It could take several weeks to process, but these Celtics don’t have several weeks to process.
The journey to the championship began at Monday’s Media Day, when standouts Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were candid about seeing close teammates depart for the sake of improvement.
In the past three months, Brown and Tatum have watched Marcus Smart, Grant Williams, Robert Williams, and Malcolm Brogdon leave and be replaced by Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday. Both had to digest losing Smart, who was a close friend, confidant, and motivator to both.
Tatum developed a close bond with the affable Grant Williams, who moved to the Dallas Mavericks for salary cap reasons. Brown and Smart had grown extremely close since their issues in the NBA bubble.
And while they may reluctantly admit the trade makes the team better, and even more of a championship caliber club, they were hurt by the moves and the time to digest the trades took the whole summer.
“When (the Smart trade) happened, I really didn’t have anything to say for a couple of days,” Brown said. “I played with Smart for a majority of my career. Smart, regardless of what jersey he has on, is my brother and I feel the same way about Rob. To spend so much time, for people who don’t know and to put it in perspective, it’s going to high school and middle school with somebody.
“I played together with Smart for seven-plus years, with Rob for (five plus), so it’s like you grew up with these guys. For them not to be around is a little bit weird, but everybody has a journey and I know those guys are going to do great.”
It was painfully obvious the Celtics couldn’t run out the same team as last season and expect different results. They were good enough to compete for a title but not good enough to win a title. Smart was a stellar defensive player at times but a flawed point guard, and that showed in the most critical of times.
Robert Williams was an impactful defensive player who had never developed a post game and was felled with durability issues. President of basketball operations Brad Stevens knew he would ruffle feathers by trading Smart for Kristaps Porzingis, and fully realized getting Holiday would require losing Brogdon and Robert Williams, the latter he didn’t want to trade.
But Williams’ lack of reliability and the upside of Holiday encouraged him to aggressively pursue the deal, even though he left a void in the frontcourt.
“Everybody can see what he does on the court and he’s a really good player,” Stevens said of Holiday. “A multiple-time All-Star. The defense has been well documented but I think he’s an elite teammate, elite competitive character. All of those things.
“It’s not a (trade) you predict. You knew the price was going to be really high. But he’s a guy we think is a great fit for us.”
If Tatum and Brown didn’t understand the business of basketball, they certainly do now. They are watching their close friends and teammates being sent away for the quest of a title. It’s been 15 years since the Celtics last won an NBA championship, and there is a sense of desperation now because the window is wide open.
Milwaukee struck a major blow last week by acquiring Damian Lillard from the Portland Trail Blazers, but the Bucks also were forced to include Holiday in that deal. And that’s when Stevens abandoned all conservatism, the team’s previous chemistry and attachments, and jumped at the chance to acquire Holiday.
The Celtics in their hearts know they’re a better team. The players can text and Facetime their former teammates, hang out in the offseason, dine before and after matchups. But the players know they acquired a player who can lead them to a championship because he’s a fierce competitor who’s been there before.
“Jrue is fantastic,” Brown said. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Jrue, for somebody who he’s guarded and I’ve had to guard, he plays with a certain force that you just feel. He’s just super solid, man. As a competitor, he’s an assassin. To be playing alongside (him), I think will be a tremendous honor.”
Tatum didn’t want to talk about the Smart trade when approached a few weeks ago. It was difficult to acknowledge he was gone. But perhaps seeing Smart’s glee at his recent wedding, and that fences were mended with management as Stevens and Joe Mazzulla were invited to the ceremony, encouraged Tatum to turn the page.
Once this team hits the floor for the first time in an official practice Tuesday, the players will look forward. Holiday was at the Celtics practice facility working out Monday and is excited about the deal. And let’s be honest, the adjustment to Holiday and Porzingis being on the roster is far less daunting than last training camp, when Ime Udoka was suspended and a shell-shocked Mazzulla was their new head coach.
They’ll be fine. Smart is now the Memphis Grizzlies point guard. Grant Williams is in Dallas and already talking Luka Doncic’s head off, while the Trail Blazers appear eager to pair Robert Williams with Deandre Ayton for a retooled frontcourt.
“I’m excited about Jrue, one of the most well respected guys in the league,” Tatum said. “Great talent on both ends. Champion. We won a Gold Medal together. Happy to have him.
“Sad about Malcolm and Rob. You spend so much time with guys over one year or five years, and then one day they’re on a different team. There’s a lot of genuine emotions and relationships with that. Same thing with Kristaps and that trade. Excited to have him.
“But it was tough to see Smart and Grant leave. It’s going to be different not having (Smart) here.”
It’s going to be different, but this group is accustomed to change. And they’ll pivot, move forward and flourish with Holiday and Porzingis.