Oh, happy day! NBA fans had been pathetically hungering for any morsel of NBA protein for weeks now during the desert days of summer NBA coverage. Last week, the deliverance came in the form of real NBA news; news about players’ reformed waistlines, twin hairdos, Marvel superhero-worthy summer regimens and the kind of unbridled optimism that makes your spine tingle.
With the glare of my Mac screen shining the only wattage in my living room, I spent late Friday night rifling through every one of the Celtics press conference videos for hidden tarot meanings that might have eluded one of the the 100 fans who had contributed a YouTube view.
Why put stock in something as frivolous as opening week of training camp, you ask? For one, it’s a time to delightfully suspend all logic and inhale that lovely aroma of newness. But more than that, summertime is an underreported variable in the team improvement equation — especially considering what little time teams have to fully internalize learnings and make changes during the season.
Prior to parting ways for the summer, each Celtics player was sent home with a report card of sorts and and a list of things to work on. Unfortunately, away from the glare of the coaching staff, focus and discipline are hardly mandatory and even harder to enforce. That’s where the halo effect of a coach’s influence on players’ habits — even when they’re not within earshot — is thrown into sharp relief.
The number of In Coach Stevens We Trust endorsements intoned in the first few days of training camp alone gives us a good proxy by which to judge the stickiness of Stevens’ summer prescriptions. It’s a recurring motif in Celtics players’ speech patterns and symptomatic of the respect and trust they have in their coach. And it’s not hard to see why. Stevens managed to make an early impression on David Lee both with his microscopic attention to detail and rare combination of fairness and empathy. He reacted to the "how do you get along with NBA Players" question with the heartfelt platitude that all you have to do is relate to players as human beings. And by putting in what he calls "sweat equity", Stevens’ brilliance and goodwill become almost impossible to refute.
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Back at the Celtics practice facility, Isaiah Thomas talks about calibrating his playmaking antenna and adding a patented Steve Nash one-legged jumper that extends all the way out to the three point line; Marcus Smart’s fingers, which not long ago looked like they were fashioned by Guillermo del Toro’s makeup artist, are once again shaped like a human’s appendages; "Bae" Crowder has tuned his shooting mechanics and is ready to rocket to elite 3-and-D-and-grit role player status. And you get the sense that the way Stevens plans on playing Amir Johnson will eventually contribute a more nuanced definition to the canon of what big man versatility can look like.
Celtics fans, rejoice! The 2015–2016 Celtics will never be as good as they are today.
The only claim that struck everyone with eyes as dubious was Sullinger’s "this is probably the best I’ve ever felt, emotionally and physically". Why then did his jersey hug him uncomfortably like he was wearing an Australian women’s fitted satin unitard? One working hypothesis is that just like bridesmaids who aspire to lose weight buy a dress one or two sizes smaller than what they can fit into to motivate themselves to drop weight by the big day, so too the Celtics organization conditionally ordered Sully a size L for training camp. Sadly, the result fell short of expectations, leaving us with the awkwardly snug jersey. That’s the downside of reality, but reality is a bummer and was denied a press pass to training camp.
If you listen carefully, you’ll hear a timid but growing murmur of acquiescence in the Celtics’ legitimacy within NBA circles. But those frequencies clearly haven’t radiated out to the mainstream. While believers cite Kevin Pelton and Tom Haberstroh to back their 2014–2015 Atlanta Hawks comparisons, most everyone I’ve talked to this summer chalked up my lofty forecasts to the common case of fan delusion.
To the everyday fan, the Celtics are still the well intentioned star-less team eagerly wielding their little rock chipper trying to improve upon their NBA Cinderella status. There’s a strange mental model that is to blame which is similar to how local broadcasters seem to be fed slightly outdated player information when making less than factual claims on the air. A more accurate win-loss model might factor in last year’s second-half-of-the-season success, young players’ expected slide up the experience curve and the basketball skill and tutelage effect of David Lee and Amir Johnson.
The Celtics traveled to Milan with an all too familiar mandate to evaluate, audit and triage. That might all sound like the Celtics’ destiny is to turn into an old maid while all the girls around her snatch up the best remaining marriage prospects, but the Celtics’ homemade brand of improvement feels earnest, exciting, and worth tuning into. Borrowing from the Gregg Popovich lexicon, they have continuity and a growing body of corporate knowledge on their side — not to mention a towering castle of assets that could net them three additional lottery picks in this year’s draft if everything goes according to plan. Who knows how long it will take for the Celtics to convince more than the ESPN Insiders crew of their newfound legitimacy. In the meantime, I can enjoy knowing something that most people don’t know yet.