The Boston Celtics entered the 2023 NBA playoffs as the No. 2 seed in the East, exactly where they finished one season ago before making a run to the NBA Finals. The 2021-22 Celtics were a .500 team for 50 games before turning things on, while the 2022-23 Celtics were more of a finished product.
There was some turmoil in the offseason with head coach Ime Udoka being suspended and ultimately let go in favor fo Joe Mazzulla, who quickly had the interim tag removed to become the head coach. All this drama ultimately didn’t phase the Celtics, who went 22-8 in their first 30 games. A few weeks later, they started what would be a nine-game winning streak to sit at 35-12 in late January. They would eventually finish 57-25.
Jayson Tatum was the star for this team, averaging 30.1 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. Teammate Jaylen Brown wasn’t too far behind, posting 26.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game to be an excellent No. 2 option. Boston’s role players were clicking as well, but there were some underlying concerns.
The Celtics were sloppy late in games, often giving away contests to teams they should’ve beaten. Boston lost nine games by one possession, including a few late in the regular season which could’ve shifted the standings. The Celtics were also over-reliant on the three-point shot. When they shot 40% or better, they were essentially unbeaten. When they didn’t, they were .500.
These problems started to show themselves in the playoffs right away. The Celtics went up 3-1 on the Hawks and were ahead in the fourth quarter in Game 5, but failed to close out Atlanta. That led to Game 6, which the Celtics also nearly gave away before ultimately winning. Boston then took on a 76ers team with championship expectations of its own, and went down 3-2 in that series. It took two brilliant games, one from Tatum specifically, to overcome Philadelphia. It felt like the Celtics had turned a corner after Game 7.
Boston promptly dropped three games to the Heat in the conference finals rematch, but then masterfully came back to force a Game 7. In that decisive game, which was at home, Boston faltered from behind the arc and couldn’t keep the turnovers down. It was a 103-84 loss and the end of a season many expected would finish with a title parade.
The Celtics now enter the offseason with two massive questions, and how they address both will shape the organization’s trajectory for years to come.
Question 1: What should team do with Jaylen Brown?
Brown is eligible for an extension, which could be as high as $295 million over five years. The forward didn’t have terrible numbers on the surface in the conference finals with 19.0 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game. However, he shot just 16.3% from deep over the entire series and had three games where he shot below 40% from the floor. This included Game 7, where Brown went 8-23 overall and 1-9 from deep. He also committed eight turnovers and five personal fouls.
To put the loss on Brown alone would be irresponsible. The Celtics went 9-42 from three-point land as a team, and shot 39% from the floor as a team. You’re not winning games with those marks. However, Brown’s contract and subsequent extension will be the main focus of this summer.
The Celtics should not try to break up the Tatum-Brown duo. Getting one star is hard enough, and getting two requires tremendous effort. Getting two stars who are on the same timeline and have been with each other since they entered the league is almost unheard of. There have been some rough moments and questions about the fit, but the results speak for themselves. Since becoming teammates, Tatum and Brown have led the Celtics to four Eastern Conference Finals and one NBA Finals. They are still only 25 and 26, respectively. This is not the time to detonate the core.
The contract talks are another matter entirely. Brown likely believes he’s a superstar worthy of the full max, while the Celtics should have some hesitation to commit that kind of money to him. Boston is already committed to its seven key rotation guys, with Grant Williams entering restricted free agency while Danilo Gallinari holds a player option he’ll likely accept. Payton Pritchard and Mike Muscala have team options.
Letting Brown play out the season on an expiring deal is a dangerous game for the Celtics. There’s a chance he elevates his play to another level and then bounces in free agency, especially if he feels the Celtics didn’t believe in him. There was already some mixed feelings heading into this season with the Kevin Durant trade rumors involving Brown, and denying him a big contract wouldn’t help. Trading Brown is unlikely to move the needle that much for Boston, other than potentially bringing in an additional rotation body. That would also mean Boston puts all its eggs in the Tatum basket, and his play wasn’t exactly consistent in the playoffs either.
It’s highly likely Brown will start the 2023-24 season in Boston. That leads to the second question.
Question 2: What should team do with Joe Mazzulla?
Mazzulla is 34 years old, which makes him the youngest coach in the NBA. He was an assistant with the Celtics since 2019, so he has played a part in the growth of this team. The players appear to like him, and he should in theory connect better with them due to the proximity in age. His answers in the media aren’t exactly great, but that’s not really a key part of the job.
The in-game coaching leaves a lot to be desired. Mazzulla struggles to manage the games, often waiting too long during cold stretches to call timeouts and reset. He isn’t much of a play designer, and Boston’s offense can look disjointed if the three-point shot isn’t falling. The Heat stymied the Celtics with their zone defense, and Mazzulla found no adjustment. That’s a bad sign, especially for a coach who has familiarity with the roster.
If the Celtics did decide the make a change, they would be slightly late to the party when it comes to coaching candidates. Nick Nurse is in Philadelphia and Adrian Griffin is in Milwaukee. Monty Williams and Mike Budenholzer are available, but the Celtics would be competing with the Suns, Raptors and Pistons for those guys. The Doc Rivers ship left the harbor a long time ago, so he’s not coming back.
Mazzulla was able to steer the Celtics to the conference finals, which was likely the minimum expectation for this group. It is questionable how much of an impact he actually had in that run, but it’s hard to get rid of a first-time coach who meets expectations. Boston also likely would want Mazzulla on the staff to continue grooming him, but that’s hard to do when he’s seeing someone else hold his previous position.
The most likely outcome would be one where Mazzulla continues to learn on the job. Maybe the Celtics push him to add an experienced assistant to be the associate head coach. If Boston does want to make a change to the team environment in response to this season, the head coaching spot is the place to do it.