Celtics governor Wyc Grousbeck gave the Boston Globe a surprising answer to a question about the team’s playoff run and upcoming season that could’ve easily been met with boilerplate optimism. The national consensus has risen on the Celtics’ championship hopes after they reached the NBA Finals and added to the roster without taking away from it this offseason.
Grousbeck, however, gave a more measured look at the team’s standing in a powerful Eastern Conference, saying that the Celtics aren’t a clear favorite as they’ve been presented in betting odds entering the season. The comment follows others by players about difficult lessons learned from the run, as well as reminders from Ime Udoka and Al Horford shortly after the Finals concluded.
“I loved being right there with them. It was thrilling. The other side of the coin is I think that we’ve now been overrated,” Grousbeck said to the Globe’s Adam Himmselbach. “I think that performance was a bit overrated in the public mind, or my own mind, because I’m the one saying it. [We were] a finalist and two wins away from winning it, but when you look back, Brooklyn was a tough series, and then we had to go seven games [against the Bucks and Heat]. Then we lost [to Golden State]. So, we’re not a hands-down team to repeat as Eastern Conference champions. I think we’re a quality team.”
The comments undoubtedly ring true. Boston’s sweep of Brooklyn was by an average margin of victory of 4.5 points per game, including a buzzer beater to win Game 1 by one point, a 17-point comeback in Game 2 and late Nets comeback to close the gap in Game 3. The Celtics trailed 3-2 against the Bucks after blowing Game 5 on a Bobby Portis offensive rebound following Giannis Antetokounmpo’s free throw miss. A letdown defeat against the Heat in Game 6 sent the series back to Miami for a Game 7, where Jimmy Butler missed a game-winning three pointer to cap an 11-0 last-second run. There’s no doubt the Warriors had an upper hand after Game 3 of the Finals, tearing through the Celtics with three straight dominant halves to close the series.
Boston plays nearly half of its games on national TV this season, and with Jayson Tatum gaining MVP momentum late last year and Jaylen Brown spending the offseason in trade reports after a strong Finals performance, Grousbeck turned some motivation back toward the court. Though he said his comments reflect genuine assessment of the east rather than any desire to push the locker room. Grousbeck saw the weight of the 2018 east finals run on the 2018-19 group running it back as undisputed favorites to lose in round two.
“I am [trying to tamp down expectations], but I’m not trying to do that in some manipulative way. It’s how I feel,” Grousbeck said. “Look, I wouldn’t pick anybody ahead of us. But I don’t think we’ve got any smooth sailing ahead. We were a good team last year that won some key close games and were in the mix. But I don’t have us as the favorites. There are five or six co-favorites, as far as I’m concerned.”
Those likely include the Celtics, 76ers, Bucks, Heat, then some combination of the Nets, Raptors and ascendent Cavaliers, who just acquired Donovan Mitchell. Kevin Durant returned to Brooklyn after demanding a trade to begin July. Philadelphia hardened its depth. Miami lost P.J. Tucker, but returns its core that claimed the east’s top seed. As you’ve heard, Khris Middleton didn’t play in the second-round series between the Celtics and Bucks and will return to Milwaukee alongside Joe Ingles at some point, who’s recovering from an ACL tear.
Grousbeck acknowledged the addition of Malcolm Brogdon and loss of Danilo Gallinari to ACL surgery, rightfully patting himself on the back for spending deep into the luxury tax after receiving doubts from numerous outlets including this one. He confirmed Brad Stevens has the green light to do whatever it takes to win, which could include adding to the team’s salary base that’ll already top $200 million combined with over $40 million in luxury tax payments due.
Boston currently sits on the edge of the next tier of the tax that would bump the bill by $3.75 for every dollar spent. That means a veteran minimum salary of $2.9 million would add roughly $10 million in tax. Utilizing the trade exceptions would accumulate significantly more.
Stevens and Grousbeck’s acknowledgement of a green light indicates the a lack of moves to replace Gallinari or pad front court depth have more to do with patience more than finances. Jake Layman and five other players will tryout for roster spots in training camp, additional cuts by other rosters loom once the regular season begins and trade costs may change as the season progresses. As Grousbeck said to begin the summer — it’s go time.
“People can write or think whatever they want,” Grousbeck said. Or, you can actually look at what we do, which is do whatever we possibly can to win a championship. And we’re in the mode right now of completely adding on. Are you going to trade future draft picks and young players under 30? Hopefully not. But money is not a consideration whatsoever, and this roster shows that.”
The interview concluded with Grousbeck previewing an assessment period early this season where the Celtics will see what they have. They have avenues to improve, whether through the TPEs or a variety of salaries on the roster. Stevens’ priority has been not drastically transforming the core of the group that made that run one year ago. Like many reports leading up to training camp, Grousbeck articulated that they’re satisfied with the team.
That makes sense. If Williams III never got injured, there’s a world where the Celtics cruise to a championship. The best version of this roster, athletic, young and versatile, won 22-of-25 through February into March and looked a cut above the competition, including Golden State even considering Steph Curry’s early injury.
Moving further down the depth chart allowed the Warriors to separate from Boston months later though, and while Golden State lost Gary Payton II and Otto Porter Jr., most of the team’s championship core returns and should solidify the Warriors at least as favorites over the Celtics. East competition looms too, along with internal challenges on offense that Udoka always prioritized addressing before worrying about opponents.
“Listen, I want to take this team all the way. I want to go all the way, and we’re going to be watching every game like a hawk,” Grousbeck said. “If there’s any way to improve the team along the way, I’m sure we’ll do it. But I really like the roster right now, and I like our chances to make some noise.”