The Boston Celtics have lost 14 of their last 22 games and, at 15-17, are under .500 this late in the season for the first time since April of 2015.
But for Celtics fans banking on a big deal turning around the season before it’s too late — aka the March 25 trade deadline — or on big changes coming to team management, disappointment may be on the horizon.
Speaking to 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Felger & Mazz this week, Celtics CEO (and French Lick drummer) Wycliffe “Wyc” Grousbeck threw water on the notion of a major acquisition happening before the deadline, calling it, “something we’ll probably look more to the offseason for.”
And he unequivocally rejected suggestions that head coach Brad Stevens and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge are at risk of losing their jobs.
Which is not to say Grousbeck is happy or content with how the season is going.
“I feel a little frustrated,” Grousbeck said. “We’re not contenders. You can’t say you’re a contender if you’re below .500 a third of the way into the season. And so we’re not.”
Grousbeck, who took control of the team in 2002, disagreed with recent comments by long-time Celtics announcer Mike Gorman, who suggested that selfishness is the root of Boston’s woes. Instead, Grousbeck pointed to a lack of intensity and killer instinct seen from previous teams:
“I see a lot of passing, I see a lot of charges being taken, I see people giving it up for the team. I still see that,” said Grousbeck. “I would say that we look tired or emotionally drained or whatever. Jayson (Tatum) said last week he still feels the effects of COVID. He says he has trouble breathing. And (Marcus) Smart isn’t there. We have not had the kind of Kevin Garnett ‘go rip everybody’s throat out’-intensity. So I don’t feel like that’s selfishness. I feel that’s being exhausted or unable to or not bringing the consistent rabid energy that Is required to win consistently in the NBA.”
Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Cap
On the much-debated topic of the trade deadline, specifically the record $28.5 million traded player exception Boston reaped from Gordon Hayward’s sign-and-trade with Charlotte, Grousbeck strongly suggested it won’t be utilized until after the season.
“Money doesn’t drive our show around here. It’s trying to win. But we are under a cap situation and we’re hard-capped at the moment, literally can’t spend more than X amount,” explained Grousbeck.
That “X” is $138 million luxury tax “apron” (which is $6 million more than the actual tax number) and it went into effect when the Celtics signed Tristan Thompson for the full mid-level exception this offseason. That means that if Boston, whose payroll currently stands at $119 million, exercised the “Hayward” exception this season, they’d only be able to use about $19 million, not the full $28 million.
What’s more, Grousbeck and the Celtics could be wise to keep their payroll from exceeding $132 million tax threshold this season. By avoiding that, their repeater tax clock would reset, thereby helping them avoid hefty tax penalties in the future once Jayson Tatum’s max deal extension kicks in next season.
Given the financial advantages of waiting, Grousbeck said the Celtics would be willing to execute the TPE if “the right deal is there, but otherwise it’s something we’ll probably look more to the offseason for.”
All this talk of restraint would naturally fall to the wayside if the Celtics were playing like legitimate contenders this season. But obviously, they aren’t, and Grousbeck seems ready to sit tight with what they already have.
“I think we’ve got a roster that isn’t a contending roster right now, but it has the makings of something good I hope. And starting at the top of the roster with the best players, they’re keepers and we’re gonna keep them,” said Grousbeck, referring to Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Stevens and Ainge Not Going Anyway
Grousbeck also insisted that Stevens and Ainge are not about to lose their jobs anytime soon.
Stevens is facing a rising tide of criticism for seemingly not bringing enough fire to a team prone to major energy lapses. Critics have specifically pointed to Boston’s second-half collapse versus New Orleans — and, more generally, their poor fourth-quarter play all season — as proof that the 44-year-old Stevens can’t sufficiently motivate his overwhelmingly young team at crucial times.
Ainge is also taking a tremendous amount of heat this season. His hesitance to pull the trigger on a difference-making trade before the deadline is a daily source of vitriol. And he’s been criticized for allowing the departures of veterans Hayward, Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and Terry Rozier, without having much left to show for it.
But Grousbeck isn’t persuaded and believes the regret would be swift if he let either of them go.
“I react by saying that I’m the one that has to make the decision. I’m the one that has to live with the change and say ‘Oh my God, I let somebody go,’” said Grousbeck. “And either one of those guys would be immediately the top candidate in the league for the job. Doesn’t matter who else is out there. So they’re our guys and we’re sticking with them and it’s not even a question in my mind.”