There have been two conflicting narratives this season about the Boston Celtics that keep crashing into each other:
- The Celtics are the team to beat in the East (and possibly challenge the Warriors) because they have the deepest and most talented roster in the NBA.
- A season full of easy wins, desperate comebacks from huge deficits, and bad losses followed by veteran players talking to the press about how “the Celtics can’t figure out how to play with each other,” “the young guys don’t know what it takes to win,” “It’s not fun because of the lack of team spirit” and a bunch of other comments where the young guys are always being thrown under the bus.
I’ve written a lot about the Celtics’ problems this year and have addressed almost every problem with the team.
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But the internal strife, the media apologies, and the “Boston has the most assets to offer for Anthony Davis” hype machine is as constant an annoyance as that one mosquito that somehow finds its way into your bedroom at night. You’re trying to go to relax and go to sleep but that buzzing sound keeps circling your head and then almost lands in your ear.
The teams on the move are Philadelphia, Toronto and Milwaukee. Even if the Eastern champion won’t beat the Warriors, this might be the most interesting postseason since the Magic upset the 66-win Cavs and the 62-win Celtics on their way to the 2009 Finals.
I’m going to start writing about the real powers in the East, but first I want to dispel all myths about the Celtics once and for all. Here‘s a deep dive into the illusions to which the media, the Celtics and their fans cling.
MYTH #1: Tatum is a transcendent, transformational player
The fan and media narrative about Jayson Tatum’s value is insane, and will probably result in Boston not making the offer they need to get Anthony Davis, who, unlike Tatum is a top-5 player in the NBA.
First, let’s define the term transformational as it applies to an NBA player.
A tranformational player is someone who either dominates the NBA because of sheer athleticism, has a skill set that is unstoppable, or develops a style that revolutionizes the way the game is played.
Wilt, Shaq and Robinson were unbelievably strong athletes who also had the coordination of a 6-footer tucked into the body of a 7-footer.
Elgin Baylor, Dr. J (not listed because he started in the ABA) and Michael Jordan represented the evolutionary process of the great skills players who could jump higher and float longer than mere mortals.
Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Tim Duncan were two of the most fundamentally sound basketball players of all time, and mastered a shot that could not be stopped even when they played into their 40s.
Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, LeBron James and Ben Simmons redefined the position of power forward to become a 6'9" point guard who could orchestrate and offense, shoot jump shots and drive to the basket.
Stephen Curry with his unlimited range and incredible handles will eventually be in the hall of fame as he has revolutionized the game once again.
I’m sorry, but Jayson Tatum doesn’t fit in any of these categories. He’s a guy who like to shoot jump shots, can rebound and has limited playmaking skills. Maybe he has more competitive fire than any other player of his generation, and then works harder than his contemporaries. If he can do that, maybe he could become a taller version of Kobe Bryant, whose determination and competitive fire helped mold him into a superstar and an MVP. (Pardon me for the blasphemy, but Kobe wasn’t a transformational player. He simply patterned his game after Jordan.)
Now, let’s look at what transformational players of the past accomplished in their rookie season:
Bill Russell: +5 wins (only played half the season)
Elgin Baylor: +14 wins (1958 ROY, reached the NBA Finals)
Wilt Chamberlin: +16 wins (1960 ROY, 1960 MVP, 1960 All-Star MVP)
Kareem Abdul Jabbar: +29 wins (1970 ROY)
Larry Bird: +32 wins (1980 ROY)
Magic Johnson: +13 wins (won 1980 NBA Championship)
Michael Jordan: +11 wins (1985 ROY)
Shaquille O’Neal: +20 wins (1993 ROY)
David Robinson: +35 wins (1990 ROY)
Tim Duncan: +36 wins (1998 ROY)
LeBron James: +18 wins (2004 ROY)
Ben Simmons: +18 wins (2018 ROY, but benefited from Embiid’s first full healthy season)
Obviously, a horrible team will improve more than a mediocre team that was lucky enough to win the lottery. In the case of Tim Duncan, David Robinson was hurt the year before, so the Spurs actually added Duncan and Robinson to their roster. In addition, there are some Hall of Fame level players (Kobe, Curry, Davis, etc.) who didn’t develop as quickly.
To be fair, a good team can’t be expected to improve very much, but is Jayson Tatum really that much of a difference maker?
Boston won 53 games and got to the ECF the year before they drafted Tatum. They won 55 games and got to the ECF his rookie year. That’s only 2 extra wins.
The only similar case I could think of was Charles Barkley, who joined a Philadelphia 76ers team two years removed from winning an NBA championship. They had an almost identical roster the following two years.
Here are the starters from 1983–1984 the year before Barkley was drafted: Moses Malone, Dr. J, Maurice Cheeks, Andrew Toney, Marc Iavaroni.
