Losing the NBA Finals is a tough pill to swallow. The road is long. Getting there is tiring and exhausting. It’s heart-wrenching to be two wins away from completing history.
But there are some encouraging signs for this young Celtics team. Rather than seeing it as the end, perhaps we should see it as the beginning. I mean, Jayson Tatum is only 24 years old. Jaylen Brown is 25 and Marcus Smart is 28. Robert Williams is also 24 years old.
There are plenty of examples of young cores reaching the Finals but not getting there. Some of them never came back. Some of them made the right moves in the offseason and built championship teams over the next few years. Let’s dig into some of the previous examples to see if the Celtics should be doing what those organizations do (or don’t).
1990-91 chicago bulls
For the past few seasons, the Celtics struggled in the Eastern Conference finals until they broke through and won the championship last season. The Bulls went through the same thing in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The Bulls were eliminated by the Pistons in 1989 and 1990, and finally got through in 1991. That year, the Bulls beat the veteran Lakers to win the championship. Jordan in his sixth season and Scottie Pippen in his third.
The key here is patience. As I mentioned earlier, Tatum is only 24 and Brown is only 25. Jordan won his first championship in his sixth season. Maybe the Celtics are ahead in 2022?
In fact, the Bulls do surround their young superstar with the right pieces. Say what you think about Jerry Krause, but it’s important to compliment Jordan and Pippen’s game around having complementary role players. Dennis Rodman is the mainstay of the defense, and the Celtics seem to have the form of Robert Williams and Marcus Smart — two players the Celtics should be keen to keep.
The final piece of the Bulls puzzle is head coach Phil Jackson, who unraveled something with the Jordan-led Bulls that led to a dynasty. The Celtics appear to have found their man in Ime Udoka, who led the Celtics to the Finals in his first year as head coach. Most importantly, Udoka unlocked something with Tatum’s playmaking, which was solid for most of the year until Game 2 of the Finals. Tatum’s continued improvement in passing will be essential if the Celtics are to come back.
I’m not saying this Celtics team is the next Bulls of the ’90s, but the parallels between the two are staggering. The Celtics have to surround Tatum and Brown with the right players, and they’ve done so so far with the likes of Smart and Williams. With the right moves in free agency this season, the Celtics could be in the playoffs again.
1994-95 Orlando Magic
The Magic pulled off some tricks and won the lottery in 1992 and 1993 in a row. With those picks, they selected star centers Shaquille O’Neal and Chris Webber. However, on draft night in 1993, the Magic traded Webber to the Warriors in exchange for Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway and additional draft picks.
The Magic succeeded in 1995 — all the way to the NBA Finals. They beat the Pacers in seven games in the Eastern Conference finals. For O’Neal and Hardaway, the Magic was the team of the future.
In Game 1 of the 1995 Finals, Orlando’s Nick Anderson was fouled and walked to the free throw line with 10.5 seconds left. Anderson missed both, got his own rebound, got fouled again, and missed two more. Houston’s Kenny Smith would go on to make a tying 3-pointer to force overtime, and Hakeem Olajuwon won the game for Houston with 0.3 seconds left.
It was one of the worst Finals crashes of all time, and the Magic never did. They were beaten by the Rockets in four games. The next season, the Magic returned to the Western Conference finals only to be swept by a Michael Jordan-led Bulls to a 72-win record. O’Neal was out of free agency that offseason, and Hardaway was injured for the next few seasons.
The parallels between the 2022 Celtics and the 1995 Magic are stark. Both have two young emerging superstars. Both seem to be ahead of schedule. However, all the Celtics need to do differently from the Magic is to appease their superstar. O’Neal clearly felt undervalued and disrespected in Orlando, which is why he left free agency. After his rookie contract expires, O’Neal will leave the Magic for the bright lights of Los Angeles. From a front office perspective, keeping Tatum and Brown happy is critical. I think Brad Stevens understands that; he coached them from the start and with these two players created a closer-than-normal executive-player relationship.
It seems like Tatum and Brown want to be in Boston, they want to play with each other. Both know the game very well, and all Celtics fans can do is hope that there will be mutual trust between the front office and the two players for years to come.
2011-12 Oklahoma City Thunder
After beating the Spurs in the Western Conference finals, the Thunder appear poised to be the next juggernaut in the Western Conference. As we all know, the Thunder have Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Also, none of them reached their prime, and none of them played the best basketball of their careers.
The Thunder even beat the Heat in Game 1 of the series. Oklahoma City’s defining moment is getting closer. But the celebrations and hype stopped there, as James led the Heat to win the next four games and an NBA championship in the process.
In the offseason, Harden was traded to the Rockets. Durant was injured during the 2014-15 season. Westbrook played 46 games in the 2013-14 season. But the Thunder came back healthy and led the Warriors 3-1 in the 2016 Western Conference Finals. We all know how that ended. Durant left and joined the Warriors in the most amazing, shocking free-agent transfer of all time. Westbrook was traded to the Rockets in 2018.
Here’s the thing: The Thunder got cheap. By not paying Harden, the Thunder actually willingly dismantled their Big Three. The lesson here is simple. The Celtics have to be willing to pay a high price and pay a high price for top talent. Now that the Celtics have demonstrated their talent and ability to enter basketball’s biggest stage, owner Wyc Grousbeck recently said Stevens & co. could spend.
If the Thunder decide to pay Harden, we could see at least one championship, if not more, in Oklahoma City. The Celtics should use the Thunder’s turnover as the best example of what not to do.
2014-15 Golden State Warriors
The Warriors advanced to the Finals by knocking out the Houston Rockets in the conference finals. The Golden State Warriors are led by the trio that currently leads them to the 2022 championship. Stephen Curry is in his fifth season. Klay Thompson is entering his third season, while Draymond Green is only in his second.
The Warriors took six games to beat the injury-riddled Cavaliers, who lost Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to injuries.
Next year, when James leads the Cavaliers to their first championship, the Warriors are the first team to go 3-1. After acquiring Durant that offseason, the Warriors won in 2017 and 2018. They reached the Finals in 2019, but injuries to Durant and Thompson spelled the end of Durant’s Golden State career.
Now, the Warriors dominate again after beating the Celtics in 2022. However, the Celtics and Warriors are similar in that both are homegrown. Curry, Thompson and Green — all drafted by the Warriors. Tatum, Brown and Smart — all drafted by the Celtics. All six of those picks were selected by their respective teams.
Now, unlike the Thunder, the Warriors pay their draft picks big bucks, making them the highest salary in the league. Warriors traded Andrew Wiggins to make more than $30 million in 2022. Unlike the Thunder in 2012, the Warriors know what it takes to win a championship. Tournaments cost money. If the Celtics are going to win a game, they have to be willing to do what the Warriors do.
2021-22 Boston Celtics
Unless something crazy happens, Boston doesn’t appear to be getting any big-name talent through free agency or the draft. However, the Celtics need to find some role players who can add to the bench from jumpers. Stevens has two things to deal with: a $17.1 million TPE signed from Evan Fournier and a $6.4 million mid-level exception.
If the Celtics are to get back on track and hopefully build a dynasty, they will have to follow in the footsteps of the Warriors and Bulls while avoiding the mistakes of the Magic and Thunder.
Only time will tell if the Celtics will learn from the Finals loss or will never be the same team that gets to this point.