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“What are we trying to do here?”

Jae Crowder’s straight forward question to Brad Stevens back in 2015 echoes into this season’s mediocrity.

Boston Celtics v Miami Heat - Game Six Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Those aren’t my words. They’re Jae Crowder’s. They were part of a heated exchange with Brad Stevens in January of 2015:

Boston dropped seven of its first eight games after Crowder came over from the Dallas Mavericks as what many deemed a throw-in to the Rajon Rondo blockbuster, and he was seething at all the losing. Then, one day at practice, he completely lost it.

“I went crazy,” admitted Crowder. “I lost my mind here. At practice, I pulled [coach] Brad [Stevens] to the side and asked him, ‘What are we trying to do here? Are we tanking?’ And Brad was like, ‘No, no, you don’t have to worry about tanking. I want to win games. We aren’t winning right now, but I want to win games.’”

Crowder didn’t stop with Stevens. He proceeded to shake down Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, his teammates, ball boys — anyone who might be able to tell him exactly what the master plan was for these rebuilding Celtics.

More than two months into the season, the C’s are playing .500 ball, and while that tends to put my optimistic early season takes in a bad light, I’m not embarrassed by them. I have no problem whatsoever standing by my expectations from this team.

In short, I’m here to say that the problem isn’t with my expectations, it’s with the team’s execution.

As individual players, Tatum and Brown are dedicated to improving their games, and that’s a good thing as far as it goes. The problem is that this seems to be where their interest stops. Towards the end of the 2018-19 debacle, I voiced my concern with the team’s ‘what, me worry?’ attitude when it came to winning and losing. Back when the Celtics-centric Team USA flamed out in the FIBA championships, I asked whether these guys were committed to winning. I asked the same basic question after the Celtics lost to the Heat in the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals.

I was willing to give the team a mulligan last season because of how chopped up and compressed it was.

However, at this point in time, I think it’s fair to ask whether these guys will ever care enough about winning to actually win more often than they lose. We’re 31 games into the season and the Celtics are sitting with a +1 net rating and an expected win-loss record almost identical to their actual record.

In other words, this team is exactly what it seems to be.

Granted, these guys talk a good game, and perhaps I’m to blame for assuming that they were going to do more than talk, but right now, I’m at an Elvis point with these guys. It’s time for a little less conversation, a little more action.

I hated high school—with the exception of one class—and I graduated with a 3.2 GPA. That GPA represented a minimum amount of effort on my part. I would have had to try harder to get a higher GPA, and I would have had to try harder to get a lower GPA. I was a 3.2 student because I absolutely did not care what my grades were.

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

And that’s what I see when I look at the Celtics. I see a team that has a record which represents a minimum amount of effort. They would have to try harder to be worse than this, and they would have to try harder to be better.

I’m not going to go by what the players say after losses; I’m going to go by what the record shows, and the record shows that these guys are perfectly content to sit around the middle of the Eastern Conference, winning about as often as they lose and enjoying the life of an NBA player.

Defense of the maturity of Tatum and Brown typically starts off by noting that they’ve been to the ECF three times in five years.

However, going to the ECF is not the same as leading your team to the ECF. The first two times Brown and Tatum went to the ECF, they were carried there by Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Al Horford.

Two of those guys are no longer with the Celtics, and not coincidentally, they were the two most fiery players on those two ECF teams. We know Jae Crowder is an intense player—and he’s been on back-to-back NBA Finals teams—but because Isaiah Thomas has an infectious smile, and a showman’s flair for the game, we forget that he is every bit as driven as Crowder. Isaiah Thomas hates losing. There’s a reason why he thrived in Boston: he was finally playing for a winning team.

Defenders of the Celtics’ record have plenty of ammunition, and I’ve used some of it myself: injuries, health and safety protocols, lack of depth at some position or another, a new coach, etc.

But the bottom line is that these are strawman arguments. If there’s an attitude problem with these guys, then no amount of good health, no amount of depth, no amount of coaching is going to correct that. It’s like painting a house when it’s on fire. Sure, the house might need a good coat of paint, but is that really the most pressing issue here?

Now, I’m not saying that we should write off this team. LeBron didn’t get fed up with losing until his eighth year in the NBA, but I am saying that there’s little basis for being optimistic about this team unless and until guys like Tatum and Brown start taking losing personally, until they learn that there’s a world of difference between what you say and what you do.

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