12 reasons why the Celtics didn't capture Banner 18
Been postponing writing this the past couple days, because to be honest when you root for a team day in and day out, and they get so close to winning a championship, only to falter at the end it's a bitter pill. The first year we had this website, Rajon Rondo led the 2009-2010 Celtics on a magical ride to the NBA Finals. Boston got up 3-2 in the series, but ended up losing it. Same thing goes for their improbable ride in the 2012 playoffs. Again they went up 3-2 (in the Eastern Conference Finals) to the LeBron James and the Heatles only to lose in 7.
So here we are again. This time it didn't go 7 games, but once again Boston was in the driver's seat in a series and failed to bring it home. Here are 12 reasons, in no particular order, why the 2021-22 Celtics came up short.
1. The Celtics bench was brutal
The 2008 Champion Celtics bench had James Posey, PJ Brown, Leon Powe, Sam Cassell, Eddie House, Tony Allen, and Glen Davis. So seven options for Doc Rivers to keep his starters fresh and experiment with different looks. The 2022 Celtics had only two players that their coach trusted to play off the bench in Grant Williams and Derrick White.
Then there was Payton Pritchard as the 3rd guy off the bench, but he only played if he made his first few shots. Daniel Theis disappeared after Round 1. That was it. The bench was rounded out by what's looking as another failed 1sty rounder in Aaron Nesmith and then FIVE G-Leaguers.
Making matters worse, while Derrick White shot very well in Game 1, he was ineffective the rest of the series. And just like versus the Heat, when White was getting torched by Jimmy Butler on switches, several times Udoka had to quickly bring Marcus Smart back in because White couldn't stop Warriors penetration.
And then we have Grant Williams, who was looking like a huge part of the team in Round 2 versus the Bucks, but by the Finals he completely disappeared. What happened Grant?
You need to have a bench. The 1986 champion Celtics held Walton, Wedman, and Sichting. The 1987 Celtics' bench was pathetic and that team lost in the Finals. The 2008 Champion Celtics had again 7 weapons off the bench. This Celtics bench was not up to snuff.
2. Jayson Tatum is a streaky superstar and his latest slump came at the worst possible time
Jayson Tatum is an amazing talent. When he's cooking he can look like the best player in the NBA. He even made 1st Team NBA this year, but while his highs are very high, he tends to have low periods. Like the beginning of each of the past two regular seasons. We kept waiting for Tatum to break out of his slump, but sometimes it can take a month. His slump came at the wrong time.
The team with the best player often wins the NBA Championship match-up. Steph Curry was heads and shoulders better than Tatum this series.
3. Ime Udoka's defensive system limits options for who can be on the floor
I have zero idea why Brad Stevens signed players like Nick Stauskas and Luke Kornet after the trade deadline. Neither had any chance of ever making it into the Celtics playing rotation even if there were several injuries. Pritchard's minutes are limited due to his lack of athleticism. Same goes for Theis. And both these guys are more athletic/quicker than the scrubs Stevens' signed to round out the roster.
Udoka's switching defense was elite, but it demanded 5 players on the court who could guard everyone. That's one reason why a Joe Johnson had no chance of sticking around. Or why Isaiah Thomas would have gotten zero playing time on the Celtics. But more concerning is that even the team's 7th, 8th, and 9th men (White, Pritchard, Theis) weren't able to stay on the floor because they couldn't defend like the starters.
Either Stevens has to load up the roster with nothing but elite athletes or Udoka needs to have some flexibility in his system, so his less athletic guys can still play.
4. Celtics ownership's insistence on avoiding the luxury tax
The Golden Warriors spent a whopping $50 million more on salaries than the Boston Celtics did in this 2021-22 season. Many of the reasons on this list can be connected to 4th reason. Celtics ownership didn't go all out (or even a bit out) to field a championship team this season. At the trade deadline there were moves that could have been made to make Boston a much stronger contender, but move after move that Stevens made showed that staying under the luxury tax was a priority.
