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Finding their own way

The Celtics may seem lost now, but the path was always going to be long.

Boston Celtics v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

So begins Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

The situation he describes, however, is flipped in the NBA. In the NBA, the perennially bad teams are all alike: they draft poorly, they overpay their players, and their coach and GM positions are revolving doors.

Great teams, on the contrary, come by their greatness through a variety of paths. Going farther back for literary inspiration, but at least sticking with the English language, ‘some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.’ The words are Shakespeare’s, and they are found in Act III, Scene IV of Twelfth Night.

With the Celtics stumbling somewhat out of the gate, and making the same comments that we have heard for a year or more in the wake of their losses, there are more than a few fans who are about ready to close the book on Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart.

Boston Celtics v New York Knicks Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

While the questions they ask about whether these guys will ever mature leave open the possibility that such a thing might occur, the way in which these questions are expressed leaves little to no doubt that these fans have all but made up their minds that the Brown and Tatum Experiment is a failure and that the sooner it is dismantled, the better.

I admit that I, too, would have liked to see more progress from Brown and Tatum since last season, it is, frankly, a bit dispiriting to hear these guys offering up mea culpas without seeing a change on the court.

However, drawing a line in the sand now seems a bit arbitrary.

I mean, who are we, as fans, to decide that a lack of discernible progress by this point in time is conclusive evidence that these guys just don’t have ‘what it takes?’

Now, I’ll grant you that the Celtics can’t wait forever for these guys to connect the dots and start playing ‘the right way,’ but I also submit that the best judges of whether it’s time for these guys to fish or cut bait are Brad Stevens and Ime Udoka.

I might add that even if you don’t agree with me on that front, they’re still going to be the ones making the call. Any anger directed toward the team—or toward fans who disagree—is so much time that could be spent on more productive pursuits, like learning Urdu.

I remain convinced that the core of this team is capable of greatness. But the paths to greatness taken by teams in the past are obvious only in hindsight. Let’s pick one instance at random: the Golden State Warriors. It was obvious by the end of the 2013-14 season that Mark Jackson had to go, and Bob Myers replaced him with Steve Kerr. In hindsight, this was a brilliant move. And if you listen to Bob Myers, or any of a number of Warriors fans, they’ll tell you that they knew it was a brilliant move at the time.

I don’t buy it.

Kerr was coming off an undistinguished run as general manager of the Suns and had basically spent four years cooling his heels and living a life of happy idleness. Myers and Joe Lacob might have had a good feeling about Kerr, but that was it. They had a hunch.

Another example closer to home: Red Auerbach and the Celtics teams of the 1950’s. First off, he didn’t like Bob Cousy, and didn’t draft him even though the Celtics had territorial rights to him. Auerbach went so far as to say, “am I supposed to win, or please the local yokels?” Cousy ended up with the Celtics by sheer dumb luck in the Chicago Stags dispersal draft.

Then there was Easy Ed Macauley. Auerbach spent the better part of the 1950’s trying to win with a very good, but not great, offensive center. It wasn’t until 1956 that he realized that the best counter to the offensive bigs that were dominating the game at that time was a defense-first center. The rest is history. But it can’t be history written in reverse, as though that incredible run of 11 championships in 13 years was the product of a carefully scripted plan.

One of the most important things to remember with these young guys is that it’s possible to spend too much time trying to predict the future when we’re not in possession of all the relevant facts.

Think about a turkey. Every day he gets up and goes out of his pen into the yard and there’s the farmer with a bucket of grain. And then there’s the farmer with clean water to drink. ‘Gee,’ the turkey thinks, ‘that farmer must really love me.’

And then one day the farmer stops bringing food to the turkey.

Things are the same... until they aren’t.

Clearly, the Celtics are a work in progress. But, hey, Milwaukee was a work in progress, too. They actually hired Jason Kidd and let him coach the team for three and a half years before they realized that was a mistake. And then they hired Mike Budenholzer, whose first two trips to the playoffs ended pretty much the same way all his trips to the playoffs did when he was coaching the Hawks.

I remember loudly proclaiming that the Bucks had no chance at winning a title as long as they were coached by Budenholzer...

...and then they won a title with Budenholzer last season.

If these Celtics achieve greatness, it will be by following their own path, not trying to ape the path, or the timeline, or the coaching style, or the on court demeanor of some other team that came before them or a schedule imposed by some fan.

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