We’re just about two weeks away from training camp tipping off and I don’t quite know what to do with myself. I feel about this year’s Celtics the way my mom always has about me, except my gleeful assessment is far less tinged by hubristic unfounded “mom hype”. I mean, what an embarrassment of riches, right? Top to bottom, the Celtics have gotten better, and the baseline was already, in Brad parlance, darn impressive. Literally every piece of the model has gotten an upgrade down to the cosmetic finishes at the end of the bench.
Brad Wanamaker is at least three layers of nested Russian dolls bigger than Shane Larkin and will be able to physically fight off foes in ways that poor diminutive Shane couldn’t imagine;
future dunk competition winner and uncanny head turner Jabari Bird replaces the aloof Abdel Nader (who just couldn’t seem to step onto the court without annoying the crap of his teammates).
The young guys come in perfectly oven roasted after having literally carried the team to within minutes of making The Finals (bitterness has a way of coagulating into a form of additional motivational umami, which is never a bad thing); Terry Rozier discovered he could tap into his alter ego and step into the limelight, and will likely be auditioning his newfound confidence for a chance at a bright starting future outside of Massachusetts; Aron Baynes not only playtested an incredibly important addition to his game, but shockingly trotted it out as though he’d been draining crucial playoff corner 3’s for the past few years; Daniel Theis will reignite the fans’ appreciation of his palpable desire and unique big man skillset.
And half of the team has just been discovered tied up in a closet ready to be dusted off and redeployed and these aren’t spare parts we’re talking about: Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving will remind us just how much the Celtics missed having two top-15 players in the lineup (which feels incredibly stupid to even have to say, but we’ve all heard the absurd whispers about their supposed dispensability).
As Baynes mentioned recently, last year was literally about learning guys’ names then quickly shifting the team’s mindset to the dreaded “life without [X] Plan B”, while this year will be about re-establishing Stevens’ vision for the brand of basketball he wants this team to embody and polishing up the team’s execution. Stevens will have the freedom to reinsert a significant portion of the team’s playbook, on account of having had to simplify and alter the team’s style of play due to an injury-forced genetic mutation of the team’s identity and a whole host of options that were instantly removed from his coaching palette (see: my friend playing 2K19 and being astonished at how complete of a player Hayward is). More players are trickling into town early and into the Celtics’ exquisite new training facility matching the sterling caliber of the players within it. This has all the makings of a team that will mercilessly run up the score on just about any team in the league and toy with you in the process (I miss watching the ‘08-’11 teams’ effortlessly balletic brand of basketball) and just as easily suffocate the opposing team’s offense into an ugly brand of airless basketball.
So what’s the dark side of all this? Well, lucky for us, we have the marvel of the internet to source some of the *colorful* points of view that don’t quite align with the coiled might of this year’s squad. Here are just a few, including the scared voice in my head that I just can’t drown out with my excitement.
That nagging voice: Do the Celtics have a weakness? Yes, the playoffs were exhilarating (I was AT the confetti game), but they always felt a gust of wind away from irrevocable peril (which we came close to when Jaylen’s hamstring gave out). Everyone’s been saying how great all their limbs feel, or how great their teammates’ limbs look in the gym, and how everyone’s really really close to being ready to play 5-against-5 basketball (except for poor Robert Williams, whose personal elevator takes him straight to the practice court, and who I still have more hope in than I ever did in Fab Melo (in all seriousness, I think the kid is extremely talented and did a whole series of celebratory jumping jacks when we surprise nabbed him in the draft)). But arguably at least 50% of winning is luck, and these guys didn’t have very much of it last year.
Does that mean that the gods will shower us with injury-proof powder? In the recesses of my psyche still lies every playoff season subsequent to the 2008 championship that was thwarted by one key injury, and the same can be said for why the Rockets didn’t win last year’s championship or why the Durant-Westbrook combo will go down in history as ringless.
There’s no shortage of “what might have beens” in the NBA; you can have all the talent and chemistry and Xs and Os brilliance in the world, but nothing can tell you if a crucial ligament might decide to turn to jello when you most need that leg to stand on. The Celtics feel both extremely sturdy in terms of roster construction and mix of present / future / assets and flexibility, but they also feel like a paper doll because of the, well, prone-ness that blankets the roster and the sneaky potential for a shake next summer with some big decisions looming that could, potentially, reshape the team as we know it. <<Download fear file from worried brain, discard and enjoy the ride>>.
