The Boston Celtics are done, but their work isn’t.
After collapsing in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat, the Celtics transitioned from hopes of Banner 18 to looking ahead in the offseason. They underperformed, were unbearable to watch in the final four quarters of their season and failed yet again despite having the road to the NBA Finals laid out perfectly for them.
So, what’s next?
Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens, believe it or not, has a lot to consider moving forward. With that being said, here are the five biggest questions posed by Boston’s miserable end to a failure of a season:
Is it time to move on from Marcus Smart?
Marcus Smart, a jack of all trades but master of none, was entrusted with running the floor as Boston’s go-to point guard this past season, and it was sustainable at best.
Boston never found an offensive identity, heavily running 3-and-D by chucking up as many outside shots as possible, per head coach Joe Mazzulla’s request while rarely opening up the floor to disperse the scoring contribution. Smart averaged 11.5 points on 41.5% from the field with a career-high 6.3 assists, which speaks volumes.
Smart gives it his all on the defensive end, nobody can take that from him. But is he a reliable floor general that can lead a championship-contending offense? That’s yet to be proven.
Do the Celtics trust Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown with supermax eligibility?
The biggest and possibly franchise-altering question soon to be addressed, involving a potential $500 million investment committed to retaining Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Since Tatum and Brown earned All-NBA honors following the regular season, they’re both eligible to earn $308 and $295 million, respectively, on their contracts with the Celtics. That’s critical. After a preseason centering Brown’s link to trade rumors involving Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets, coupled with reports of a divided locker room, it’s unknown what’s on Brown’s mind.
Boston’s All-Star tandem was atrocious in failing to lead the Celtics in the conference finals as Tatum and Brown combined to shoot just 18-for-90 from beyond the arc in the series, leading Boston right to its season demise. That’s more than enough to question the duo, as they’ve fallen from taking LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to a competitive seven-game battle in the conference finals as young up-and-comers to being incapable of keeping up with Jimmy Butler and the eighth-seeded Heat.
None of that adds up.
Is Joe Mazzulla at the helm next season?
The Celtics’ issues this past season didn’t lie solely on the players.
Boston appeared to abandon its identity from emphasizing defensive efficiency under Ime Udoka in 2021-22 to take the AAU route of attempting as many 3-pointers as they could and trying to outscore opponents every night. Trying to put aside what worked a year ago when the Celtics actually made the NBA Finals, and instead implement a flawed offensive play style, just made Boston look like a poor man’s Golden State Warriors. On some night’s it worked, and on many — including the season-deciding games — it didn’t. And that’s on Mazzulla.
Throughout the playoffs, Mazzulla was exposed. He was able to get away with it during the regular season because the stakes weren’t high enough, but even subpar teams such as the Washington Wizards and New York Knicks pickpocketed the Celtics for their lack of urgency, which they never shook off.
Following them until the very end, Boston was doomed by the habits that Mazzulla not only enabled, but also promoted.
With reports suggesting that three assistant coaches are bailing on Mazzulla to rejoin Udoka with the Houston Rockets, perhaps the belief in the 34-year-old isn’t all that strong. And after this season, can you blame that doubt?
Was Game 7 the end of the Grant Williams era in Boston?
Another ongoing trend aside from underachieving in the biggest moments, are the rumors constantly surfacing around the future of Grant Williams after failing to agree on an extension before the season with Boston.
It was previously reported that Willaims would seek a contract in the range of $20 million a year, similar to that of Keldon Johnson with the San Antonio Spurs. A massive stretch of a request for a 3-and-D guy who can’t do anything beyond hitting wide-open 3-pointers (sometimes) and is a liability when he gets bold and dribbles inside the paint.
Williams suspiciously was less relied on by Mazzulla, utilized much less than he was when playing under Udoka. The 24-year-old averaged 17.7 minutes in this year’s playoffs, including five DNPs, after playing 27.3 minutes during last season’s run to the Finals. After the Celtics exercised their $4.3 million option on Williams, he’ll become a restricted free agent this offseason.
Will the Celtics address their lingering front-court issue?
It’s not hard to imagine that Robert Williams III has yet to hit his ceiling even having played five seasons already.
Williams missed the first 29 games of the year after coming back from offseason knee surgery, and without him early on, the Celtics looked lost defensively. That compiled some instant pressure on Williams upon his return and even when he rejoined the team in December, the defensive struggles continued.
In need of re-establishing their defensive identity next season, the Celtics can’t pair Williams with a washed up Al Horford again. Turning 37 years old this summer, Horford did rejuvenate his offensive arsenal, shooting 44.6% from 3-point range, but the miles on his aging legs caught up to him. Horford was sluggish again the Heat, and isn’t at all the inside threat he was once upon a time and it backfired on Boston.
That can’t anchor the Celtics for another year.
Stevens will reflect on Boston’s 2022-23 campaign during his end-of-season press conference scheduled for 12 p.m. ET on Thursday.