Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck savored his team’s run to the brink of an NBA title last season. But with the start of training camp about one week away, Grousbeck is somewhat uneasy about the Celtics being favored to win the championship.
In an interview with the Globe, he discussed the lofty expectations, ownership’s approach to spending, Jayson Tatum’s rise, and much more. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q. What stuck with you about last season’s playoff push? How do you think it can help this year?
A. “I really loved being part of the Celtics throughout that run. I loved being right there with them. It was thrilling. The other side of the coin is I think that we’ve now been overrated. I think that performance was a bit overrated in the public mind, or my own mind, because I’m the one saying it. [We were] a finalist and two wins away from winning it, but when you look back, Brooklyn was a tough series, and then we had to go seven games [against the Bucks and Heat]. Then we lost [to Golden State]. So, we’re not a hands-down team to repeat as Eastern Conference champions. I think we’re a quality team.
“We added Malcolm [Brogdon], and now [Danilo Gallinari] is hurt, but we added them to a good, quality team. And we’re in the mix. There are probably five or six teams you could say are contending teams, and I definitely think we’re on that list ... But I’m cautious against being overconfident. And anyone who asks me what I think about the team, I’m saying I don’t want to overrate us.”
Q. You are the favorites to win the title, but it seems like you’re trying to tamp down those expectations.
A. “I am, but I’m not trying to do that in some manipulative way. It’s how I feel. Look, I wouldn’t pick anybody ahead of us. But I don’t think we’ve got any smooth sailing ahead. We were a good team last year that won some key close games and were in the mix. But I don’t have us as the favorites. There are five or six co-favorites, as far as I’m concerned.”
Q. What was your directive to president of basketball operations Brad Stevens after last season ended?
A. “Do whatever it takes to get better, because we weren’t good enough. So do whatever it takes to get better. And he boiled the ocean. He did everything he could think of to make us better.”
Q. Now that Brad has had a couple of summers in this post, what are the differences between working with him and Danny Ainge?
A. “I think Brad is very consultative. He loves talking and hashing things out. Danny is more set in his ways and has his opinions. Brad is eager to get all the information and learn as much as he can. He’s got spreadsheets organized and you can click through on presentations and click on anything and it goes into the data behind the statement. It’s very impressive.
“What he did to build the team was spectacular. It wasn’t luck. He did a good job of going through things and seeing what he ought to do. Those moves were well-considered and he did an excellent job building the team.
“So, his data-driven, analytical approach mixes in with a really warm personality. I’m sure his relationships with other general managers are open and communicative. I’m not on those calls, but Brad has a lot of interpersonal warmth, and a lot of data. And I think Danny is more, like, the former pro athlete. [He’s] funny as hell, but kind of more seat-of-the-pants.”
Q. There’s been a lot of discussion about your approach to the luxury tax. You’re obviously going to be a tax team this year . . .
A. “I think we’re spending about $200 million on the roster this year, and Brad has the green light to spend more. People can write or think whatever they want. Or, you can actually look at what we do, which is do whatever we possibly can to win a championship. And we’re in the mode right now of completely adding on. Are you going to trade future draft picks and young players under 30? Hopefully not. But money is not a consideration whatsoever, and this roster shows that.”
Q. You said Brad has a green light to spend more. How do those conversations go?
A. “We are not worried about it. Just tell us who you want. When Brad puts together a roster, it’s put together on the basis of basketball. Let’s put it that way.”
Q. Jayson Tatum is obviously still at the center of this entire operation. How can he continue to grow?
A. “I can’t take my eyes off of Jayson when he’s on the court. He’s spectacular. He’s a great player. People keep saying he has upside from here, and that’s hard to even imagine. I just give him a lot of credit for building his game. Every single year he’s gotten better. He was spectacular last year, and on and off the court he’s a great person. I just love having him here. I’m thrilled that he’s here, and all I’ve seen all summer is pictures of him working out, so I think he’s taking it very seriously. I think he’s really looking forward to showing people some stuff.”
Q. This was another summer in which some of your top players were in trade rumors. Do you ever reach out to them?
A. “Teams call one another all the time about pretty much anybody on the roster. Any general manager will tell you they have mentioned everybody on their roster’s name most weeks of the year to some other general manager. That’s completely true. Now, you may mention a player by saying, ‘Don’t even ask me about him,’ but the name is still mentioned. But most of the rumors you see are agents trying to put their player’s name in the paper, because it makes other teams think, ‘Well, if the Celtics are interested, we should be interested, too.’ Now, that’s not a comment on anything over this summer, but is generally, I think, a true remark.”
Q. Do you have any concerns entering the year? Things that make you anxious?
A. “Well, we had a slow start last year, and even a slow middle. I think there’s a lot of expectations and a lot of self-imposed expectations the players are putting on themselves, which we love. We want them to aspire to a banner. I think every fan, including me, we’re absolutely aspiring to a banner. Last year was a freer, easier year. There were low expectations. We had changes in the front office and coaching staff, a new roster.
“Now there are huge expectations and we’re favored to win. And we crumbled last fall with less pressure. So, I am apprehensive. I’m definitely uncertain about how we start. I’m hoping we start strong and start kicking people’s [butts]. But I don’t know that will definitely be the case. It’s one of the reasons I’m saying to anyone that will listen, including anyone that will read this newspaper, I think it’s dangerous to overrate our playoff performance. We went 3-1 in four tough series, and there’s no banner. We’re in the mix, but we have to prove it.”
Q. What did you see in coach Ime Udoka last year?
A. “Ime clearly has coaching chops. It was his first time head coaching and he had to grow into the role, but he developed the ability to lead this roster through fire and win some tough games. So, that was very impressive.”
Q. You’re honoring Bill Russell on opening night against the 76ers. Can you share anything about what’s been planned?
A. “We’re planning a celebration and we’re in consultation with his widow and his family, and there are sensitivities to doing anything over the top. But we’re going to be honoring Bill Russell. It’s not clear whether the family wants a large celebration. It’s not a knock on Boston or the Celtics. It just feels like they’re not sure what feels right at this point.
“But we’ll definitely be honoring Bill on opening night, and we plan to have some imagery on the court and something memorializing him on the uniform. But it’s still under discussion. We’re very focused on doing what we can, but we want to make sure the family is happy.”
Q. What are you looking forward to most this year?
A. “Honoring Russell and playing the Sixers opening night. Christmas night against the Bucks at home. Let’s take those two. Listen, I want to take this team all the way. I want to go all the way, and we’re going to be watching every game like a hawk, and if there’s any way to improve the team along the way, I’m sure we’ll do it. But I really like the roster right now, and I like our chances to make some noise.”