First there was the Juancho trade where Boston took back two injured guys to save some money. Could have gotten a useful player back for that salary, but no. Then Stevens traded those injured guys for nothing. Again to cut salary. In order to trade Derrick White, Popovich demanded not only the Celtics 2022 1st rounder, but a future pick swap. My strong hunch here is that Stevens' required the Spurs to take back Josh Richardson in the deal and not that the rebuilding Spurs wanted him. \
Using one of their TPE's and the draft capital they ended up trading would have likely brought in White, while letting the Celtics keep the versatile, bigger Josh Richardson to give Tatum and Jaylen Brown more rest in the playoffs. But again, that meant paying the luxury tax.
And there is a revisionist history out there that Boston didn't get good until after they traded Josh Richardson and Dennis Schroder. The truth is the team had already turned their season around and had won 8 out of their last 9 games when they traded the pair. The idea that there is no way the Celtics make the NBA Finals with Richardson or Schroder on the roster is pure Green Teamer madness. Are you telling me if you swapped Stauskas for Richardson Boston would be worse?
Here are the first 9 games of the Celtics season turnaround which included 8 wins with Richardson and Schroder:
Yes even Dennis Schroder, the guy who fit poorly in a starting line-up with Marcus Smart, could have helped the team when they needed some offense off the bench in the playoffs. I mean he was a former 6th man of the year. Even Romeo Langford was higher up on the depth chart than Nesmith. So the Celtics sent out 3 of their guards/wings and only brought back White.
And before you say that Boston needed Daniel Theis to be beat the Nets, remember we swept them. Also Schroder was making peanuts. The tanking Rockets didn't want any of the contracts they got back for Daniel Theis, and that included Schroeder. They wanted out from the last 2.5 years of Theis' contract. Stevens included all those players again to make sure the Celtics got under the tax.
It's extremely hard to win a championship with the 15th highest payroll and staying under the tax. Maybe if all your top players are still on rookie contracts, but that's not the case for Tatum, Brown, Smart, or Horford. In order to stay under the tax, the Celtics sacrificed the bench.
5. Marcus Smart was not the ideal starting point guard for this team
So there are two realities. Some Celtics fans are way too hard on Marcus Smart. Many though tread him like he's some god. I've always been a big Marcus Smart fan, though I will never look like one to the people that worship at his alter. Smart is a very good basketball player. He's the type of player championship teams have.
Smart even works as a championship starting point guard if you have an elite playmaker at another position. Think a LeBron James. Or even teams like the Nuggets with Jokic or the Bucks with Giannis. While Tatum and Brown made strides as playmakers this season, it's neither of their games. So for the Celtics to win they needed a real floor general. A Chris Paul or a Damian Lillard. Even the 2020 Rajon Rondo would have done.
The people that treat Smart like a god love to use the term "love and trust" when it comes to Smart. Here's the reality though. Sure you can love him. I love him. But "trust?" That's hilarious. You never know when he's going to get a technical, play hero ball, or make a costly turnover. For every 5 "Marcus Smart winning plays" he makes, he'll make 4 boneheaded plays.
Bragging about Smart's "winning plays" is like bragging about winning $1000 in Vegas, even though you had just lost $900 there (So it's really only $100). No one ever mentions the money they lost. No one every mentions Smart's boneheaded plays when talking about his winning ones.
In an ideal situation Smart would be your 3rd guard, but unfortunately he you kind of need him to be the starting point guard because that's the only way to convince him to think pass before shoot. And Smart also made strides as a floor general this season, but come crunch time, he was not the player you wanted in charge of maintaining a lead. Neither was Tatum for that matter. But that just made the point guard position all that more important.
Great defensive season for Smart, he leaves it all on the floor, made strides as a point guard, but this 2021-22 Celtics team needed an elite floor general.
