A Few Simple Explanations for this Frustrating Boston Celtics Season

After getting dismantled for the last four games against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Boston Celtics of the 2018–19 NBA season are officially past-tense. The Bucks await the Raptors or Sixers in the East Finals.

May this version of the Celtics rest in peace now that the turmoil has subsided…though it won’t officially subside until early July, but we won’t have to swim through the mucky water of the ESPN/TNT talking heads.

By the end of July, Danny Ainge will be back from the minor heart attack he suffered (perhaps his health is directly connected to the drama that unfolded on and off the court). By the end of July, Brad Stevens will have a sense of who he’s coaching next year. By the end of July, Kyrie Irving will likely be a former-Celtic. As for Durant and where he ends up, my instinct says away from the Bay Area. Meanwhile, Durant’s calf strain will likely tilt the West Semis in the Rockets favor — -oh, how perfectly full circle after the Rockets lost Chris Paul upon going up 3–2 in last year’s Warriors-Rockets series.

These odd Celtics one final write-up to give some context to the team that *everyone* thought would make the East Finals/NBA Finals when the season tipped-off.

Consensus Thinking, Credit and Blame, Loyalty and Laundry

Pundits love to think in a hierarchical fashion. Historically and currently. Rankings. Lists. Data-driven analytics. Who’s at the top? Who deserves the credit? Who deserves the blame? To be fair, not just NBA pundits, but in every cultural milieu we have drifted further toward judgement over genuine appreciation. Credit and Blame. Lies and denials. As data has become ubiquitous, the way we view formerly agreed-upon truth has changed. This is maddening to those of us who are highly educated and those of us who read. We like truth to be truth, rather than “truth.” But our culture has morphed into an opinion-centric universe, where deeper thinking and agreement in general aren’t valued, so much as tolerated. Numbers must back up greatness. In thinking about a team’s performance, you might want a simpler explanation, but our collective fandom doesn’t exist in a vacuum, though sports radio and talk shows are often vacuous.

Social media amplifies the loudest, most extreme (and judgmental) opinions. This leads us toward (mostly subconsciously) desiring consensus. So many opinions, we all want to find a common ground, a lens through which to see things through. As a result of the consensus, we react with frustration whenever our expectations aren’t met…as if athletes give a fuck about our individual expectations for them and their teams.

We are subliminally taught to think of entertainment in terms of our selves and our tastes. In sports, that means “our” team, “our” season, “our” glory, though you’ll notice our team’s failures quickly become singular, as blame is painted, usually onto the star player, just as credit is too often painted onto that same player.

The extreme alternative to irrational attachment is completely objective non-attachment. In his patented nihilistic view, Seinfeld described fandom as “cheering for laundry.” Free-agency and team movement made loyalty to specific players or teams seem ridiculous. Remember that his character was famously uncommitted to non-platonic attachment of any kind, refusing to commit to relationships. Dirty uniforms need a wash.

But we believe in more than nothing, Lebowski, so we cheer for the uniforms and pretend to know the players who wear them.

We simplify the things we watch into heroes and villains. Favorites and underdogs. It’s poisoned our politics and often poisons our pure enjoyment of anything. What if nobody “should” win?

All of this is preface. Now for a brief explanation of this year’s Boston Celtics.

What was the consensus on these Celtics a year ago? After they signed Gordon Hayward to a huge contract and the unfortunate leg injury that wiped out his season on Opening Night? After the uber-talented Kyrie Irving was sidelined in March and was declared out for the entire playoffs in early April? The consensus was that the Celtics weren’t contenders. That they would be lucky to advance at all. They were too young.

The funny thing? They were indeed kind of lucky to advance in 7 games over the Milwaukee Bucks, who had not yet been transformed into the spacing-and-Giannis juggernaut that Mike Budenholzer has molded them into. They were a clogged-up version, and they still almost beat the Horford-Tatum-Brown-Rozier-Smart Celtics. But that’s not the way last year’s Celtics was remembered…because they went on to beat the Philadelphia 76ers in the East Semis…and forced a 7th game against LeBron’s Cavs in the East Finals.

