BOSTON—The Boston Celtics began their season in chaos. They ended it confronted with a decision that could shape the franchise for years to come.
Pain, disbelief and uncertainty hung with the Celtics as they walked off the court following their Eastern Conference finals Game 7 loss to Miami, ending their attempt to return to the National Basketball Association (NBA) Finals.
The matchup with the Heat highlighted all the imperfections of a Boston team that seemingly never recovered after having its season turned on its edge following the suspension of former coach Ime Udoka just days before training camp, when he was given a yearlong suspension for having an inappropriate relationship with a woman in the organization.
“That was an adjustment,” Celtics star Jayson Tatum said. “We all figured it out. Obviously, we wanted to win the championship. Didn’t happen.”
There are the usual questions about the roster heading into the offseason. And other ones, like whether interim-turned full-time coach Joe Mazzulla is the right person to lead the Celtics as they try to capitalize on their championship window.
But the most pressing revolves around Boston’s two biggest stars in Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
The 24-year-old Tatum is signed for the next two seasons, still under his rookie extension that kicked in last season. He won’t be eligible for a supermax extension until the summer of 2024. It would start in 2025-26 and could be worth more than $300 million.
Brown, 26, is eligible for a new deal this offseason, and by virtue of making the All-NBA second team this season could be offered as much as a five-year contract extension worth as much as $295 million.
With the league’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement bringing more limitations on how teams construct their rosters and additional luxury tax penalties, it may be a commitment the Celtics aren’t willing to make for a duo that hasn’t yet brought Boston a title.
During the regular season, Brown averaged career highs in points (26.6), rebounds (6.9) and assists (3.5).
But each of those numbers dipped in the playoffs. And with Tatum reeling from an ankle sprain he sustained on the first play of Game 7, Brown had a disastrous night. He scored 19 points but shot just 8 of 23 from the field with eight turnovers.
It left any thoughts about his future in the immediate aftermath after Monday’s loss the furthest thing from his mind.
“We failed. I failed,” Brown said. “It’s hard to think about anything else right now, to be honest. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”
Asked about his thought process entering this summer, he said that also is foggy at this point.
“I don’t even really know how to answer that question right now,” Brown said. “My thought process is take it one day at a time, focus on getting better. Focus on what the future holds and see where we are from there.”
For his part, Tatum said he’d like to see the front office keep together a tandem that has made it to at least the conference finals in four of its six seasons together.
“It’s extremely important,” Tatum said. “He’s one of the best players in this league. 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.”
There was a vote of confidence from the locker room for Mazzulla, who led the team to a 57-win season. But he did struggle in the playoffs to make game plan and in-game adjustments. It contributed to extended series in the first two rounds and Boston’s 3-0 deficit in the conference finals.
Tatum said it shouldn’t diminish the job he did throughout the season.
“It was his first year. We got to the conference finals Game 7,” Tatum said. “We all figured it out. Obviously, we wanted to win the championship. Didn’t happen. But I think Joe did a great job. 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.”
The team’s resilience to make the run it did despite the challenges it dealt with at the start of season is what Mazzulla will take away.
“What do we have to do to get better, I think, is what we have to learn from that,” he said. “Regardless of those circumstances, the guys, the locker room showed a sense of toughness and togetherness, starting out the season a certain way and getting to this point and just got to figure out how to be better.”
Image credits: AP