Losing the NBA Finals is a tough, tough pill to swallow. The road is a long one. Getting there is grueling and exhausting. To come two wins short of accomplishing history is gut-wrenching.
But there are signs of encouragement for this young Celtics squad. Instead of looking at this as the end, perhaps we should be looking at it as the beginning. I mean, Jayson Tatum is only 24. Jaylen Brown is 25 and Marcus Smart is 28. Robert Williams is also 24.
There have been numerous examples of young cores reaching The Finals and falling short. Some of them never made it back. Some of them made the right moves in the offseason and established championship-winning teams in the following years. Let’s dive in and examine some of the previous examples to see if the Celtics should do what those organizations did (or didn’t).
1990-91 Chicago Bulls
In the past few seasons, the Celtics struggled getting past the Eastern Conference Finals until breaking through last season and getting to the championship. The Bulls experienced the same thing in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.
The Bulls were eliminated by the Pistons in both 1989 and 1990 before finally getting over the hump in 1991. That year, the Bulls won the title by defeating the veteran-laden Lakers. Jordan was in his sixth season and Scottie Pippen was in his third.
The key here is patience. As I previously mentioned, Tatum is only 24 and Brown is only 25. Jordan was in his sixth season when he won his first championship. Maybe the Celtics were just ahead of schedule in 2022?
The Bulls did in fact surround their young superstars with the right pieces. Say what you want about Jerry Krause, but surrounding Jordan and Pippen with the complementary role players that complimented their games was important. Dennis Rodman was the defensive anchor, and the Celtics appear to have that in the form of Robert Williams and Marcus Smart – two players the Celtics should be keen on keeping.
The final puzzle piece for the Bulls was the head coach, Phil Jackson, who unlocked something with the Jordan-led Bulls that resulted in a dynasty. The Celtics appear to have found their guy in Ime Udoka, who led the Celtics to The Finals in his first year as a head coach. On top of that, Udoka unlocked something with Tatum’s playmaking which was solid for most of the year up until Game 2 of The Finals. Tatum’s continued improvement in the passing department is going to be essential if the Celtics want to make it back.
I’m not saying that this Celtics team is the next 90’s Bulls, but the similarities between both are striking. The Celtics must surround Tatum and Brown with the right pieces, and they’ve done that so far with players like Smart and Williams. With the right moves in free agency this season, the Celtics might be poised to make another deep playoff run.
1994-95 Orlando Magic
The Magic pulled out some tricks and won the lottery in back-to-back years, 1992 and 1993. With those picks, they took star-bound center Shaquille O’Neal and Chris Webber. On draft night in 1993, however, the Magic traded Webber to the Warriors in exchange for Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway and additional picks.
The Magic made a run in 1995 - all the way to The NBA Finals. They beat the Pacers in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. With O’Neal and Hardaway, the thought was that the Magic were the team of the future.
In Game 1 of The 1995 Finals, Orlando’s Nick Anderson was fouled and went to the free throw line with 10.5 seconds left. Anderson missed both, got his own rebound, got fouled again, and missed both again. Houston’s Kenny Smith would go on to drain a game-tying 3-pointer to force overtime, and Hakeem Olajuwon won the game for Houston on a tip-in with 0.3 seconds left.
It is one of the worst Finals-in-game collapses of all time, and the Magic were never the same. They were beaten in four games by the Rockets. Next season, the Magic returned to the conference finals but were swept by the 72-win Michael Jordan-led Bulls. O’Neal left in free agency that offseason and Hardaway was riddled with injury after injury for the coming seasons.
The similarities between the 2022 Celtics and the 1995 Magic are pretty clear. Both had two young, emerging superstars. Both appeared to be ahead of schedule. However, what the Celtics need to do differently than the Magic is simply appease their superstars. O’Neal clearly felt underappreciated and disrespected in Orlando, and that is why he left in free agency. After his rookie deal expired, O’Neal would leave the Magic for the bright lights of Los Angeles. Keeping Tatum and Brown happy from a front office standpoint is going to be critical. I think Brad Stevens understands this; he’s coached them and been with both players since the beginning creates a closer-than-normal executive-to-player relationship.
It appears Tatum and Brown want to be in Boston, and that they want to play with each other. Both understand the game well, and all Celtics fans can do is hope that there is mutual trust between the front office and the two players for years to come.
2011-12 Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder appeared to be poised to be the next juggernaut in the Western Conference after taking down the Spurs in the conference finals. The Thunder had Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden as we all know. Plus, none of them had hit their prime or were playing the best basketball of their careers.
The Thunder even defeated the Heat in Game 1 of the series. Oklahoma City’s defining moment was inching closer and closer. But the celebration and hype stopped there, as the James-led Heat won the next four games and the NBA championship in the process.
Harden was traded to the Rockets during the offseason. Durant was injured during the 2014-15 season. Westbrook played 46 games in 2013-14. But the Thunder got healthy, and held a 3-1 lead over the Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference Finals. We all know how that ended. Durant left and joined the Warriors in the most stunning and shocking free agent move of all time. Westbrook was traded to the Rockets in 2018.
Here’s the thing: the Thunder got cheap. By not paying Harden, the Thunder practically, willingly dismantled their Big Three. The lesson here is simple. The Celtics have to be willing to pay up, and pay big money for top-tier talent. Now that the Celtics have showcased their talent and ability to get to basketball’s biggest stage, owner Wyc Grousbeck recently stated that Stevens & co. can spend.
If the Thunder had decided to pay Harden, we’re probably looking at at least one championship, if not more, in Oklahoma City. The Celtics should use the Thunder’s misstep as a prime example of what not to do.
2014-15 Golden State Warriors
The Warriors made The Finals by eliminating the Houston Rockets in the conference finals. Golden State was led by the same trio that currently led them to the 2022 championship. Stephen Curry was in his fifth season. Klay Thompson was in his third season, and Draymond Green was only in his second.
It took the Warriors six games to take down an injury-depleted Cavaliers team, who had lost Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to injuries.
Next year, the Warriors were the first team to blow a 3-1 Finals lead when James propelled the Cavs to their first championship. After acquiring Durant that offseason, the Warriors won in 2017 and 2018. They reached The Finals in 2019, but injuries sustained by Durant and Thompson meant the end to the Durant-Golden State years.
Now, the Warriors reign supreme again after defeating the Celtics in 2022. But, the Celtics and Warriors are similar in the sense that both were homegrown. Curry, Thompson, and Green – all drafted by the Warriors. Tatum, Brown, and Smart – all drafted by the Celtics. All six of those picks have been hits for the respective teams.
Now, not-so-similarly to the Thunder, the Warriors paid their drafted players big money, resulting in the highest payroll in the league. Andrew Wiggins, who the Warriors traded for, made over $30 million in 2022. The Warriors, unlike the 2012 Thunder, knew what it took to win the championship. Championships cost money. If the Celtics want to win one, they must be willing to do what the Warriors did.
2021-22 Boston Celtics
It doesn’t appear that Boston will acquire any big-name talent through free agency or the draft unless something wild happens. However, the Celtics need to find a few role players that can add to the bench from the jump. Stevens has two things to work with to acquire just that: a $17.1 million TPE from the Evan Fournier sign-and-trade and a $6.4 million mid-level exception.
For the Celtics to get back to the promised land and hopefully establish a dynasty, they will have to follow in the footsteps of the Warriors and Bulls all while avoiding the missteps of the Magic and Thunder.
Only time will tell whether the Celtics will learn from their Finals defeat, or never be the same team that reached this point.