Celtics Face Questions, Uncertainty After Again Falling Short of Championship

Pat Pickens
Last Updated: May 30, 2023

For most professional sports organizations, the Boston Celtics’ past seven seasons would be cause for celebration.

Boston has made five final-four appearances, won the Eastern Conference in 2022, and developed a wildly successful core led by guards Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart and forward Jayson Tatum.

But the Celtics aren’t most teams. They don’t hang banners for Eastern Conference championships or regular-season division titles. They reserve the rafters at TD Garden for world championship teams, and they have an NBA-high 17 banners hanging from the roof.

That means, despite a 57-win season, Tatum and Brown earning All-NBA honors, and Malcolm Brogdon winning Sixth Man of the Year, the 2022-23 season, which ended with a 103-84 loss to the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Monday, was a failure.

And it looks like these Celtics are, once again, at a crossroads with questions abound.

Will first-year coach Joe Mazzulla survive? Will president Brad Stevens try to run back offloaded money so that he can re-sign Brown, who will be supermax-extension eligible before entering the final year of his contract, or deal the shooting guard who had another solid postseason yet wilted in the conference finals against Miami?

Perhaps, most importantly, is how can the Celtics create a sense of urgency before their backs reach the wall. They were 5-1 while facing elimination in 2023 but created unnecessary hurdles with their lackadaisical play that put them in those positions.

The Celtics may have lost Game 7 at TD Garden and had their season end in the playoffs at home for the second straight campaign. But make no mistake, Boston lost the series by falling behind 3-0, thus creating no margin for error. The players even admitted such after Game 7.

“The hole we put ourselves in, it’s hard,” Brogdon said. “No one’s climbed out of that hole. I thought we showed how resilient we were, how good of a team we are, climbing out of it partially. But not being able to finish it on your home floor, that’s super-disappointing.”

Boston fans woke up calling for Mazzulla’s head Tuesday, and there were points where he was clearly overmatched by Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. But don’t expect Mazzulla, who guided the team through the shaky terrain of Ime Udoka’s sudden departure to the brink of a historic playoff performance, to be let go after one season.

Not only did the 34-year-old coach Boston to its most wins since 2009, but he improved as the playoffs went on.

“I don’t think people give him, or us, enough credit that two days before [the] season starts, we find out we’re going to have a new coach,” Tatum said. “We won 50-some-odd games. We got to the Game 7 Conference Finals. Obviously, everybody can be better, learn from this. But I think Joe did a great job this year.”

Plus, he certainly endeared himself to the players by taking responsibility for the club’s questionable effort in the first three games.

“It’s on me to be better for them so they play harder,” Mazzulla said after Boston’s 128-102 loss in Game 3. “I didn’t put them in the right mentality to be ready, and it’s my job to make sure they’re connected and that they’re ready to play, and I didn’t do that.”

So the question becomes what to do with Brown, who is due a five-year, $295 million supermax extension after earning second-team All-NBA honors. Brown will be 27 in October and is coming off an uneven postseason where he was Boston’s second-leading scorer (22.7ppg) but capped a disappointing conference finals with a 19-point, eight-rebound, five-assist, eight-turnover game in Game 7.

“We failed. I failed,” Brown said. “We let the whole city down.”

Ironically, the Celtics reportedly passed on acquiring Kevin Durant in the 2022 offseason when the Brooklyn Nets asked for Brown as the headliner yet could be required to part with him due to budding financial implications. The freshly agreed-upon collective-bargaining agreement, which takes effect July 1, will severely punish teams that overspend the luxury tax.

If Boston signs Brown to his extension, even though it won’t take effect until 2024, it will be committing to both him and a limited roster for the foreseeable future.

Making the picture even murkier is the fact Tatum is two years younger and also can sign a five-year supermax extension after 2024. But before Stevens and the rest of Boston start packing Brown’s bags, Tatum made sure to speak up for his embattled teammate.

“He’s one of the best players in this league,” Tatum said of Brown. “He plays both ends of the ball and still is relatively young, and he’s accomplished a lot so far in his career. So, I think it’s extremely important [for Boston to sign him].”

Presumably, the Celtics’ window is still wide open, even with Brown’s uncertainty. Stevens could choose to run it back, citing Tatum’s unfortunate ankle injury in Game 7, Brogdon’s elbow-tendon tear, and the fact Boston did not have prize free agent Danilo Gallinari due to a knee injury.

But there’s a new cloud of doubt surrounding the Celtics after another championship-less team, and it’s safe to wonder if this core will ever scale the mountain and bring the Larry O’Brien Trophy back to Boston.


Pat Pickens

Pat Pickens is a seasoned sportswriter who has covered the NHL since 2013 for various websites, including The New York Times, NHL.com, Sportsnet.ca, USA Today, the Associated Press and many others. His debut book, titled "The Whalers" about the history of the NHL's Hartford Whalers, was released in October 2021.

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