics star during the all-star break. Fans presumed it was an impromptu free agency discussion.
In the discourse (which can be seen here) Irving questions the legitimacy of the internet, the question, why he needs to explain himself, and more.
“Is the internet real for you in your life? It’s my life, right? It’s two people talking, having a conversation. If this was the real world would it be anybody else’s business? But it’s a video of somebody assuming what we’re talking about, right? So why would I care about it? Why does that have an impact on my life?”
The full transcript is here:
May 2019: The Celtics lost to the Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals in five games
After routing Milwaukee in Game 1, Boston fell meekly the next four games to end its disappointing season. Irving shot a dismal 35 percent from the field in the five games, scoring 20 points on 21 shots per game. Boston may have been as close to fully healthy as it had been in years, but its spirit was broken and they were exposed against a much better team.
That was the beginning of the end. Rumors soon followed that Irving was likely to sign with the Nets this summer, the Celtics lost out on Anthony Davis, and now Horford’s departure seems like a foregone conclusion. The Celtics as we knew them are over.
Nothing about this team ever felt right. Now, Irving and Horford are likely packing their bags and leaving the Celtics to ponder what might have been.