In the past 24 hours — or really ever since the Milwaukee Bucks took the commanding 3-1 series lead over my beloved Celtics — I’ve fielded a ridiculous amount of text messages, direct messages, and snapchats that contained various forms of questions, hatred, and banter that I’ve probably deserved.
After coming within a few minutes of winning a Game 7 last season, the hospital version of the 2017-18 Celtics nearly found a birth into the NBA Finals. Expectations across the land were that adding Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to the mix this season would only make that a forgone conclusion — which I stated numerous times, by the way. The prince who was promised, Jayson Tatum, would take his next step forward towards becoming an All-Star — which I also stated numerous times. The Celtics would have one of the best bench units in the NBA — a comment that, yes, I made numerous times. And finally, FINALLY, the Celtics would have an explosive offense to match the elite defense they’ve held under the hodgepodge rosters since the end of the Big Three era. THUS CATAPULTING THEM TO THE FINALS — you know where this is going…
Sometimes, you’re just wrong. The best possible way to summarize this situation comes from an ancient phrase created by an old, American philosopher — “You hate to see it.”
Before I close the door on the disastrous, horrible, gut-punching season of the 2018-19 Boston Celtics, there are a few house keeping things I’d like to address.
Milwaukee Bucks —
First off, credit to me for crediting the Bucks before any of this happened. In my very first blog to kick off this NBA season I not only deemed Giannis Antetokounmpo the new King of the Eastern Conference, but basically described move for move how he was going to light a trail of fire throughout the entire conference.
Straight up, Giannis looks like a varsity player playing against eighth graders. For the most part, the Celtics had the same game plan as last season, which was building a wall of brave men across the paint and forcing Giannis or anyone else to beat you elsewhere. That said, it just doesn’t matter when you are outplayed by the other players and Giannis has this level of shooting around him. Not to mention, the Greek God — his new nickname, by the way — has put on three hundred pounds of muscle.
At this stage, Giannis requires more help defense than LeBron James. As crazy as that sounds, it’s true. His strength, length, and finishing ability is second to none. On top of that, nobody in the league assists more three pointers than him, which is a testament to the first point. If you over-help on shooters, he’s going to be hanging from the rim. If you over-help on Giannis, the shooters are going to run you out of the gym.
While there may be a couple of guys in the NBA who can possibly defend Giannis one on on as well as what’s possible, none of those players play for Boston. You play a series to find out who is truly the better team, and the Bucks won in five.
Kyrie Irving —
The season from Hell was mostly that because of Kyrie Irving and the distraction that his impending free agency caused. Basketball fans waited all season for Kyrie to offset his strange press conferences and mixed signals in the playoffs, and he didn’t.
The playoffs are why the Celtics traded for Kyrie Irving. His shot making ability, his experience playing in high-pressure games, and his (expected) leadership. Despite all the optimism and expectations that were set by so many, including Irving, he let Boston down. He flat out, let everyone involved down.
As someone who was really in his camp this year, I’ve been left with a feeling of emptiness. To go out without a fight in five games with Kyrie playing the worst stretch of basketball in his career was a miserable, horrible feeling. It’s unfortunate that despite so many distractions, Kyrie had a wonderful season, yet wasn’t able to showcase that when the national audience was watching. The Kyrie that we saw against Milwaukee wasn’t Kyrie Irving. The only thing that was worse than his body language and defensive awareness was his shooting percentages. The Celtics got into a hole that was a little too deep and then the pressure of everything building up to this moment was just too much for this team’s current situation. A damn shame in a playoff run that was honoring John Havlicek.
With that being said, I absolutely want Kyrie Irving back on the Celtics next season. I hope Danny Ainge pays him the super-max. There are few guys in the NBA who can do what Kyrie does, and it could be a while before the Celtics have another one of those players on their roster again.
Most beautiful stories or wonderful, happy endings arrive from moments of weakness. Sure, it’s possible that the highlight of Kyrie Irving’s career has already happened — Game 7, 2016 NBA Finals. But it’s also possible that this Hall of Fame level of talent can illustrate an astonishing career from this moment forward by painting his own masterpiece. He can erase the uncertainty and scrutiny that surrounds his name with redemption as soon as next postseason. The hardships and adversity that Kyrie faced this season will follow him into the unknown future until he exercises these demons and leave them behind him. The idea of dominating the NBA playoffs once again, or reaching that final stage with the Celtics, can cover this season’s blemishes in the same sense that a simple brush stroke can be the solution to an error on an epic painting.
