The levels of blame for a disappointing Celtics season
The Celtics will wrap up their seven-game home stretch against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night, putting an end to a disappointing homestand where they went 3-3 and lost against two good teams in the New Orleans Pelicans and the Dallas Mavericks, and to the Philadelphia 76ers, who are half a game behind for first in the Eastern Conference. It feels like the only teams they can beat are far below their level, and they even struggle against mediocre opponents like the New York Knicks. They have clearly underperformed this season, but the real question is why, and who is to blame?
Let’s Play the Blame Game
I want to rank where I place my blame from least blame to most blame. Starting with:
3. The players (percentage of blame: 20 percent) I know some of you will disagree with me, but I feel that the players are the least to blame for the failures of this team this year. To start, we are in an incredibly unique year that has shifted the grounds of the NBA for the whole season. Key players can just suddenly be out for a whole week due to health and safety protocols, and if they contract COVID-19, the after-effects have shown to slow down players for weeks after they are cleared to play. However, everyone in the league has to deal with these circumstances, and while it may have had an impact on the C’s struggles, every team has had COVID-19 issues. I believe the reason for the players’ struggle comes down to two main issues. One of which is that the players’ egos have grown too big for their experience in the league. The young stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have seen immense success in their first few years in the league, and the team has made three of the last four Eastern Conference Finals. I fear that the youngsters have let this success get to their head, believing that they can flip the switch come playoff time and make a run. Secondly, I think that Tatum and Brown specifically have an idea in their head that they are better and more experienced than they really are. Now don’t get me wrong, they are great players. Tatum just became the youngest player in franchise history to reach 5,000 career points, and Brown has had a breakout year and cemented his first all-star appearance in his young career. However, they carry themselves like they are experienced veterans of the league. The truth is that they lack the one aspect that all of our league’s best players have: the ability to make players around them better. Kemba Walker should be having a field day with unstoppable scorers like Tatum and Brown around him, yet he has been inefficient all season, shooting only 39.8% from the floor this year. While a lot of his problems early on were due to injury, that doesn’t excuse the fact that he is playing next to two all-stars and still can’t shoot higher than 40 percent from the floor. Think of some of the league’s best players in their primes. LeBron carrying that horrible 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers team to an NBA Finals, or an even worse one to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010. How about Kobe Bryant single handedly dragging a team with headliners like Kwame Brown and Sasha Vujačić to winning records? These are the kinds of superstars that elevate mediocre and bad teammates to winning players. Tatum and Brown have not been able to do these things, but hopefully the slap in the face that is this season will wake them up to the realities of the next level of what it takes to get to the next level.
2. Brad Stevens (percentage of blame: 30 percent) I have one huge gripe with how Stevens has coached this team this year, that being the actual game planning on both sides of the ball. Starting with the offense first, there is no cutting. Every offensive possession feels like it starts with a dribble handoff from one of the big men, and half the team stands on the perimeter waiting to shoot a three. I want these guys to move much more often. We have incredibly athletic guys, especially in our starting five, and they should be moving as much as possible to try and create open and efficient shots. Secondly, I want to try and cut down on the overload of isolation plays. The Celtics run the eighth most isolation plays per game in the league, but rank only 27th in the league in scoring frequency on these isolation plays. The isolation has not been an effective play considering its frequency in games, instead I would much rather see pick and rolls, especially with the emergence of Robert Williams III and his great athletic ability and the return of Tristan Thompson. I would also like to see the defense become far more aggressive than what they are right now. The team lacks intensity on that side of the ball which is surprising. Tatum and Brown had always been great defenders, but this year they have underperformed on that side of the ball. Marcus Smart and Robert Williams provide a jolt, but Kemba Walker and almost the entire bench are not known for their defensive ability. The only way to make up for a lack of defensive skill is to be energized on that side of the ball. Rotations need to be faster, defenders need to fight harder through screens and hands have to be more active to try and create easy transition opportunities. Brad Stevens needs to take a portion of the blame for what he has been able to do with this team, a talented young roster who has seen success already. They have no energy and no activity on either side of the ball. I need to see Brad make some changes to the offense like we saw in the second half of the game against the Mavericks on March 31, where we finally started to move the ball, cut with energy and attack the rim instead of settling for contested jump shots.
1. Danny Ainge (percentage of blame: 50 percent) While the players have to perform better, and the coach has to make his team better, the job that Danny Ainge has done in the past few years in building a team around Tatum and Brown has not been good enough, and it has shown its ugly face here this season. Walker was given a huge contract to replace the disgruntled Kyrie Irving after he left in free agency. At the time, it seemed like a tiny bit of an overpay for a guy who had never won a playoff series before and a curious injury history, but I felt that adding another scorer like him would help cover the Irving hole. However, he has been disappointing in his two years in Boston. In 2019, he fell apart in the playoffs, first against the Toronto Raptors and again in the next round against the Miami Heat. This year, he has dealt with injury issues that have made him unavailable in back-to-backs and also limited his scoring ability while he is out there. Add onto that the recent draft blunders Carson Edwards, Romeo Langford, Grant Williams, Aaron Nesmith and this past off-season’s free agency signings in Jeff Teague and Tristan Thompson, and you get a bench unit that is inexperienced, injury prone and unable to make impacts on the court. I’ll give Ainge credit for nailing the Tatum and Brown picks, but he should also be criticized when he can’t find an impact player in the first round, or when he makes off-season moves that are questionable. He should also be criticized for his trade approach, holding assets in search of the big move, while letting other teams pick up the role players that help push contenders to the next level. I love Evan Fournier, but him alone is not going to be able to elevate this team into the realm of the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers or the Milwaukee Bucks. Ainge needs to be willing to trade picks and young players in order to bring in guys that will help the team win now, especially with the nature of the NBA today, where superstars can demand trades whenever they like. The window of opportunity is small for contenders nowadays, and years of a young player’s prime like Tatum or Brown cannot be wasted.
With the end of the regular season only a month away, the Celtics will need to find a groove quickly if they want to rise above the seventh seed and stay out of the play-in games. This coming week will test them, as they face off against offensive juggernauts in the West, facing off against the Denver Nuggets on Sunday and the Portland Trailblazers on Tuesday. If there was any time to “flip the switch,” it would be this week.