It’s History Week here at CelticsBlog, and that means it’s time for reflection and introspection - an opportunity to appreciate the NBA moments that are most meaningful to us and to theorize about what could have been. This article will live in the latter.
To celebrate both the recent and fairly recent history of the Boston Celtics, we’re diving into 20 “what if” scenarios. The notions you see here will be presented with varying degrees of sincerity and intrigue, one for each season in the twenty-first century (which is about as far back as this particular observer’s memory can be trusted, at least with regard to professional basketball).
This promises to take a while, so let’s just dive right in. We’ll move our way towards the present through two decades of fun.
2000-2001: What if the Celtics had kept Joe Johnson?
It’s easy to forget that former NBA All-Star and present day Big Three legend “Iso Joe” Johnson once wore Celtic green. The effortless scorer played just 48 games in Boston before getting shipped to Phoenix with Randy Brown, Belize’s greatest basketball product of all-time Milt Palacio, and a first-round pick.
In return the Celtics got Tony Delk and Rodney Rogers, both of whom turned out to be fine role players. Johnson probably wasn’t quite good enough to have made all that much of a difference in Boston’s historical ledger, but he, Paul Pierce, and Antoine Walker would have made for a pretty interesting trio at the very least.
2001-2002: What if the Rick Pitino era had actually worked?
It’s almost laughable to consider this concept. Pitino’s time with the Celtics was an utter disaster, but it’s at least a little fun to think about what could have been had he had success. Perhaps his strategy of collecting players from the school he used to coach at (Kentucky) would have caught on, and more collegiate coaches would have made the jump to the NBA to create pipelines from their coaching alma maters.
Maybe Pitino never would have returned to the college game, got caught up in a recruiting scandal, and wound up coaching in Greece. Maybe we’d all get some hours of our lives back to do something productive instead of trying to convince ourselves that Ron Mercer was going to be a star.
Then again maybe things would be worse. If Pitino never starred in his “”walkin’ through that door” press conference, then the internet wouldn’t be able to celebrate NBA obscurity in its purest form through the #PitinoGame on Twitter (biggest of shouts to Amin Elhassan, its creator).
2002-2003: What if Paul Pierce hadn’t backed up all that trash he talked to Al Harrington?
This question is absurd on its face. Paul Pierce was always going to back up his trash talk, because he’s a man of incredible braggadocio. Really this “what if” is just a chance to watch Pierce bang home a three in Harrington’s mug in the playoffs.
2003-2004: What if we could time travel Brandon Hunter to the future and he challenged Semi Ojeleye to a medicine ball throwing competition?
I don’t remember all that much about the 2003-2004 Celtics, but I’m pretty sure Brandon Hunter managed to get a job in the NBA solely based on the fact that he was super jacked and worked really hard.
It’s hard to imagine anyone comparing to Semi Ojeleye in terms of pure strength - particularly in a competition that comes as natural to him as throwing a medicine ball (which apparently he does against a wall in the Celtics’ locker room with great frequency) - but Hunter might give him a run for his money.
2004-2005: What if Raef Lafrentz played 10 years later?
Boston’s three-point bombing big man launched 2.8 three pointers per game in the ‘04-05 campaign, shots he knocked down at a 36.4% rate. That’s not uber-impressive at first blush, but being that good of a shooter at Lafrentz’s size - 6’11” - would be considered a massive strength in the modern game.
For context, Brook Lopez just completed a season in which he was hailed as an incomparable floor spacer for a year in which he connected on 36.5% of his triples. The fact that he did so on more than double the volume of attempts Lafrentz hoisted notwithstanding, Boston’s former big man marksman would have had plenty of suitors had he played today.
2005-2006: What if Gerald Green had figured out everything he learned overseas when he was in Boston?
Gerald Green was a thrill to watch when he joined the Celtics as a rookie in 2005. He floated in the air in ways that very few humans have ever been able to. But for all his breathless athleticism, Green never put things together enough to become even a reasonable rotation piece in Boston.
He spent time in Minnesota, Houston, and Dallas before leaving the NBA (or perhaps better said the NBA forced him to leave) to play overseas for two years. Seasoning abroad helped Green, and he returned to the NBA at 26 with a new perspective. Green carved out a role in the league, and is still playing to this day.
His story is more interesting because of the circuitous journey he took, but one wonders if Green might have had an even better career if he learned a few of the habits he picked up outside the states when he was still on the Celtics.
2006-2007: What if Delonte West had been prioritized over Rajon Rondo?
As a long-time Delonte West supporter this is something of a pet project for yours truly. I still contend that the Celtics could have won a championship with West as their starting point guard during the second Big Three era had they given him the playing time he needed and deserved to grow into such a role.
2007-2008: What if the Celtics had lost to the Lakers?
Sorry to make you think about such an unpleasant scenario, but Boston’s championship in 2008 has huge historical ramifications. It wound up being Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett’s only title. It kept Kobe stans from having one more ring to brag about insufferably. And most importantly it satiated Celtics fans who hadn’t seen their team bring home the Larry O’Brien since 1986. Without that ‘08 title, Boston would be in the middle of a 35-year drought (of ultimate NBA success, it has plenty of other sports victories to claim).
2008-2009: What if KG never got hurt?
Boston lost to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, and in so doing missed out on a chance to defend its championship from the season prior. Garnett, who was sidelined by injury, didn’t play a postseason minute.
It’s hard to overstate the impact KG had on the Celtics. He was one of the best defensive players in the history of time and an incredibly reliable release valve for Boston’s offense from the mid-range. Boston never had much hope without him, even in the wake some surprisingly valiant play from Glen “Big Baby” Davis.
