Celtics offseason review: With Kemba Walker, Boston tries to cook up a balanced team to bounce back from sour season
Something had to change after the perennial overachievers became underachievers
Chris Bosh, a culinary expert, once likened his transition with the Miami Heat to a dietary compromise. As a franchise player, he could have whatever he wanted at the buffet; as the third wheel in the Big 3, he had to learn how to nourish himself differently.
"You just get your entree and that's it," Bosh told Bleacher Report in 2014. "It's like, wait a minute, I need my appetizer and my dessert and my drink, what are you doing? And my bread basket. What is going on? I'm hungry! It's a lot different. But if you can get through it, good things can happen. But it never gets easy. Even up until my last year of doing it, it never gets easier."
Anyone on the 2018-19 Boston Celtics can relate. They went into training camp thinking about winning the title -- Jaylen Brown started a lunchroom conversation with team president Danny Ainge about how they compared to the legendary 1986 team -- but, before preseason ended, there were signs that they may have too many players fighting for leftovers. Problems persisted through starting-lineup changes and players-only meetings. At one point, according to Ainge, they considered resting a player every game "just so there's not so many people that want."
Ainge has been open about this because he believes he has learned something from the sour season. Boston was too talented, in Terry Rozier's words, and individual ambitions got in the way of team success. Coach Brad Stevens had a reputation for getting the most out of teams that didn't look that great on paper, but he never found the right recipe with a roster that was supposed to contend. Perhaps it was simply a bad mix.
"The bottom line is that we had seven perimeter guys who were all very good players, and all of them brought something different and unique to the table," Stevens told ESPN. "If you ask any one of them, I'm sure they'll tell you it was hard to find all that they wanted this season. I don't lose any sleep over that. They were all extremely competitive, well-intentioned guys. The pieces just didn't fit."
Boston drove me crazy last season, but they were also one of the most fascinating teams in the league. Talking about them meant talking about the nature of chemistry, the predictive value of the regular season and the idea of diminishing returns. Everyone saw that the Celtics employed lots of players who could put the ball on the floor and get a bucket, but their performance, inconsistent as it was, dictated what that meant. When they played well, as they did when they swept the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the playoffs, they were deep, versatile and unpredictable, a modern team that could exploit matchups and adapt to their opponents. When they played poorly, as they did as they lost four straight games to the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round, they were disconnected, incoherent and volatile, a team that lacked an agreed-upon hierarchy and was no fun.
It was hard to analyze the team without sounding like a management consultant, and the same is true about Boston's offseason. Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, its two best players, have been replaced in the starting lineup by Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter. Rozier, Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes are gone, too, and several first- and second-year players have a shot to be in the rotation. The Celtics are less talented and less deep, but they are hoping to be more cohesive. If they reclaim their identity as overachievers, it will be because these ingredients go together.
"When we got done with the draft and we started our preparation for free agency, as we started planning for Plan A, our Plan A was Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter." - Ainge
What could have been
In another universe in which everything came together last season, they could have brought (almost) everyone back, or they could have made a blockbuster trade for Anthony Davis. Realistically, though, their version of running it back would have involved promoting Marcus Smart to starting point guard and retaining Horford on a long-term deal. If you believe that all the Celtics needed to do was clear up the playmaking logjam, you might think they should have done that and explored the trade market for Brown, Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum. Personally, I get why they wanted Walker. I just wish they had also found a way to get a defensive-minded center.
Taking the temperature
A hypothetical conversation between someone who thinks the Celtics are back on track and someone who doesn't
Optimistic fan: I'm so glad the Kyrie era is over and this team can have fun again. It's been months, but l still have nightmares about his performance in the Bucks series. Kemba, thankfully, is a more reliable version of him, and he's great in all the intangible ways that Kyrie isn't. The Celtics needed someone who could score in the paint and rebound like Kanter, too. I admit I was scared when the Horford negotiation went sideways, but Ainge has done it again! Did you see Carsen Edwards bombing away at summer league? Grant Williams is only 20 but is a veteran in all the ways that matter. I will buy a Tacko Fall jersey if he makes the team.
Skeptical fan: This time last year, you probably thought Irving was going to be working on his pick-and-roll chemistry with Anthony Davis right now. Let's be honest: Ainge recovered from a difficult situation, but the goalposts have shifted significantly. Last season, Boston was aiming for a title. Now merely getting home-court advantage in the playoffs would constitute a "success." You're only happy about this because it could have been worse.
Optimistic fan: The goal is still winning a title, but the expectation isn't. That -- and the fact no one has to worry about Kyrie-related drama -- is refreshing! Everybody's going to be so much less tense, and there is more room for Hayward, Tatum and Brown to be themselves. I trust Brad to get weird and make sure this team does the little things that last year's team didn't do. And about A.D., what exactly is your point? The front office wanted him because he's one of the best players in the league, but he decided to force his way to Los Angeles. His loss.
Skeptical fan: Wow. Well, I guess my main question is whether or not they've adequately addressed their chemistry problems. Horford is a connector, so you can't frame his departure as addition by subtraction. I didn't think Morris was a problem last year, though I guess there will be more shots and minutes available without him and Rozier around. Fundamentally I just am not sure if having Hayward, Brown and Tatum on the same team makes sense, especially with a high-usage point guard next to them. They all want to be All-Stars!
Optimistic fan: Hey, maybe they will all be All-Stars. I can see Walker being a "connector" and earning a spot the way Kyle Lowry did last season, based on wins and a career-high assist rate. He's not a selfish guy, and he no longer has to dominate the ball the way he did in Charlotte. I bet he has his most efficient season and his scoring average drops pretty drastically. I'm also banking on Tatum improving the way experts thought he would last year and Brown joining Smart on the All-Defensive team.
Skeptical fan: Those wild predictions are all based on your bitterness toward Irving, a popular scapegoat, and I'd like to note that he has been replaced by … another small guard who can be spectacular but needs the ball in his hands. It sounds good to say that Walker can play off the ball and space the floor for others, but he became an All-NBA guy by running more pick-and-rolls than anyone else -- you don't give him a max contract if you want him to change his game. I believe Walker's ex-teammates when they rave about Walker's leadership, but I am wary of the idea that his mere presence will inspire the Celtics to play without ego and make each other better. Unless Ainge trades a wing for a big midseason, I fear that this team will once again be less than the sum of its parts (and worse on defense).
Grant Williams is an NBA nerd's dream. After Boston drafted him, he said he had studied how Horford operated in Stevens' offense. In July, he said he wanted to improve his 3-point shooting not only for his own development, but because it would help Walker and the team. Days ago, he said his goal in the next month or so is to say he can guard Hayward. It's hard not to love the way he sees the game, and I'd be surprised if he didn't earn minutes right away, maybe even as a 6-foot-7 smallball center.
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