Boston Celtics Postmortem – One Man’s Opinion
To call the 2018-2019 Celtics season anything but a disappointment would be an exercise in denial. This is the team that nearly ended LeBron’s streak of NBA Finals appearances without two of their best players – Gordon Hayward (the key offseason free-agent addition) was lost five minutes into the first game with a nasty ankle injury and Kyrie Irving was lost in March to knee surgery. During the end of the regular season and throughout the playoffs not only did Al Horford step up and play better than expected as well as Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier playing WAY above their pay grades as they defeated Milwaukee, cruised by Philadelphia and had a lead in the fourth quarter of game seven against Cleveland.
Expectations were high for this team. They were getting two all-star caliber players added to the core that took LeBron and his crew to the brink and would have maybe the best starting lineup in the league outside of the Warriors, and even then it was pretty close. I mean Kyrie, Hayward, Tatum, Brown, and Horford starting, with Rozier, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, Aaron Baynes, and Daniel Theis coming off the bench they would be the deepest team in the league and might challenge the Warriors record of 73 wins.
Alas, it was not to be. They finished behind Milwaukee, Toronto and Philadelphia for fourth place in the East at 49-33, a game ahead of the Victor Oladipo-less Indiana Pacers whom they swept in the first round (although not without significant difficulty). You might be thinking that just about fifty wins would be considered a successful season, but that’s actually six games worse than they finished last year when they were the #2 seed in the East as they won 55 games. How did this team get worse? Well, there are a lot of reasons.
First I think the biggest reason for their failure was their success the previous year. I know that doesn’t seem to make much sense but because this is a performance-driven league and the better your stats the more money you make, Brad Stevens must have felt like Sisyphus pushing a boulder uphill trying to manage minutes and massage egos. Especially with Kyrie Irving, who wanted out of Cleveland because he wanted to be “The Man” and run a team and be the centerpiece and focal point of an organization. Kyrie is not the right type of person to do this. He certainly has the talent, but I don’t think his personality is suited for leadership.
You also have to take into account the success the younger players had without their “leader” and the frustration they must have felt watching their minutes get taken by guys who have enjoyed successful careers up to that point but weren’t at all involved with the success the team had in the playoffs. Terry Rozier certainly felt that he was good enough to be a starting point guard for a lot of teams in the league, and Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are players who constantly hear from the sports writers and media people about how good they are and how the only way anyone would trade them is for a player like Anthony Davis, and it would only be one of them, certainly not both.
I wasn’t worried, because I know how good of a coach Brad Stevens really is but there were questions about his ability to manage star personalities. The argument against him was that he was able to maximize ability and talent of the scrappy underdog teams he had because it was much easier to get the most out of players who were good but not superstars and therefore don’t need to be treated like the superstars in that league need to be treated. As we see constantly in the NBA, players are able to do whatever they want, practice or not, say what they want, only put in the effort when they feel like it and the coaches bear the responsibility. It’s easier to coach a player who wants to be better and is willing to take advice and instruction than it is to try and convince a superstar like Kyrie Irving (or really any of the top-tier players) that he needs to get better at something, or do things differently on his current team than he did on his previous team. Unfortunately, it seems like only a couple of coaches in the league have the cache to do this – Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, and Doc Rivers. Two of those coaches played in the league (Kerr won championships with both the Bulls and the Spurs), so they have a little more pull with the players they coach, and knowing what players have gone through as far as criticism and the daily grind of a season gets them more respect from the players they coach. Brad, unfortunately, does not have that on his resume.
Another big issue was forcing an ineffective Gordon Hayward into the starting lineup. More efficient players were relegated to the bench in favor of having a $30 million backup player. I can understand why they did this, because it creates a terrible optic of paying someone like a top-tier (or just below) player only to have him sitting around until someone needs a breather, however, the thing that has set this team apart was the way that whoever was playing the best would be the ones starting, regardless of their salary. It was always team first, no one was bigger than the team, next man up, etc. Hayward had a few good games, but not enough to justify a starting role, especially when he was still not 100% back into his former All-Star self and serving as a detriment to further develop the young guys like Tatum, Brown, and Rozier.
All in all, I think this is a terrible ending to a season with such promise. It was a failure on so many levels. They failed to recapture the magic of the previous season, Kyrie failed to establish himself as a true leader, Stevens failed to get the most out of his lineups, the team failed to get along, Danny Ainge failed to make a significant move at the trade deadline (while Philadelphia, Toronto, and Milwaukee improved through trades) and as a result they failed to improve on last year’s success.
One of the worst things Stevens did do this year was given free rein to a guy like Marcus Smart to heave up three-pointers like he’s Steph Curry. This is a guy who just came back from an injury, hadn’t played in the playoffs at all, had zero rhythms, but is allowed to just throw up these three-pointers? I’d have yanked him from the game after the first one and pulled him aside and say “listen, this is never been your strong suit and we don’t need your offense today, we need your gritty defense and your hustle” because that is the absolute truth. I love the way Marcus Smart plays on the defensive side. He has an unstoppable motor, plays fearlessly and will guard anyone. He dives on the floor for loose balls, gets into the paint and rebounds on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor, defends bigger players (like LeBron) and tends to come up with a couple of really good defensive stops – either a steal, block or otherwise forcing a turnover – per game. He’s a pest, the type of player that Boston fans love (see Marchand, Brad) but I’ve been saying for years that he’s never met a three-point shot that he didn’t like, but it’s not his strength.
Overall my feelings on the Celtics, as a fan, can be summed up by saying I’m disappointed. I was really looking forward to seeing how the Celtics move forward, how they learn and grow from their experiences. I’m also interested in seeing how their roster changes. I think Kyrie is gone, and I think Marcus Morris is going to follow him. Both are free agents with player options. Al Horford has a player option but I don’t see him leaving; he’s the one constant that’s been on this team since he signed as a free agent from Atlanta. Letting Kyrie go will open up a lot of options. They can rely on Terry Rozier as their primary point guard and have him starting alongside Horford, Hayward, Brown, and Tatum. I like that lineup, especially if they pick up a couple of complementary pieces during the offseason either through the draft or through free agency.
Honestly, my preference would be trading for someone who can rebound because that’s their biggest weakness, whoever that would be as long as they don’t upset the apple cart when it comes to the development of the younger players…unless they’re trading one of those young guys to get your rebounder, then I’m okay with that. I think if anyone goes it’s going to be Jaylen Brown because he seems to be the least enamored with playing in Boston. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind losing Rozier if they can pick up D’Angelo Russell, who really impressed me with the way he played against Philadelphia and I’d love to have him running the Celtics’ offense. I like Rozier, but I would much rather have Russell and you can pay him what you were going to pay Kyrie. Then when Horford’s contract is up you can pay Tatum, and you’ve still got all your draft capital.
These are my thoughts on what I perceive were the issues that derailed the Celtics and their quest for their 18th championship. Full disclosure, despite what I’ve said and even when they were down 3-1 to Milwaukee I still didn’t give up on them. I’ve seen far too much as a sports fan in New England over the past eighteen years to believe that these teams are unable to overcome any in-game deficit or if opposing team’s lead in a series. It’s not over until the clock rolls to all zeroes or the final out is recorded. I was disappointed but I’m also excited for what comes next.