The inevitable, merciful conclusion came in the final hours yesterday, June 1, when the 2020-21 Boston Celtics walked off the floor for good. Some of them will be back. Some of them won’t. But let there be no doubt that what the Celtics have right now – what they are – is simply not good enough.
And if we’re reading between the lines, Brad Stevens seems to know it as much as anyone.
“Obviously, we’ve got some really good players and some proven guys, but we have to improve,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens told reporters last night following a 123-109 loss to the Brooklyn Nets that eliminated the Celtics from the playoffs in five games. “There’s several ways to do that. You can improve through continued development and the right work ethic and doing a good job with the developmental stuff. Then, obviously, there is the ability to acquire people.”
Read that last line again.
Then, obviously, there is the ability to acquire people.
Look, I’m no speech analyst, but here’s what I do know: when people offer up scenarios and ideas, they usually leave the most important point at the end of a sentence. It’s what sticks. It’s what they want to emphasize. Stevens has just endured his most trying year as coach of the Celtics, and that is largely because he had mostly ponies in a league where horses pull the weight.
Jayson Tatum? Horse. Jaylen Brown? Horse. But everyone else is fair game for a trade or something else, from Semi Ojeleye to Marcus Smart. For that matter, Stevens and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge also are up for discussion. Based on Celtics history, any change at the top of the basketball operation seems unlikely, but not out of the question. When you have the kind of year the Celtics just had, as the saying goes, it is what it is.
Take a good look around the conference and league. The Brooklyn Nets are loaded. The Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers have both passed the Celtics in the East – and both have big men for whom the Celtics have no answer. And lest anyone think the Celtics still possess one of the most dynamic young tandems in basketball – and they do – the league is littered with similar superheroes.
Phoenix, up 3-2 on the Lakers, has Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. Denver, with Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, is up 3-2 on Portland. Dallas is tied with the Clippers, 2-2, with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. The Charlotte Hornets (LaMelo Ball) and New Orleans Pelicans (Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, others) might be in as good (or better) long-term position as the Celtics.
And you know what? Stevens knows it. He knows Kemba Walker is deteriorating. He knows Robert Williams is unreliable. Combined, those players missed 49 games this year, not including the playoffs. Neither dressed for the final two games after the Celtics won on Friday to trim the series deficit with Brooklyn to 2-1.
As much as Celtics followers (and sports fans in general) love to point the finger at the coach or manager – who doesn’t blame the boss? – try to be real. The Celtics could assemble a coaching staff with John Wooden, Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson and Pat Riley – and they still wouldn’t be good enough. We all know it. The bigger problem is that the Celtics have limited assets to deal at a time when they need players to augment Tatum and Brown, which puts the onus on the roster and, by default, Ainge.
How will the Celtics accomplish that? Heaven knows. Certainly, over the years, Ainge has pulled more than a few rabbits out of his hat. In many ways, Tatum and Brown are still getting better. Evan Fournier is decent. Rookie Aaron Nesmith looked like a different, better, more confident player at the end of season. But development in the NBA takes years, not months, and the clock is rapidly ticking before Tatum and Brown have the right to leave – or force their way out of Boston.
The Celtics need better players, folks.
The coach is all but begging for them.
How the Celtics get them is anybody’s guess.