LAS VEGAS — When LeBron James decided near the start of this summer’s free agency period that he would join the Lakers, it was assumed that collective relief would reverberate through the Eastern Conference.
After all, James had reached the NBA Finals in eight consecutive seasons. The road to the finals did not go through him, because once it reached him, it stopped. And now the congestion appears to be easing.
The Celtics were widely seen as the primary benefactors of James’s departure. Boston had challenged the Cavaliers in the conference finals in two consecutive seasons, including this year’s Game 7 loss that came despite the absences of injured stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
So it seemed that Boston finally had some relief, right? Well, not according to third-year forward Jaylen Brown.
“To be honest, I wanted [James] to stay,” Brown said Thursday. “I was kind of mad. I wanted to be the team to go through him. I feel like we could have had it last year, but we fell a little bit short. But I applaud someone doing what’s best for him. He did what’s best for him in that situation. I wanted him to stay in the East.”
Brown said he’s heard the suggestion that the Celtics now have a more clear route to the finals, and it bothers him.
“I don’t like when people say ‘Now that LeBron’s gone, y’all are the favorite,’ ” Brown said. “That irks me. A lot of us, we feel the same, because we feel that whether he was there or wasn’t there, we was coming out [of the East].”
Brown and Irving sat courtside at the Thomas & Mack Center on Thursday and watched the Celtics’ summer league team defeat the Knicks in the opening round of the playoffs, 82-75. Unlike last summer, in which Boston’s roster underwent an extensive reconstruction, this one has been considerably more calm. The status of restricted free agent Marcus Smart is the biggest issue that still needs to be sorted out.
The Celtics have long insisted that they intend to match any offer sheet Smart signs with another team. But they also could reach their own agreement and re-sign him, and that has not happened yet, making it appear increasingly possible that Smart will just accept the team’s $6 million qualifying offer and become an unrestricted free agent next year.
As far as Brown is concerned, though, the team’s course of action with Smart should be obvious.
“Marcus, what he brings to the table is second to none,” Brown said. “The analytics, all of that, throw that away. What Marcus adds to a team and a franchise, everybody knows. I think [president of basketball operations Danny Ainge] knows that. And I feel like something will come and the best situation will happen for both parties. But I would love to play this next year with Marcus Smart, and I feel like everybody feels the same way.”
Brown said he understands there is a business side to these negotiations, too, and that it is important not to let that truth get clouded by emotions. Smart has been frustrated by the Celtics’ lack of communication during this process.
Smart attended Brown’s bowling event here on Tuesday night, and Brown said they will always support each other. Brown is hopeful the situation will be resolved soon, because he knows Smart’s value as well as anyone.
“What we do, we have similar mind-sets,” Brown said. “There’s two types of players: You have guys that kind of sit back and let the game develop and wait for the game to come to them, and then there’s guys that take it to you and throw the first punch. And me and Marcus throw the first punch for sure.”
Brown has been in Las Vegas for several days. He’s completed individual workouts with Celtics coach Brad Stevens that were focused on pace and fast breaks — expected points of emphasis for Boston’s athletic squad next season. And Brown acknowledged he already has begun thinking about what could be possible next year.
“We’ve got a lot of great talent on this team with a great coach, so we’re thinking we’re trying to raise a banner,” Brown said. “But we’ve got to make sure that we take care of ourselves, eat healthy and start for the long haul. We’ve got to start thinking now rather than start thinking later.”