On June 8th, 2018, the Golden State Warriors repeated as NBA champions by vanquishing the Cleveland Cavaliers. The result was a surprise to no one outside of a few Ohioans and some hardcore LeBron James fans. Kevin Durant was named the MVP and the status quo continued.
When the gambling odds were set for who would hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in 2019, Golden State still were decidedly the favourites. Followed closely by a Houston team that had pushed them to the brink of elimination, a Sixers team on the rise and the Boston Celtics.
This was the order of things. Golden State the front runners. Houston their best competition in the West. Philadelphia and Boston fighting for the East. No one had any real problem with this. Milwaukee were eliminated in the first round once again, Toronto had suffered another crushing loss to the Cavaliers and Indiana was a fun hipster league pass team.
Boston in particular, was destined for greatness. A young core pushed the invincible LeBron to game seven of an Eastern Conference finals which notably didn’t include Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward. Pundits and GMs league predicted huge things for Boston, to the point of guaranteeing their place in the Finals.
If Golden State was Darth Vader, Boston was certainly The Empire.
Currently the Celtics sit at a disappointing fifth seed, unable to catch up to an Indiana team without Victor Oladpio, a Sixers team who turned over their entire roster save for their two best players and clear Eastern conference front runners in Toronto and Milwaukee.
But somehow, Boston manages to still get credit as a legitimate threat in the East, despite their wildly inconsistent results.
Kyrie calls out his young teammates for not knowing what it takes to win a championship after a 0-3 road trip, then they win a huge game at home against Toronto.
Then they win four straight games, drop a game against Golden State, then win five more games before blowing a lead to the Lakers at home and going 8-11 up until now. All this for a team that is still fighting for home court in the first round.
All this for a team with what was supposed to be the deepest bench in the league.
All this for a team with a top 10 player in the NBA paired with one of the league’s best coaches.
There are a lot of excuses that are made for this team that should be considered.
The injury argument is out, because Kyrie has been mostly healthy this year and the Celtics have remained mostly healthy this year save for a few minor injuries (Kyrie has sat a small amount of games out) and injuries to role players (Aron Baynes missed some time and returned in the infamous January Toronto game where everything was fixed the first time).
The Kyrie isn’t playing well enough arguement is also out. If you look at his advanced numbers, you can see that Kyrie is actually having an amazing season. According to Basketball Reference, his PER is around 25, is true shooting percentage is .592, his usage is under 30% and he has a 4.5% value above replacement player rating. These are all comparable stats to elite point guard talents like Stephen Curry, Damien Lillard and Kemba Walker.
So if it’s not injury and it’s not the best player, it has to be the rest of the team. But this is the team that without Kyrie and Gordon Hayward were only a few shots away from the Finals last year. So this doesn’t totally make sense.
Here in lies the fundamental issue with the Celtics. They are stuck in an identity crisis that much like Icarius, has developed from flying too close to the sun.
The Celtics could be in the Finals this year. They could also be swept in round one. But what of the world after this. The Celtics are fundamentally caught between a desire to win now and five years from now.
Ainge and his front office have an interesting set of decisions to make, choosing between a fire sale of their young assets to acquire the best available for trade talent since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or passing on Anthony Davis in favour of a young rebuild, likely losing their current All-NBA level point guard in the process.
Or to do neither and hope all of this can be run back and work better next time.
To keep believing.
To rebuild or regroup.