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An anniversary to forget

Five years ago, Kyrie Irving’s public commitment to re-sign with Boston kicked off one of the most frustrating seasons in Celtics history. Can this year’s squad learn anything from a year with equally high expectations?

Boston Celtics v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by: 2017 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Five years ago this week, Kyrie Irving publicly stated that he planned to re-sign with the Celtics. This proclamation was the exclamation point of a spotless five-year rebuild that began with trading Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce for a boatload of Brooklyn picks. No star player had ever given a verbal commitment to his incumbent team a year before hitting free agency, and this was a validation of everything the Celtics had been building.

The 2018-2019 Celtics were the overwhelming favorites to win the East, and their dynamic roster would surely dominate the conference for years to come. The previous season, they made it to Game 7 of the conference finals without their two best players. With Kyrie telling the TD Garden crowd, “If you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing here,” this mix of in-their-prime stars, up-and-coming blue chippers, and do-your-job veterans was supposed to be a perennial contender.

For a long time, the year 1918 put a shiver down the collective spines of Boston fans. It was the Red Sox last World Series for 86 years, and Yankee fans would jubilantly chant “1918” to remind Bostonians about their nearly century long championship drought.

Since the 2004 World Series win, the curse of 1918 is mostly gone. But for me, in almost poetic fashion, thinking about the ‘18-19 Celtics makes me grimace in the same way. That team broke my faith in what I thought I knew about basketball. I always assumed that more talent was a good thing, that great players on the same team would triumph over the less talented teams. Maybe the regular season would be rocky, but come playoff time, the talent would win out.

Those Celtics had a roster to gush about. Kyrie, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier as the guards; Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Morris on the wing; Al Horford and Aron Baynes as the primary bigs; Daniel Theis, Semi Ojeleye, and Robert Williams getting spot minutes when there were injuries. The Durant/Curry Warriors were the preseason championship favorites, but more than a handful of media members had the Celtics winning it all.

Boston Celtics Introduce Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Leading the troops was Brad Stevens, a man who only knew success in the NBA. He was voted by GMs as the league’s best coach entering the 2018-2019 season, and this was the first time he had legitimate NBA talent, having overachieved with good-but-flawed rosters over the previous four seasons. Danny Ainge looked like a genius for holding onto the 2016 and 2017 Brooklyn picks, trading back to select Tatum, using cap space to sign Horford and Hayward, rolling the dice on Kyrie, while still having future Memphis and Sacramento picks projected to be in the top-10.

Instead of Banner 18, the ‘18-19 Celtics were an aesthetic nightmare, a mishmash of guys at different point of their careers who struggled to accept their roles. They were supposed to play free-flowing basketball with an egalitarian offense featuring five scoring threats. Instead, it was a lot of overpassing, indecision, and confusion. Nobody cut hard, set strong screens, or ran the floor. The finger-pointing, eye rolls, and public comments made everyone miserable, which manifested in the on-court product.

The team started off 10-10. For a team expected to win 60 games, this poor start made the rest of the season an uphill battle to meet expectations. Kyrie told the media that they could use a 15-year veteran, a seemingly innocuous comment that would be a prelude to several perplexing statements during his second and final season in Boston.

Hayward played with timidity and lacked any explosiveness. It was understandable considering his horrific injury the year prior, but we later learned that guys on the roster weren’t happy that Hayward kept getting plays called for him when healthier guys were available to carry the load. Jaylen Brown also received criticism for his failure to adapt to a secondary role, highlighted by this Jackie MacMullan piece. It wasn’t necessarily time to panic, but with a .500 record a quarter through the season and a bottom-4 offensive rating, something had to change.

Morris and Smart replaced Hayward and Brown in the starting lineup in late-November and the team caught a groove, winning eight straight. On January 9th, they throttled an Indiana Pacers team one game ahead of them in the standings, winning by 27 and shooting 57 percent from the field. They improved to 25-15 and had they NBA’s second-best net rating.

