Is There a Culture Problem in Boston?


With the departure of Gordon Hayward, the Boston Celtics have now seen three of their top players leave in free agency the last two offseasons. Normally, when teams lose their best players in free agency it says more about the team than the player. Is this the case in Boston, or is there another way to explain this?

Kyrie Leaves to Team Up With KD in Brooklyn

Irving’s time in Boston started off about as well as anyone could’ve expected. After the devastating injury to Hayward on opening night, the Celtics went on a 16-game winning streak. Kyrie was brilliant, averaging 24.4 points and 5.1 assists per game on 49.1 percent shooting from the field.

A knee injury, however, ended his season prematurely. This gave young players, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier a chance to show what they were capable of. They were able to lead the Celtics to a game seven of the Eastern Conference Finals, a game where Kyrie was absent from even being on the bench to support the team.

This led to the Celtics having championship-or-bust aspirations for the 2018-19 season. One where Kyrie would have to be the leader, a position he had never been put in before.

Then came a moment that most Celtics fans have tried to remove from their memory. During a season-ticket holder event, Irving told the fans that “If you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing here next summer.”

The season didn’t start off as planned however, as the Celtics struggled early. Irving was dealing with off-the-court personal issues such as the death of his grandfather. Pair that with the task of leading a young team with championship aspirations and it is a tough position to be in for someone who hasn’t had to be the voice in the locker room before.

However, the events were enough to walk back his commitment to the Celtics in an interview before a game against the New York Knicks. This interview happened just a few days after it was rumored that Kyrie was planning on leaving for the Knicks in free agency.

The Celtics saw their season end in the second round after falling to the Milwaukee Bucks in five games. Irving seemed destined to leave Boston at that point.

That summer, he signed a four-year, $141 million deal with his friend Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets.

Al Horford Bolts For Philly

Al Horford declined his $30.1 million player option following the 2018-19 season. The thought was that he was going to remain in Boston, and sign a team-friendly, long-term deal.

Obviously things didn’t go as planned, as he signed a four-year, $109 million deal with the rival Philadelphia 76ers. This was seen as an enormous blow for the Celtics. Not only did they lose their all-star big man, but he went to their biggest rival as well.

One interesting thing to note is that Horford said things “would have been totally different” if he knew that the Celtics were landing Kemba Walker in free agency.

Leaving for Philly made sense for Horford at the time. He was 33 years old and got offered a substantial amount of money to play on a team that was thought to be a title contender.

The Celtics were looking at a roster that was going to be built around the young duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Both of those guys were coming off down seasons, while numerous other key players were leaving in free agency.

Gordon Hayward Joins Charlotte (Again)

The Hayward era didn’t work out how either the Celtics or Hayward envisioned. It wasn’t Hayward’s fault that he shattered his ankle five minutes into his Celtic career. Injuries happen, and unfortunately they stopped him from ever having a chance to live up to his contract.

Hayward opted out of his $34.1 million player option for the 2020-21 season, in seek of a long-term deal. Him opting out signified that there was some substantial interest on the open market. A player with his injury history doesn’t opt out of $34 million unless there is a big-money, long-term deal being offered.

It was rumored that the Indiana Pacers were his target destination, but to the surprise of many, Hayward signed with the Charlotte Hornets. A four-year, $120 million deal shocked the NBA world.

Money is the obvious factor on why he left Boston. However, there are some interesting quotes from Hayward about why he chose Charlotte.

Michael Jordan tried to sign Hayward back when he was a restricted free agent with the Utah Jazz. That stuck with Hayward, and Jordan has a powerful presence when it comes to players looking up to him.

The second reason is that he wanted a bigger role. Due to his injuries, he fell back in the pecking order. The ascension of Tatum and Brown made Hayward a secondary option on offense, whereas in Charlotte, he will be one of the focal points in their offense.

Tatum and Brown Sign Extensions in Boston

Jaylen Brown signed a four-year, $115 million contract extension prior to the 2019-2020 season. He became the first Celtics player to sign a rookie-scale contract extension since Rajon Rondo in 2009.

Brown was coming off a frustrating season that saw him get moved to the bench. He was also vocal in the locker room about guys pointing fingers at each other.

Danny Ainge believed in Jaylen enough to give him a deal that many criticized. Brown has held up his end of the bargain so far, as he averaged a career-high 20.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game this past season.

Jayson Tatum also signed a contract extension with the Celtics. He agreed to a five-year, max extension worth up to $195 million.

Tatum is viewed as the main building block for this Celtics team. Having him and Brown locked in give the Celtics a good foundation to build around.

The culture seems to have shifted this past season. Boston focused on bringing in high-character guys such as Kemba Walker and Grant Williams.

Is There a Culture Problem?

While there is no question that losing three key players to free agency in two years is not a good look, there is a reasonable explanation for each departure.

Kyrie wasn’t happy in Boston his last year there. A lot of it had to do with off-court issues. Once being able to team up with Durant became realistic, it was easy to see that was his main goal.

There has already been some turmoil in Brooklyn as well, as the Nets fired head coach Kenny Atkinson. Steve Nash has been hired and is known to be close with Durant. However, it isn’t a good look that Brooklyn didn’t give Atkinson a chance to coach a healthy Durant.

Irving has also had an injury-riddled start to his career with the Nets. He already underwent shoulder surgery and missed Brooklyn’s playoff games in the bubble.

Horford’s departure can be explained in a rather simple way. He left because the Sixers overpaid him. This has nothing to do with the Celtics culture, but rather, Philly’s incompetence. The Sixers became so obsessed with stopping Giannis Antetokounmpo that they built a team that couldn’t even get to the point of playing him in the playoffs.

Now, Horford finds himself in Oklahoma City as new President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey made quick work of ridding his contract.

Hayward’s situation is a bit like Horford’s. The Hornets massively overpaid for his services. But that’s what small market teams like the Hornets have to do to acquire talent in free agency. He has also shown interest in playing for the Hornets in the past, so him signing there isn’t totally surprising.

He was also looking for a bigger role. That role would not have been there had he re-signed with the Celtics. While there are rumors that the Pacers and Celtics were working on a sign-and-trade, it appears that Hayward was always going to choose whoever offered him the most money.

The Tatum and Brown extensions also manifest that there is a level of trust with-in the organization. Along with the Celtics getting Kemba Walker in free agency, it appears that the reports of players wanting to get out of Boston is untrue.

In a recent interview, Enes Kanter spoke about his time in Boston. “I had an amazing time in Boston in an incredible organization with really good teammates,” Kanter said.

Losing your star players in free agency is never a good look, but when applying context to each situation, it makes sense why they left. It speaks more to other teams overpaying for players, than it does the Celtics’ culture.

Follow us on Twitter @CelticsLead for the latest Celtics news and insight. 

About Mason Urban

Sports writer for The Spectrum newspaper and contributor for The Lead Sports Media

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