The Boston Celtics are the biggest disappointment of this season. If I told you Jaylen Brown is about to become a legit All-Star, you’d think they’d be in the Finals conversation. But the Celts are 7th in the East with a .500 record (26-26). The worst part is, the eye test is even worse than the numbers.
Yes, they can say COVID and injuries impacted their season. Several important players like Tatum and Smart missed weeks recovering from injuries or being in COVID protocols. Kemba Walker’s knee seems to be a permanent limit on his abilities going forward, and the fact their bench hasn’t been this bad in years also doesn’t help. But we’ve seen teams struggle with injuries and still perform better. Hell, we’ve seen the Celtics struggle with injuries and perform better because the Brad Stevens Celtics always put in the effort on defense. That effort’s often been missing this year. So what’s the problem? Dwyane Wade has a pretty good idea.
“What is the Celtics identity? It’s not defense. They’re not great in transition. They’re not exceptionally great in the halfcourt when it comes to execution of the game, even though they have an amazing coach and amazing players. You gotta have an identity as a team, and what are you gonna lean on when things get tough when guys miss games when injuries happen. This team doesn’t have one.”Dwyane Wade, Inside the NBA
Players always point out how important offensive pecking order is for everyone to perform at their best. Knowing what’s the style of play (pick&roll heavy or motion offense), who’s the initiator, who are we trying to get our shots etc. Proof for DWade’s diagnosis is the fact the Celtics have become a “your turn, my turn” team between Jayson and Jaylen. There’s no concept there; most of the time, it looks like “go get buckets.” Once that happens, the defensive effort starts to drop, and you’re in trouble.
We’ve seen this scenario on many teams that had two guys who couldn’t figure out who’s 1A and 1B. By all accounts, the consensus still seems to be Tatum is the 1A guy in Boston, the player with the highest superstar potential. But Brown’s been playing better and more consistently this season, and that’s created this power vacuum.
While the Celtics are not Finals contenders, they can and should be better than this. The silver lining is problems like these can quickly turn around with a galvanizing moment that established a team’s identity. However, this season ends, the Celtics will need to have a “come to Jesus” moment this offseason. Their problem won’t be solved with draft picks, trade exceptions, or free agents. Before the 07’/’08 season, Doc Rivers invited Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce on a duck boat tour and asked them a simple question.
“And I asked them what are they going to give up? ‘What are you guys going to give up to win?’ And they all were looking at me like they didn’t understand exactly what I meant. And I give Kevin, like Kevin right away [he] answered. His question was, ‘What do you need me to give up?’”Doc Rivers, Celtics Wire
Stevens needs to take Tatum, Brown, and whoever is the third guy on a Duck Boat Tour and ask them the same thing. We’ll know what the answer was soon enough.