These Takeaways are going to be a little different. Nope, it’s not another “One Takeaway” where you get a bunch of melancholy grousing. Instead, you get 10 Takeaways that are…well…melancholy grousing.
Saying “Enjoy!” seems weird, so we’ll just get started. Here’s the 10 Least Enjoyable Parts of the 2021-22 Boston Celtics thus far.
1. Remember the movie Groundhog Day? Bill Murray’s character gets trapped living the same day over and over. Once he figures out that’s what’s happening, he spends a chunk of the middle act living like a horrible person. He commits crimes, treats his body horribly and tempts fate by “dying” seemingly hundreds of times. Sorry for the spoilers, but the movie is almost 30 years old, so if you haven’t seen it, that’s on you by now.
I digress…eventually Murray decides that’s no way to handle things. So, he becomes a good person. He betters himself. He becomes almost like a superhero, because he knows what’s going to happen and when. Eventually, by the time he escapes the purgatory of living the same day over and over, he’s a good person and, presumably, lives happily ever after.
It’s not that the Celtics are horrible people. They aren’t at all. But they are living that chunk of the middle act where they make bad decisions and essentially commit basketball crimes. And it happens over and over and over.
2. Remember in late-June when news broke that Boston was hiring Ime Udoka? There was so much excitement. It was a fresh start on the sideline, and this was the guy the players wanted.
Boy, is the bloom ever off that rose.
Now, let’s attempt to be reasonable here. Ime Udoka is a first-time head coach. He’s 39 games into his tenure. We don’t judge rookies and say “He stinks. Can’t play.” after less than a half-season. Well, the rational folks don’t. Some make those idiotic proclamations at Summer League.
Moving on... Udoka needs given a good deal of slack. He’s got a lot to figure out and 39 games aren’t going to be perfect.
That said…enough already with some stuff. Some of the lineups, rotations and crunch-time groups are just bad. And the reasons behind those choices are often somewhere between confusing and non-existent.
And, for the love of all that is holy with the Basketball Gods, stop calling the team out after losses. Hold the players accountable. They did ask for that after all, but when a postgame presser is this regularly filled with challenging players, that’s not a good thing. There’s no quicker way to lose someone than to say they aren’t mentally tough. Especially in this day and age.
One last thing on this: In the NFL, coaches from the Bill Belichick tree have regularly failed. One of the common refrains is that they try to be Belichick and run their teams the way Belichick runs the New England Patriots. That’s never going to work.
Hires from the Gregg Popovich tree in the NBA have often gone through the same thing. At least in their first head coaching gig. We won’t list the history here but look for yourself. It’s not real pretty. Yes, Ime Udoka has worked under other coaches, but he came up under Pop. And if he’s trying to emulate Pop, it won’t work. Just be Ime.
3. Related to the above: It was wildly unfair to lump Jayson Tatum in with everyone else after the Knicks loss. Tatum played wonderfully down the stretch. He made big shots or made great passes. He was also solid defensively.
Tatum isn’t perfect, nor is he above criticism. He’s regularly a big part of the late-game issues. But it would have been very easy for Ime Udoka to say something like “Tonight, Jayson was good, but...” and he didn’t. To cast him in with the rest after Thursday’s loss was wildly unfair.
Also, Tatum reminiscing postgame about the good old days of going to the East Finals at this point in his career is both remarkable and upsetting. Remarkable that he had so much success so early. Upsetting that the Celtics haven’t built upon that success for more.
4. Let’s get to those late-game issues, shall we? The Knicks loss notwithstanding, Boston’s late-game offense is a mess. We don’t need to rehash all of it here, but this is a three-year problem now. It’s a combination of players, coaches, lineups, personnel, makeup and other factors.
There’s no simple fix, or one would think it would have been made by now. But it has to be fixed. And if the answer doesn’t exist internally, go find an external solution.
5. At least for this writer, the late-game offense is only one, teeny-tiny notch above the late-game rebounding as a major issue for the Celtics. By one metric that isn’t publicly available, Boston’s defensive rebounding rate in clutch minutes is just above 65%.