What did last year’s playoff run do? It allowed Celtics players and fans to get ahead of themselves. This is a franchise that expects the playoffs and demands contender-status. After forty years of excellence, there were lean years. From 1993–2007, the first round of the playoffs was about as good as the Celtics got, with the exception of an improbable 2002 Eastern Conference Finals run, followed by a second-round playoff exit in 2003. Then Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen arrived, Rajon Rondo ascended, and Paul Pierce celebrated as Boston was back on the NBA map again. From 2007–2012, the franchise resumed its remarkable success. That window closed in 2012. It’s now been seven years. In large part because of Isaiah Thomas’ meteoric rise (and fall post-injury and trade), the Celtics that reached the 2017 East Finals were surprise contenders. Last year’s East Finalists were surprises as well.

This year’s Celtics were supposed to win. But progress isn’t usually linear. And in the case of last year’s playoff version of the Celtics, everyone other than Al Horford was under 25. For all of their potential, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier are not established, even now. What they could become as players is as important as how they play now. The contracts they hope to secure after their rookie contracts run out and they become eligible for extensions were the unspoken albatross of this team, in addition to the unknown future of the established-but-still-young (27) Kyrie Irving.

“Who gets the potential game-winning shot?”

This is the same question as who gets the potential glory. Kyrie clearly wants the glory and has shown the potential to hit the biggest game-winners (over Golden State in the Finals), but that doesn’t mean he should get every potential game-winner. Coaches have a say in these things, and Stevens called for Tatum in a tough spot in January. If Tatum hits that shot, Kyrie doesn’t lose his temper on the court, but privately seethes. When Tatum missed that shot, Kyrie unleashed on the court. Immature? Yes. Ego-driven? Yes. Part of the mega-star hierarchy of professional sports? Yes.

It’s very easy to criticize Terry Rozier for struggling in his limited role this season. What’s harder to do is step back and recognize how pressure (free-agent year) and diminished minutes would likely impact any young player. Yes, Rozier’s sense of his own value may have been inflated after last year’s playoff success. But I’d guess 5% of players in his situation would have succeeded given the conditions he found himself in this season. He tried to force his offense all year because he could sense the money slipping away with every passing game. And the possibility of a big contract this summer likely has slipped away from Rozier. Ironically, Kyrie’s departure may make signing him to a modest two-year deal to stay in Boston much more likely.

Jaylen Brown struggled at the beginning of the season as well. He didn’t take kindly to Kyrie’s January comments, and why should he have? Instead of speaking directly to Jaylen and Jayson, Kyrie chose to passive aggressively use the media to call out his teammates. The fit wasn’t ideal to begin with.

Minutes were restricted. Shots were harder to come by. Everyone on the team forced the offense, except for two of the highest-paid, well-established veterans, Gordon Hayward, and the ever-selfless Al Horford,

Despite Kyrie’s protestations and inclinations at offensive wizardry, there was no clear hierarchy, and Brad Stevens’ offensive philosophy is basically egalitarian and gives players autonomy. Kyrie’s career pre-Boston was two things: 1) Great young player on horrible team. 2) Great young player sidekick on LeBron’s Title Team. Kyrie wants his own team, but he may never fully get it…and win.

Many are confused about what Kyrie wants. He was bold to ask out of Cleveland, to leave before LeBron left. Nobody had openly bolted from LeBron like that before. Now many speculate he wants the limelight of New York. The fact that the Knicks are so nakedly in pursuit of a megastar adds fuel to the speculative fire. We’ll wait and see.

Most NBA coaches recognize that the sport has evolved to become a fluid, shooting-focused game. Pick-and-roll offense is about reading and reacting. Flow is critical. This team rarely found their flow and that’s in part because of Kyrie’s ball-dominant tendencies. One could argue the same is true of Damian Lillard in Portland and Russell Westbrook in OKC. The difference in Lillard’s case, is his 30-foot range. Sometimes wizardry isn’t conducive to lifting a team’s collective ceiling. Sometimes it’s just cool to watch.

***

As the dust settles on a perplexing season for the Celtics, the questions we should be asking:

Why did we think this would be easy?

Why did we expect so many young players looking to establish themselves in the league to be savvy role-playing vets?

Why did we think Hayward’s return would be smooth, after such a serious injury?

Where do we go from here?

Wait until mid-July.

Writing. Poetry. Personal Essays. On the NBA, MLB, media, journalism, culture, teaching and humor.

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