“We’re just not together. Plain and simple.” That’s Boston’s Marcus Smart, in the aftermath of the 118-95 ass-whomping his Celtics received at the hands of Pascal Siakam and the Toronto Raptors last night. By my informal count, this is something like the 917th time in this disappointing Boston season that a player has given a quote chalking the team’s shitty play up to selfishness or disunity or individual agendas or, maybe not in so many words, his teammates being assholes. That seems bad.
On the other hand, it’s important to keep dysfunction in perspective. The Celtics are 37-24 and, barring a total implosion, seem like mortal locks to at least make the playoffs; it’ll be a shock if even this internally fractious version of the team doesn’t win at least one series once there. The main reason their shit seems all fucked up is that they previously seemed like safe bets to cruise past 60 wins and represent the East in the Finals, and at least the first part turns out to have been too optimistic. That’s ... still pretty good, actually! It’s certainly possible to have a radioactive locker room whose clashing personalities and redundant, possibly incompatible playing styles belong to players much crappier than Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, Gordon Hayward, and so on. It’s possible, and much more depressing, to fall comically short of already abysmal expectations, rather than very high ones. The Celtics are still pretty good, and all in all, “pretty good” is a pretty good thing to be.
So no, Celtics coach Brad Stevens should not be worrying about his job today, or anytime soon. After what he accomplished the previous two seasons—navigating conference finals runs for, in 2017, a cobbled-together placeholder squad somehow organized into whirring two-way brilliance around Isaiah Thomas, an itinerant 5-foot-9 chucker with a famously abrasive personality who also happens to be one of the worst defensive players in NBA history, and then, in 2018, an injury-shelled wreck of a roster deprived of both of its marquee offseason additions, leaning on 19-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum and career backup guard Terry Rozier for nearly all its offensive punch—he ought to have stockpiled enough goodwill to get through even a flat-tire first-round exit this spring, if it comes to that. But it’s also fair to note that virtually every Celtic of consequence other than Al Horford has regressed this season—and poor Jaylen Brown, who seemed like he was breaking out into a ferocious two-way star last spring, has fallen off so badly that the phrase “Celtic of consequence” may no longer even apply to him—and that also qualifies as a worrisome regression for Stevens himself.
Frankly, he seems a little stressed about it.
Stevens made his name by coaching Butler University teams without much in the way of blue-chip talent to consecutive national championship game appearances. There, as in his first few years with the Celtics, a major distinguishing feature of his teams was his ability to develop narrowly defined, perfectly interlocking complementary roles that made use of whatever strengths his limited players had, without exposing their weaknesses. Smart and Avery Bradley are my favorite examples of this, from Stevens’s time with the Celtics anyway. Fine athletes and intensely competitive dudes, neither of them has ever graded out at higher than, generously, a C-plus at any single offensive skill that an NBA guard could be expected to have. Yet both have thrived as key rotation players and infuriating defensive stoppers on conference-finals teams in Boston that emphasized fluid, unselfish ball- and body-movement, neither banishing them to the corners to be ignored by defenders nor asking them to ever do much more at that end than purely functional ball-handling and release-valve shooting.
Thomas himself may have been Stevens’s greatest achievement along these lines—it just happened to be the case that his narrow role was to do all the ball-pounding and shameless shot-hunting in fourth quarters and at the end of shot-clocks, while the rest of the team took care of all the screening and cutting and passing and defending and rebounding. It worked in large part because Thomas, before the hip problems and the more general condition of being absurdly tiny in a sport of absurdly huge men caught up to him, really was a freakish, nigh-historically effective engine of offense for a little while there—but also because none of the other Celtics on that team especially needed lots of touches or shots in order to make best use of their skills or satisfy their appetites. That’s a key difference between the 2016–17 Celtics and the 2018–19 Celtics, and it’s one Stevens is struggling to manage.
Irving (fraud or not) is, like Thomas, a basketball ruminant. He needs the ball, and the space and time to pound it and probe off the dribble and create looks for himself. Not just because he’s habituated to playing that way, but because that’s basically all his skills are suited to: He is not a plus defender, he doesn’t see the floor or move the ball around it all that well, and he’s not actually a great enough shooter to warp the defense out of shape without the ball in his hands, like Steph Curry. If he is not going to have latitude to chew up possessions dribbling the ball in pursuit of his own shot, then there isn’t all that much value in having him on an NBA court. In that respect he’s not so different from Thomas, and so theoretically what suited that earlier Celtics team might suit this one, too.