For reference: The worst defensive rebounding rate in the NBA for full games this season is 74.2%.
That’s laughably bad. Some of it is lineups. Boston goes small late in games and their smalls aren’t good rebounders. Some of it is scheme. Switching everything pulls the lone big away from the rim. And some of it is that the Celtics bigs aren’t good rebounders. For all of Robert Williams’ talents, defensive rebounding isn’t one of them. Al Horford has never been known for his board work. Grant Williams battles, but he’s not a good rebounder. And Enes Freedom is never going to be in for late-game situations.
It relates to the Groundhog Day of it all, but so many times Boston gets a stop, but can’t finish with the rebound. And then the opponent hits a back-breaking shot.
6. This one is going to be short. Even when Dennis Schroder is playing well, as he did for a lot of the Knicks loss, it’s not really enjoyable. The less said, the better.
7. Also short: Enes Freedom has about five spots where he’s playable. Not in individual games. But in a season as a whole. That’s not worth a roster spot, let alone minutes.
8. Last short one: What in the world happened to Jaylen Brown’s ballhandling? After years of watching him tighten up his handle, he’s gone backwards by about 10 steps this year. It’s one of the more baffling items on a long list of baffling items this season.
9. By far the least enjoyable part of this season, or this three-year stretch, is the feeling of missed opportunity. Without crying over spilled milk too much, it really sucked that the 2020 team might have won a title if Gordon Hayward didn’t get hurt in the playoffs and if Kemba Walker hadn’t messed up his knee in January. So much might be different now. Alas.
But where the missed opportunities come into play goes back further than that. At the start of the 2018-19 season, the Celtics were loaded with talent. Too much talent as it turned out, because that team was a factory of unhappiness and loathsomeness over roles, minutes and everything else. But did Danny Ainge do anything about it? Nope. He let if fester until everything fell apart in the playoffs and multiple key players left town.
By the biggest sin of all was the hoarding of draft picks to bridge this world of “We’re good now and loaded with assets for the future too!” that put Boston in this position they are in now.
From the time Ainge traded Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the Celtics made 16 first-round selections over eight drafts from 2013 to 2021. Two of them were traded in pre-arranged deals, so that’s 14 first-rounders that joined Boston in an eight-year period.
NBA rosters have 15 total standard spots. If all of those picks had hit (and way more did than people like to remember!), you can’t keep all those players. It’s impossible.
Kelly Olynyk eventually left for nothing. Terry Rozier essentially left for nothing, as the double sign-and-trade for Kemba Walker wasn’t exactly necessary. Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Robert Williams all signed extensions.
But you aren’t going to build a full roster through the draft. You have to supplement with free agents and trades. Which, Boston also did.
Again: There are 15 total standard spots on an NBA roster!
After 2018, we had a pretty good feeling the Celtics were close. Tatum and Brown looked good and the team was bringing everyone back. 2019 went sideways, but the team rebuilt a title contender in 2020.
What never happened after 2018 to 2020? Trading a single one of the seven first-round picks Boston owned to push those contenders over the top. One pick was traded to bring in even more future assets (#20 in 2019) and another was used to dump salary (#30 in 2020) in prearranged trades.
If every pick hit, they would all need to be re-signed eventually. And then you have a wildly expensive team, where contracts expire on a yearly basis. Which leads to losing those players for nothing or getting even more expensive to keep them around.
It’s a missed opportunity to lose all these games in 2021-22 when the Celtics have big leads. It’s maddening and frustrating. But the missed opportunities built over years of mismanaging assets and now young players are gone or buried on the bench with limited playing time. If you can’t play them, you shouldn’t have drafted them in the first place.
10. The last Takeaway is usually reserved for wrap-up thoughts, a look at the next game or stretch of games, and, quite regularly, a reason or two to hope things will get better.
To paraphrase a famous quote: I came here to express frustration and offer silver linings and I’m all out of silver linings.