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Four Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Still, something felt off about this group. The offense looked clunky and the defense felt disconnected. The statistical purists said there was nothing to worry about, but the drama surrounding that team was just getting started.

On January 10th, Morris and Brown were seen getting into a bench altercation during a loss to Miami. The next game in Orlando, Kyrie got visibly angry at Hayward for not passing him the ball on the final possession. His frustration continued into his post-game media availability, telling reporters, “These young guys don’t know what it takes to be a championship level team.”

Amidst the internal tension, the Celtics were still playing good basketball, and they won 10 of 11 from mid-January into February. Their one loss came against Golden State, and afterwards, an anonymous Warriors player (presumably Draymond Green) told Jeff Goodman that Gordon Hayward was hurting the Celtics, that he was a liability on both ends of the floor. It was a moment of reckoning: Hayward’s recovery had stagnated, and he wasn’t close to his All-Star form.

The team continued to air its grievances through the media. Jaylen Brown said that the team needed to stop pointing fingers, that everybody—not just the young guys—must be held accountable. Marcus Morris said nobody was having any fun. And most notably, Kyrie walked back his comments about committing to Boston, saying, “ask me July 1st.”

Despite the bad vibes, the team had a solid 37-21 record heading into All-Star break. But looking back, they obviously needed a shakeup. Morris was great early in the season, but his play had been slipping, and it would have made sense to trade him before he hit free agency. Rozier struggled in his sixth man role, but he still would have fetched value at the trade deadline.

Additionally, the team had three 2019 first round picks. In this new era where GM Brad Stevens is allergic to first rounders, it seems incomprehensible that the front office didn’t trade one of them for some short-term veteran help. Alec Burks, Wayne Ellington, Reggie Bullock, Garret Temple, or CJ Miles—while certainly not better than any of the Celtics top eight—all were available for cheap, and each could have helped as role players.

Boston Celtics v Golden State Warriors Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Things with Kyrie kept getting worse. He and Kevin Durant were publicly inseparable during All-Star weekend, and Kyrie was defiant with the media when they asked him about it. The Knicks had been rumored to be Durant’s next team since preseason, and speculation about he and Kyrie teaming up gained steam.

The Celtics lost four straight coming out of All-Star weekend. They were then scheduled to fly across the country to play the Warriors, and this looked like a make-or-break game, with fans and media overwhelmingly predicting they’d break. Instead, they dominated the Warriors. Brown and Hayward combined for 48 off the bench, as the team held Durant to 5-of-16 shooting and won by 33 (leading by as many as 40).

The players attributed the long plane ride as necessary for patching up some chemistry issues. For that game in Oakland, the Celtics looked like a juggernaut, mercilessly dominating the superteam Warriors. Although they didn’t make any trades, the team believed that Hayward getting healthier and stronger was an acquisition in itself, and after his 30-point outing in the Bay, maybe they were right.

But it was all for naught. On March 23rd at Charlotte, the Celtics blew an 18-point lead in the final eight minutes. Kemba Walker had a huge fourth quarter, and after the game, a frustrated Kyrie called out Brad Stevens for not changing the defensive coverage. This game, in my mind, was the low point of the season.

The team was fracturing. Rozier wasn’t happy with his minutes, Tatum wasn’t happy with his shots, and everyone else just wasn’t happy at all. At the beginning of the season, it was their offense that was the weak spot while their defense was among the league’s best. But in the final 24 games, as they sputtered to a 12-12 record, they ranked 14th in defensive rating. There were so many signs to give up on the team, but they still had great talent, and each time they reeled off an impressive win, there was a glimmer of hope that maybe they could get it together.

After sweeping the injury-ravaged Pacers in the first round of the playoffs, the Celtics were heavy underdogs against the 60-win Bucks. But in the first game, everything came together, and like the March game against Golden State, the Celtics dominated. The Kyrie/Horford pick-and-roll was unstoppable, the opposing wings couldn’t collectively defend the Tatum/Brown/Hayward trio, Baynes beat guys up inside and Morris did the same on the perimeter.

