It's not easy to endure the kind of losing that the Celtics did this season. After a quasi-promising first half of the year, the C's fell apart down the stretch, finishing with losses in 11 of their last 13 games, 16 of their last 19 and 23 of their last 29. That's not adversity - that's outright failure. Regardless of their potential or effort or any of those intangible abstract nouns, the Celtics' results this season were straight-up awful.
Put a lot of teams through an ordeal like this, and it might break them. Players start pointing fingers at each other, turning on their coaches, quitting on the team. It happens in every sport, but especially in the NBA with teams that slog through months with no hope of playoff contention.
For the Celtics, that wasn't really an issue. With very few exceptions (hey, anyone remember Keith Bogans?), this team remained unified and focused on showing up to compete each game. The end results were rarely good, but the C's continued to give a high-quality, professional effort.
"They never really splintered," said coach Brad Stevens, reflecting on his team after year one as an NBA coach. "Things like this can splinter you pretty easily, but they stayed together pretty well. As far as standing up for one another and being a team and not pointing blame, they were a pretty good group in that regard. That gives you a chance to improve."
Stevens' unflappable attitude was a big reason for the Celtics' stability down the stretch this season, and it's also a driving force behind the optimism that propels this team into the summer and fall months. These last few weeks could have been divisive and ultimately pointless, but instead, they were viewed as building blocks as the team prepares for next season.
Kelly Olynyk, the Celtics' starting center down the stretch with Jared Sullinger and Kris Humphries injured, was a revelation to close the season, putting up stat lines of 25-12, 28-9 and 24-7 the final three games. Phil Pressey was a solid starting point guard at the end, putting up 39 assists over the team's last four contests. Chris Johnson and Chris Babb, two guys who weren't even in the league to start the season, gave the team quality minutes this past week.
All of the above was encouraging.
"I think everything matters," Stevens said. "We talked about that as a team - that was kind of a rallying cry going into the offseason. Every little thing you do matters.
"If Kelly Olynyk is a better player next year because of his last three games, then the last three games are critically important. If Phil Pressey is a better player because of the three games he started, it's critically important. The bottom line is we're all shooting for something, and every single day and every single effort you put in goes into achieving it."
That's the right attitude to have. Danny Ainge might not have built a roster capable of winning this season, but he did carefully construct a group with the right psychological makeup to endure a rebuild. This team is patient and cares about the long-term process of improving.
Avery Bradley was a prime example of that mindset. The Celtics' second longest-tenured player after captain Rajon Rondo, Bradley emerged as a secondary team leader during his fourth season, and he was a constant presence in the locker room, keeping the group focused and optimistic. Despite missing 22 games due to injuries, the two-guard stayed on message.
"I feel like everybody got better on both sides of the floor," Bradley said. "Even though it was a tough year, you can always stay positive. I think everybody in this locker room can say that they improved their game throughout the season."
As for the won-lost record? No one is happy with 25-57, but they're not about to hang their heads about the way things turned out.
"It's just motivation for next year," said Rondo. "We have a lot to improve on, and I look forward to the days next year."
"I think we can get better," added Stevens. "I think we can get better. Unlike you would think after a season like this, I'm not concerned that we aren't going to strive to get better. I think they're going to work. I think their work ethic is good and their coachability is pretty good."
Some teams suffer a losing season like this one, and it tears them apart. It destroys their will to compete and derails the franchise for years to come.
With the Celtics, that won't be the case. Credit the coach, the players and the organization as a whole for that.
"It's not fun to not win," Stevens said. "But that doesn't define who you are or how you go about your business."