Is Celtics’ Long-Term Future Just As Bleak As Short-Term Outlook?

Is the future no longer bright for the Green?


May 11, 2021

The Boston Celtics almost certainly are going nowhere in 2021. But what about two, three years from now?

The Celtics have underachieved this season, one year after reaching the Eastern Conference finals. On Monday, they were given an excuse to completely mail in the rest of the season when the team announced All-Star forward Jaylen Brown will miss the rest of the season with a wrist injury.

It’s a completely lost season for a team that had true aspirations for a trip to the NBA Finals and perhaps even contending for a title. Now, they’ll be lucky to advance beyond the league’s newfangled play-in playoff round.

So the immediate short-term future is bleak. But how about a little farther down the road? That’s not exactly painting a promising picture, either.

ESPN on Tuesday published its most recent “NBA future power rankings.” The goal of the exercise is to project the “on-court success expected for each team over the next three seasons.” Using their experts, ESPN gives each team a score from 0 to 100, and off we go.

“Consider this a convienent way to see the direction in which your favorite team is headed,” the article reads.

The Celtics, who ranked fifth (!) in the previous rankings released a year ago, are all the way down to No. 14.

“Although Boston will stay competitive as long as All-Stars Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are together on the wings,” ESPN’s Kevin Pelton wrote, “their extensions will push the Celtics deep in the luxury tax. The Celtics need the young players on the roster to develop because their well of future first-rounders acquired via trade has run dry. There are also more questions about coach Brad Stevens now that Boston has underperformed two of the past three seasons.”

That last line hits the hardest. Brad Stevens has performed admirably for much of his tenure as Celtics head coach. Few coaches, if any, could get as much out of the talent he had in his first handful of seasons. But Boston hasn’t been able to break through. When Stevens has had his most talented rosters, the Celtics have fallen short — in a case like this year, woefully short.

Have the players started to tune out the head coach? That’s a determination president of basketball operations Danny Ainge might need to make, although he’s got other decisions to rue. (More on that in a bit.) This isn’t the first time relatively smart, well-connected people have wondered about his job security. Stephen A. Smith earlier this season pointed out Stevens’ apparent inability to get the most out of his best players. Longtime basketball insider Jeff Goodman has had similar thoughts.

As for Ainge, what does his future hold? Jackie MacMullan, who is more connected than just about anyone in the Boston basketball scene, recently said on “The Bill Simmons Podcast” that Ainge might not be long for his job.

“If in fact there was change, and Danny let’s say decides to step down, which he might be close to doing anyway, he’s 60-something, I can’t imagine that his son gets to succeed him, if things continue the way they’ve been going,” she said in March. “I would think if you’re ownership, you have to say, ‘You know what? We need a new fresh look at things. We’re going to mix this up. … I can tell you that I know this much: Ownership isn’t thrilled.”

Tony Massarotti at 98.5 The Sports Hub mentioned that MacMullan soundbite Monday and added this: “There are still whispers out there that Ainge is ready to check out.”

Change seems inevitable for the Celtics, and if you’re talking about losing Stevens and/or Ainge, that’s essentially the start of a rebuild. Replacing either likely signals a fairly substantial philosophical change. It did work in a place like Philadelphia, but there’s no guarantee it works.

Sure, the C’s might be better positioned to take on some sort of an overhaul, but as Pelton mentioned, there are other issues, too. A lot of the cap is tied up in Tatum and Brown, which is great, but you’re kind of expecting to contend for championships when you make that sort of commitment to two players. Ainge, meanwhile, ended up stuck in between with those draft chips, as he didn’t package a bunch of them for a franchise-altering player. While he might have hit on Brown and Tatum up high, there aren’t a lot of great pieces left.

The Celtics had their chance, and barring a miracle, they missed. It happens. Just about everyone involved — from management, to the coach to the players — are all very good at their jobs. But it sure feels like it has run its course, and change is coming. If that’s the case, it might be a few years before Boston is back among the NBA’s elite.

Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images
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