Here are the starters from 1984–1985, Barkley’s rookie season: Moses Malone, Dr. J, Maurice Cheeks, Andrew Toney, Charles Barkley.
Philadelphia jumped from 52 wins and a first round loss in the playoffs to 58 wins and the Eastern Conference Finals, after adding Charles Barkley. That’s 6 extra wins.
Tatum is a very good young player, but he wasn’t even the best rookie of his class, finishing behind Simmons and Mitchell in ROY voting.
He has a long way to go before he proves that he is an MVP caliber player. According to one advanced metric, Tatum had the highest shooting percentage on corner three pointers in the history of the league last year.
That sounds more like a ceiling than a launching point, and predictably his 3-point shooting is down by 5.2% this year.
Guess who may be a future MVP caliber player? Luka Doncic. The Mavs have already won two more games than last season… [Edit: I didn’t realize as I wrote this piece that Dallas had already gone in the tank this year, trading away Jordan, Matthews and Smith Jr to get the still-injured Porzingis. They were 23–27 before the trade, a record that projected to a 13-win increase. Since the trade, they are 6–17, projecting to a 21-win season.]
MYTH #2: Boston finally put it together — just look at their record
Quoting statistics about win records and point differentials is one of the arguments used by the media to support the illusion that Boston is an elite team. But look at the level of competition in the East.
Aside from the top 5 teams, the rest of the conference isn’t very good.
Boston went from a 10–10 record to 35–19. Of those 25 wins, 14 came against weaker Eastern teams, and 7 came against sub .500 Western teams (Dallas, Minnesota, Memphis, New Orleans). That leaves 4 quality wins (OKC, Toronto, Philadelphia, Indiana).
Here’s a little reality check that should help reduce the unrealistic expectations that the Celtics are going to challenge the Warriors: Boston is 10–11 against the Western Conference. They have a 2–8 record against the current Western Conference playoff teams, and should have been swept by the Phoenix Suns.
The other metric being throw around is point differential. Boston has the third best point differential (+6.5) in the NBA season, but look at how a small number of outlier wins skew this number: Chicago 111–82 (+29), Atlanta 114–96 (+18), Cleveland 128–95 (+33), Chicago 133–77 (+56), Atlanta 129–108 (+21).
The Celtics won five games against three of the worst teams in the NBA, who have a combined record of 42–126 (.250) and an average point differential of (-9.0) by a total of 157 points, for an average point differential of (+31.4).
If we remove their five blowout wins, the Celtics’ point differential for the season is (+4.0). That is in line with a 52-win season.
This is not the profile of the Warriors, who couldn’t care less about the regular season, and then make a statement by beating Milwaukee on the road by 20, or opening a can of whoop ass at Denver 142–111.
MYTH #3: Incredible comebacks prove that Boston is special
Here’s a crazy tweet that shows the difference between an all-time team that can turn it on whenever they want, and a good team that gets lucky in a few games and unlucky in a few games.
Over the course of 108 games during the 2014–2015 and 2015–2016 seasons, the Warriors went 18–13 in games they trailed by at least 10 points.
That’s a better winning percentage than 20 NBA teams this current season. The league average for these kinds of comebacks is 21%.
Where do the Celtics stand in this spectrum?
Boston trailed by at least 10 points in 19 games, and won 6 of them for a 31.5% winning percentage. It’s a little better than league average, but far from the level of the Warriors. In addition, Boston come back to beat four bad teams: at Phoenix, at Washington, at Memphis, at Atlanta.
They beat one good team, at OKC, where the Thunder completely choked, blowing a 16-point half time lead, trailing by 1 and then blowing a 9-point lead with with 4:22 left in the game. Westbrook shot 5 for 20 and 0 for 5 on three pointers, including two horrible threes in the last 46 seconds when the game was tied and then with the Celtics up by three.
Boston’s signature game of the year was their 123–116 overtime home win over Toronto. Kyrie Irving had one of the greatest games of his career (43 points, 18 of 26 shots, 3 of 6 three pointers, 11 assists), as he scored 17 points in the last 8:06 of the fourth quarter to force overtime, then scored or assisted on14 of Boston’s 16 points.
However, the reverse is also true. The worse a team is, the more often it will blow a big lead and lose to a game it should never have lost.
Boston has led by at least 10 points in 33 games and lost 7 of them to the following teams: at Indiana, at Denver, home to Phoenix, at San Antonio, at Orlando, home to LA Lakers, home to LA Clippers. That’s 21.2% of those games, which is nothing more than league average.
To see if a team is really great, we look for patterns of play that are sustainable.
