Celtics President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens sat down with WEEI’s Adam Jones and Meghan Ottolini Tuesday afternoon as part of the WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund radio telethon to raise money for cancer research and care. During his appearance, Stevens spoke on a variety of subjects leading into the 2023-24 NBA season.
Among the noteworthy topics, Stevens touched on the championship-chasing mindset from an executive’s perspective, the opportunities for leadership growth within the locker room this coming season, and Kristaps Porzingis’ health heading into training camp.
The Celtics have been knocking on the championship door for several seasons now, and while there has been some level of frustration in coming up short, each journey has provided insight on how to improve and take a step closer to their ultimate goal.
At the end of the day, knocking on the door of winning a title is a far better position to be in than down the hall and around the corner, which Stevens recognizes as he takes a step back and sees how far the organization has come since he first joined the team as its head coach 10 summers ago.
“I always try to keep in perspective that when you’re playing late it’s not all bad,” Stevens said “You know, the first year I got here we had traded (Paul) Pierce and (Kevin) Garnett. We won 25 games and we lost 57. Fifty-seven losses in one year when you’re a coach or a player is hell. I think I’ve gotten a better perspective after the come-close years. But it’s still, when you’re knocking on that door, is get through it and make sure you’re doing everything you can to put yourself in a position to do that.”
In order to get through the proverbial door, difficult decisions have to be made. Some of those tough choices have included the tradings of the ultimate teammate in Kemba Walker, and most recently, the quintessential Celtic in Marcus Smart.
It’s not an easy business, but each decision Stevens makes is with the next banner in mind. Those decisions have led to the construction of a championship-level team on paper.
Now it’s up to the names on that paper to get the job done.
“The trades and the transactions and all those things are hard because those are emotional moments with people that you know and that you’ve spent a lot of time with and that you’re really fond of,” said Stevens. “But ultimately our job is to chase banners and that’s what we’re trying to do.
"We think this team will be in the mix again. But being in the mix is only part of it. You’ve got to be able to play your best when your best is needed. I think we had a couple of bad weeks last year and the worst one was in May (leading to a 0-3 start to the Eastern Conference Finals against Miami). We just can’t let that happen if we’re gonna be what we want to be.”
In order to get to where they want to be, the Celtics will need certain players to step up in the leadership department to help fill the void left by Smart’s departure. Stevens is counting on his stars – Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum – to be among the team's standout vocal leaders this coming season.
“I think our locker room – we’ve been chock-full of a lot of quality people for a long time, and that (trade of Smart) gives other people a voice,” Stevens said. “It gives other people a voice to step into and step up to. Very obviously, we need Jayson and Jaylen to grow in that area, and we think they’re among the best that can be, so we need them to step up to that. But other people will have an opportunity to do so too. Anytime you’ve had someone that’s played such a big role and has such a big personality (such as Smart), then there are opportunities for others to step into that.”
Another player who will have an opportunity to step into a leadership role is the All-Star caliber player that Boston received in exchange for Smart. Kristaps Porzingis is champing at the bit to finally experience a deep postseason run and is hoping to build off what was the best season of his career in 2022-23.
“Kristaps seems to be in a really good place,” Stevens said. “He’s focused on what matters. He’s coming here to do his part to help us win and that’s what’s was very clear in communicating with him when he came for his (introductory) press conference.”
The 28-year-old big man is currently dealing with one minor obstacle, as he's recovering from plantar fasciitis in his right foot. Stevens and the team's medical staff, however, are optimistic that it shouldn’t be much of a setback at all by the time training camp rolls around.
Porzingis is currently rehabbing with the Latvian national team while cheering on his fellow countrymen in the FIBA World Cup. Although he’s disappointed that he can’t participate in the tournament, Stevens says the big man understands the importance of being ready for the start of the season, for which he is on track.
“He really tried to ramp up and play and (was) just determined, ‘I don’t want to deal with lingering effects down the road,’” relayed Stevens, who recalled dealing with a brief bout with plantar fasciitis during his college playing days. “This is something we should be able to navigate and manage within the next few weeks and be ready for Training Camp. So we’re planning on having him Day 1 of Training Camp.
"He really wanted to try to ramp up because it really mattered to be there. Like, I don’t know if you saw the clip of him the other day when Latvia won and he’s kind of behind the bench. They beat France – it was a huge win, probably the biggest win they’ve had in a while – and just the genuine joy and emotion, like those guys that represent their countries, they really enjoy that opportunity so he was heartbroken not to do it. But he saw the opportunity here and took away any chance of having lingering effects by addressing it now, and it shouldn’t be a big deal.”
The Celtics are just one month away from putting their offseason preparations to the test with Training Camp set to begin the first week of October. They’ll look to the Jays to lead the charge, they’ll implement Porzingis’ elite frontcourt presence into their system, and hopefully all of the team’s decisions and sacrifices will lead them past the knocking stage and straight through that championship door.