Some broader perspective thoughts on the regular season and the #4 seed outcome:
- In hindsight, everyone (the team included) was far too optimistic about Hayward's recovery timeline, about Rozier's potential, and about Tatum's and Brown's development (they are still very young and it shouldn't be a surprise that consistency is an issue).
- Baynes and Horford had injuries that led to prolonged periods of poor frontcourt depth/play. If Ainge could have a do-over, I imagine he would be more aggressive at the trade deadline to acquire a true backup to Baynes.
- The competition in the East changed drastically this year. There was vast improvement in talent in Toronto (Kawhi) and Philadelphia (Butler, Harris), plus a completely revamped system in MIL (it's easy to forget now, but last year they were led by Jason Kidd and then interim coach Joe Prunty, and they didn't use Giannis nearly as effectively as Budenholzer has).
- Taking the above three points together, even if we remove the frustrating losses to bad teams this year that shouldn't have happened (and which were a result of poor execution and poor coaching), BOS likely still wouldn't have finished higher than the 3rd seed; they're 12 games behind MIL and 9 behind TOR. While the #4 seed is disappointing, the #3 seed was the more realistic pre-season goal/expectation in hindsight, given the improvement in MIL/TOR/PHI and the naively optimistic expectations for Hayward and the kids. Of course, that doesn't absolve the team of the poor execution and poor coaching that let them fall to the 4 seed, and those problems have to be fixed for them to make any postseason noise.
- To me, Stevens' regression in coaching has been the most worrisome development this year. He seems too slow both in-game and between-games in responding to poor execution and player decision-making. Hayward got too much rope early in the year, and Rozier has gotten too much rope all year. Ojeleye and Wanamaker have shown potential in some outings but have nevertheless been chained to the bench (barring injuries to others), even when rotation players missed assignments or otherwise struggled. Baynes' ouster from the starting five (until recently) was always a bit baffling given how well it worked last year, his importance to setting the defensive tone early, his role in preserving Horford, and his addition of a passable 3-pt shot (35% on the year in a small sample). He may have to be removed in some matchups against stretch-5s, but aside from that he should be in the starting lineup.
- From an individual player perspective, Smart's improved decision-making (fewer unforced turnovers, fewer forced shots) has been the biggest positive development, leading to his better shooting ratios and A:TO ratio. Conversely, Rozier's limitations have shown through more than ever (inability to create, inability to finish, poor shot selection, inconsistent defense). Brown and Tatum also showed inconsistency and did not take the big leaps forward we were all hoping for, but unlike Rozier they rebounded from early-season struggles and are still likely to continue to develop and improve... just not as quickly as we assumed this past offseason.
Implications for playoffs/offseason:
- Hayward has been improving and Brown and Tatum have kicked their early-season issues, while Horford and Baynes are back and in the starting five. As long as the injuries to Tatum and Smart aren't long-term issues, then this team is heading into the playoffs on the right note. The main concern might be Stevens -- will he still play Morris and Rozier too much? Will he continue to start Baynes? Will he get back the in-game magic he showed in past postseasons?
- Unlike the past two years, the top of the EC is no joke. The Cs got fairly easy paths to the ECF the previous two years, but that won't be the case this year; MIL and TOR are legit, and PHI has the talent (albeit perhaps not the cohesion). This means even if Boston falls short of the ECF, it doesn't automatically mean the team is worse than their predecessors that made it further; the East is finally no longer as much of a joke. There's no way a Lebron plus role player team would be able to make it out of the conference, like they did last year.
- That said, making it to the ECF is going to be key for luring players/stars. Despite my point above, it's difficult for fans, media, and players to judge it in that context; if they fall short of the ECF, it's easier to just think "they didn't make it as far as before, and therefore they are regressing" even though that lacks context. To keep Kyrie and to try and lure AD or KD or the like, this team may have to make the ECF to rewrite the season's narrative and show emphatically this team is not far off.