There’s no argument that the Boston Celtics haven’t done this thing right. Through means smart, shrewd, and occasionally downright heartless, Danny Ainge and his braintrust have engineered one of the finest, youngest, most flexible rosters in the league. They fleeced the Nets for three first-rounders and a pick swap! The Sixers paid them to take Markelle Fultz over Jayson Tatum! They got Kyrie Irving in a trade that essentially destroyed the Cavs! And the guy coaching the team is a 42-year-old whiz kid type who took a busted, borderline juvenile squad to the Eastern Conference Finals last season. Heading into 18-19, every basketball-knower worth their laptop was predicting a 60-win campaign and a probable showdown with the Warriors at year’s end. This was a more than reasonable thing to believe. What wasn’t to like, beyond the chowder-breathed Bostonicity of it all?
Now, greeting March, we know there are a few problems. The big one is that Kyrie Irving won’t stop selling his younger teammates out in the press. He’s learned all the wrong things from his time sidekicking LeBron, talking endlessly about leadership without demonstrating much acumen for it, flatly demanding his colleagues get on his level rather than showing them how they might go about doing that. Tatum and Jaylen Brown, for their part, seem to despise Kyrie for being so publicly critical and supercilious. It feels at times like the Celtics are one crunchtime screw-up from a Draymond cussing out Durant situation with Tatum and/or Brown in the Draymond role. Given the amount of flak they’ve taken this year, you couldn’t blame them if one of these days they were to burst and shout why don’t you go play in New York?! at their performatively large-brained teammate.
Kyrie complains too readily and too much, but he has a point: Brown and Tatum look slightly less ready for primetime than they did at this point last season. The return of Kyrie’s ball dominant stylings, and Gordon Hayward in the midst of a recovery year have throw the whippersnapper wings for a loop. Tatum wants to soar, which is to say take a lot of bad shots he’s not yet all-world at converting, and Brown’s drip is more rhythmic than microwaveable. He lacks the ability to play an important role only in fits and starts—the sort of thing Chris Bosh did in Miami, the role Tobias Harris is currently perfecting for the Sixers. This is less a criticism than a description of Brown’s mentality. He’s suffering, as is Tatum, because there isn’t enough room in the offense for them to express themselves to the degree they would like. They need to do more fitting in, and they—half-understandably, half-importunately—don’t want to.
Brad Stevens doesn’t appear to be making much progress toward solving this impasse. He’s a tactician; ego management is not really his strength. John Karalis, who gets the Celts about as well as anybody, says “there are times where [Stevens] genuinely seems to enjoy the madness” his team creates. That’s true; he subscribes to the Phil Jackson school of letting players work things out among themselves without getting in their ear every other minute about what he wants them to do. While this is an admirably patient approach, it’s proving counterproductive so far—so far being past the three-quarters mark of the season. Straightforward authoritarianism doesn’t work in the NBA, but Boston could use a vocal adult in the room, somebody to clearly explain what’s wrong and what to do about it. Marcus Morris has said the Celtics don’t have any fun. Marcus Smart has said they don’t play for each other. Someone needs to take the extra step and lay out the how and why of that. It might as well be the head coach.
This genre of column typically ends with a prescription. Here’s what’s ailing the team; here’s how to cure it. But I can’t tell you much that Stevens, Kyrie, Tatum, or Brown probably haven’t already considered. It’s not like they don’t know they’re failing to hit on all cylinders. They just got annihilated by the Raptors on Tuesday, then handled by the Blazers the next night. Those are good teams, but Celtics expect to compete with everybody. When you’re shooting for a title, every loss is at least a little bit troubling. And getting blown off the floor by the Bulls is a catastrophe.
There are routes toward improvement, but here is a thought: maybe they’re all merely theoretical. Maybe the Celtics are broken in unfixable ways. We tend to think of team-building as an arithmetic exercise—this player’s talent + this player’s talent, etc.—but skills can overlap and there are only so many touches to go around. We also tend to think that franchises should be rewarded for playing the long game and maneuvering adeptly through the trade and free agency markets. This is a desire for order and nigh-karmic fairness, and while sports will quench that thirst more regularly than, say, politics or finance, sometimes stuff doesn’t work out for reasons beyond the control of even the sharpest decision-makers.
Burying the Boston Celtics would be premature, because they could totally make a grumpy yet scintillating Finals run, but it’s far from beyond the realm of possibility that they’ve done everything right and ended up with a team that, due to reasons of personality and fit, simply doesn’t hum like it should. With 20 games left in the season, there are still a daunting amount of issues to sort through. Overcoming all of them seems impossible, and that describes their predicament perfectly. They’re still alive, and could do great things, but they’re not everything they hoped they could become.