The heavily redacted congressional document: From a recent interview:
“We can’t skip steps,” Stevens said. “We can’t talk about being the favorite. We can’t talk about being in the mix. We can’t talk about being a playoff team. We have to go back and earn all that with our work all the way through. The one thing I will say is, you’d rather be in the position of having expectations and having everybody back, because that means the guys in the locker room are the ones that earned it. And I think having earned expectations is a positive thing.”
Someone has to keep these guys (and this writer) grounded and no one is better at shrinking the scope of the Celtics’ astronomical potential to the teeny tiny horizon of the craft, discipline, selflessness and focus of making yourself better every day and executing the next play better than the last than Brad Stevens. It doesn’t make for the most electric announcements, but it does hopefully atone for the Celtics’ egregious amount of talent and the very finite minutes that Stevens will somehow have to distribute this year.
The clickbait artist: You have to admire some people’s stubborn tenaciousness in constantly surfacing and amplifying unsubstantiated claims. Welcome to the literal business model of much of the sports news machine. No matter what heist Ainge & Co. are able to pull off, someone (with a serial killer stare and eyes that rarely blink) will plant the seed that Kyrie was upset that the Celtics made the playoffs, that Kyrie disappointed his teammates by missing Game 7, that Kyrie once said he wanted to play with the Knicks, or that he has secret plans of leaving the Celtics next summer and tag teaming with Jimmy Butler elsewhere because of his refusal to commit to the Celtics long term in the media (the same media environment that rarely rewards and most often skewers players every chance it gets). I’m sure there’s a certain satisfaction that comes with the denial of reality and the creation of wormholes of gossip for some, but there are enough spicy unknowns floating around the team to tickle and taunt a fan base without resorting to All That.
The contrarian troll: these people are distant cousins to the aforementioned clickbait artists and delightful in their own right. They constitute the persistent army of human bots that make the internet the delightful locale it has become. They are also the same humans that insist that Al Horford is somehow inadequate, that Hayward is merely a role player, that Stevens is overrated, and that the players don’t get enough credit (this one’s my favorite, it goes something like: “Seriously, has the guy done anything yet?? Tell me what he’s done. It takes decades to do anything of significance in this league. I’d be miffed if I were a player on that team” -- and has been parroted in a few corners). They sometimes look like the pair of Chauncey Billups and Jalen Rose giddily group thinking their way to rebutting anything positive Paul Pierce has to say about the Celtics EVER and they will loudly accompany the Celtics all the way to the Finals, unfazed.
The greedy &#@$?+$ers who always want more: There was a time when I thought that Danny Ainge was secretly a hedge fund manager whose sole purpose was to scour for inefficiencies in the marketplace and simply optimize for “expected return” in an endless stream of unintelligible-to-the-basketball-fan asset-flipping. Those days are behind us, but many seem to have gotten addicted to the hit from the transactional win, and are still looking at the bigger fish that the Celtics can land by trading all-the-amazing-but-not-as-good-as-superstar-X-players (that currently make up a team that should in theory be upset if it’s not in contention for the next decade).
Those weird pundit predictions that never have the Celtics first in the East NO MATTER WHAT: I’m convinced there’s a binary variable in ESPN’s model that reads something like this: “allow for Celtics to claim the top spot where they belong (variable: 1) OR scramble-algorithm anoint any other team that can plausibly rival the Celtics’ incredible roster, coaching staff, talent evaluator or dedicated owner as the likely no. 1 team in the East (variable: 0) that’s ALWAYS set to 0 no matter what.
This year, that team is the Raptors; yes, the team that’s either lurched into a poison pill - I don’t like the Lowry / Leonard combo one bit - or one that will get a boost from the renaissance of arguably the best two-way player in the NBA (alongside a new coach and the team who amazingly got swept by LeBron & not much else -- shaming an entire nation in the process). No one puts much stock in these early rankings, but they nonetheless amuse (re: rankle) me every time because I have nothing more important to get angry about.
The choice is yours, folks. The season doesn’t become real for another couple of months, so now is the time to delight in any of the many flavors of hope, fears, and delicious delusions!