The Celtics had the goods to beat anyone in a seven-game series with Garnett at full strength. It’s a shame they didn’t have a chance to prove it.
2009-2010: What if Kendrick Perkins never got hurt?
The real question here is what if the Celtics didn’t piss away Game 7 of the 2010 Finals, but Perk’s injury, sustained one game prior, works as a stand in. Losing to the Lakers - particular the Kobe Bryant/Paul Gasol/Sasha Vujecic edition - was painful enough, knowing that it was likely the end of the second Big Three’s real competitive window hurt all the more.
Boston got a title with Pierce, Allen, and Garnett in the fold. That was the goal, and it deserves to be celebrated and remembered fondly, but it’s hard not to wonder if a few things had gone differently (particularly KG’s injury referenced above), if the Celtics could have realistically pulled off a three-peat.
2010-2011: What if the Celtics never traded for Jeff Green?
We would have all saved a bunch of time wondering why Jeff Green wasn’t better.
2011-2012: What if Danny Ainge never traded Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett?
This is a fascinating scenario to consider. We know for certain that Boston wouldn’t have contended for a championship for as long as Pierce and Garnett ate up significant cap space. We know definitively, as well, that the Celtics never would have had the treasure trove of picks they swindled the Nets for that brought in the majority of the team’s young talent.
Expectations likely never would have inflated the way they did once Boston finally spent all the selections they earned from sending Pierce and Garnett packing, but it’s not fair to suggest that the interim seasons between now and the time of the trade would have been any substantively better or worse than the way they played out.
The Nets trade was a seismic shift in the context in which the Celtics were operating, so much so that attempting to analyze how things may have played out had it not happened is nearly impossible. That only makes it more fun.
(*Technically speaking this happened after the 2012-13 season ended, but just go with us.)
2012-2013: What if the Celtics never hired Brad Stevens?
This question lost a little bit of its luster after last year, during which Stevens struggled to recreate the culture he was praised for so frequently in his first five seasons in the NBA, but it’s intriguing to think about nonetheless. Stevens got a ton of production out of some seriously hodgepodged and constantly changing rosters during his initial tenure in Boston.
He was a primary reason the Celtics overachieved in their trips to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2017 and 2018, and the envy of most franchises throughout the NBA as recently as one year ago. Hiring Stevens was a decision of considerable organizational significance, last year’s hiccup be damned.
2013-2014: What if the Celtics drafted Giannis?
This is a go to “what if” for the fourteen teams that opted to select someone other than Giannis Antetokounmpo in the 2013 NBA Draft. Boston nabbed Kelly Olynyk two spots ahead of the man who would go on to become last year’s MVP.
Olynyk turned out to be a solid role player, well worth his draft selection, but in comparison to the long-armed unstoppable force of nature that Antetokounmpo has turned into, it’s very difficult to think about the Celtics decision as anything but a monumental missed opportunity. Imagine if Boston had all its young players, whom they still could have picked thanks to their bounty of Nets picks, surrounding the Greek Freak.
2014-2015: What if Jared Sullinger was actually good at shooting threes?
Jared Sullinger was always doing something on the court. Sometimes it was good, sometimes it was bad, but one way or another, he was making things happen. Too frequently that reality came in the form of missed three-point attempts. Sullinger had nice touch, and a seemingly decent stroke, but very rarely did any of his looks from deep drop.
He posted an abysmal 28.3% three-point percentage for the 2014-15 season, while launching 3.2 bombs from beyond the arc per game. That mark was somehow better than his career rate of 27.2%. Sullinger had a nice inside game, decent feel, and a big body that he used intelligently. He could have been an incredibly versatile offensive weapon if he’d added the three ball to his arsenal (that’s why Boston encouraged him to shoot so often), but it just never happened.
2015-2016: What if Boston hadn’t played Atlanta in the playoffs?
Boston didn’t stand much of a chance against the Atlanta Hawks in the first-round of the 2016 Playoffs. The Celtics competed valiantly nonetheless, ultimately losing the series in six games. The team’s play and the intensity of the crowd was enough to catch the (incredibly beautiful) eye of one their opponents, Al Horford, who would join the team as a free agent that summer.
Whether or not Horford’s experience of playing against Boston in the TD Garden really influenced his decision to sign with the Celtics in a significant way is up for debate, but he at least gave lip service to the idea.
2016-2017: What if IT never got hurt?
Would he still be in Boston? Would he have gotten his Brinks truck? Would the Celtics have determined that Thomas was the better fit and never pushed their chips in to get Kyrie Irving? Could they have then traded for Anthony Davis mid-season? This is one of those threads that will unravel the whole sweater if you keep on pulling it.
Thomas’ hip injury and subsequent inability to return to form from it has been one of the saddest story lines in the NBA the past few years. He was invincible in Boston, and has been nothing but broken ever since. One thing is for certain, the world would be a much happier place if IT had stayed healthy.
2017-18: What if the Celtics drafted Markelle Fultz?
I know what you’re expecting here. What if Gordon Hayward never shattered his leg five minutes into his tenure with the Celtics? That’s fair enough, but the Fultz possibility is endlessly fascinating.
If Boston had drafted Fultz, would he have sustained the same strange injury and whatever else is plaguing him that has rendered him essentially unplayable? Is it possible that he would be the star-level prospect he was projected as? Would the Sixers have Jayson Tatum right now? Would Hayward have found Boston as appealing without him?
So many questions, with so many possible answers.
2018-19: What if we just pretended this season never happened?
We’d probably all be better off for it. Let’s enjoy 2019-2020.