6. Brad Stevens didn't do as great a job as some made it seem
Man all the "Executive of the year" tweets for Brad Stevens must have felt good to him and his family, but the job he did was overrated by many. He did a good job, but not a great one. No team was willing to take back Al Horford unless the Thunder included a pick, so it's not like Stevens stole Al from anyone. First round picks are king in trade talks. Once Stevens coughed up one to swap Kemba Walker for Al Horford that deal was done. As someone who didn't want Horford to leave in 2019, I knew he would help this team and he did.
And just like all it took was giving up a valuable 1st to complete the Horford deal, that's how Stevens got the Spurs' White. One 1st rounder and a pick swap. Again we're not talking some slick GM skills here. It's like winning an auction because you bid the most. And the Daniel Theis trade was a salary dump for the Rockets.
The rest of the roster was all inherited (all draft picks by the way. I'm telling you, people way underrate draft picks): Time Lord, Jaylen, Tatum, Smart, Pritchard, and Grant Williams.
Not sure if it was on the table and again it wouldn't have meant paying the tax, but what about if the Celtics had traded their 1st rounder for Christian Wood instead? The Mavs just got him for the 26th pick. Which group would have helped more in the NBA Finals: White and Theis or Richardson, Wood, Schroder, and Langford? The latter group would have provided much more firepower while also not forcing Udoka to burn out the Jay's and Smart.
Also Stevens struck out on all his low cost signings. Gary Payton Jr has bounced around the league from team to team. Other teams find rotation pieces on the scrap heap. Why couldn't Stevens?
7. And Danny Ainge didn't do as great a job for that matter either
Everyone loves to point out the guys on the team that Ainge drafted with his picks and the Nets picks, but the team's lack of depth was also because of an abundance of draft failures. Warriors drafted Jordan Poole with a pick that Ainge traded down to draft Carsen Edwards and a future Bucks' 1st. Ainge traded that 1st the next year to unload Enes Kanter's contract. The player that was traded with that pick was Desmond Bane? Do you think Bane or Poole could have helped these Celtics?
Romeo Langford ended up being a contract thrown in a deal and Nesmith (who's actually older) seems to be headed in that direction as well. Ainge also let a ton of talent leave for nothing, which brings us to the next reason.
8. Celtics let assets walk for nothing, while Warriors got Wiggins and Kuminga
When Al Horford and Kyrie Irving walked in 2019, Boston got absolutely nothing for them. Baynes, Marcus Morris, and Terry Rozier were also let go as well in order to free up the cap space to sign Kemba Walker. Ainge and Jordan ended up turning the Rozier/Kemba swap into a sign-and-trade for book keeping purposes, but the reality is Boston let a ton of talent go in 2019. And then again in 2020 when they failed to sign-and-trade Gordon Hayward.
The Warriors were able to keep a max player by swapping Durant in a sign-and-trade for DeAngelo Russell and then they flipped Russell for Wiggins and a 1st rounder (which became Kuminga). The Warriors deserve credit for bouncing back from losing a top shelf player like Durant. The Celtics deserve blame for letting an abundance of talent and picks end up depleted.
9. The Celtics may not have even been the East's best team
There is a lot of luck involved in winning a title or even making the Finals. Last year a team like the Hawks had that luck. In years past the Celtics have had bad luck that prevented them from going further. In terms of "luck" I'm talking about injuries. Celtics had players like KG, Perkins, Rondo, Shaq, Jeff Green, Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving, and Isaiah Thomas miss key playoff games. With more health luck the Celtics already have Banner 18 and a few more championship appearances.
It looked like the Celtics would be unlucky again when Robert Williams went down with a month to go in the season, but in the end the Celtics actually were healthier than their Eastern Conference opponents.
If we are being objective here, the Bucks defeat the Celtics in round 2 if they had their 2nd All-Star Kris Middleton. And the Heat would have beat Boston with a healthy Butler, Herro, and Lowry. Again, I'm just being honest here. It doesn't mean the Celtics didn't earn an Eastern Conference title. Sh#t happens all the time. Sometimes to your benefit and sometimes it hurts you (no pun intended).