But Thomas, unlike Irving, was surrounded largely by teammates who were never on track for anything close to stardom; even in the very limited roles into which Stevens sorted them, many of them still were getting to do more than they’d ever otherwise get to do on an NBA court, before or after. Moreover, for most of those guys, asking them never to do more with the ball than either immediately shoot an open shot or pass it to Isaiah Thomas was both the most flattering deployment of the skills they had and an ideal audition for the only kinds of roles any team would ever consider giving them. That’s emphatically not the case with Irving’s Boston teammates.
Tatum and Brown, for example, are explosive, springy athletes who can be difference-makers on defense and on the glass, and whose bodies and skills, at this point in their careers, are still far better suited to the sort of decisive catch-and-go work they put in during last spring’s playoff run than to hunting isolation buckets or squatting on possession of the ball. But these are not low-ceiling Avery Bradley types who can be satisfied just by being involved in the action in a secondary or tertiary type of way! They’re blue-chip talents who reasonably aspire to legit stardom and the license to cook defenders however they see fit. Moreover, they both (without Kyrie) helped lead a team to the conference finals in those more restrictive roles last season, and might reasonably have expected more freedom in this one. On top of that, for better or worse (worse), and however they contracted it, they’ve both got virulent Kobe Brain: They want to do stuff like take the time to size up the defense before attacking, and sidestep their way into deeply stupid 18-foot pull-up jumpers, like Kobe.
That’s dumb. Kobe Brain makes you do shit that’s dumb and bad. But what it represents in this case—two insanely gifted and wildly ambitious young players trying, reasonably, to expand their games and make use of the skills they’re building—is not dumb at all. It’s actually good! Broadly, that’s what Tatum and Brown should be doing in their second and third respective seasons. Brad Stevens is not going to convince them to be mere high-energy, defense-minded conduits for ball movement, à la frickin’ Jae Crowder, nor should he. It might even be malpractice to try.
But they’re not as good at the Kobe Brain shit as Kyrie is, not yet anyway and maybe not ever, and even Kyrie isn’t quite great enough at it to make it all that wise a way to invest lots and lots of basketball possessions. More to the point, every possession that any one of these three guys spends doing Kobe Brain shit is a possession that there are two other guys who are neither making best use of their skills nor satisfying their regrettable appetites for doing Kobe Brain shit. It’s not possible for them all to play the way they want to play at the same time.
Every plausible five-man combination you can make out of the 2018–19 Boston Celtics’ best nine or 10 players features multiple dudes whose skills and/or contract situations and/or appetites demand more latitude to showcase their shit than Stevens’s decentralized mode of play can apportion to them: Irving, Tatum, Brown, Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris. The ones that aren’t auditioning for free agency this coming summer know they might be traded away for Anthony Davis in July, or might be jockeying for the centerpiece role on whatever Celtics team is left after all that gets sorted out, or, in Hayward’s case needs time and opportunity to regain his confidence and rhythm after missing a year with a crabmeated ankle. Every one of those dudes reasonably could regard a characteristically stripped-down, narrowly defined Stevens-ian role as an uncomfortable constraint. Every one of them reasonably could feel like he should be doing more than the structure of the 2018–19 Celtics allows.
None of this makes Brad Stevens anything even remotely like a bad coach. He remains one of the league’s very best, and I invite anyone who doubts it to go back and re-watch how smartly and patiently his depleted Celtics manufactured a road win over the mega-talented Philadelphia 76ers just a couple weeks ago, when they spent the entire game meticulously picking out and mercilessly exploiting the vulnerabilities of an opposing team that featured, at any given time, no fewer than two of the three best players on the floor. He’s good, they’re good, and he may well lead them to the Finals after all.
But if he doesn’t, then this season’s Fightin’ Celtics will serve as a handy reminder that even among very good coaches, good coaching largely is defined by context. Brad Stevens seems to be the ideal coach for an underpowered roster of limited but prideful doofuses scrounged out of the sport’s couch cushions. He could also be the wrong coach for a stacked roster with a weird, charged combination of established stars and rising young talents eager to expand their games. Or, and perhaps more worrisomely for Boston, maybe that’s just too volatile a mixture for anybody to handle all that well.