We all watched it, it was awful.
As a Celtics fan, to see this team crumple the way it did against the Milwaukee Bucks was beyond disappointing.
In hindsight, they showed us this was possible all season. Every time you thought they figured it out, like when they went 10-1 run during the middle of the season (only loss to the Warriors) to move to the third seed in the conference, they quickly would take step backs and put a sour taste in your mouth.
The same story happened this postseason. After sweeping the Pacers and stealing Game 1 against the Bucks by over 20 points, it looked they might have finally “flipped the switch.” Less than 2 weeks later, the team is now done for the season, leaving even more questions than one could have imagined.
That’s the 2018-2019 Boston Celtics for you.
This post will feel like I’m beating a dead horse, because so many have written summaries of this season for Boston. I think some have don so in bad faith, looking to continue this narrative of putting down Boston in a manner much worse than necessary.
Yes, the Celtics did not meet their expectations for this season, which in most cases, had them winning the Eastern Conference and competing with Golden State for a title. However, several of the reactions I have seen have been reaches, and I think we all need to just relax.
It was an emotional end to a stressful season, but this team was going to be at a crossroads regardless (unless they made the Finals). This postseason was always going to gauge whether they should A) keep this group together, or B) shift the focus of the timeline to a win-now mode (meaning go all-in for Anthony Davis); there was also C) reset if Kyrie Irving were to possibly leave. They were not going to be able to have these dual timelines forever, and it’s great they were able to go as long as they did with them; it’s over now.
There’s a few things we should keep in perspective now as the team enters the offseason.
Yes, Plan A is to bring back Kyrie Irving
Yes, Kyrie Irving had an inexcusable end to the series against the Bucks. He is the same person who said he was looking forward to the postseason, the same person who said the Celtics would win because they have him, the same person who put this all on himself… and came up miserably short.
In his 2 seasons in Boston, Kyrie has become an extremely efficient player, solidifying his status as one of the best scorers in the NBA. His series against Milwaukee was an outlier. It was more than likely the worst four-game stretch of his career, and at the absolute time…
All of that is NOT an excuse to not want him back.
This was his first postseason as the number one option of a team, and it left a lot to be desired.
Here’s a comparison between Kyrie’s 2019 postseason, and Russell Westbrook’s first postseason without Kevin Durant in 2017:
2019 Irving (9 games): 21.3 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 7.0 APG (.385 FG%/.310 3P%/.900 FT%)
2017 Westrbook (5 games): 37.4 PPG, 11.6 RPG, 10.8 APG (.388 FG%/.265 3P%/.800 FT%)
Westbrook put up much higher scoring totals, but note the similarities in he and Irving’s shooting percentages. Westbrook averaged 30.4 FGA per game, while Irving averaged 19.9 FGA per game.
This might seem like an argument to scare some Celtics fans, but what Westbrook did was more on par with his regular output, while it was out of the blue for Irving.
Westbrook had a field goal percentage of .425 in 2017, meaning it went down 3.7% during the postseason.
Irving had a field goal percentage of .487 during this past season, meaning it went down 10.2% during the postseason.
We expect Westbrook to be extremely inefficient in the postseason because he is rather inefficient in the regular season; that is not the case with Kyrie Irving.
A better case study is comparing Irving – specifically his series to Milwaukee – to Damian Lillard and his series against the Pelicans last season
2019 Irving vs. Bucks (5 games): 20.4 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 6.4 APG (.356 FG%/.219 3P%/.913 FT%)
2018 Lillard vs. Pelicans (4 games): 18.5 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 4.8 APG (.352 FG%/.300 3P%/.882 FT%)
Lillard has been the top dog in Portland for awhile, but nevertheless he had a disappointing and out of character performance against a Pelicans team many thought they should have beaten with ease. Like Kyrie’s performance against Milwaukee, this looked like an outlier for Lillard. One year later, Lillard is averaging 29.8 PPG this postseason while shooting .449 from the field and .387 from three, a step up from this past regular season.
What’s to say Kyrie can’t do the same in 2020?
Irving is 27 years old, is in his prime, and has shown that as a top scoring option on a team, he can be efficient and productive. This postseason was telling, but should not be an ultimate verdict on his career. To say he cannot improve from this and do better, more on par with his typical regular season production, is naive. I know it looks bad because he wilted under pressure when the stakes were highest, but plenty of stars have had bad showings, using it as fuel to improve their games and become better as a result. Lillard is one example; LeBron James became an NBA Champion after a lackluster Finals performance in 2011; Kobe Bryant once shot four air balls in a series-ending game against Utah as a rookie, and Shaq was not as dominant his first few postseasons in LA either.
