There’s a difficulty in moving on totally when you’re not sure how and where things went wrong. The Celtics are in the ending stages of trying to figure out why they endured such a tumultuous season and simultaneously trying to move forward with a new culture and refreshed enthusiasm.
From the bottom to the top, no one in the Celtics organization has a concrete answer for why the team was unable to mesh, why they were so inconsistent and mentally fragile, and why, after winning five straight playoff games, they lost four in a row in embarrassing fashion, each loss to the Bucks exposing further their dysfunction.
Two months later, after five major contributors to that team are gone, the Celtics try to resuscitate their image with fresh faces and majority governor Wyc Grousbeck tries to move forward still unsure how the organization’s progress was derailed so quickly.
“I think that’s a good way to put it,” he told the Globe moments after Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter were introduced as new Celtics. “I still do feel like we’re still on course. I think these two guys are the kind of character, the kind of players, the kind of men that we want to have here. And they want to be here and the vibes here are as positive as I can remember in a long, long time.
“I feel great. I can’t wait to see Gordon [Hayward] and Jaylen [Brown] and Jayson [Tatum], with them, and Marcus Smart and I can’t wait to see these kids who showed something in Vegas. This is a time of optimism and I’m really excited.”
But how did we get here? Just nine months ago, Kyrie Irving was announcing his intentions to re-sign with the Celtics. Hayward was looking “great” in preseason workouts. Tatum was ready to take that next major step and Brown was an emerging star.
The team bungled their way to 49 wins and the fourth seed but swept the Indiana Pacers in the first round and then resoundingly won the opener of their second-round series against the top-seeded Bucks, 112-90. That would be the high. The Celtics, however, tumbled to obscurity and embarrassment, losing the next four in a row to get eliminated by the Bucks.
“I keep coming back to [the fact] we won five playoff games in a row and then we lost four playoff games in a row, increasingly badly,” Grousbeck said. “I don’t know what happened. I’ve decided I’ll leave it to Brad [Stevens] and Danny [Ainge] to try to figure it out and diagnose it, but I’m moving forward and I’m not minimizing it.
“I’m just saying we won five, I felt great. I thought the problems were over. We lost four and I don’t feel great and the problems were not over,” Grousbeck added. “I’m as frustrated as I’ve ever been in 16 years. I was back then [but] now we’ve added these guys and some rookies and there’s a renewed sense of energy and optimism on the team. They’ve got to make it happen.
“We’ve sold out the season. We’ve sold all the [season] tickets. The fans have been great. The fans are ready for this team and we’re going to give them a show.”
Grousbeck said he realizes last year’s team was disliked by some Celtics faithful, comparable to the 2011 Red Sox. There was something wrong but there are still no concrete reasons one of the more talented teams in the NBA couldn’t reach their potential. It has to be left in the past for the organization to move forward, despite the frustration.
“I do think last year’s team, there was real effort,” Grousbeck said. “I think people were trying, but it just didn’t work. I don’t think there were bad guys.
“I will say that, as a point I’d like to make, but I do think we’ve got a new cast of characters and we’ve got Marcus [Smart], Gordon, Jaylen and Jayson, hopefully, will continue their growth and if they grow and Kemba and Enes come in and some rookies help out in spot duty, it could be a good team. I’m really hoping for it. I can’t wait.”
The Celtics are not the favorites in the East. The Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers are expected to fight for the top spot while the Pacers took a step forward with trades and free-agent signings. The Celtics are back to the underdog status with a level of uncertainty of how their new players will blend with the returning ones.
“One poll has us seventh in the league and seventh isn’t 20th, I’ve been both numbers, Grousbeck said. “I’ve been first and I’ve been 30th. They’ve got us seventh and they might be right but I think we’ll start worrying about the Atlantic Division. I like our chances from bringing in Kemba, who’s a multiple time All-Star, prolific scorer, team player, good character guy. Enes is a very strong 5 and the 2-3-4 position, we’re pretty well stocked, so I like it.”
The NBA landscape has changed. Irving, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, Al Horford, Anthony Davis and Walker all changed teams this summer. It’s slowly transforming into a players’ league. Grousbeck is all for the partnership between players and governors.
“I will say this: Everywhere I go, people want to buy into the Celtics, they want to buy into the NBA, they want to buy into the future of this league,” he said. “We are the hottest league in pro sports and it is because the players are amazing and they’re global and they’ve become global icons and also because we all work hard behind the scenes to run it, manage it and pay the bills. But the bigger the players get globally, the more interest comes to the game, but part of it comes with these guys having a say in where they go.
“I am a fan of the players. I’m their business partner, 50-50, and it works for me.”
The most important responsibility for Grousbeck is to enhance the Celtics brand. That brand may have taken a hit over the past few months, but he was heartened to see Walker and Kanter embrace Boston because of its history and recent success.
So the franchise appears back on course, despite lingering questions from last season. The refurbishing of the Celtics has begun, and the hope is last year was just an aberration.
“When I privately met these guys over the past two weeks and got to know them, they led with the fact they wanted to be here because of the organization, and Al wrote a goodbye text and thanked everybody and ownership,” he said. “That’s my job is to make this place, lead into a place of being. Celtic pride is alive and well and we’re building on it and try to go do some great things in the future.”