Would an NBA Finals return have changed Boston Celtics offseason plans?

The Boston Celtics five game win streak was snapped on Friday night in a loss to the Miami Heat and the Houdini has your 1 Cs stud and 1 Cs dud (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
The Boston Celtics five game win streak was snapped on Friday night in a loss to the Miami Heat and the Houdini has your 1 Cs stud and 1 Cs dud (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images) /

Note that the question is not, “Would winning the title have changed the Boston Celtics offseason plans?” Because if they did, this conversation wouldn’t be had. Teams coming off a title run don’t typically mess with what’s worked unless they have the opportunity for a crystal clear talent upgrade.

But for teams that make the NBA Finals? That’s a different story. Take the Celtics from last year. After making their first Finals appearance in 12 years, the Celtics struck while the iron was hot when they added Malcolm Brogdon and Danilo Gallinari. The best part was that those two were added to the team with no strings attached outside of their tendency to get hurt. Their moves then were a stark contrast from what they did this summer.

The Celtics made a rather unforeseen and drastic alteration to their roster when they traded Marcus Smart, among others, for Kristaps Porzingis. A trade that could very well get them over the hump, knowing how talented Porzingis is when he’s on the floor, but it could also be their final undoing in the Jays era, knowing how many holes Smart filled and how injury-prone Porzingis is. While that deal in and of itself has already been discussed to death this offseason, there’s one question that hasn’t been asked: Would the Celtics have made that move if they had made it back to the NBA Finals?

The 2023 Eastern Conference Finals, as a whole, truly demonstrate how gray these scenarios can be. If the Heat had swept the Celtics, the Porzingis-Smart trade may have been a little more initially palatable for Boston Celtics fans because it would have signaled from Boston’s end that they knew that something had to change following such humiliation. As we all know, that’s not what happened. The Celtics were on the very precipice of making history when they almost completed the never-done-before 3-0 comeback and may have pulled it off had it not been for Tatum’s ankle injury (Sidenote: Losing Game 7 can fairly be attributed to Tatum playing hurt but not losing the series as a whole).

If the Celtics had beaten the Heat again, it would have been the second consecutive time they beat their Eastern Conference foe. While that would have shown that they have truly made progress, one also has to consider that the Nuggets could have potentially humiliated them in a similar fashion that the Heat did in the Finals.

If that was the case, maybe the Boston Celtics would have made the Porzingis trade anyway, but that is all hypothetical and nothing more.

More context would show that a change may have been needed whether the Boston Celtics made the finals or not

Snapping back to reality, we have to think of the gravity of the Celtics’ performances in the Jays era. Making the NBA Finals is all well and good because teams don’t get those opportunities year in and year out. How they get there is another story. In the Celtics’ case, it’s not so black and white. Making the Eastern Conference Finals in four of the last six years shows that they deserve to be put in the contender conversation, but only making it to the finals once in that time can make such a milestone look more hollow with each passing year.

Of course, context needs to be added to every playoff run since the era started. In 2018, the Celtics exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations when they came within one win of the NBA Finals without Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving. In 2020, the Celtics were a top-heavy team with not much depth, and two of their best four players playing hurt. In 2023, Tatum got hurt in the most pivotal game of the season and the rest was history. In those cases, the Celtics deserved some benefit of the doubt for why they couldn’t quite get past the ECF.

But there’s even more context to the last few playoff runs that should not be overlooked. In the last two years, the Celtics narrowly avoided disaster in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Bucks and Sixers, respectively. While it’s true that the Celtics sent both teams home packing in series-clinching blowouts, both times, they had to come back from being down 3-2, and both series came down to Jayson Tatum coming through when the Celtics needed him to most.

It’s all well and good that the Celtics have triumphed in the wake of adversity, but one could make the case that a lot of that adversity was self-inflicted. The Bucks were missing Khris Middleton in 2022, and Joel Embiid was playing hurt for the Sixers in 2023.

And yet, the Boston Celtics had to go the whole 12 rounds to take both of them out of the picture. Worse yet, multiple times, the Celtics lost pivotal games on multiple boneheaded crunchtime occurrences.

While the Boston Celtics came up victorious in the end, they didn’t make it look easy when one could argue that they should have, knowing the advantages they had going in. Then they followed that up with two grueling series against Miami, both of which lasted seven games. The Celtics had to be aware that they had played with fire and managed to get away unscathed. At the same time, they got out of there primarily because Tatum put the team on his shoulders. That’s what elite players do, but Boston should not have had to lean on him as much as they have for two consecutive playoff runs. Hence, the Porzingis trade.

Will he fix their issues? We’ll only know when the Boston Celtics cross that bridge. On the flip side, maybe the Celtics would have kept things the way they are, regardless of making the finals or not, had they not known Porzingis and the Wizards were on the outs. This was a rare opportunity to get a unique talent like the Unicorn, who not only came off one of his most efficient seasons as a pro but definitely let the Cs know what’s what when they last played against him in Washington.

And remember that the original trade was supposed to involve Malcolm Brogdon instead of Marcus Smart, as reported by Shams Charania. At that time, Boston Celtics fans would not have been nearly as heartbroken about losing Brogdon as they didn’t have the same attachment to him as they did to Smart. The point remains that they acquired prime Kristaps Porzingis while not having to send much out to get him in their hopes of securing Banner 18.

Making the NBA Finals is a huge deal. Especially if it’s the second consecutive time a team has made it there. Maybe doing so would have convinced the Celtics that they didn’t have much to worry about in the East and kept things as they were. But these last two years have shown that the Celtics are culpable of letting their opponents get the upper hand when they shouldn’t have. The ride’s been fruitful but strenuous at the same time.

Brad Stevens thought exchanging Smart for Porzingis could mitigate that problem. While they may have a different toilet entering the 2023-24 season, they’re hoping to avoid the same crap in the playoffs.