That epic painting starts this summer, July 1st, with the pen stroke that commits his next contract to the Boston Celtics. No matter how you cut it, the Celtics are objectively better with Kyrie than they are without him. Each season since leaving the Cavaliers, Kyrie has become a better player in each phase of his game. At 27-years old, Kyrie is going to be entering the prime of his career soon, and I’m hoping that fans can recognize that with his game, his emotions and leadership are maturing as well. Things aren’t always easy for top tier players.
Gordon Hayward —
It’s definitely possible that we will someday look back on the Gordon Hayward injury from last season and see how it affected a window of NBA history. There’s a scenario where Hayward doesn’t get hurt last season, and the Celtics are able to get to the NBA Finals without Kyrie Irving because of the young, Hospital-Celtics leaning on the Utah version of Hayward. In that scenario, maybe Danny Ainge has more faith in trading for Anthony Davis at this year’s deadline. A core of Kyrie Irving, Utah-Gordon Hayward, Anthony Davis, and Al Horford would likely eliminate the Bucks and be waiting for Toronto or Philadelphia.
Regardless, one thing is for certain — Gordon Hayward has a while left on his recovery.
There were moments this year where you could see the highest ceiling of this team because Hayward was playing at an elite level. Unfortunately, there were far too many moments where Hayward showed he’s on arguably the worst contract in the NBA. Now, it’s understandable for Hayward and he shouldn’t be blamed for it, but the fact is that the Celtics needed him and he couldn’t be there for them. Far too many times he was on the court, just, floating. It was easy to see he was uncomfortable and out of place.
You’d have to assume that Hayward will look night and day different next season after an entire summer of working on his game and the mental side of figuring out how to get through this wall. Until then, we just have to continue using Paul George as an exhibit for how a player can return from an injury of this nature.
If Hayward can return to himself, I have confidence that he will be starting for the Celtics and give them that extra night-to-night boost on offense. Fortunately, Hayward showed many instances this season that he’s a strong defender. I was impressed with his active hands and ability to jump passing lanes for deflections and steals. If the Celtics can get him to the form that they had originally signed, that alone will help fix many of the negatives from this horrific season. If they can’t, and Hayward remains more the same, that opening night in Cleveland last season will always be a moment for Celtics to reminisce on what could’ve been.
Marcus Smart —
One of the few positives from this season was the outstanding play of Marcus Smart. Without a doubt, this was his most impactful season of his career, especially on the offensive side where he turned into an above average three point shooter. Celtics fans have joked in the past that even with an above average outside shot, Smart would be the best basketball player in the word because of how impactful his versatile defense is. It’s a beautiful thing watching all the love the fans have for this guy translate into other areas of his game.
Marcus, without a doubt, is the emotional leader of the club. Over his up and down five year career, he has learned, embodied, and embraced what it truly means to be a Celtic. Playing through a torn oblique (and soon to be more, I’m sure), playing through a shredded wrist tendon and thumb, and many more bumps and bruises along the way while diving for loose balls and offensive rebounds.
I’ve been watching this team most of my life, and for the first time since Paul Pierce, there is a player who deserves to be crowned the team captain — Marcus Smart. The longest tenured Celtic is a warrior of the highest order, a phenomenal teammate, and an unmatched leader. He’s not the best player on the team, but I guarantee he’s the first player taken in a pickup game of the team’s roster. He has the leadership qualities and intangibles that a player such as Kyrie Irving is developing. Soon, our guy will get there, but until then, and even when that day happens, Smart is the one this team rallies behind.
Over the course of this season, Smart upgraded every area of his game and deserves to be recognized for his improvements. It will be beyond criminal if he isn’t selected as an All-NBA defender. The Marcus Smart experience has been wildly entertaining, all of it. As a fan, it has become a blessing to watch his toughness and sheer will to do the things that others don’t blossom into facilitating and outside shooting, without losing what makes Marcus, Marcus. In my eyes, he had the best individual season on the team and deserves a salute of appreciation, at the least.
The Jay’s —
Between Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the Celtics were looking to become one of the young, promising tandems across the NBA. When Tatum was ushered in, many people forgot about the talent of Jaylen Brown, despite proving it his rookie season in the playoffs and playing to the same level of Tatum in last year’s postseason.
After a summer of exploding expectations, private workouts with Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant, Slam Magazine photo shoots, and VIP access from fashion shows in London and Gucci Mane concerts, to everything in between, this feels like a deciding summer for these guys. Jaylen, entering the final year of his rookie contract, and Jayson, who desperately needs to build on the career expectations.
