Boston Slammed: How the Celtics Went From Potential Juggernaut to Punchline

Life comes at you fast; just ask the Boston Celtics. A mere eleven days ago, they were flying high, having molly-whomped the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Semifinal series, 112-90. The demolishing prompted ESPN Analyst/Boston homer/Patron Saint of Awful Takes Paul Pierce to declare the series “over,” an utterance which has, to say the least, not aged well. Since then, the Celtics lost the next four games by a combined 65 points, and it wasn’t really even that close. After a humbling Game 1, likely MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo unsurprisingly ran roughshod over Boston. Even including his poor first game, he averaged 28.4/ 11.0/ 5.2 on 52/ 41 (!!)/ 69 shooting for the series, all while still only playing 34 minutes a game. The Bucks undoubtedly made some tactical and rotational adjustments following Game 1, but the biggest difference was how, after more or less floating through the first five games of the postseason, they brought a renewed focus and intensity which Boston was either unable or unwilling to match.

Remember, this Boston team was only a few possessions from reaching the Finals last year, and returned two All-Stars to the lineup this season. They were supposed to be world-beaters. With their tumultuous campaign now mercifully laid to rest, it’s time to ask a couple important questions: how did we all get it so wrong? And what happens now?

For all the ways analytics have changed modern basketball and helped it evolve, the one thing the stat nerds have a tough time accounting for is chemistry. A forward-thinking front office can make all the right moves on paper — like GM Danny Ainge has done for the last several years — and sometimes it just doesn’t work on the court. The ’18-’19 Celtics were like a bad relationship. On the rare occasions when everything clicks, we’re all like, “Whoa, this is amazing! This could really work!” The rest of the time, we desperately attempt to jam the square peg into the round hole, constantly crafting excuses and justifications for why things aren’t the way we imagined them. When adversity strikes, good teams, like good couples, endure by drawing strength from their common purpose and experience; bad ones fold up shop. And the second half of Game 4 looked like a team resigned to the impending break-up. The fans in attendance in Boston weren’t booing the lack of execution. They were booing the lack of fight. Game 5 was a mere formality.

It’s not hard to draft a laundry list of excuses for this Celtics squad’s chronic underachieving. Kyrie is too inconsistent (as both a superstar and a leader) to be the alpha dog on a championship team, and he may have one foot out the door. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are still pups, and understandably regressed when relegated to smaller roles. Gordon Hayward was a shell of himself for most of the season. Al Horford was hampered by injury for long stretches. Marcus Smart’s injury sapped the team’s spirit and toughness. Brad Stevens had never before coached a team with big egos and real expectations. And on and on and on.

The lion’s share of the blame will understandably fall on Kyrie Irving. He sought out this team and this role. He repeatedly stumped about how the playoffs were all that mattered, and they were his time, and the switch would be flipped, and then failed to deliver on those promises in spectacular fashion. Teams often take on the persona of their best player, and the C’s are a good example. Undeniably talented and occasionally scintillating, but erratic, inconsistent, and often baffling as well. They defend at an elite level in spurts, but then when it matters, they make boneheaded mistakes, leave open driving lanes, and point fingers. We also shouldn’t lose sight of how, had they taken the regular season a bit more seriously, they could have gotten a higher seed and avoided being in the path of this Milwaukee buzz-saw in Round Two (and perhaps even in the ECF, depending how things played out in this alternate universe). That’s not entirely Kyrie’s fault, but he has to bear some responsibility for more or less speaking it into existence.

To some extent, it’s on the collective NBA hive-mind for not tempering our expectations about Hayward’s return. We have ample evidence an injury as devastating as what he suffered is a two-year proposition — one year to recover physically, and another to recover mentally and regain your confidence. He may never quite rediscover the form he showed in his final season in Utah, but chances are good we’re going to see a very different player next year once the injury and its psychological remnants are fully behind him. [Side note: I’m not here for the “Gordon Hayward was always overrated” takes which are now surfacing. It’s pure revisionist history. He was legit in ’16-’17, and that prime version of him would have been a perfect complementary star for Boston over the last two years, had it existed. Just stop it.]

Coach Brad Stevens is likewise taking heat for the team’s failure, with the emerging narrative of him being anointed as one of the league’s great tactical minds too quickly and without any real accomplishments. It’s fair to criticize him, but it’s also fair to ask: could any coach have solved this problem? What could he have done differently to bring equilibrium to a roster which, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see was fundamentally imbalanced? In retrospect, the decision to keep spoon-feeding minutes to Hayward — often at the expense of Jaylen Brown, who has been terrific over the last few months after struggling out of the gate — in the hopes of having him ramped up by playoff time didn’t pan out, but it’s hard to fault the reasoning. They simply needed a version of Hayward they were never going to get this season. Mothballing him might have been a useful regular season Band-Aid, but it wasn’t going to solve the underlying issue.

Marcus Morris looked like a borderline All-Star when Stevens inserted him into the starting lineup at midseason (along with Marcus Smart), but then regressed to his “inefficient gunner/defensive liability” mean as the postseason approached. It wasn’t ideal to have that guy averaging 28 minutes a game in the playoffs, but Hayward wasn’t giving them anything, and going big with Aron Baynes would only have served to hand Milwaukee the exact matchups they wanted on a silver platter, so what were his options? Stevens’ X’s-and-O’s brilliance is beyond question, but managing personalities and roles is a huge part of an NBA head coach’s job, and in this regard, he failed. [Stevens admitted as much.] This doesn’t make him overrated or some kind of flash in the pan. It makes him a young coach who still has skills to develop if he is to become the all-time great coach we all projected him to be.

