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Bontemps: Celtics “stuck in neutral”

ESPN has several quotes from around the league critical of the Celtics

NBA: Boston Celtics at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Celtics are 8-3 in their last 11 games, playing fantastic defense, and have seen Jayson Tatum pull out of his weird shooting slump. So of course this is an ideal time for ESPN to publish an article about all that is wrong with the team.

To be fair, I’ll bet Tim Bontemps started gathering his quotes for this weeks ago when the team was still sub-.500 and fresh off of Marcus Smart’s critical comments and the “don’t call it an unproductive players only meeting.” Also, the progress the team has made in the short term doesn’t necessarily override the long term concerns that the scouts, GMs, and league executives voiced in this article. It is just worth noting that winning cures all and things look better at the moment than they did a few weeks ago.

The criticisms of the way the roster has evolved over the last several seasons are valid (and something we’ve covered here multiple times over. The talent drain from where we were before Gordon Hayward’s ankle broke to now is stark and troubling. Some of that was just bad luck and some of it was poor decisions made by the front office.

“Ultimately, you can’t keep losing — albeit flawed — All-Star talent like Kyrie, Gordon, Kemba, Horford,” an Eastern Conference scout said. “That adds up.”

“The Celtics the last couple years have had a few really good players,” another executive said, “and too many roster spots dedicated to players they drafted who aren’t good enough.”

The article and quotes then turn to the lack of playmaking by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown as well as the apparent discord related to Marcus Smart’s comments and the aforementioned team meeting/dinner/whatever. Looped into the discussion are incidents that happened during the bubble (Smart yelling in the huddle) and general discontentment of the Kyrie Irving era.

“They’ve looked like [players that] legitimately don’t enjoy each other’s success, and it’s been like that for years,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “The fact it’s still rearing its head is not surprising in that regard.”

While questions about the team dynamics are fair based on reports from earlier in the season, it is worth noting that losing games generally makes players grumpy. Also, much of the roster has turned over in the last few years. Which means that people are going to start circling the team’s core players and wondering if there’s something fundamentally off about them.

Which brings us to the quotes about Jayson Tatum in particular.

“Jayson Tatum is about Jayson Tatum,” an Eastern Conference assistant coach said. “I don’t think he cares about winning now, and if he does, it is on his terms.

“He doesn’t want to score 15 and win. He wants to score 39 and win.”

Personally I don’t agree with that assessment, but it is notable that at least one NBA assistant coach is voicing that opinion. Tatum has had to evolve his game over the years to shore up shortcomings in his game and evolve as the focal point of the offense. Some of it hasn’t come naturally but he seems to me to be an eager learner and hard worker. But that’s just my perspective (and admittedly likely fan-tinted).

The article then goes on to question the next steps in terms of roster building. Does the team need a 3rd star to realize their potential? Or can Tatum and Brown evolve enough as playmakers to make their teammates better? These are valid questions and topics for Brad Stevens and the Celtics brass to figure out over the next year or two.

While some teams can win a title with 2 stars and a bunch of supporting level players, it has to be an ideal mix of players that work together as a well oiled machine. There’s no room for error and no allowance for multiple players to be on a developmental path where they are still struggling with inefficiencies. When you have 3 stars, there’s a lot more room for error.

For now, however, the team needs to focus on the success they’ve had on the defensive end and continue developing the ball movement and evolution of their offensive games.

The current version of the Celtics has not yet achieved the goal of winning a title. Variations of the current core in recent years have underperformed relative to expectations.

“I can’t believe this whole era for them hasn’t really worked,” one league executive said. “They’re stuck in neutral — and maybe going backwards.”

Until they add a banner to the rafters, that’s likely going to be the perception around the league. It is up to them to turn that around and make progress towards that end goal or people are going to make more noise about breaking up this core.

So nothing really new here beyond the perception of some people around the league. But an interesting discussion topic about where this team is in their overall trajectory.