Forsberg: Time for Celtics to consider a new path after latest loss


After the Celtics endured another embarrassing crumble -- this time coughing up a 25-point lead to the New York Knicks on Thursday night while a national TV audience watched old friend Evan Fournier scorch the Celtics for a career-high 41 points -- the sobering reality is that Boston's best path forward might be a step backward. 

Celtics first-year president of basketball operations Brad Stevens admitted earlier in the day Thursday that his team has "a lot to fix" but emphasized that he won't make a move just to make a move. Stevens told 98.5’s “Toucher and Rich” radio program that, "Ultimately, our driver has to be what helps us get into the mix to hang the next banner.”

Alas, Banner 18 has rarely felt as far away as it does at the moment.

The Celtics, now 18-21 with the midpoint of the 2021-22 season in sight, fell to 11th in the Eastern Conference with Thursday’s loss. Boston also has the 11th-worst record in basketball. In fact, the Celtics are closer to a potential top-4 pick than a top-4 spot in the East.

Little about Boston’s roller coaster play the past two seasons suggests this team is capable of making the sort of surge that might culminate with something better than an early playoff exit. The Celtics can stick to their middling course, maybe win a play-in game, and settle for a late-teen draft pick that holds limited value in a quest to infuse needed talent.

Or Stevens can consider a lottery ticket.

To be clear, this isn’t a suggestion that Boston tank. That’s a four-letter word more vulgar than anything a courtside mic might have heard Stevens utter during his coaching days. Even as Boston underwent a major roster overhaul early in Stevens' tenure, he famously promised newcomers like Jae Crowder that losing wasn’t part of the team’s gameplan.

And embracing a future focus now doesn’t necessarily mean trying to lose games. It might simply be a byproduct of the Celtics prioritizing player development and moving on from veteran role players that don’t fit the team's long-term vision. 

Heck, a future focus might even take the sting out of some of these gut-punching losses.

How might a future focus plan operate? Stevens could ... 

Trade Dennis Schroder

Boston should cash out while delivering Schroder and his affordable expiring deal to a desiring contender. A deal could also help the Celtics dip out of the luxury tax, limiting future repeater penalties and allowing them to spend more freely in future seasons.

Schroder is a nice bench luxury but his ball-dominant ways and poor 3-point shooting conspire against the team in late-game situations.

Gauge the trade market for non-core pieces

With more buyers than sellers, thanks to the additional play-in spots, the Celtics might be able to turn depth pieces (Josh Richardson? Al Horford? Romeo Langford?) into future assets.

Encourage Ime Udoka to find more time for younger players

A Schroder deal might open a pathway for Payton Pritchard to play more. Other maneuverings could create more consistent time for Aaron Nesmith or Langford.

These young players need reps to either emerge as complementary pieces to this core, or increase their trade value before the next big-splash move.

Involve the Jays in the process

No one in the organization wants to punt on any season in which Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are healthy. But Stevens can ease any concerns by stressing the benefits of a future focus and asking for input from his pillars on what sort of player they should be trying to add.

Evaluate the core

Even while downshifting, the Celtics can get a longer look at the Tatum-Brown-Marcus Smart-Robert Williams quartet and determine if they still all fit Boston’s long-term vision.

Maybe the Celtics ultimately decide that the core isn’t capable of working and have to more strongly consider any offers involving those players.

Take stress off Ime Udoka

It’s only natural that a first-year coach feels pressure to succeed, especially taking over a roster helmed by two young All-Stars with multiple trips to the East finals in recent seasons. But Udoka can more easily endure the bumps in the road and experiment when the pressure to win is downgraded.

Sure, this certainly isn’t the ideal path for a team that entered the season with lofty expectations. But given the way the Celtics have struggled and the low probability that this squad can turn things around on the fly, focusing on the future might be the path that can best accelerate the team back to legitimate contender status.

This team might simply have to go backward to go forward.

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