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Why we need to lower our expectations on this Celtics season

A lack of player development, miscast role players, and stars who aren’t self-aware have been the ingredients to a sub-.500 regular season so far.

Boston Celtics v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

It was supposed to be easy, a “gimme game” that would allow Jaylen Brown to flourish in a role as the team's primary option on offense and a night where Payton Pritchard and Romeo Langford could display their credentials as viable rotation pieces moving forward.

And it was all supposed to happen against a Minnesota Timberwolves team that had been decimated by COVID and had almost none of their usual rotation available to play. Instead, the Boston Celtics found themselves operating with a timid Jaylen Brown, a shell-shocked Langford, and an exhausted Pritchard. Things got ugly real fast.

Obviously, a loss to the Timberwolves where both teams had multiple players missing isn’t cause to hit the self-destruct button. However, we’re starting to feel like the little kid that’s stuck on the merry-go-round for too long, who is too nauseous to scream, but desperately wants to get off the ride.

Those kids are always the bravest ones, too. They run up to the fastest, brightest ride, with a belly full of cotton candy and soda, and demand an opportunity to prove they can hack the “big kid ride.” Sounds quite apt, right? Because for all the rhetoric around learning, improving, trusting each other, and knowing they can do better, we seem to be watching this team make the same mistakes night after night.

We hear the comments made to the media, we see the intent on these players' faces, yet there’s nothing tangible coming to fruition. This year's Celtics team is full of Danny Zuko’s, and we all know he never changed for Sandy.

So, what are we doing here? How can we expect Udoka to mold and develop a team that continues to look uninterested in his methods, just as they did last year under Brad Stevens?

Or perhaps the coaching is part of the problem? Who knows at this point?

What we do know is that we need to recalibrate our expectations of this current team, players, coaching staff, and even front office included.

Jaylen Brown is a superstar
Jaylen Brown is a supplementary star

The first thing we need to understand is that Brown may be a supplemental star rather than a focal point, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You can have an exceptional career being second or third fiddle to more dominant players, but you must have the self-awareness to recognize that’s who you are as a player and lean into it.

“We’re missing a lot of guys, and you could tell chemistry-wise. It was just out of sync. A lot of those turnovers came from miscommunications. A lot of those defensive lapses came from miscommunications. And that’s just, what it comes down to is chemistry. We didn’t play well today, I didn’t play well today, I let my team down for sure,” Brown explained after he and the Celtics laid an egg against the Timberwolves.

Let’s give credit where it’s due. Brown owned up to his poor performance and shouldered the majority of the blame. But using chemistry and roster issues as part of the reason why your team underperformed in a season where every team is fighting the same battle is indicative of the apathetic nature we’ve become too accustomed to from this team and more so, its stars.

So, if Brown is a supplementary player, Boston needs to find guys for him to supplement, or to play off of as he does with Jayson Tatum.

The Celtics are deep
There’s been a striking lack of player development

No one has been a bigger proponent of Romeo Langford than I have, and continue to be. His length, athleticism, and basketball IQ all point towards a viable rotation wing that could give you starter minutes in a pinch. Yet, after two years of injuries and yo-yo playing time, he’s essentially amidst a third rookie season and he will need even time and patience. However, Boston can’t afford to wait much longer, nor can they afford guys more rope than they already have.

Pritchard is showing that he will be a high-level backup guard in the league for years to come, but after sitting around the 9-minute per game mark for the first 23 games of the season, he’s found himself averaging 30 per game over the last 5 games. No wonder then, that against the Timberwolves his shots began to clank off the front rim; he’s had no ramp-up time, and those additional minutes may have finally caught up to him. Yet, a poor performance on this team, under this coach, will quickly see you glued to the bench.

And then there’s Aaron Nesmith, who continues to perplex us. Is he a shooter? A slasher? What exactly is he being asked to do each night, and does it fit with his skill set? How can he improve if the team doesn't project to be committed to his development? So many questions, but absolutely no answers. Sure, people can point to Grant Williams learning to hit threes and time his cuts, but this feels more like the reward for intense individual work, rather than team-centered development. So, is Nesmith expected to follow suit, and ride the pine until he’s put in enough solo hours over a summer to be a vastly improved player? That’s not exactly a great strategy for player development.

With such little onus on developing their younger players, we can’t reasonably expect them to make important impacts throughout the season. Until the team doubles down on giving them minutes either in Boston or in Maine, they’re going to be inconsistent, streaky contributors and that’s not wholly their fault. How can we expect these young talents to flourish if they’re playing in fear of making a mistake, or if they don’t know where their next opportunity is coming from? Raw players need game time, if you’re not going to give it to them, trade them, and ask for veterans in return.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

Ime Udoka has a system
Boston lacks a clear-cut plan and playing style

Stevens and Udoka need to sit down together and alter their plan for this team. It’s funny really, because just 18 months ago we were saying that Danny Ainge was straddling the line between contention and rebuilding, and now, almost two years later the team is straddling a line between rebuilding and fighting for a playoff appearance. The core hasn’t changed, but the supporting cast has certainly regressed.

I recently wrote about how we expected too much from Udoka when he was initially hired as the head coach, and while that still rings true, now it feels like he’s underperforming regardless of what we expect from him.

In the final four minutes of games, where the Celtics have looked so vulnerable, Udoka should be there, leading the charge, calling plays, marshaling his offense and defense from the sideline, and attempting to win a battle of chess with the opposing coach.

Instead, Udoka is also symbolic of the team's growing apathetic nature, allowing his team to play off their own volition, before wondering how things went so wrong after the buzzer.

Ask yourself: what is Celtics basketball right now? What brand of offense do they play? Long gone are the discussions about a .5 offense, or how defense can see this team through even the toughest of moments. In their place are excuses and finger-pointing.

Boston will finish top-4 in the East
It’s a tough reality, but;

We can’t keep expecting a first-time head coach and an uneven roster to be a conference contender. It’s time we face facts, this year isn’t going to end in a deep playoff run, nor is it going to end with the world heralding Udoka as the best young coach in the NBA. It’s going to end poorly, with an early exit from the postseason and more handwringing about who is to blame.

Until Stevens and Udoka pick a lane and decide which way they want to go with this current roster, we’re going to have many more uninspiring nights. So, we might as well adjust our expectations now, and enjoy the ride for what it is, because the only thing we know for sure, is that this roster isn’t working.