BURLINGTON — Cedric Maxwell has been part of the Celtics organization for nearly 40 years, and he’s never been one to mince words or bite his tongue. He tells the truth.
He watched the Celtics blow a precious opportunity last season to make an NBA Finals run with their infighting and chemistry issues, with their best player coming to the arena with myriad personalities, unable to find true happiness in Boston while many of his teammates struggled with the quandary of pursuing their personal goals versus being engaged in the team concept.
It turned disastrous. The Celtics were thumped in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs by the Milwaukee Bucks, who made sure to rub in every resounding victory.
It’s now August and the Celtics have undergone a major makeover. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, and Marcus Smart are bonding in Australia with Team USA as they prepare for the World Cup. Gordon Hayward has spent the summer working out at the team’s practice facility in Brighton and Maxwell, entering his 24th season as the team’s radio play-by-play analyst, feels more at ease and confident in this team.
There was never comfort with last year’s team. A 10-10 start was the prelude to what became a miserable season, with Kyrie Irving as the central figure of the dysfunction.
“I was a huge Kyrie fan, let’s put that on the record,” Maxwell said. “It just did not work out. To me, he is one of the best finishers I’ve seen in the history of the game. Now when you start talking about personalities, the personalities didn’t fit with what you had here. I think that Kemba Walker could possibly be a better fit.
“There has never been a more talented point guard the Celtics have ever had [than Kyrie].”
Maxwell has been critical of Irving’s tactics, especially his unceremonious exit. It became apparent in the second half last season Irving likely would not be keeping his preseason commitment to re-sign with the Celtics. An indication Irving was predestined to sign with the Brooklyn Nets was a 95-second video released by his agency, Roc Nation, on July 1, the day free agents were allowed to sign with new teams.
The video shows Irving walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, pledging his loyalty to the Nets, and expressing excitement for coming home to the New York/New Jersey area. Irving grew up a New Jersey Nets fan.
“How do you come up with you walking across the Brooklyn Bridge in one take?” Maxwell said. “Don’t you have to plan that out? ‘I’m going to do a video of me coming back to Brooklyn, walking across the bridge.’ Were you still wearing a Celtics uniform when you did that? That would be one of those things that would probably bother people.”
What was the issue with the 2018-19 Celtics? They lacked leadership. Irving was moody and appeared deeply consumed and annoyed by playing in the final year of his contract.
Al Horford led by example. Other players tried to take on a leadership role but weren’t convincing or captivating enough to persuade their teammates to follow them.
“You have to have a leader, on the court and off the court,” Maxwell said. “You can say what you want about Draymond Green, but you know he’s one of the leaders on that [Golden State Warriors] team. You have to have camaraderie when you guys are together. And [the Celtics] never really seemed to have that.
“You can’t fault Kyrie for being a different person. He was like that in Cleveland. He was like that most of his life. And you do like this, ‘Hey, good luck Brooklyn, we’ll see how it works over there.’ ”
Like it or not, the Celtics had to turn the page. They replaced Irving with Walker. They signed Enes Kanter to replace Horford, who abruptly departed for the 76ers. They added four rookies and French big man Vincent Poirier. The hope is the Celtics will become rejuvenated with fresh faces and new personalities and last season will be considered an aberration.
“Kemba is a nice bounce-back for [Celtics general manager] Danny Ainge; and I love Kanter. I think the fans are going to love him,” Maxwell said. “The guy that hurts me more than anybody [leaving] is Al Horford, because of just who he was as a person.
“Al could have been that leader, but he just wasn’t vocal. But he was that guy who was rock steady, played the game the right way, was a standup guy. Certain things you can’t replace. You can’t replace the classiness that he had.
“As much as we want to blame Kyrie Irving, let’s lose that one. Kyrie Irving was a great player. People said I didn’t like him. No. I loved Kyrie as a player.”
The key to the Celtics’ success this season, according to Maxwell, is no secret. The development of Tatum and Brown, each of whom had an uneven season in 2018-19, is critical.
“Those two lions that you had last year have to come back into the pride and take over,” Maxwell said. “Those are the guys you’re going to grow with. Gordon Hayward has to be more productive and more vocal.
“And Coach [Brad] Stevens, I said before last year this was going to be Coach Stevens’s toughest year, because you were trying to incorporate two great players back into a [team] that was a minute away from being in the Finals.”