What we could always count on with Boston was their defense and grittiness. Here is how they have ranked in defensive efficiency this season by month, along with their record for the month:
October: D #1 (5–2)
November: D #8 (6–8)
December: D #12 (9–5)
January: D #2 (11–4)
February: D #18 (5–6)
March: D #20 (6–6)
The offense, which is so dependent on volume three point shooting, has been equally streaky. Here is the Celtics’ offensive efficiency by month:
October: #28 (5–2)
November: #14 (6–8)
December: #2 (9–5)
January: #7 (11–4)
February: #18 (5–6)
March: #9 (6–6)
Until March, the Warriors seemed to be immune to any offensive problems, unless Stephen Curry is injured. Here is their offensive efficiency by month:
October: #1 (8–1)
November: #8 (7–7)
December: #8 (10–5)
January: #1 (11–2)
February: #5 (7–4)
Where we would expect the Warriors to have problems is in giving 100% effort during the regular season. Here is their defensive efficiency by month:
October: #13 (8–1)
November: #23 (7–7)
December: #10 (10–5)
January: #18 (11–2)
February: #15 (7–4)
March: #12 (7–4)
Another unsustainable metric is how a team does in overtime. The Celtics are 4–0 this year. In two of the games they overcame large 4th quarter deficits, one where they had a small lead for most of the 4th quarter, and the fourth, which was a back and forth affair with multiple lead changes. If those games go the other way, Boston would be closer to 6th than 4th.
MYTH #4: Brad Stevens is such a great coach he will figure it out and lead the Celtics to multiple championships
There’s no doubt that Brad Stevens is one of the best coaches in the NBA. Over the years, he has gotten more out of his players than just about anybody not named Popovich. I wrote about the effect of Stevens on the trade value of his players, as the vast majority of them have their best years in Boston, then sign big contracts with other teams and never reach the same level of performance:
The problem for Stevens is that there is a huge difference in skill sets between a coach who can develop young players, while getting them to bond as underdogs, and a coach who can master the intracacies of navigating superstars’ egos to get them to perform at the highest level.
NBA history is filled with coaches who could do one thing, but not the other.
- Doug Collins nurtured Jordan and Pippen, but Phil Jackson made the Bulls champions.
- Larry Brown has built winning programs at multiple schools and NBA teams, only to move on to the next challenge. He is the only coach to win an NCAA title and an NBA title, but he couldn’t sustain his success, falling into conflict with star players or school administrations.
- Del Harris had Kobe and Shaq for three years, but Phil Jackson made the Lakers champions.
- Gregg Popovich started his career with the Spurs by losing David Robinson for the season and losing 62 games. The next year he got back Robinson and drafted Tim Duncan, and he’s never had a losing season since, winning 5 titles, and reaching the playoffs in 21 straight years.
- Mark Jackson molded the young Warriors, but Steve Kerr took them to greatness.
Up until this year, Stevens coached a bunch of guys who had a chip on their shoulder because they were never the most talented team. In his first three years, the team won 25, 42, and 48 games and lost in the first round of the playoff in consecutive seasons.
In 2017, the #1 seeded Celtics lost two straight at home to the Bulls, as Rajon Rondo dominated his old team. Boston lucked out, as Rondo broke his right thumb and they won four straight. In the next round, they came back from huge deficits against the Wizards and their two All-Star guards to win two games, then won game 7 on the once-in-a-career heroics of Kelly Olynyk. They lost 4–1 to the Cavs team with LeBron, Kyrie and Kevin Love.
In 2018, the #2 seeded Celtics were pushed to game 7 by Milwaukee, then upset the favored 76ers, again coming back from big deficits in two of their wins due to Stevens’ superior coaching. Their run ended in a game 7 loss to the depleted Cavs (with Kevin Love injured in game 6, LeBron James played all 48 minutes).
Boston was the underdog in multiple playoff matches against more talented players, and surprisingly won three of those series, before falling to the team with best player in the world.
This year, the Celtics have assembled a talented, deep roster that features three players who have been All-Stars (Irving, Horford, Hayward), a 2018 rookie of the year candidate, and their young, hungry bench guys.
The question is whether Stevens can work with the huge ego of Kyrie Irving, the playing expectations of a healthy Gordon Hayward, and the desire of the hungry young guys who got to the ECF without Irving and Hayward.
Can Brad Stevens get everyone to understand and accept their role, and then work together as a team to contend for a title?
Based on the locker room turmoil, the negative comments by Kyrie Irving and Marcus Morris, and the sometimes lackadaisical play of the young stars from last year, it doesn’t seem likely.
Thanks for reading. Look for more NBA articles throughout the season.
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(This was originally a response to a Bill Simmons column when the Ringer was on Medium.)
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