That was the Celtics at their best. They made Milwaukee look like a JV squad. But the Bucks proceeded to handily win four straight games. In Game 5, Kyrie appeared to give up on the team, going through the motions on defense while taking horrible shots on offense.

He put us out of our misery, never again having to watch that albatross of a basketball team.

This isn’t meant to be a Kyrie hit piece. If anything, I think he got too much of the blame for the collective failures. He had his best season of his career, averaging 23.8 points and 6.9 assists while shooting 48.7 percent from the field and 40 percent from three. While the team went 15-3 in games Kyrie didn’t play, often those were against the worst teams.

Danny Ainge didn’t get comparable blame for not making a move at the deadline, nor did Brad Stevens for losing control of the team. The Celtics also did nothing to temper expectations for Hayward’s return, and the Rozier/Brown/Tatum trio were outwardly unenthusiastic about taking a backseat after the impressive 2018 playoff run.

The whole world thought this team would cakewalk to the 2019 Finals, that they’d seriously challenge the superteam Warriors, and going forward, they’d have multiple shots at multiple titles. But the season left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. Kyrie, Rozier, Morris, and Horford left in free agency. They had to attach a first round pick to get off the Baynes deal (a move I still don’t totally understand). They decided to sign Kemba that offseason, who looked great during the first half of 2019-2020, but injuries quickly ended his NBA career.

On October 4th, 2018, Celtics Nation rejoiced upon Kyrie declaring his intentions to stay with Boston. Projecting forward five years, we would have assumed Kyrie would still be on the team, Ainge and Stevens would still be in their old jobs, and the Celtics would have a few extra banners in the rafters. Instead, the team is still looking for Banner 18, and the 2023-2024 team has the best chance to win a championship since they last won it all in 2008.

Full disclosure: I didn’t plan on linking this auspicious anniversary to the upcoming season, but last weekend’s Jrue Holiday trade has raised expectations. NBA media members mostly agree that the Celtics have the best top-6 in the league, and that the Holiday trade was an “all-in” move. With greater expectations comes greater chances of disappointment, but I don’t believe the ‘23-24 team will sputter the same way the ‘18-19 team did.

There are lessons to be learned from that calamitous season. My most important takeaway is how it’s difficult to construct a championship roster with guys at different stages of their careers. While veterans are willing to sacrifice their individual numbers for team success, young guys are less comfortable doing that because they want to establish themselves in the league. This year’s roster doesn’t have the age disparities of ‘18-19. Tatum (25), Brown (27 this month), Porzingis (28), and White (29) are all in their primes, while Horford (37) and Holiday (33) are on their back nine but still highly effective players. Pritchard is the only young player who wants guaranteed minutes, and I think he’s in the perfect situation as the seventh man.

Additionally, the failure to live up to preseason hype can sink a team. There was no consideration that the ‘18-19 Celtics would only win 49 games and flame out in the second round. There was no skepticism about a small point guard being the best player on a championship team or the potential issues of guys being unhappy about minutes/shots/touches. The team folded amidst the pressure of high expectations.

If anything, I’m happy there’s still a healthy skepticism about this year’s rotation depth, Mazzulla’s coaching, Horford’s age, Porzingis’ health, and whether they can beat the Lillard/Giannis duo in a seven-game series. That skepticism didn’t exist with the team five years ago; it was all cocky exuberance heading into the season.

There were a confluence of factors that made the ‘18-19 team uniquely suited for disappointment. But now, Tatum and Brown are the longest tenured Celtics and unquestioned leaders. They remember the disappointment of five years ago and have proven that they learned from that year’s failures. And if the ‘23-24 season isn’t going as planned, we know Brad Stevens isn’t shy about making trades. The excitement over the upcoming Celtics season has been palpable over the past week, and I can’t imagine we’ll see anything resembling the drama and dysfunction from ‘18-19.

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