No, really. Things weren’t THAT bad last year. But we’re just having SO much fun this year.
That’s not a direct quote, just the general vibe I’m getting from all the early comments in camp thus far. We knew that this was coming. The team needed a change of personality and they got it. Out with the old, in with the refreshing and new. It doesn’t even seem forced. These guys genuinely seem more relaxed and focused on bonding as a unit.
When players lifted weights before the opening practice Tuesday, they did so in groups, rather than on their own as was typical last season. When they shot around on the court, they did so with other teammates. The changes aren’t major – “nothing crazy,” Jayson Tatum said – but demonstrate small ways Stevens has adapted after last season’s failure to build a cohesive team.
“Just getting that togetherness early,” Tatum said. “Last year we did individual shots up before practice. Now, it’s at least two (players) to a basket or three. You know, being together.”
I’m genuinely happy for the team and really looking forward to covering this group of guys. I have that giddy early season excitement that seemed light-years away at the end of last season. This year’s squad should be flat-out fun to watch.
But will they be good? Will this newfound camaraderie make any difference in the win column?
While those involved are loathe to take public shots when all they can see is the player’s back heading out the door, there is general relief that the club no longer has to count on Kyrie Irving for emotional consistency. But, his sublime talent aside, simply substituting All-Star Kemba Walker wouldn’t have solved everything last year. And it won’t now.
Jokes and smiles aren’t going to make Gordon Hayward attack the basket any more than a high score in his favorite video game would. Kemba’s leadership very well could encourage players that might have felt alienated by Kyrie’s mood swings last year, but that can only go so far. Nobody is filling the void left by Al Horford, no matter how much chocolate milk Enes Kanter drinks.
Zach Lowe touched on this in a recent podcast. I believe his general point was that chemistry is a part of the overall equation, but it doesn’t necessarily outweigh top tier talent. Coaches rightly stress teamwork and focus on the greater good, but those elements don’t always make a pretty good team become great. There have been cases where players don’t exactly see eye-to-eye but still achieve success through sheer force of talent (see Kobe and Shaq).
Expectations are understandably tempered due to the lingering feelings from last season’s performance, but there is still a ton of talent on this team. Tatum, Brown and Hayward all have pathways to join Kemba Walker in the upper echelon of NBA players. That’s the kind of progress that this team needs to be taken seriously as a title contender, even in a wide-open season with no runaway favorite.
Walker’s megawatt smile and Grant Williams’ goofy jokes won’t win any games by themselves any more than Al Horford’s flexing and Yabu’s dabbing did last year. Still, having the team all rowing in the same direction is a good place to start, and could help prevent the season from veering off course.