Brad Stevens is pragmatic. He was pragmatic as a coach. And for the most part, he’s been pragmatic as President of Basketball Operations.
Pragmatism went out of the window this summer.
After making the NBA Finals in 2022, the Boston Celtics were supposed to bulldoze their way back there in 2023, driven by their shortcomings against the Golden State Warriors and eager to finally get over the hump. Instead, they stumbled their way to an Eastern Conference Finals exit — and I do mean stumbled.
First, a series against the Atlanta Hawks dragged on for six games when it should have been over in four. OK, maybe five. Then, a seven-game slobber knocker tired them against a Philadelphia 76ers team that had one-quarter of Joel Embiid and a dollar store version of James Harden.
Finally, the Celtics faced the Maimi Heat.
A Miami Heat without Tyler Herro. And without legitimate depth. Yet, the Heat did what the Heat do. They clawed and fought their way to the Eastern Conference Finals. They played as a unit. They executed their coach's game plan. Boston did none of those things — at least not consistently. Before you knew it, we were all Denver Nuggets fans, cheering for Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray to do what the Celtics couldn’t: whoop Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.
So, this summer, Stevens made a call. He chose to change things up.
In fairness, the Celtics probably needed it. You can’t keep running things back and expecting them to be different. That’s the definition of insanity.
Out went Marcus Smart and, subsequently, Grant Williams. In came Kristaps Porzingis. Yes, there have been other new faces, but it’s Porzingis who grabbed the headlines this summer. Stevens created a new Big Three. He looked the second tax apron square in the eyes and didn’t blink.
Adding Porzingis is a risk, though.
Not because of his injury history. And not because of questions surrounding his ability to perform in what will be a new role as the third star in a three-headed monster. But, because of what his presence on the roster signifies. This is the third star name to be paired with the Jays. First, it was Gordon Hayward. Then Kyrie Irving. Kemba Walker was next in line. Nothing has stuck.
Granted, things are different now. Porzingis isn’t coming into the Celtics locker room as their primary option. He’s not seen as the new focal point of the offense or defense. He comes in as the third part of a new Ghidorah. Capable of being Batman one night and Alfred the next (because, let's face it, it went Batman, Robin, and Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred.)
A new star is coming to Boston, but for the first time in their careers, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are ahead of them in the pecking order. So, what excuses will we have if things don’t work out the way we expect them to?
Previously, Tatum and Brown got a pass. This wasn’t their team yet. They were young. Still learning. Now, they’re All-NBA talents leading one of the most talented rosters in the NBA. Assuming reasonable health throughout the duration of Porzingis’ tenure in Boston — for all three stars — there can be no excuse. There has to be a championship.
If the Celtics continue to fall short, then Stevens will have to accept that his gamble failed, and bigger changes will need to be made. The problem is that the bigger change will most likely involve splitting up the core duo of Tatum and Brown. Both star wings would be firmly in their prime and likely growing restless at their lack of silverware. Porzingis will have value, no doubt. Yet, how many times can you chop and change the supporting parts before you realize the engine is the problem?
Stevens is playing his final hand in the Tatum and Brown era. Now, we wait to see how things run on the flop, then turn, and finally, the river. That gives the Celtics three seasons to figure out their rotations and become champions. If that happens, Stevens will be applauded for his decision-making, and the Celtics star duo will likely push forward in search of a dynasty. Fail, and we could be waving goodbye to one of Tatum or Brown, and new faces flood into the TD Garden as the Celtics try to re-tool.
Success in the NBA is fickle and maybe more so with a new punitive collect bargaining agreement in place. It requires intelligent roster construction, expert coaching, veteran leadership, players that fit within the system, star talent, and health. There are countless variables at play, some of which are beyond the scope of control.
Fortunately, there’s a lot of basketball to be played between now and when a potential franchise-altering decision needs to be made. Boston has all the tools to become a champion in the coming years — perhaps even this year.
Stevens broke character this summer, and in doing so, he took his last roll of the dice. If I were a gambling man, I would start crowding the craps table. He’s been throwing 7’s and 11’s since taking over the franchise and all should lead to the ever-elusive Banner 18.