I love watching and thinking about basketball. I love discussing basketball, but I’m getting sick of Celtics fans flipping out after every loss. I was thrilled to read Keith Smith’s Ten Takeaways piece after the disappointing loss the the 76ers. He is clearly sick of fans losing their minds on his Twitter feed after every. single. loss. You know why he’s tired of it? He knows what he’s talking about and he does this for a living. He knows too much and has been close to the action too long to live and die with every single game.
I’ve worked in non fiction TV ("documentaries") for over a decade, and I can tell you that people are constantly putting garbage content, that they know is garbage, presented as fact into the world because people love it. Hyperbole sells, conspiracy sells, drama sells, and it’s mostly nonsense. Sports talk radio and sports arguing shows on TV have hours and hours of time to fill. They know what gets clicks, ears, and eyes. They will say wild crap because it gets attention and they have to fill the time with something. Everything is a crazy hot take- over and over and over, and it infects the fans. Is it frustrating to watch your team lose a winnable game? Yes, but it’s not a reason to flip out and demand that everyone gets fired or traded.
"Heart" and "Killer Instinct"
I was an athlete at a "Power 5" conference school, and in my experience once you get beyond HS level sports "heart" and "killer instinct" nonsense stops being a "thing." "Everyone has heart in the last 100 meters" was a saying on my track team, and it’s also true in the last 5 minutes of an NBA game. The best NBA coaches aren’t firing up their guys with a movie style "rah rah" speech on the sidelines late in the 4th. Pretty much every guy in the NBA is extremely talented, hard working, and driven. The Celtics aren’t losing close games because they have no heart or they don’t want it enough. This is a nonsense narrative for fans.
The Celtics might struggle with inconsistent effort at times (very frustrating for us), but it isn’t because they don’t care or they don’t work hard. I guarantee every guy on the team works harder at basketball than 99.99% of people have ever worked at anything. I had teammates in college who went on to be Olympians and professional athletes. I’ve seen the incredible talent, work ethic and drive it takes to succeed as an athlete on that level. Very very few people make the NBA without heart, discipline, and a killer instinct. I don’t think any of them are on the Celtics. A lot of the guys on the Celtics are probably trying too hard late in games. They have too much heart and not enough brain. Jaylen Brown isn’t charging blindly into a crowded lane because he doesn’t have a killer instinct. It’s because that instinct hasn’t yet been honed and directed in the most productive way.
The Jays Can’t Coexist
There’s a narrative out there that the Jays can’t coexist. I’m not sure what that’s based on. I heard, or saw, someone say something along the lines of "after last year’s playoff loss the Celtics might need to move on from the Brown and Tatum pairing…" Jaylen didn’t even play in that series, which happened to be against a complete and dominant Nets team who looked like they would have rolled to a title if healthy. Jaylen and Jayson have played together in the playoffs 3 times. They have won 5 series and lost 3. I just hand counted their playoff record, and it’s 26-19, which is a 64% win percentage. That win percentage over 82 games would get you 53 wins, and they have done that IN. THE. PLAYOFFS. before turning 25. There are a lot of professional "analysts" on tv and the radio who hardly ever watch the Celtics, and know very little about them. I don’t care what they think because what they think and say is narrative not analysis.
This season the Jays have a Net Rating of +4.4 (Per 100 possessions) in 405 minutes together. The starters (Smart, Brown, Tatum, Horford, Time Lord) are +20.6/100 in 87 minutes. Swap Grant in for Horford and they’re +35.3/100 in 22 minutes. The lineup evidence suggests that if there’s a player Jaylen doesn’t pair well with it’s Schroder, not Tatum. The "Brown and Tatum can’t coexist" narrative seems to be based on a lot of speculation and unfounded rumor. The stats and results don’t back the assertion up at all. As Dorris Burke said the other night they "have different skill sets" and they do compliment each other.
The Celtics Are Less Talented Than Teams X, Y, and Z
There are NBA teams with more talent than the Celtics, but it’s only a few teams, and those are older more experience teams who are in full on win now mode. There is little to no reason to think the Celtics aren’t as good, or better, than most of the teams currently ahead of them in the Eastern Conference Standings.
Here’s how the Celtics have fared against the top 6 teams in the East-
0-1 vs Brooklyn
0-1 vs Chicago
1-1 vs Cleveland
2-0 vs Milwaukee
1-0 vs Miami
1-1 vs Philly
5-4 vs the top 6
The Brooklyn loss was a butt kicking. They can’t, and won’t, beat the Nets. The L vs Chicago was an absurd and historic season altering collapse/loss. The L vs the Cavs was another ridiculous game that they should have won. Then we have the recent loss to the 76ers. 3 of their 4 losses were winnable games. They also crushed a healthy Heat (Jimmy and Jaylen both left the game in the 2nd half) and an almost totally healthy Bucks (just missing guys who have been out all season). The Celtics struggle to finish games. We know that, but they’re good enough right now to hang with, or beat, anyone in the East who doesn’t play in Brooklyn.
The standings are still tight, so the results aren’t all that important. We should be focusing on how the team is improving. I’m not so concerned with what the Cs are now. I’m concerned with what they will be this spring. This was never going to be a finished product/ ready made contender. We want them moving in that direction. Yelling "are we there yet" from the back of the car after every loss isn’t helpful. It’s annoying and aggravating.