Kyrie is an All-NBA level talent, and one series should not mean not even making an offer to him. Another thing, I’ve seen some people suggest the team should not offer him a max contract, and that is also stupid. Irving is a Top 5 PG in the NBA, and all the other players in his stratosphere are on max contracts. This includes Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, and other PGs such as Chris Paul, John Wall, Kyle Lowry, and Mike Conley. To imply Kyrie is suddenly not deserving of a contract on the same level of those players is dumb, and it’s just another way of saying you do not want him here (also dumb).
Did his reputation as a top option take a hit this postseason? Yes, not answering the call in the manner Irving did allows for plenty of fair and valid criticism.
Is he still an elite player? Yes, without a doubt.
Can he rebound from this postseason? That’s on him, but seeing how Kyrie has progressed his entire career, what evidence is there to show that this is who he will be on this stage the rest of the way? None that I see.
Would he benefit from playing with another star? Yes, because almost anyone would. If the Celtics are able to acquire Anthony Davis, it would make he and Irving one of the best duos in the NBA. Both would in their primes, part of a winning organization, and complimenting each other. Kyrie could still be a top scoring option, or maybe he could defer ever so slightly, but it would make his job easier.
Plan A should be to re-sign Irving, and then make a huge offer for Anthony Davis. Irving would have to make this a condition of coming back in order for the Celtics to know what to do next, but it seems most logical at this point. The Celtics still have young pieces in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, but they will need to decide who’s timeline to work with moving forward. Kyrie coming back would mean you need to win now, and that is not as likely to occur with this current core.
Tatum and Brown could still become great players in this league, but they more than likely would not fill the role(s) needed to compliment Kyrie Irving in the years to come. This is a star player type of league, and Irving is one of them. Tatum could still become a star, but I do not think he will get the opportunity to reach that point while Kyrie is still in his prime. Therefore, I believe it is justified to trade him in a package for Davis if winning now is the cost.
If Kyrie did leave, building around Tatum and Brown would be fine. You would take a step back as a team, but you’d give two players the opportunity to showcase their potential in a way they have not been able to, allowing them to grow. At the ages of 21 and 22, they still have time to get better; but this is plan B (although it’s not too bad).
Brad Stevens is not on the hot seat
This was not a big take in the aftermath of the Bucks series, but one I did see pop up.
This was a take from CLNS reporter Alex Barth, who is mainly covers the Patriots. Alex does a great job with his Patriots coverage (as well as his colleague Evan Lazer), but this opinion has been bugging me for a few days.
I agree this was Stevens worst coaching job, and the allure of him being a basketball genius took a hit, but I do not believe it was this drastic. Stevens is still one of the better coaches in the NBA, and his body of work supports that. There is evidence to support the idea that some coaches can only bring a franchise so far with X’s and O’s, and could reach a point where they cannot manage the personalities of elite talents that are needed to take teams to the top, but I also think there have been worse coaches than him put in that situation.
Stevens made some long-term decisions early on such as letting Gordon Hayward start longer than he should have, with the intention of it paying off in the postseason. He also gave Terry Rozier way too much playing time, and probably should have called on Brad Wanamaker’s number more this season, but maybe he was of the belief talent would break through, and wanted to give his players a chance.
Nevertheless, he fell short, and admitted as much.
However, I completely disagree with the idea him being hired away by the Indiana Hosiers is the “ideal scenario.”
That almost denies everything he has done during his time in Boston, and in my opinion, puts way more of the blame on him than he deserves.
I can see a scenario where we keep re-sign Kyrie and acquire Anthony Davis, and the team still struggles during the 2019-2020 season, signalling Brad truly might not be able to work with elite players like those two. However, if Kyrie leaves, who else would you want working with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown?
He’s the same coach who worked with those two last season when they were a game away from the NBA Finals, and he still has a good track record with other players improving under his watch.
If Kyrie did leave, there is no other coach I would want. Unless Danny Ainge sees another upstart coach lurking around, Stevens had done enough to earn the right to stay. Even if Kyrie stays, there aren’t many coaches better than Stevens that you can bring into Boston to bring the team over the top, and I truly believe that.
Just look at the coaches the Lakers have been tied to.
Ty Lue, Jason Kidd, Mark Jackson, Frank Vogel, Mike Woodson, Lionel Hollins. Who on that list would be better than Stevens? I only ask because that’s probably a starting off point for who would replace Stevens in the scenario I listed above (unless it’s an assistant already on the staff).