Another mistake we all made was assuming a linear developmental path for Jayson Tatum after his incredibly promising rookie year. We should have seen some regression coming with him, particularly considering how the returns of Hayward and (especially) Kyrie were likely to change his role in the offense. This doesn’t excuse some of the bad habits he has picked up along the way — floating through games and settling for contested 20-footers instead of attacking the rim, most notably — but expecting him to blossom into a full-on superstar at age 21 was overly optimistic from the get-go. He may still get there, but it’s going to take time, and possibly a different uniform, depending how this summer plays out.

An awful lot had to break right for the Celtics to enjoy the success they did last season. The mistake was in perceiving ’17-’18 as a baseline for expectations going forward, rather than as the outlier it turned out to be. If it also turns out to be the high-water mark for this competitive cycle which started out with such promise, it would be a colossally disappointing outcome.

Which brings us to the second question: what happens now? Shorter contracts mean a great deal of roster turnover for most teams in most years, but holy hell does Danny Ainge have A LOT of balls in the air right now. There are scenarios where the roster looks largely the same going into training camp — unlikely though that may be given the bad taste left in everyone’s mouth after this season — and others where it is barely recognizable.

Naturally, Kyrie is the first and most important domino to fall. Irving will undoubtedly opt out of the final year of his contract on June 29th and become an unrestricted free agent at midnight on July 1st. His decision to stay or go will of course be a touchstone moment for the trajectory of the franchise, but things will get complicated well before he announces his intentions. The 2019 NBA Draft takes place on June 20th, and to put it mildly, the Celtics will have quite a bit of a say in how it shakes out. Boston could have as many as four first-round picks, depending on where the Sacramento and Memphis picks they are owed end up falling. [The Kings’ pick goes to Boston, unless it falls at no. 1 overall, in which case it goes to Philly. The Memphis pick is top-8 protected, and the Grizz have the 8th-best lottery odds, so they’ll end up keeping the pick unless someone below them in the order jumps into the top-4, in which case it would convey to Boston. The C’s also have their own pick, as well as a lottery-protected pick which will convey from the Clippers. You know it’s coming — thanks, Jeff Green!]

I bring this up because all that draft capital could be extremely valuable as part of a trade package, perhaps for a disgruntled big man with questionable personal grooming habits. However, because of byzantine CBA contractual rules, Boston cannot trade for AD until at least July 1st, and even if they could, they wouldn’t want to until they know what Kyrie is going to do. Unless they have some sort of contingent, “wink-wink, nod-nod” agreement in place with New Orleans prior to the draft — which is, you know, extremely against league rules — the timing of the draft and free agency kind of bites them in the ass. Draft picks are worth more in the abstract; they lose value as soon as an actual human is selected. If they are not in fact just straight-up selecting players for New Orleans, then the whole process becomes pretty fraught, and their trade package could suddenly look less attractive than it did before the draft. And that’s not even taking into account the effect it could have on Kyrie’s notoriously inscrutable decision-making process. It’s going to be an incredibly difficult needle to thread, and if any single link in the chain of events doesn’t go according to plan, the whole thing could end up looking like a disaster.

Beyond the cataclysmic draft/Kyrie/AD saga, there are a number of other important team-building questions to answer this summer as well. Franchise keystone Al Horford has a $30.1 million player option, and it is not at all clear what he will do. It might seem crazy to turn down a number that large for a single season, but at age-32, Horford may look to leverage his strong playoff showing into one more long-term deal, albeit at a lesser annual figure. The Celtics would almost certainly be amenable to such an arrangement, as would any number of other teams with cap space to burn. [There will be a lot of them this year.] Horford seems to enjoy playing in Boston, but after the way this season went, it’s hard to know if the Celtics enjoy any sort of incumbency advantage with any of their guys. Big Al is still an excellent player, but he can probably sense his basketball mortality. He wants to win a title, and opting out may be the safe choice because it gives him options in case Kyrie bolts. Losing Kyrie and Horford would obviously be catastrophic, and would likely cost them a shot at Davis as well, since Ainge would rightfully be hesitant to throw the rest of their assets at a one-year rental of AD without any other stars with which to pair him. This darkest timeline would open up a bunch of cap space, but there are no guarantees anyone worthwhile would be willing to take their money.

There will also be roster turnover further down the depth chart. Terry Rozier will be a restricted free agent, and he has made no bones about his displeasure with his reduced role this past season. Some team will overpay for him, and Boston will face a tough choice of whether or not to match the offer. [Yet again, what happens with Kyrie factors into this decision as well.] Marcus Morris will be an unrestricted free agent and is unlikely to end up back with the team. Aron Baynes has a $5.4 million player option one suspects he will pick up. Marcus Smart has an eminently movable contract and will draw interest from teams, including probably New Orleans. It’s anyone’s guess what happens with Brown and Tatum. The only guy on their roster we can be fairly certain will still be in kelly green come Opening Night is Gordon Hayward, who comes with his own set of complications, as discussed earlier. It’s going to be a wild summer in Boston, folks.

Even with all the roster uncertainty and the manner in which this season went completely to shit, the Celtics remain in a somewhat enviable position going forward. They still have a treasure trove of draft capital. [Note: if the Memphis pick does not convey this year, it becomes top-6 protected next year and unprotected in 2021 — a potentially lucrative asset.] They have the hope of Hayward moving past his gruesome injury once and for all and returning to All-Star form in a bigger role. And most of all, they have two young stars in Brown and Tatum, whether they continue to allow them to develop in Boston or cash them in for a bigger name. Over the next few months, the Celtics are at the mercy of the basketball gods (and the unknowable whims of Kyrie), but luck favors the prepared, and Danny Ainge has prepared for this. He just didn’t think he’d be staring down the barrel of it quite so soon.

Top Photo Credit: NBA.com

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