- At 25-18, the Boston Celtics have struggled through much of the 2018-19 season, coming up short of lofty preseason expectations.
- The Celtics have struggled with combining their full, healthy, talented roster, resulting in minor struggles from several players that have merged into something bigger.
- During a recent three-game skid, there have been signs of turbulence, from two players shoving each other, long team meetings, and eyebrow-raising quotes.
The Boston Celtics were expected to be one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference and all of the NBA coming into this season.
The team won 55 games last year without Gordon Hayward, then nearly knocked off the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs without Kyrie Irving. By plugging two All-Stars back into the mix with their talented young core and proven veterans, the Celtics were supposed to be vaulted into championship contention.
But through 43 games this season, it hasn’t been as simple as plug-and-play for the Celtics. Boston is 25-18, fifth in the Eastern Conference and have dropped three straight after losing 109-102 to the Brooklyn Nets on Monday. The final score wasn’t indicative of the game, as the Celtics trailed 66-90 entering the fourth quarter before making a late rally.
Finding the Celtics’ struggles is difficult. Before their three-game skid, they had appeared to turn things around, winning four straight and moving the ball better than they had all season. Then, suddenly, things took a turn for the worse.
From a distance, the Celtics would appear to be among the best teams in the league. They have the second-best net rating in the entire league, a top-10 offense, and top-5 defense. They shoot the ball well (10th in eFG%), share it well (6th in assist %), and rarely turn it over (4th in turnover %).
The Celtics’ problems seem to lie in intangibles. Frequently, there have been talks that perhaps the team is too talented.
“I don’t think we’ve all been on a team like this,” backup guard Terry Rozier told Yahoo’s Vincent Goodwill after Monday’s loss. “Young guys who can play, guys who did things in their career, the group that was together last year, then you bring Kyrie and Hayward back, it’s a lot with it … Too talented, yeah. Too talented.”
The Celtics’ young stars, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Rozier, got to shine in bigger roles in the playoffs last year while Al Horford anchored the team. Now they’ve welcomed back Irving and Hayward, two stars who have taken back some of those shots and overall usage.
Those young players had barely settled into roles before being upended again. Rozier is back on the bench and struggling. Brown has struggled with fewer looks. Tatum’s stats have increased, but his efficiency hasn’t, and his shot selection has occasionally gotten him into trouble with head coach Brad Stevens.
There have been ripple effects. Hayward, coming back from his gruesome ankle injury, has not looked the same and been demoted to coming off the bench to try to balance things out. Horford’s three-point percentage has dropped eight points this year but on the same number of attempts as last season.
Perhaps the only two players who have improved upon last season are Irving – who is having an All-NBA caliber season – and Marcus Morris, who’s shooting an incredible 49% from the field and 45% from three. Morris is deserving of more time and touches, and it further eats into the roles of the Celtics’ other players. Marcus Smart is a reliable source of energy, defense, and ball-handling for Boston. When he plays well, he, too, eats into the minutes of other players.
Taken all together, the small percentage points where individual players have struggled have coalesced into something bigger. A roster that some considered to be second-best in the NBA isn’t that good if its main components are under-performing.
Can a team be too deep and talented? The best teams in the NBA, the most talented, championship-caliber teams, all find ways to sacrifice. So far, the Celtics haven’t quite found that balance, even if they’re trying.
The cracks are starting to show
There are signs of mounting frustration. The Celtics showed some early in the season when they began 10-10, changed their starting lineup, and had mysterious team meetings. A resulting 15-5 stretch against a weaker portion of their schedule seemed to smooth things out, but over the last week, there have been signs of turbulence.
In a double-digit, nationally televised loss to the Miami Heat last Thursday, Morris and Brown were seen shoving each other during a timeout.
Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris had to get separated during a timeout…
(via ahubbtho/IG) pic.twitter.com/1EyBZyzvUn
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 11, 2019
On Saturday, after blowing a late lead to the Orlando Magic, Irving was seen arguing with Stevens over his late-game play-calling.
Another look at Kyrie in the huddle before Celtics' last shot.
Irving appeared to disagree with Brad Stevens' call… pic.twitter.com/GZfi6xewjD
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 13, 2019
On the ensuing inbounds play, Irving also took issue with Hayward’s decision-making
Kyrie Irving didn't seem very thrilled with Gordon Hayward pic.twitter.com/oVSkSeoloX
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) January 13, 2019
During Monday’s loss to the Nets (Irving and Marcus Smart both missed the game), Stevens called a timeout just 30 seconds into the game after the Celtics gave up an open corner three-pointer to the Nets, a sign of mounting frustration.
After the loss to the Magic, Irving spoke at length about this Celtics team feeling the weight of expectations.
“We had nothing to lose last year,” Irving said. “We had nothing to lose, and everybody could play free and do whatever they wanted, and nobody had any expectations. We were supposed to be at a certain point; we surpassed that. Young guys were supposed to be at a certain point; they surpassed that. We come into this season, expectations, and it’s real. Everyone from the coaching staff to the players, it’s very much real, every single day, so that’s new. It’s tough.”
He added: “What we’re facing now is nothing compared to being on that stage, trying to get a gold trophy. It’s hard now. What do you think it’s going to be when we get to the Finals?”
According to Goodwill, after the Nets loss, Irving again addressed the team. However, as Irving tries to steer the team in the right direction, there appear to be different reactions. Rozier told Goodwill that Irving’s comments had been needed. Tatum said Irving is the lone player who knows what it takes to win a championship.
Brown, however, seemed to feel that young players were being singled out.
Jaylen Brown to reporters in New York: “It’s not the young guys’ or old guys’ fault — it’s everybody.”
More: “We just have to have each other’s back at the end of the day. We can’t make comments, we can’t point fingers.”
Kyrie Irving has pointed at the young guys all season.
— Jay King (@ByJayKing) January 15, 2019
The Celtics still have the second half of the season to figure things out, and perhaps it’s encouraging that they are still seven games over .500.
The runway isn’t very long, however. Irving and Horford can both be free agents at the end of the season. Irving and the Celtics have said they are committed to signing a new, long-term deal, but anything can happen between now and July. It’s unclear if Horford will pick up his player option or opt for the open market.
Morris a free agent, Rozier is a restricted free agent, and the Celtics can begin extension talks for Brown, which could become interesting, given his up-and-down play.
The second half of the year and resulting playoff run could have a big impact on the Celtics’ future. If the Celtics can’t find consistency this season, perhaps management will not want to commit to paying what’s been an underwhelming core this season.
A second-half surge could be on the way, and perhaps the Celtics will finally resemble the contender many expected. At this point, however, the sample is large enough to wonder if this team will get there.