I'm just saying that the Celtics making the Finals this year as opposed to 2020 was more about luck, than a coaching change or player growth. If Miami was as banged up in 2020 when they played us as they were this conference finals, we make it to the Finals that year.
There was something special about this Celtics team the last few months of the year. I don't want to take that away from them. They went from mediocre disappointments to a legit contender. But all I'm saying is they almost went out in Round 2.
10. Udoka may have been out-coached in a couple series
Everyone loves Udoka because he tells the team to "stop playing like assholes" and he led them to the NBA Finals, but there are other coaching nuances that he wasn't as great at. Out of time out plays, crunch time, managing his bench. Forcing players to give full effort on defense to get on the floor is great, but again if you only have 6 players on your roster that fit your system maybe you need to make adjustments right?
And in the last two series, I saw Tatum absolutely swarmed by defenses, while opposing wings like Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins had it much easier. Udoka was a rookie coach this past season. Huge props for him getting his team to the Finals in Year 1, but he could also use some improvements.
11. Tatum has flaws he needs to fix
Heavy is the head that wears the crown. We already talked about Tatum's straks, but as the team's franchise player, his importance can't be understated. Besides figuring out a way to not have such long slumps, the 24 year old uber talented Tatum needs to fix some things to his game. His insistence on trying to avoid contact on drives to the hoop is a main reason he failed so much in that department in the playoffs.
It seems Tatum's always trying to do some maneuver to avoid contact. Just go for some dunks and take the fouls! Stop trying to avoid contact. When you're finishing scared the refs are less likely to give you a whistle too.
Tatum uses Kobe Bryant as his inspiration. Kobe went to the hoop hard. Giannis goes hard. LeBron still goes hard. That's one obvious area Tatum can improve. Also if Smart is going to be your starting point guard than Tatum needs to take charge in the final minutes as the guy with the ball. Demand the ball. Again, you're the franchise player. Id the team keeps failing in crunch time its on you to fix things.
It seems almost unfair to focus on a player who is even better than I'm sure Stevens or Ainge imagined when they decided to draft him, but this is a SUPERSTAR league. All capital letters superstar. There have been superstars who almost won like a Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, or Patrick Ewing, but to win you need that extra gear. That refuse to lose gear. If you're the #1 guy on a contender, you will always get heat when your team doesn't win.
Fair or not, Tatum now needs to win a championship as a #1 guy to prove he's as good as he and Celtics fans say he is. If you're an MVP talent you should be the best player on the floor every series. Giannis was the best player in round 2. Butler outperformed Tatum down the stretch in round 3. And Curry was much better than Tatum in the Finals.
And if Tatum is not capable of being a #1 guy on a championship team? Well then Stevens' work will be much tougher thn it appears now. I'd prefer to believe that Tatum can get there.
12. The Celtics were wrong to think they could always flip a switch
Seemed like the players bought into the "Boston has not lost 2 games in a row" or "Boston is undefeated when facing elimination" hoopla a bit too much. For one, everyone is undefeated when facing elimination if they are still around! Boston had the Warriors on the ropes up 2 games to 1 and with a win at the TD Garden in Game 4 their odds of winning the series and shocking the world were sky high... and then they blew it.
But they thought it was alright, because they always bounce back, even on the road! Until they didn't in Game 5. But that ok, because they had come back twice already from being down 3-2 in series. Until they didn't.
This Celtics team was not the Jordan dynasty Bulls, the '86 Celtics, or the 1992 Dream Team that had the extreme talent advantage and killer instinct best player in the world to always save the day. The Celtics played with fire in rounds 2 and 3 and survived. Then they played with it again in the Finals against a healthy, top team, and they got burnt.
The Celtics can learn from these 12 reasons why they didn't win Banner 18 and be better prepared in future seasons. Ask the Bucks or Suns, there is no guarantee the Celtics make it back next season. But if they do there is a blueprint of what needs to be fixed in order to maximize their odds of being NBA champions. In the end, 2nd place isn't much more special than 5th or 6th. It was "All About 18." It's all about championships. The Celtics don't hang conference banners. They need to improve.