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Heart has nothing to do with it

Defensive struggles, bad losses, and countless injuries have taken a toll on the fans and the team. Attacking the character of the players has not been constructive when more obvious and less personal answers exist.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

It goes without saying that injuries and illness have completely derailed the season. What hasn’t gotten as much attention is how the roster fared with the players that stayed mostly healthy and played the most minutes. I am on the record as saying the Celtics would be fine without Gordon Hayward, and it’s a take that I stand by based on how good the post All-Star mostly-healthy Celtics played. Even so, I have to admit that I was sort of wrong.

Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Kemba Walker played the most minutes for the Celtics in each of the last two seasons. Tatum is still shaking off COVID (is it even possible to shake off COVID?), Brown was their most consistent player before his season-ending wrist injury, Smart was hampered by a pretty serious leg injury, and Kemba was still Kemba despite the outrage over his load management and occasionally streaky shooting.

And yet, most of the Celtics’ issues came from outside of their top four. I know it’s trendy to blame our best players in Boston, but there’s a much simpler answer to all this: they were a poor defensive team. If you compare the minutes distribution between this season and the last, the equation becomes pretty simple.

Most minutes played 2019-20

Compare that list to this one:

Most minutes 2020-21

What happens when 500 Daniel Theis minutes and 1700 Gordon Hayward minutes go to Tristan Thompson and Payton Pritchard?

To be clear, I like Pritchard as a player. And for ten games, I guess Thompson looked pretty good, too. But the defensive downgrade here is massive. We knew this one day one of the season and we certainly know it now, so why spend so much time questioning the character of the team? How is it constructive to criticize the leadership of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum?

I fully believe in the idea of a basketball player having certain “intangibles” that give them an edge. Hustle, heart, spirit, instinct, feel for the game, confidence, clutch factor, wisdom, focus — all of it matters. I don’t use any of these things to determine whether or not a player or team is capable of playing defense. At least, not any more.

To the naked eye, defense is mostly effort. Marcus Smart plays hard and is one of the best defensive guards in basketball, so those two things must be related, right? Maybe to an extent, but it’s not like there’s an effort-to-defense conversion rate we can use to give a concrete answer. But we can quantify defense in other ways, like with steals, deflections, blocks, charges drawn, and more. We can see how he cuts off passing angles to either fish for steals or prevent passes before they happen. We can see him leverage his strength to keep bigger players from posting them up. And because we can see these things and agree on their importance, we can pretty easily identify players who don’t have these skills. If we can do that, then we can figure out if this is a good defensive team without calling anybody’s character into question.

They’re not. They finished 14th in defensive rating somehow, but they’re not. Even at full strength, it’s hard to make the case that this was a good defensive team when Tatum and Smart are the only two all-around reliable defenders on the roster.

If “heart” is all you can talk about after 72 grueling games, then I don’t know what to tell you. There’s mountains of video and data to help inform your opinions and you’d have to be pretty deliberately obtuse to ignore it all. I have plenty of criticism that starts at the very top of the organization and goes all the way down to the 17th roster spot, but not even I would go so far as to call anybody a quitter after a year like this.

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