Road Back to Glory

It has been almost 14 years since the confetti of June 17, 2008, fell from the rafters of the TD Garden after the Celtics defeated the Lakers 131-92 to claim their 17th world championship. George W. Bush still roamed the halls of the White House, and Marvel was yet to launch its series of movies that started with Captain America: The First Avenger. Since that day, the greatest franchise in the NBA has struggled to get back to the pinnacle of the league. Legends left, retired, and now the new guard is here to change what the narrative has been for Boston over the past 14 years. Since that banner was raised in the rafters, the Celtics have been on a roller coaster ride back to where it was during that time. From blockbuster trades to big free agency signings, nothing has meshed perfectly together to create something special, and in this case a championship team. Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Kemba Walker were all brought in for the same purpose, but none of them helped find a way to complete the goal.  The trade deadline this year displayed how willing Brad Stevens is to win the 18th Banner as soon as possible. The squad looks like it is heading in the right direction to be able to contend in the Eastern Conference with Embiid, Giannis, and Durant. With the conversation about splitting up Tatum and Brown finally over, Udoka and Stevens continue to develop a talented defensive roster around two of the best scorers in the league to give it their best shot at their first Finals appearance since 2010. 

The pre-draft deal in 2013 that sent Kevin Garnett, and lifelong Celtic Paul Pierce to Brooklyn helped define who the Celtics are to this day. According to Bleacher Report in 2013, Boston received a lower grade than the Nets did in the exchange. Brooklyn received an “A” while the Celtics managed to secure a “B”. When the trade was near completion, ESPN writer Bill Simmons stated, “That rumored Celtics-Nets trade is so bad for Boston that Doc Rivers just quit on the Celtics again.” What nobody includes in the deal is the fact that Brad Stevens was hired just days after. Stevens would go on to become one of the top coaches in the NBA, and later the new president of basketball operations after Ainge. The Nets were robbed, and because of that, they were at the bottom of the league for years. The following year after the deal, Brooklyn finished with a 44-38 record, and Pierce and Garnett averaged career lows. Before the season began, the Nets had the fourth-best odds to win the title, but the veterans showed their age, and Brooklyn began its demise. Pierce left after just one season, and Garnett was traded back to the Timberwolves at the trade deadline. KG only played 43 games back in Minnesota, as his career was on a downward trajectory. What looked like a complete disaster to start off, turned into one of the best young duos in the entire NBA today. It is so hard to know when to trade your veteran stars. Teams in all sports, especially European football, have trouble figuring out when is the best time to let them go even when you think that they might have something left. Ainge executed the impossible perfectly and set Boston up for the future. No matter what he did afterward, Ainge gave the Celtics’ future life through that deal in 2013. 

From 2017 to 2020, Boston made the Eastern Conference Finals three out of those four years. The closest the Celtics got to the NBA Finals was in 2018 when they lost to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in seven games. With 10:39 remaining in that contest, Boston led by three after a Marcus Morris three, but the Celtics just could not hang on and stretch the lead to make it to their first NBA Finals since 2010. That has been the story of Boston in recent years, so close, but just never crossing the finish line. Stevens stated in a recent interview that all the decisions he is making for the Celtics organization are in the direction of trying to win that illustrious next banner. Boston is not a city that celebrates making the playoffs or winning the conference championship. Bean Town expects championships, and just looking up at the Garden rafters everybody can see why. 

LeBron James has consistently hampered the Celtics’ ability to make the NBA Finals for years, but now that he is out in the Western Conference, you would think Boston has a shot. The Celtics have an opportunity to be able to get out of the East, but the Eastern Conference right now is almost if not more loaded than the West. James Harden and Joel Embiid are on the same team, Giannis and the Bucks are the defending champions, and Kevin Durant and Brooklyn are still present. So many obstacles for a team that is most defensive-minded, and now have to find ways to beat teams with other players scoring that are not just Tatum and Brown. Since Brad Stevens took over, Boston prides itself on the defensive end, and now with Smart, White, and Robert Williams III at the rim, any team in the NBA will have problems scoring on them. The only problem is if the Celtics have enough scoring to be able to compete with the top contenders around the league. Teams around the league are able to key in on Boston’s two-star players on the defensive end. 