His stock came down to Earth, but lets cool off on this take a bit.
Danny Ainge is still the GM of this team
I know there’s this notion of the Kyrie Irving Era being this ultimate disaster (I’m talking to you Nick Wright), but lets take a few steps back.
After the end of the 2016-2017 season, I want you to truly ask yourselves what Danny Ainge did that offseason that you would not.
- Trade the 1st overall pick to Philly for the 3rd overall pick and a future first
Ainge had his eyes set on Jayson Tatum all along, and for good reason. He’s the perfect type of player for today’s league: a 3&D perimeter player. That might be an oversimplification, but nevertheless, it’s the type of player needed to be good in the modern NBA. He has said he would have taken him number 1, but instead, traded back to where he would get Tatum anyway, and got a future first round pick in the process. That future pick (yielded into a 2019 Sacramento first, top 1 protected) is not as strong as it once looked, but it can still be used as an asset in a trade, and the fact Ainge got the player he wanted AND a pick is just good team building. Plus, Markelle Fultz is a bust. Unless you think Ainge should have known Donovan Mitchell would be this good and drafted him at 3, there is not another player that makes this move look bad.
2. Sign Gordon Hayward
People need to remember just how good Hayward was in 2016-2017. He averaged a career-high 21.9 PPG while shooting .471 from the field and .398 from three. He was in an offense with an extremely slow pace, and led the team to a 5th seed out West, beating the Clippers in 7 games in the first round before getting swept by the Warriors. He was 27 years old, in his prime, and was the best free agent available for a team with a max contract free agent slot. The team had needed a second scoring option for awhile, as Isaiah Thomas had took on too much of the burden, and Hayward looked like THE perfect option for Boston. It made too much sense. Even as the team acquired Kyrie Irving (more on that shortly), Hayward still looked like a solid compliment, Now we know the gruesome injury he suffered on opening night of the 2017-2018 season, and that injury had residual effects going into this season (Hayward did not start participating in 5-on-5 drills until September), but to act like signing him was a mistake is revisionist history. The only other player you could say was worthy of Boston’s mac contract was Blake Griffin, but he would not have complimented the team as well, and he was re-signed shortly after free agency began anyway (Hayward did not decide until July 4). A freak injury does not make it a mistake.
3. Acquiring Kyrie Irving
Lets re-visit the Kyrie Irving trade, shall we. Boston acquired Irving for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and a 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick (later turning into Collin Sexton). Take a real deep breath here. Even if Irving’s time in Boston is over, and this trade did not lead to a championship with him in Boston… would you make that trade again? Yes you would, 10 times out of 10. Why? Look at Isaiah Thomas. He has played 44 games the past 2 seasons for 3 teams since this trade, averaging 13.3 PPG. He is on a Denver Nuggets team that is competing for an NBA title, and he has yet to appear for them this postseason. Boston saw the medical reports of IT following the 2017 playoffs, and there is nothing to suggest he would be the same player he was before if he stayed. If this trade does not happen and IT stays, he would miss months, Terry Rozier would start, and IT very well may have just left in free agency. The only other reason you do not make this deal is to keep the Brooklyn Nets pick. It would be another asset, and maybe Ainge uses it with the assets he has to make a trade for someone like Kawhi Leonard, but that would be a risk similar to the one Toronto made this past summer. Yes, it gave the Raptors a shot at a title, and I make that deal every time, but if he leaves, it’s time to restart up north. Ainge has been looking to build a contender for years, why would he throw it all away on 1-1.5 seasons of Kawhi? Any way you slice it, the move for Kyrie was smart, low cost, and it made your team better and put them in a position to further compete for a title. It has not happened yet (it might not happen at all with Irving), but to say it was a disaster also implies it should have never happened, and as a bad as this season ended, the alternative of him never being here is not as good.
Do I think there are some moves Ainge should have made? Yes.
He probably should have capitalized on the postseason Terry Rozier had a year ago and gotten some value in return. I understand the logic in keeping Rozier in order to back up Kyrie, who was coming back from knee surgery, and just keeping talented players around, but in hindsight, he was not good for the chemistry of this team.
Rozier has said he sacrificed the most of anyone on this year’s team, really striking a sour tone for this disappointing season.
Ainge should have know there was a risk in having Irving and Hayward return, and how that would work with managing minutes. Rozier clearly was not able to adapt to his new role, and maybe it was avoidable.
There is a scenario where Rozier returns, possibly coming back to start at point guard if Kyrie leaves, but it might be best for both sides for him to go elsewhere.