Excuses vs Reasons
We didn’t have the right energy. We weren’t dialed in. We just didn’t have it today. These are excuses. Star players being injured, Covid absences, adjusting to a new coaching staff and system, growing young and inexperienced talent… these are reasons. Just because we can’t judge the team based on their results so far doesn’t mean we’re making excuses. It means we can’t accurately assess the team because they aren’t a finished product, or a 100% available product. That’s fine. That’s reality. There are such things as reasons that aren’t excuses. The Clippers aren’t a contender this year because Kawhi is injured not because they aren’t tough enough. The Nuggets are struggling because Murray and MPJ are injured not because they don’t have enough heart.
Trades/ a Roster Shake Up
People who are shouting the loudest for trades also tend to think the team is mediocre and has little upside. Given that assessment what player is going to catapult this team from mediocre to contender status?
Myles Turner? He doesn’t switch or pass, which are two qualities the Celtics value highly and have built the team around. He would require a total rethink of the team’s identity and strategy.
Domantas Sabonis? He does a lot of good things, but can’t shoot 3s at high volume/ efficiency, protect the rim, or play top level defense. Ideally he would play next to another big with unicornish qualities. The Celtics have a guy like that, but that guy is 10 years older than Sabonis and Jaylen Brown, and 12 years older than Tatum. Good luck acquiring a guy who is a player type that's named for a mythical animal famous for being one of a kind.
Dejounte Murray? He’s putting up nice looking stats on pretty big time usage. Do we want him taking the ball out of the Jays’ hands? Do we want he spotting up off ball? Why do we think the Spurs would trade a good 25 year old who is the focus of their team for the guys "we" don’t want and/or some crappy non lottery draft picks?
Terrence Ross? A medium, at best, efficiency scorer who does almost nothing else? How would that make the team better? The Celtics don’t need a "scorer" whose career best True Shooting Percentage is slightly worse than Marcus Smart’s.
If the Celtics are just a .500 team none of the available options (Wood, Jerami Grant,…), not even Beal or Simmons, is going to make them a contender. You can count the number of guys who can transform a .500 team into a contender on one hand… maaaaybe you might get to couple of fingers on your second hand. The road to contention is Tatum becoming one of those guys, and Jaylen getting into the ballpark. That’s what we should be rooting for. In order for that to happen there are going to be growing pains. Those guys will miss shots late in games. They will turn the ball over too much. It’s practice and experience. Players don’t just figure that out in the gym over the summer. They have to learn on the floor during games. The Jays are very talented, but they didn’t walk into the league as complete players.
Teams that make moves just to make moves, sign guys who may or may not fit because of their names, or expect guys with little playoff success on their resume to catapult their team to the top of the league don’t succeed. It’s a loser strategy. It’s a Knicks strategy. The Celtics should always be looking to upgrade the roster, but when you account for the outgoing assets having to approximate the incoming assets… it’s hard to imagine a massive improvement. The days of stealing IT for a late 1st are over. Teams are too smart for that now. The Celtics are in a development stage, and they have the young talent to make that a reasonable course of action. Ideally the young guys can grow together and that continuity will pay off.
The Good News
Jayson Tatum is learning to be a playmaker. He can improve his ISO/ midrange game. Durant dramatically improved his midrange game over his career, and now it’s what makes him almost unstoppable. Playmaking skills and midrange efficiency are the difference between JT and top 5 players.
Jaylen is healthy, and before going out with his hammy he was incredibly efficient from everywhere on the floor.
Romeo can shoot now. He can still defend like a monster. He boards. He cuts. He’s starting to take the ball to the rim, and make some passes. He's another former high school superstar wing who is developing in Boston.
Rob Williams can change games on defense, and is one of the most efficient offensive players in the league. He is on the verge of being a full on franchise center.
Grant Williams is one of the best spot up shooters in the NBA. He’s absolutely lethal as a catch and shoot guy, and he’s starting to do other stuff with the ball. He still makes some bonehead mistakes, but he’s a very smart guy who works hard. He’s rapidly becoming the 2 way stretch 4 with an all around game that we were all so desperate for.
Nesmith is still a psycho who changes the team’s energy every time he steps on the floor. He’s still streaky, but he’s looking more comfortable and confident. He has a realistic path to being a very good 3&D+ wing, which is incredibly valuable. (PS- the bounce on the dunk vs Philly…)
Payton Pritchard is starting to get back to his new and improved old self. He has upside as an "anywhere inside the gym" long distance sniper. He’s learning how to get where he wants to get his shot and make plays for others. When he’s not paired with another small guard he can hang in on defense for stretches. His progress makes Schroder more expendable, which is good news for the long term. The Celtics don't need him to be a starter. They need him to be a spark and floor spacer off the bench. He can become that.
These guys are 25 or younger. Smart is 27 and the type of player who has a prime that lasts well into his 30s. Josh Richardson is playing at a career best level when he’s available, and he’s only 28. We’ve been spoiled by teams that made deep runs in the playoffs over the last 5 years or so. We thought they were on the doorstep of a Championship run. The league is really deep, and the East is as deep as it has been since the 90s. It’s going to take patience, development, and some luck, but this team is headed in the right direction. There is no guarantee that our team will win a title in the next few years. It’s a hard thing to do. It’s fine to blow off steam, but let’s try to enjoy the journey. Try to think "wow, Fast PP, Romeo, Timelord, and Nesmith played real minutes against a real contender and looked… good," rather than "we lost by 4 to the 24-5 Warriors playing our crappy young guys, we suck!"