In every past year since 2007, particularly in 2010, I remained confident even as the Celtics stank in the regular season. This year is different.
And it's not all that easy to articulate exactly WHY it's different.... why, as they go around stinking this year, I have so little confidence that they will, once again, "flip the switch." And I'm telling you, back in 2010 I was absolutely SURE about that switch. Even while nearly everyone else was writing the team's epitaph.
So what's different now? Here's a crack at that....
1) They're sucking without a good injury excuse. Yes, Bradley's been out, and that might be a factor – but it's very hard to imagine that Bradley's return, alone, will make the difference between success and failure, between switch Off and switch On. And other than Bradley, every other major player's been reasonably healthy. And yet, they suck, and very badly.
2) The LEVEL to which they've sunk is, imv, much lower than ever before. Blowout after blowout.... without shame or any visible urgency... this hasn't happened before. It's scary to watch, because they act EXACTLY like true losers.
3) We've got a lot of new actors in the drama this year.
4) Age. KG and PP are two years older, and they are clearly in decline. How that manifests now is both variable and hard to predict. At the moment, it's fewer minutes for both. But it's more than that, and if we're honest with ourselves, I think we all must be seeing it: Paul is not what he was 2 years ago. Save for a couple of instances this season, his game is significantly off. He's being blocked more often (and often in embarrassingly easy ways), he can't guard anybody who's good, and he seems even slower than he was (and he was never Speedy Gonzalez out there). What will the future bring? How will KG hold up at age 37 in the playoffs, and PP at 35? No one knows. But these questions are real, and the impact of their answers is bound to hurt the team, one way or another.
5) Defense. In every other year, the Cs' defense remained reasonably stout, even when they sucked. They just couldn't score enough. This year, the defense is falling apart. Rondo, in particular, is HORRIBLE out there, REFUSING to keep his man in front of him, which in turn wreaks havoc with everyone else's D. Even KG's. And Terry is another horror spot. And defense is this team's core... it defines who they are... or rather who they've been. They're no longer who they were. They're floating out there in a sea of mediocrity (if not outright suckiness) with no clear identity. This has never happened before.
6) And maybe the best (worst?) reason my optimism is so AWOL these days is "the absence of brilliance." Ever since 07, this team has played brilliantly AT LEAST from time to time. Even in the regular season, there were always bright spots that we could point to, hang on to, remember and say: "THAT'S who they really are." My mantra was: If we're trying to determine this team's ceiling, bad games don't count, because bad games don't touch the ceiling, they only lower the floor. And that's still true. Problem is: there has been a depressing shortage of Celtic brilliance this season. What little success they've had was against weak or weakened teams. And no brilliance. Just a patina of dullness.
So that's why this year is different from the past. Danny can TALK about how they've always come back before, but as we all know, the past never guarantees the future. This year IS different. There's very little to hold onto that suggests all this will turn out alright.
So is it hopeless? This is just one guy's opinion now (of course).... but.... no.
Can't say that it's hopeless. KG remains a uniquely amazing player, always capable of surprising us. Paul is certainly older and slower... but I bet his pride is completely intact. He may find a way to fight his way back. Green – is still coming back from that year off, and still improving (yes, he is). He may improve further than we can imagine right now. Terry, Lee and Bass – are all yet FAR from their historical norms. It's reasonable to suppose that they will revert to their means – and that alone would make a big difference to this team. Sully's gonna be fine; he's already fine. Wilcox will heal, eventually, and start contributing again. Bradley ya gotta love; he WILL make a big difference, I have NO doubt. Melo may yet contribute too, and I expect Collins will be replaced.
Which leaves only Rondo. Sigh. I really wish we had a more reliable PG. A guy who would NEVER quit playing the defensive end, a guy who LISTENS TO HIS COACH, dammit. But OK, he's here to stay (probably). The one great thing that can honestly be said about Rondo is that he has always, I mean ALWAYS stepped up his game for the playoffs. His switch WILL get flipped. So there's that, too.
When you add it all up, some improvements are near-certainties in time for the playoffs (Bradley, Rondo, Wilcox's return), while others entail more hope (everybody else on the list). But it's not hopeless, and unlikely to ever be that.
Bottom line: I am far from confident that this team will make a real run this year. But there is still hope.