Ainge also might have been well-served bringing in a veteran during the season. The team did sign Greg Monroe, who was a Celtic for part of the 2018 season (including the entire postseason), but that lasted just 10 days. Plenty of contenders bring along random veterans that turn out to be great for the locker room. Current Suns GM James Jones never got many minutes during the end of his career in Cleveland, but he served as a good locker room presence for the squad. I have made my views known on why I think the Celtics should have signed Kendrick Perkins. The Bucks acquired Pau Gasol at the trade deadline this season, and he has not played this postseason due to an injury, but has surely been a good for the young group. Ainge admitted there were not minutes to go around, which makes sense, but I think having that 14- or 15-year veteran would have been a positive during the downs of this season.
You could make an argument that Ainge should have traded Marcus Morris this offseason, but Mook showed his value in the first half of the year, as well as this postseason. It looks like he became one of the more vocal members of the team, and I’m guessing that was the case in the locker room as well. The logic would have been he could have acquired a late first for Mook, and cleared up some playing time for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, as well as Semi Ojeleye. It also would have been capitalizing on an asset to get a team-controlled player for a few seasons. Although the Celtics will more than likely lose Morris this offseason, he did a good job this season.
Other than that, there’s not a lot I can blame Ainge for. Unless you’re one of the people who thinks he should have gotten Bradley Beal in November, I don’t see what else he could have done differently, other than say acquire Kawhi Leonard last offseason. That would have made the team better in the present, but would have risked the future. Plus I think the prize is still Anthony Davis, and he believes that is the best recruiting pitch for Kyrie Irving.
Even if Irving leaves, he will still have Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to work around, and those are two players who teams ideally want as the result of entering a rebuild.
At the end of the day, I believe Ainge built a good roster that could not mesh this season. Maybe that becomes this easier if the same crew comes back minus Rozier and Morris, maybe it looks even better by trading for Davis and keeping Kyrie, but I do not blame Ainge for the way this season ended.
The Celtics might not be in the perfect position they seemed to be in when the world was in front of them for years and years with the war chest of assets they boasted, but it could be worse.
I still believe they present Kyrie Irving with the best situation this summer. If Kevin Durant does go to the Knicks, maybe that is more appealing for Kyrie… but what-if BOSTON got KD (very unlikely, but read why it could happen). I just don’t see the allure of playing for that organization, especially with the way the Lakers are going down hill with similar bad management. Durant and Kyrie could be talented enough to make up for the faults of the Knicks, but it’s not something ideal in my eyes (but I could be wrong).
He could go to the Nets and be in New York (more likely in my opinion), but do they present a better situation that Boston. It’s a good young team, but there might be similar timeline issues as well, and they would need another star to compliment Irving.
Kyrie could make the villainous move of joining forces with LeBron in Los Angeles, but does he think LeBron is going to be good that much longer? He could take the torch from him and ultimately own Los Angeles for years to come, but the West will still be deep in spite of that. This is the one move that I would genuinely be angry about if it happened.
Boston has two young wings that any rebuilding team would desire if they were starting over, and I think if given the opportunity, Brown and Tatum could grow and become a nice duo in this league. It could be a lot worse than starting over without them.
If Boston keeps Kyrie and gets Anthony Davis, they suddenly have the best duo in the Eastern Conference (yes, better than Embiid and Simmons), and come close to Milwaukee. Even if the Raptors keep Kawhi Leonard, it would be more top end talent than they boast, and as good as Giannis is, it would be better than him and Middleton (who could leave this summer). Boston could still be in position to be the best team in the conference in 2020, something that will be made clear to Kyrie. If Durant does not go to the Knicks, it becomes even more likely.
To sum it all up (thank you for reading this far), this was the first time the Celtics had legitimate expectations in the Brad Stevens Era. We as a fan base have been able to ride the fun of doing well but knowing it did not mean anything, because we knew changes were coming and nothing was final; that changed this year.
It was not fun, far from it (still not as bad as the 2011 Boston Red Sox, which people seem to disagree with).
I enjoy the process of team’s being built, and thought we were still not at the end of the road prior to this season. I look forward to seeing what happens this offseason, good or bad, and how Danny Ainge responds. I know this city expects championships, but the Celtics are still a very good team in this league, and have been for over a decade. It’s hard to win when you don’t tank, and Ainge did a remarkable job getting this team this far in the manner he did. I have faith in him to put this team in the best position possible.
Finally, Kyrie: please re-sign
Image above is credited to Maddie Meyer of Getty Images
Follow Nick on Twitter (@Nick_Collins14)