At the beginning of the season in 2021-2022, the Celtics lacked ball movement and relied on the brilliance of their two elite ball-dominant scorers, and Ime Udoka had never known what it was like to be at the head of the table of a coaching staff. When Danny Ainge left to retire he left Stevens in a huge hole that he is still managing his way out of. Ultimately, Ainge came out of retirement to work for the Utah Jazz as their “alternate governor and CEO.” Some of Ainge’s work towards the end of his tenure in Boston continues to hurt the Celtics to this day. The signings of Tristian Thompson, Jeff Teague, Enes Freedom (first time), and Evan Fournier without question did not work whatsoever. Stevens was left to pick up the pieces, but what Ainge did leave the new president of basketball operations was two of the most promising young players in the NBA today. When it comes to young duos or just straight duos in the league, there are very few in the league that can compare offensively and defensively with Tatum and Brown. The twos’ length and versatility on defense create havoc for the opposition, and on top of that, both of them are primer scorers. The problem has not been Tatum and Brown, it has been who should be the individuals that play off these two All-Stars. Does Boston need a third star to be able to contend at an elite level? Beal has always been the name floated around due to his relationship with Jayson Tatum, but how much do the Celtics have to give up, if any, for the three-time All-Star. 

Since the beginning of the Brad Stevens era, Boston has been in the top 14 in defensive rating every single year except his first season in charge in 2013 to 2014. The Celtics have always had a solid offensive attack as well. There were only three seasons during Stevens’ eight seasons where Boston was not in the top ten in offensive rating in the NBA. Where can the blame be put? An idea that can be explored is Boston’s inability to be able to win “clutch games.” Since taking over in the 2013-2014 season, the Celtics have only finished in the top-10 in winning percentage in clutch games just twice. Three-point shooting can be looked at in some ways. Stevens only had three teams that finished in the top-ten in three-point percentage by the end of the season. Boston also developed a reputation of being able to take care of the basketball during recent years. So, what could the real problem be when Boston has been such a solid team on both ends of the ball over the recent seasons? It all comes back to the trade that Ainge did in 2013 with the Brooklyn Nets, while he robbed the Nets of their future, he did something else. 

Ainge can be known as the modern era creator of the “super team.” He brought together Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to join Paul Pierce in Boston’s fight to win the coveted Banner 17. In that trade to the Nets, Brooklyn was trying to create a “super team,” and while they were not successful, other teams have been. Franchises followed suit after 2008, including the Miami Heat, and then the Golden State Warriors, and so on. Ainge started the trend of building rosters surrounded by several elite talented individuals. That can explain some of the reasons why the Celtics have had such a difficult time getting back. Teams loading up their rosters to go all-in for the NBA title has been the norm for teams around the league, the most recent example being the Nets. Boston just has not had enough star power to contend with the cream of the crop in the East for the past 14 years. Tatum and Brown are no question stars in their own right, but when a squad has two top-10 players in the league today, it is almost impossible to surpass them. The trade for Garnett may have been one of the biggest turning points in Celtic history, but it also can be seen as the start of why Boston has come up short for so many years. 

Loyalty doesn’t exist in the dictionary according to almost every NBA player in today’s day and age. The Celtics’ chances have dwindled because of that, and while Boston has tried to create another “super team,” it never gelled enough to succeed at the highest level. Other teams have done what Ainge was able to do in many ways, but at a more successful level due to the evolution that was created by the mind who saw a vision to bring a team from worst to first in the span of one calendar year. The answer on how to bring this squad back to stardom is unclear, but at least there is some promise and potential with the team that is currently created. One common theme around the Celtics’ successes in recent years is Brad Stevens, and without him who knows where this organization would be without the coach that left Indianapolis, Indiana for a job that nobody wanted in Boston. He was the bridge between the Pierce era and the modern-day. Stevens created and reinvigorated the Celtic identity of toughness, pride, and a team-oriented attitude. While the Celtics have had their fair share of players that have halted the progress of this, Stevens always has his eyes on the goal. Famous football coach Bear Bryant once said, “Defense wins championships,” and with Boston continuing to define excellence on the defensive side of the ball, time will tell if its elite defensive identity will guide them to their 18th chip as a franchise.