There was a time, not long ago, when folks in Boston lamented the fact that no NBA free agents ever wanted to play for the Celtics. The team’s major acquisitions over the year, from Bill Russell through Larry Bird and on to Kevin Garnett, came through trades, and until last summer, it could be argued that the most significant free-agent signing in team history had been someone in the range of Jason Terry or end-of-career Dominique Wilkins.
So maybe it is a good sign for the franchise that the complaint about Boston’s offseason forays is not the fact that the team has not signed big-time free agents, but that the locals want to see bigger transactions paired with those deals.
That may be the case again this summer. But the fact is, the Celtics will wrap up early July for the second straight year with a major free-agent prize — first big man Al Horford last season, now Jazz wing Gordon Hayward, who put aside a day packed with internal drama to finally agree to a four-year, $128 million contract.
This is a franchise that has ascended from a slightly above-mediocre bunch in the East two years ago to a 53-win team that reached the conference finals this year. That achievement had its doubters — the Celtics had the best record in the East, but the team was dubbed the worst top seed in league history — but the addition of Hayward as well as No. 3 pick Jayson Tatum should firm up last year’s accomplishments and make Boston a more legitimate threat to the Cavaliers in the conference.
At the least, the Celtics have secured their status as the No. 2 team in the East, firmly ahead of Toronto and Washington. Just how much of a threat they can be to a Cavaliers team that still employs LeBron James can be debated, but that misses the point.
The Celtics put themselves into the mix for major free agents each of the last two offseasons, and signed one both times out. They didn’t have the super-perfect summer either year — they did not get Jimmy Butler or Paul George this year, and they didn’t get Kevin Durant or Blake Griffin last year. And their pursuit of Hayward was bolstered by his long relationship with coach Brad Stevens, who had him at Butler.
But to harp on that is to ignore just how hard it is to get a star-caliber free agent to leave his team and sign with yours.
Ask, say, the Mavericks about that. Ask anyone who’s watched the Lakers’ offseasons in the last four years. Ask the Knicks. Heck, ask the Warriors, who missed out on the likes of Dwight Howard and Tyson Chandler before finally landing Andre Iguodala in 2012 and beginning to change their luck thereafter. Taking big swings at major free agents is a risky business, and few stars actually leave their teams.