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Exit Interview: Boston Celtics

Without its two stars, Boston went further than anyone could have imagined. So what could the team change this offseason?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When general manager Danny Ainge traded for Kyrie Irving, drafted Jayson Tatum, and recruited Gordon Hayward, he (very likely) envisioned a team that would make the Eastern Conference finals. Just not this team. Led by Terry Rozier, enforced by Marcus Smart, carried by Jaylen Brown, and flourished by Tatum, the only C in his expected place was Al Horford. Aron Baynes took 3s. Rozier tried to son LeBron. Rozier thought he had LeBron. Rozier learned. Rozier really learned.

It took a couple of damning injuries to deflate such a carefully curated roster into one with underdog status. But Brad Stevens could turn hot dogs into charcuterie, and although expectations dropped like Celtics, the preseason predictions held. Many saw Boston in the Eastern Conference finals. If anyone saw Boston getting there without its two best players, or with a rookie leading its postseason scoring, with Semi Ojeleye serving as Tyronn Lue’s Game 5 checkmate, then @ me. I’d love a ghostwriter.

Boston made its second straight trip to the conference finals, but couldn’t overcome the King, losing in Game 7, 87-79. Here are three questions heading into Ainge’s favorite of the four seasons, the offseason:

What Changes?

The confused SpongeBob meme’s time on the internet has come and gone (RIP), but if there was ever an occasion it called for, it was the timeouts during Cavaliers-Celtics. The broadcast had its “Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals” graphic stamped onto the screen, and whenever it crossed with Hayward in a suit jacket, it felt like 2K crossed with the Twilight Zone. (Irving, interestingly enough, was not on the bench.)

The identity Boston took on in the playoffs has no shelf life. Rozier isn’t a starter—in green and white, anyway—once Irving is healthy. Hayward signed a max contract last summer. Irving and Hayward will slot right back into starting roles, but still, unexpected success can complicate hierarchies. Tatum finished the postseason a rookie ahead of his time and finished ahead of his class, outlasting Rookie of the Year candidates Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell. Stevens now has to figure out how not only to best incorporate Tatum and Brown around Hayward, he has to also figure out how to not stunt their growth. It’s a good problem to have, especially when your coach is an iconoclast with a clipboard. (Though giving Greg “Lol Just Got Outrebounded By Jordan Clarkson Again” Monroe minutes in Game 6 might be the wrong kind of innovation.) As for the other breakouts …

Does Boston Keep Smart?

Smart is the longest-tenured Celtic on the roster, and he’s only 24 years old. He’s one of the most capable defenders in the league, a skill that’s served as a through line as Boston morphed backcourts. Smart will become a restricted free agent this summer, and his case is interesting by default. Boston is all but capped out, but can match any offer sheet that comes. Many franchises around the league are still gun-shy on spending after a flood of rich contracts in 2016. For as valuable as Smart’s defense is, the market for a horrific shooter is [ghost of Tony Allen descends] at an all-time low. He fits best in a system like Stevens’s and is beloved by the city. Though ask Isaiah Thomas—that matters none to Ainge.

Apparently, the sentiment means just as little to him. In a recent interview with The Hoop Collective podcast, ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan said she didn’t believe Smart would take a discount to stay, even if it meant leaving for a team that isn’t in contention. MacMullan said that she asked “lots of people around the Celtics and around the league” and “every one of them said, ‘Hell no, he’s going for the money.’”

And the Other Backup Point Guard?

Thanks to this postseason, Rozier made a little change off Scary Terry shirts. And also thanks to this postseason, he will be making a lot more money in 2019, when he becomes a restricted free agent. The Boston front office has options: It can offer 24-year-old Rozier an extension, hold off a year, or sell high.

After Rozier’s breakout, a backcourt of him, Irving, and Smart would get crowded. Rozier has never been an easier sell, especially for a GM hungry for draft picks. But the old joke (is it really a joke?) is that Ainge won’t trade him. “Nah, Danny won’t trade me” Rozier said in 2017 after it was reported that he was a dealbreaker in getting Serge Ibaka—although if the Celtics were just waiting for him to materialize into a more valuable trade asset, it was worth the wait.