On paper, it looks like the Celtics are oh-so-close to being a true championship contender, as they’ve been to the Eastern Conference Finals in three of the last four years.
It seems like they might just need one more piece to put them over the top, but finding that piece is easier said than done.
It certainly looks like drafting Jayson Tatum was a home run who can be the No. 1 on a championship-caliber team. Jaylen Brown was also a great pick who could be the second or third option. But some of their other big swings haven’t quite connected.
Free agent signings like Al Horford, Gordon Hayward and Kemba Walker were all celebrated at the time, but none have looked like the sought-after second or third “star.” Perhaps Hayward could have been had his tenure in Boston not been derailed by a devastating leg injury just a few minutes into his first game with the team.
Kyrie Irving was certainly talented enough to be that, but turned out to just not be a good fit. Horford’s gone, Irving’s gone, and Hayward could be gone as soon as Thursday. Danny Ainge has reportedly been shopping Walker as well, and so the search for that next key championship piece continues.
Appearing on The Greg Hill Show Thursday morning, Stadium’s Jeff Goodman explained just how challenging the task is for Ainge and the Celtics, pointing out that Boston doesn’t have the luxury of just being able to lure the next big free agent superstar like the Lakers, Clippers or even the Heat have been able to.
“Their big free agents were what?,” Goodman said. “Gordon Hayward, who’s the fourth option right now because of the injuries. Probably would have been a good second option if he hadn’t gotten hurt. And Al Horford. The problem is, these teams, and the Celtics being one of them, people have kind of a false illusion of what the Celtics can get in free agency.
“They’re not the Lakers. They’re not even Miami, in the sense that guys want to play down in Miami because of the weather, because of the taxes, all those things. The elite players don’t want to play in Boston. They just don’t. They’re going to team up and they’re going to go to LA, like Kawhi did. They’re going to go to the Lakers like LeBron did, or Miami like LeBron did years ago.”
For that reason, the Celtics have to do things differently, Goodman said. He pointed to the Warriors as an example of a team that built through the draft with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, won that way, and was then able to attract a top free agent like Kevin Durant because they were already a championship team.
The Raptors could provide another example of a team that built a strong foundation and was then able to plug in Kawhi Leonard to put them over the top, although that was through a trade and only for one season.
“They’re not coming to Boston, so you’ve got to build this thing differently and get a little bit of luck,” Goodman said. “I mean, Golden State did it with Steph and Klay and Draymond. They hit it right. Not everybody can do that.”
Host Jermaine Wiggins then brought up a nightmare scenario for Celtics fans. If top free agents don’t want to come to Boston, even to play with Tatum, what’s going to stop Tatum from some day deciding to leave the Celtics to pursue a championship elsewhere?
Goodman said it’s possible, but also offered some reason for optimism.
“I think he might eventually if he’s not winning,” Goodman said. “But he loves it in Boston right now. He’s young. He’s a star. I think ultimately all these players are going elsewhere, like LeBron ultimately teamed up in Miami because it was Cleveland, and he knew he wasn’t getting big-time free agents. Cleveland’s Cleveland. He took them as far as he could. I think some of these other guys, like Jimmy Butler, isn’t at that level.
“Jayson Tatum’s going to get to a level where I think some guys are going to want to play with him. Not yet. Nobody’s saying, ‘I want to play with Jayson Tatum today.’ They’re not in that position where they’re a destination for a really, really good player to win a title. Maybe they get there in a few years if they keep this core together.
“But again, I think you can build around Jayson Tatum. You’re going to max him out every single time you can and sign him to a long-term deal because to me, again, Jayson Tatum is one of the safest bets in the NBA right now.”