The Boston Celtics slunk out of the 2019 N.B.A. playoffs with a whimper.
There was no switch. There was no extra gear. There was only colossal disappointment. After 82 regular-season contests and nine more in the playoffs, we learned that the Celtics, contrary to all the preseason expectations, achieved exactly what should be expected of a 49-win team: They were good enough to get by lesser teams, but not strong enough to hang with true contenders deep into the playoffs — teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, who were led by their dynamo of a star, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Boston was above average. Nothing more. And this for a team that was considered by many to be the biggest threat to the behemoth Golden State Warriors. Forward Draymond Green even said so as recently as January. Some, including New York Times analysts, thought the Celtics would have the best record in the league.
As swingman Jaylen Brown told reporters on Thursday: “The expectations were a banner or nothing. We came up with nothing.”
And now, the Celtics enter a crucial off-season having to take a detour from the rebuild executed by their president, Danny Ainge. But there are going to be questions now. The most important: Can the mercurial unrestricted free agent Kyrie Irving be the player to lead the Celtics back to championship contention? Is he even coming back after unexpectedly committing — at least verbally — to the franchise in October, only to waffle as the season went on?
And what about the young players? How good are Jayson Tatum, Brown and the others, exactly? Good enough to entice the Pelicans to trade Anthony Davis for them? Is it worth it if Davis doesn’t commit to Boston past his current contract?
These are complex propositions for Ainge and the rest of the Celtics brass to consider. But the team that just bowed out had problems right from the start. They were right there for everyone to see, for those willing to believe their eyes, right from a lackluster preseason.
“I knew going in that it was going to be super challenging, but October screamed it,” Coach Brad Stevens told ESPN in an interview published Thursday. “I knew after the first two exhibition games, it was going to be really, really hard.”
When Boston dominated its rivals, the Philadelphia 76ers, on opening night, 105-87, the league was seemingly put on notice: The Celtics had arrived and the previous year’s unexpected Eastern Conference finals run was no fluke. But then Boston struggled, going 10-10 in its first 20 games, with particularly bad losses to the Knicks and the Hornets.
Part of the problem was how the team’s offense was structured. In the 2019 version of the N.B.A., the most efficient teams get their points in three ways: from 3-pointers, points in the paint and free throws. Boston’s personnel shied away from contact at the rim — making their offense heavily reliant on 3s. When the shots fell, the Celtics looked like a championship-caliber team. When they didn’t, they lost. Often.
Much of the Celtics’ off-season hinges on Irving’s decision about whether to leave the Celtics.CreditJonathan Daniel/Getty Images
But effort and complacency were issues — perhaps the biggest ones — leading to several losses resulting from blown double-digit leads. Chemistry issues ran rampant all year long. Irving, who forced his way out of Cleveland so he could be the focal point of a team, routinely threw shots at “the young guys,” saying after another underwhelming performance by the team in January, “The young guys don’t know what it takes to be a championship level team.” Irving is 27, by no means an N.B.A. elder, and his teammates, as Brown admitted recently, bristled at being singled out.
Much of the Celtics’ off-season hinges on Irving’s decision. If he ends up leaving, his tribute video when he returns to Boston will be a short one. Many in the Celtics fan base (much like Irving, a temperamental bunch) never embraced him in the way they did his predecessor, Isaiah Thomas. Even as Irving turned in a stellar regular season, he’ll be remembered more for briefly engaging in the conspiracy theory that the earth is flat and his sustained moodiness. He had very little in terms of on-court standout moments. And this rang even more true in the playoffs, when he shot poorly and was outplayed for long stretches by the Bucks backup George Hill. If this feels unfair, that’s because it is. But individual N.B.A. legacies have long been judged by playoff success — and this campaign, fronted by Irving, was a failure. In fact, the year before, the Celtics went deeper in the postseason without Irving. And not for nothing: He asked for this pressure.
“This is what I signed up for. This is what Boston traded for me for,” Irving said to reporters earlier in the Bucks series.
But if he stays, and the Celtics are able to land another star with their trove of assets, the Celtics will once again be preseason darlings. Pulling off a trade, however, could be difficult, as the value of those assets has depreciated.
Very few players tanked their value the way the restricted free agent Terry Rozier did. He enjoyed a far larger role on the Cinderella Celtics, but he struggled in his adjustment to playing on the bench as a backup to Irving. Rozier’s shot selection didn’t help, either: His penchant for taking step-back 3-pointers early in the shot clock should essentially have been counted as a turnover rather than a missed shot. And yet he might find himself a starter again for Boston next year if Irving leaves.
Gordon Hayward, a former All-Star whose recovery from a horrific ankle injury was delayed by a second injury, never consistently found his form as the season progressed. While he had his moments as a playmaker creating for others, Hayward often looked a step slow and unable to beat his man off the dribble. But executives, coaches and players alike emphasized patience. Hayward needed time but he would come around. But in the playoffs, particularly against the Bucks, Hayward looked no different than he had in the fall.
Brown and Tatum, two tantalizing wing prospects, had uneven seasons and didn’t make the leap that was expected of them. And even Boston’s chest of draft picks has seen a dip in worth: The Celtics’ vaunted Kings pick will most likely be out of the top 10 because of a surprisingly strong regular-season run by Sacramento. Boston will, however, be able to cash in on its lottery-protected Clippers pick after Los Angeles unexpectedly made the playoffs.
But there is some light at the end of the bleak tunnel for the Celtics. The team is one year removed from almost making the N.B.A. finals. Its most recent draft pick, the athletic big man Robert Williams III, showed he could be a part of the future in limited playing time. And, at worst, the Celtics still have draft options, including a potentially high lottery pick that belongs to the Grizzlies. They still have Brown and Tatum, as well as Stevens, who continues to be regarded as one of the game’s top basketball minds, though his legacy took a hit this year. If stars hit the trade market, Boston still has the most assets of any potential suitors.
Most important, the Celtics have Ainge, a savvy front-office executive unafraid of swinging for the fences, and strong ownership invested in his strategy. These aren’t the Suns or the Wizards, or another franchise in disarray. There is clear organizational direction and a well-established culture.
But of this there is no doubt: This season will leave a sour taste in the mouths of many connected to the Celtics organization. The rebuild continues.