The Celtics added a third star in Kristaps Porziņģis this summer, retained Jaylen Brown long-term and added several long, young wings. Their losses — Marcus Smart, Grant Williams and likely Blake Griffin — might’ve represented the three loudest voices in the locker room. Boston already courted one of the most talented teams in the NBA over the past two years, so intangibles like connectivity and leadership became some of the most important developments into this season after both played a role in falling short of championships between 2022-2023.
Boston’s brass made sure to praise Smart’s contributions after trading him to Memphis this summer, but neither Brad Stevens nor Joe Mazzulla sounded concerned about Smart’s leadership proving irreplaceable. Rather, the trade seemed like as much of a challenge for Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to grasp their vocal roles atop the team as it was cementing the top-end talent on the roster.
It’s possible, as Memphis GM Zach Kleiman articulated at Smart’s introduction, that Smart could’ve gone to the Grizzlies even if the original Malcolm Brogdon construction of the Porziņģis deal went through. Williams said after his trade to Dallas that he could sense from the start Boston would not bring him back this summer. Then, reports pointed toward Brogdon going elsewhere once Smart landed in Memphis. Brogdon stays, for now, as the most vocal among the remaining Celtics.
“It’s just time,” Stevens said on WEEI last week. “It’s time for guys to continue to show the growth that we need to show to get to where we want to go. As part of that, you oftentimes, have to make tough decisions.”
“You’re talking to teams all year,” Stevens continued later. “You’re talking about who you like and who you might be interested in the future. That’s how the trade world works. Then, when those opportunities present themselves, you can move a little bit quicker because you have that background information.”
Stevens stressed the collective leadership on the Celtics could withstand Smart’s loss, saying Brown and Tatum’s voice grew last year, and Al Horford remains as a respected voice that’s louder and more direct than he shows publicly. Stevens didn’t know then how Porziņģis’ personality would play out in the room, but like others joining the team recent years, might arrive best suited to feel out the room and figure out how he can best acclimate to it. Porziņģis, earlier in his career, didn’t hold back speaking his mind playing alongside Mavs star Luka Dončić and brings a fiery personality. Porziņģis said his focus in joining the Celtics was making life easy for the Jays.
Brown set a tone at his extension press conference by emphasizing that the Celtics return to a defensive mindset, something that united Boston’s player leadership as the team reeled late last year. Smart and Williams, however, depart as two of the team’s more versatile and strong defenders. This team enters next year with the personnel to defend at the highest level in a different manner.
That aggressive style and attitude of collective accountability from Ime Udoka’s lone season in Boston became a distant memory quickly. Joe Mazzulla focused more on talking up the team through its rough patches and defending space on the floor. Horford admitted late in the postseason that the team tried to address issues earlier in the playoffs that cost them when they fell behind 0-3 to the Heat. Brogdon agreed. Mazzulla sounded open to reshaping their identity this summer too.
“That was terrible, losing those first two games at home … we addressed a lot of those (issues),” Horford said. “Especially after the Philly series, and even the Atlanta series, we’re like hey, we have to be better, we have to do these things and it’s something that continues to happen. It’s a pattern that happens with us and we’re gonna have to do some soul-searching there, because some things have to change in that regard. We had a great opportunity, and we failed.”
Smart also spoke up during the run, supporting Mazzulla while acknowledging the criticism of him and the learning curve he faced. Williams’ voice diminished as his role did into the spring, accepting the demotion. Tatum stayed as even-keeled as his head coach, noting after difficult losses that their routine would remain the same. The team constantly stressed its ability to go back to the film, regroup and play better in the next game until none remained. While Stevens addressed the Porziņģis trade as creating more balance on the roster between the front and back court, that move couldn’t happen without intentionally changing the team’s internal dynamic.
Tatum showed as much in his reaction to his teammate departing, vowing to reunite and win with him in the future after previously calling him one of his favorite teammates to play with. He agreed with Smart when they rejected the last attempt by the Celtics to alter the team’s leadership dynamic, Udoka naming captains in 2021, while Brown nominated Horford. Tatum grew since then, whether putting more responsibility for losses on his shoulders, showing love to Boston, complaining less often to officials, uplifting teammates and trying to grow his continuity with Brown. Still, he doesn’t see his approach to leading the Celtics changing significantly next year.
“When I need to, I make sure my voice is heard and I do it in my own way,” he told The Messenger this week. “I’m not going to be out there jumping up and down screaming. That’s just not my personality. As much as people want to talk about it and want me to be that, I’m not changing who I am. I lead in my own way. When I talk, everybody in that organization is going to listen. And whatever I say is always for the betterment of the team — and my teammates know that.”
The Celtics will also have to account for losing Griffin after the Boston Globe indicated it’s currently unlikely he returns to Boston, though the door remains open as CLNS Media first reported. Griffin played a key role in helping the team’s more experienced big men rest, and helped Luke Kornet, Payton Pritchard and other reserves deeper on the roster as they navigated early season injuries, inconsistency and reduced roles.
Despite all those contributions, something prevented the roster from meeting its potential for much of the year. The Celtics needed to embrace some change, and while alterations might not always make for the better, we’d never see what Boston looks like without Smart as its spokesman. As Derrick White’s trainer told CLNS Media last month, just because someone does all the talking doesn’t mean other can’t.
The Celtics didn’t trade Smart flippantly. They received significant value and a chance to reorganize the team’s interior dynamic. They did lose something, and how they fill that accountability and leadership gap becomes the biggest question entering camp.
“Any time you lose something, it’s an opportunity for others to grow in other areas,” Mazzulla said. “It’s a good opportunity for our roster, now, to develop that identity and grow as far as communication, but like I said, some of those things he’s able to do, you’re not gonna be able to replace. It’s a matter of, the guys that are on our team, how can we maximize them and get the best out of them?”