Of the few players that showed up and showed out during the playoffs, Jaylen Brown was one of them. He had a phenomenal season after sacrificing his growth and statistics to come off the bench in an attempt to balance the struggling Celtics’ offense. He provided awesome defense, shooting, and energy most of the season after getting through some initial adjustments to his role. Sadly, the focus of last offseason and at the beginning of this year was on Tatum, rather than Brown who could honestly end up being a better NBA player. While Jaylen has slowly built on each season that he has been in the league, it would be great to see him take a jump forward on the last year of his deal.
With Tatum, it’s fair to say in hindsight that his expectations were far too high. I’m as guilty as anyone, but I really felt that he was going to come in and average an efficient 18-21 points per game as he did in the playoffs last season. Last year, we watched him go toe-to-toe with the Bucks, outplay the Sixers, and go toe-to-toe with LeBron (at least as much as you’d expect a rookie to do so). This year, he legitimately had some of the worst shot selection issues in the entire league, didn’t draw fouls, and his shooting regressed.
I made a comparison with Tatum to a very skilled, talented basketball player who is playing up one level too far. At times, he makes an insanely impressive move to the basket, or an incredible defensive play, or just in general looks very fluid and skilled, but far too often — like Gordon Hayward — he’s just floating. Too many times Tatum would just stand or float throughout the half court taking bad shots, or no shots at all. You could see that a commonality within his game was just shooting to shoot because “hey, I haven’t shot for a while.” I was expecting him to come in this season and take over games, not quarters.
The good thing is that this is the worst these two players will ever be. They’re 22 and 21-years-old. The sky is the limit, or at least a tiny bit less than we thought it might be. Regardless, they each have an awesome skillset that compliments the other well, and they both want to be the players we want them to be.
The Rest —
For the rest of the roster, there were many ups and downs, injuries, role changes, and distractions that come with each of those. In short, I’d LOVE Al Horford to return, obviously. I’d also be very happy if Marcus Morris Sr. returned. As for the rest — literally only Terry Rozier — can get out of here. If you believe that Rozier can be a competent lead guard, I question if you’ve seen him run a pick-and-anything or try to facilitate an offense. That little post season run he had last season was great, but it was an anomaly for his career and he has run out of juice.
Three Avenues —
Moving forward, and out of this Hell hole that was the 2018-19 season, there are three roads the Celtics can choose to go down. This season, they tried to build AND win now, and it cost them big time. Danny declined to make a move at the deadline and stayed put with too many players of the same position or ability. They need to pick a path, and commit.
Road 1 — Resign Kyrie Irving, resign Al Horford, resign Marcus Morris Sr., pray to the Basketball God’s Hayward returns to form, hope to pickup Aron Baynes player option, show Jayson Tatum his shot chart, let Terry Rozier walk literally anywhere, clone Marcus Smart’s DNA and inject it into the hearts of everybody that isn’t Morris Sr. or Brown.
You’re essentially running back the roster you had last season, minus a guard, and you get max-contract Gordon Hayward. That roster with an improved Tatum and Brown could win the East, potentially the Finals. The experience of this season’s issues are insanely valuable for these guys.
Road 2 — Resign Kyrie Irving, resign Al Horford, resign Marcus Morris, pray to the Basketball God’s that Hayward returns to form, put all the chips in for Anthony Davis.
Giving up Tatum or Brown or both in a trade scares me, but it doesn’t matter if they’re never going to fully develop when sharing so many minutes with a deep roster. If you win a championship, then you achieved the goal, but there would have to be some sort of wink-wink deal that Davis is going to resign. Even with that, it’d be very similar to this year with the distractions, except worse. Ultimately, this roster should win the East, potentially the Finals. But worse case scenario, Davis leaves after a year and you have a depleted team with Kyrie Irving on a super-max and Gordon Hayward with 1 year left on his deal.
Road 3 — Kyrie Irving leaves, resign Al Horford, resign Marcus Morris, resign a point guard to control the bench, pray to the Basketball God’s that Hayward returns to form, and let the young guys grow up.
This option would definitely lower the ceiling of the team, but it would be fun to watch the young kids grow up and battle through their own adversity before entering the prime of their careers in their late twenties. It’s very hard to win an NBA Championship, so maybe playing the long game could be the best idea. The Celtics have assets in their backpack that could be used to bargain for more players down the road, or continuing to add talent through the draft.
Regardless of these three avenues, the Celtics are in a much better situation than most of the NBA. This year will be used moving forward in many different decisions, but the good thing is that the Celtics will be interesting no matter the choices they make.