In this seat, it’s easy to criticize sports decision-makers. It’s like breathing — it comes naturally. Trust me.
The owners of our local sports teams are easy targets for ire, derision, and criticism. They get first-guessed, forget second-guessed.
But there’s also a responsibility to recognize owners for doing the right thing, for making decisions that put their organization on a path to success. There’s a lot of credit being dispensed for the Celtics’ NBA Finals season, but you must start at the top with lead owner Wyc Grousbeck and co-owner Steve Pagliuca.
They deserve a salute for the bold decisions to elevate Brad Stevens to president of basketball operations with zero front office experience, and to replace Stevens with a first-time NBA coach in Ime Udoka. Those were two Robert Williams slam-dunk hires — hires that have the Celtics positioned to compete for Banner No. 18 and more.
They look like no-brainers now after the franchise’s first Finals appearance in a dozen years, but last year at this time the Green were greeted with great skepticism. It felt like they had downgraded in both spots after an underwhelming and underachieving season.
Nope. The decisions stand as two of the best in this ownership’s tenure, which will mark 20 years in September.
Interestingly, the idea of promoting Stevens to replace Danny Ainge came from Grousbeck. He pitched Stevens on bumping up the masthead.
It was an outside-the-box solution and a big gamble since you were uprooting Stevens from the bench, where he was widely regarded as a top-flight NBA coach, despite a frustrating 36-36 campaign in 2020-21.
Stevens took a day to contemplate the parquet promotion and signed on.
“Brad had been here eight years by then, and I had developed a partnership relationship with him, which is essential between a GM and lead owner,” said Grousbeck via e-mail. “And we all appreciate his brilliant basketball mind.”
It was a daring decision, and not necessarily a popular one, especially with a lot of intrigue and speculation following Ainge’s sudden departure after 18 seasons. The Celtics’ official release on June 2, 2021, murkily termed it as Ainge “retiring” from his role. Ainge’s “retirement” lasted six months. He’s back as the alternate governor and CEO of the Jazz.
There was a thought that the Celtics would be hard pressed to lure a talented coach to Causeway Street with the shadow of Stevens returning to the bench looming.
But that wasn’t the case with Udoka, a highly regarded assistant, protégé of Spurs mastermind Gregg Popovich, and former NBA player. The outspoken and blunt Udoka turned out to be exactly what the Celtics needed to unlock their potential and that of stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
“Brad put together a list of coaches and to me the clear best choice was Ime, and I am very glad he accepted,” said Grousbeck.
It didn’t look like there would be any victory laps for Grousbeck and Pagliuca over their GM and coach hires in January when the team was 23-24. The Celtics appeared geared for a breakup rather than a breakthrough. But you know the rest.
Fittingly, they started the Finals against the Warriors on June 2, the one-year anniversary of Stevens’s elevation.
If there’s one trait Grousbeck prizes it’s stability. He and Pagliuca are the anti-George Steinbrenners.
Not counting Jim O’Brien, whom they inherited as head coach, or interim coach John Carroll, they’ve hired three head coaches: Doc Rivers, Stevens, and Udoka. Only two people have sat in the president of basketball operations chair.
Celtics gigs are like the Supreme Court justice job of the NBA.
That latitude and leeway are appealing in a league where coaches are treated like disposable razors.
“They’ve been great from Day One,” said Udoka of ownership. “That was something that stood out was that they’re all about the same things, and we have alignment from top to bottom with what we’re trying to do here in this organization.
“Pags and Wyc and the rest of the group have been extremely helpful this year and supportive. Like I said, we took our lumps early, but they were always on board with what we trying to do, the foundation we were trying to lay, and what we were playing for.”
I know there will be some handwringing about the Celtics not venturing into luxury-tax territory. But they anticipate doing it now with a chance to win a second title as owners.
They’ve also shelled out to bring in Al Horford (the first time via free agency), Gordon Hayward (free agency), and Kyrie Irving (trade), and paid the tax in 2019.
Not all those moves paid off, one of the reasons there was a feeling the team would benefit from a fresh set of eyes and ideas in the team builder role and on the bench.
Discussing the offseason plan, Stevens revealed his ideological departure from Ainge.
“I think with our group in particular it’s not as much about blindly acquiring talent as it is fitting a team together,” said Stevens, once charged with fitting together some of Ainge’s collections of talent.
Winning in the NBA requires investment, wise decision-making, and luck. But the Celtics appear close to redecorating the rafters, landing two wins shy of a championship.
“They’ve only been more supportive with what we did this year,” said Udoka. “So, top to bottom they’ve been great working with myself and Brad and the team in general. Obviously, got a taste of where we got this close this year, and we’re obviously trying … to get No. 18 here.”
Surely, Grousbeck, Pagliuca, and Co. will get some future moves wrong. It comes with the territory.
If the Celtics possess an organizational foible it’s falling in love with their employees, especially the on-court ones, a little too much.
But last year at this time there was a lot of doubt and ridicule regarding the direction of the franchise and the unproven folks ownership installed to guide it.
That has been replaced by abundant optimism.
If you want to look at why the Celtics are positioned as the Boston sports team closest to bringing another championship to the Hub of Hardware, start at the top.