Brad Stevens did what any respectable coach would do by taking the blame for the Boston Celtics' downright appalling performance as of late, but the primary issue is effort and talent, not the system, which is mostly all Stevens can control.
After the Charlotte Hornets throttled the Celtics 104-95 in TD Garden on Seats for Soldiers night, Jae Crowder spoke to the media and hit the nail on the head when assessing what's wrong with the team.
"We shouldn't have to figure out playing hard. As a basketball player you should always be ready to play hard no matter what the situation is," Crowder explained. "Our new guys, old guys, whatever it is, you should always have yourself ready to play hard."
In other words, Crowder is saying that a coach can only do so much, because if a person isn't mentally prepared to play hard, they won't. However, Crowder does think that those lollygagging players need to be held more accountable by the coaching staff.
"I guess hold guys accountable early and don't let it keep happening," Crowder said when asked what Stevens can do to better prepare the team. "We just kept digging ourselves in a hole. I just feel like you have to hold guys a little more accountable."
Crowder later explained that other coaches he's been around have disciplined players by yelling at them or cutting their minutes, "Whatever it is, you have to hold guys accountable and show them in a film session what's going on and help them get better."
Stevens is undoubtedly a "player's coach," someone who stays calm on the sidelines and remains as positive as possible even when everyone else is stressing, but taking an authoritarian approach could help keep his players "in line" when they go through the motions in times of distress. Without a clear leader on the team, maybe Stevens needs to play two roles by discipline his players more than he'd like to.
For example, if Boston plays with a piss-poor first half effort like they did against Charlotte, one move could be to bench the entire starting lineup after halftime, if anything to make a statement. It signals to the rest of the team that "Coach ain't playing around anymore" and "I better start busting my butt every possession or else I'm not playing."
But still, there's only so much you can do to get through to another person, both in basketball and in life. If Stevens cuts minutes, yells and shouts, or pleads and cries, it's still ultimately up to the players themselves to play with effort.
That's probably why Jae Crowder's eyes lit up when he was asked if he thinks the players need to hold themselves accountable.
"That's a big part of it. It's not even coach. Like I said, us NBA players should always come in ready to play hard. It's not on the coaches, it's not on anybody, but it's on us as players," Crowder said, showing the signs of a leader that Boston desperately needs.
"We just need to hold ourselves accountable and always come ready to play without a coach yelling at you or any of that stuff happening. You should always come ready to play for a basketball game. That's what we're here for, that's our job."
One play late in the fourth quarter comes to mind after hearing Crowder's explanation about players needing to take accountability for their own actions.
With about 3 minutes left, Boston trailed by 9 points and Charlotte ran a 1-4 pick-and-roll with Kemba Walker and Marvin Williams to force a switch between Marcus Smart and Brandon Bass. With only 6 seconds left on the shot clock, Bass was on an island with Walker, who jabbed right then drove left, zooming by him for a wide-open layup, with no help in the paint.
After the timeout, Jared Sullinger raised his arms in disgust, likely agitated that no one helped on the play, and said something to Crowder, who then signaled his hands as if to say, "it was your job to rotate and protect the rim, not mine."
It was obviously Sullinger's responsibility to help Bass, who had absolutely no chance of stopping Walker. James Young did a solid job of cracking down onto Cody Zeller, which is what should've prompted Sullinger's rotation to the middle of the paint. But it didn't happen, and Sullinger pointed the finger elsewhere instead of taking accountability for his own error.
This isn't intended to be a potshot at Sullinger; it is merely one of many poor team and individual defensive plays during the game, but it's the only one where the broadcast showed two players visibly arguing with each other after the play.
The point is that when arguments like this occur, as it will for any professional sports team, players must learn to take accountability and not continue to point fingers at one another. That is what creates trust, chemistry, and therefore a brotherhood within each player on and off the court.
Stevens can help in that sense by benching or scolding players that absolutely blow a rotation, instead of letting them walk right by like he did after Sullinger made his crucial mistake, but it's still on the players to come out of the gates with high effort and intensity.
And what if that type of message doesn't work? Gregg Popovich has some advice:
"You can make a mistake and we have had some guys along the way that I did have to talk to or whatever. Our method is usually tough love," Popovich said last year in Boston when asked how he talks to young players that make mistakes.
"I don't think coddling someone or blowing smoke at them really works. Beating them to death mentally doesn't really work. So, to give them a clear picture of what's demanded and needed is the first important thing, then showing the care and concern after that. Being there for them on the court, caring about what they do off the court, understanding who they are on the planet, what makes them tick.
"You do all of that, and if that doesn't get through, get rid of them."
There are 43 days until the NBA trading deadline, which the Boston Celtics should use as an evaluation period to decide who is and isn't on the bus going forward. And if they find that they have some players that work against their mission by playing with a bad attitude and poor effort, then they must get rid of them.