It was the summer of 2018, just shortly after the Celtics had been eliminated by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in seven games of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Boston was coming off a season where they had drafted a 19-year-old Jayson Tatum, signed free agent All-Star Gordon Hayward (four-year, 128 million max deal) and traded MVP candidate Isaiah Thomas for Kyrie Irving -- to go into the training camp with a mentality of championship or bust.
But just five minutes into the 2017-18 campaign, Hayward suffered a gruesome leg injury that would sideline him for the rest of the season. Despite the major blow, the Celtics still kept afloat and were among East favorites until a week before the start of the playoffs when Irving would need knee surgery and sit out the postseason.
Still, in a year that showed so much promise while having to overcome adversity, the future looked bright once that Celtics roster recovered health wise to start the next season, right?
Fast forward to the start of 2018-19, another year of championship aspirations and the second best odds to hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy only behind the reigning kings of the hill in the Golden State Warriors, a healthy Celtics team failed to live up to expectations.
While, Boston finished with a 49-33 record (fourth in the East), it was a disappointing season throughout that ended with a second-round exit to the Milwaukee Bucks in five games. Irving and Al Horford walked in free agency with questions left unanswered -- especially when the team looked like they were on the right track the summer prior.
In a recent interview, Hayward was asked what went wrong with that infamous 2018-19 Celtics roster that was more than deep enough with talent to win but didn't. According to the veteran forward, his former teammates had one too many plans that took away from the focus of the team's main goal of playing for a championship.
"In my eyes, it was just, we all had too many agendas, and the agenda to win the whole thing was not the main one," Hayward said on the latest episode of Podcast P with Paul George. "Not to blame anyone either because I think it was all human nature."I'm coming back from where the last season that I played I was an All-Star, so I'm trying to prove that I'm still an All-Star. Kyrie was hurt the year before too, and had to miss the playoffs. So he's trying to prove this is still his team. And then you've got JT and Jaylen and Terry who are coming off where they're all starting and make it to the Eastern Conference Finals the year before, they're all trying to prove like -- we've arrived."
Four years later, this current Celtics roster where only Tatum and Brown remain from what many consider one of the most disastrous seasons in recent memory -- this version is the complete opposite 32 games into the 2023-24 campaign.
At 26-6, this Celtics team is riding a six-game win streak (11 of their last 12) and just concluded the 2023 calendar year with a 12-2 record for the month of December.
"2018-2019 was a long time ago, believe it or not, it seems like yesterday. But I mean it blew up. We had guys leave and so on, and we didn't take it all the way. So I can't disagree with him [Hayward]," C's owner Wyc Grousbeck said Tuesday morning on WEEI's The Greg Hill Show when asked about Hayward's comments. "But today, I do feel like this team is connected. Like my old sport years ago, which was rowing, everybody is in the same group going in the right direction."
With the additions of Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday in the offseason to pair with Tatum, Brown, Horford, and Derrick White -- it has given Boston arguably the best top six in the NBA, with potentially three or four of them considered All-Star level players.
Unlike the 2018-19 team, these Celtics are playing without any personal agendas so far in their way, except raising that elusive 18th franchise championship banner as their only plan.
So what has been the difference now for everyone to buy into the one team philosophy of playing for a championship as the common goal, something that wasn't the case four years ago? If you ask Grousbeck, it starts and ends with the leadership of Tatum and Brown when it comes to driving the point of winning above everything -- while sacrificing for the greater good of the team.
"I'd like to answer by saying it's everybody because it really is. That would be an easy way out of the question," said Grousbeck when asked about team chemistry. "But the first names that came to mind when you asked what's leading it or driving it, I really did think of Jaylen [Brown] and Jayson [Tatum]. I mean, look at Jaylen, in the offseason he signed a big contract, to say the least. That's a lot of pressure. It's a great situation for someone to be in, but it’s also, he's come back and he's playing hands down the best basketball of his life and he was already an All-Star.""He wants to win. He knows the goal, he buys in completely to the goal," Grousbeck added. "He and Jayson are leading this team to cohesive, highly rated offense, highly rated defense, very connected. I put it first and foremost with Jayson and Jaylen that they both stepped up and said they are willing to do what's necessary to keep piling up the wins."
It was Tatum and Brown who were the youngsters on those Celtics teams that saw some success early on in their careers, but now they have become the longest tenured members of this current version of a team looking to win a title for the first time since Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen did for the city of Boston in 2008.
Despite the great start and the "A" Grousbeck has given this current Celtics team thus far, "these next couple of months will say a lot," as he and the rest of the basketball world will be watching to see if the commitment to winning continues and it results in the franchise's first NBA title in 16 years.
Photo used courtesy of The Boston Globe
Photo used courtesy of The Boston Globe