Twelve straight wins.
It’s not so much that a team has won 12 games in a row. That’s not so terribly uncommon that the basketball world needs to go into full “Area 51” mode to find the life-changing hidden secrets held within. Teams have done this before. Teams will do it again.
Unlike most teams who find themselves in full Will Ferrell “WE’RE GOING STREAKING” mode, the Boston Celtics have had every reason to have a letdown in the middle of it. They aren’t just a ragtag group that’s found a groove and wins because of a collective force of will. They aren’t misfits who magically carved roles out of nothing and are just harnessing an extended “us against the world” turbo-boost.
The Celtics are the product of pure top-to-bottom basketball engineering. They are the result of long-term planning and forward (no pun intended… ok maybe it was a little intended) thinking. This team, overachieving as it may be at the moment, was always built to be greater than the sum of its parts. And everyone deserves credits.
Few teams survive bad ownership. The New York Knicks virtually print money, but it’s money with James Dolan’s face on it, so it has hardly done anyone (except Phil Jackson’s agent) any good. And sure, the occasional Dan Gilbert lucks into the greatest player of a generation to hoist a trophy, but generally speaking, NBA basketball is one of the few places where trickle-down economics can actually work.
The biggest impact the Celtics owners have had on this team is basically staying away from the team’s day-to-day business. There is, obviously, an element of owner involvement in player transactions and some of the outside-the-lines basketball business, but this group has long been content to put the right people in the right places and let them do their jobs.
This seems simple, but scan the sports landscape and you can see ego-driven owners front-and-center as faces of their franchises with little to show for it. Team owners are very rich and powerful, and people don’t tend to get that rich or powerful by being shrinking violets.
In looking at why this Celtics team is able to do what it’s done despite losing star player after star player, you have to take the macro view. The current construction of this team has put it in a position to whip off improbable wins, and this team isn’t construction this way if owners interfered.
Imagine being a team owner when Danny Ainge comes up to you and says “I want to trade the most popular player this team has had since Paul Pierce left.” Imagine looking at a team that’s made the Conference Finals, with a player as charismatic as Isaiah Thomas and a team that’s gritty and loveable, and saying “ok, fine, blow it up.”
That’s tough to do. It’s much easier to say “we’re making money and the fans love these guys so, no, we won’t let you do that deal.”
But this group believes in the people they’ve hired. They believe in Ainge and the front office. As unorthodox as this summer was, there was nary a report of nervous ownership hoping Ainge knew what he was doing. There was never a peep from anyone who may have been worried about backlash.
In the end, they let Ainge do his job, which is not always easy to do.
Speaking of Ainge, let’s just get this out of the way.
It takes a true madman to overhaul a Conference Finalist in the midst of what should be its uptick. Isaiah Thomas was “The King in the Fourth.” They were fun, they were ready to add talent, and they had draft picks. The red carpet was rolling out in front of Ainge and he could calmly stroll towards the sunny horizon with the smug strut of a man ready to reap the rewards of a job done well.
The madness, though, was due to something that falls on the spectrum between good luck and pure genius.
Consider this: The jewels of the Pierce/Garnett trade were two beautifully unprotected picks, and one pick swap, set to convey at a perfectly-timed downswing in Nets franchise history. They were the subject of countless media takedowns of then-Nets GM Billy King. They took on lives of their own, fueling endless debates about players to be drafted or worth in trades. A player’s greatness was judged against the potential of the pick, and only the best of the best were, in Elaine Benes fashion, deemed pick-worthy.
In the end, Ainge only made one of those picks.
Jaylen Brown, at the time of his drafting, was booed not because of who he was as a player but that he was a player at all. Celtics fans knew Brown was selected to actually play for the Celtics and not be traded for a disgruntled star looking for a new start. Boston fans didn’t want another young kid with a suspect shot, they wanted a reboot of the original Kevin Garnett trade starring Jimmy Butler as the lead… maybe with a Paul Pierce cameo at the end for added sentimentality.
This triggered a year of slings and arrows against Ainge, who was somehow seen as unwilling to dip into his trove of assets. He was pilloried for an unwillingness to make even the slightest overpay, like Ebeneezer Ainge pinching pennies so hard that Brad Cratchit would cruelly have to work through Christmas without even a sniff at the riches he knew he deserved.
In retrospect, though, Ainge was simply working with a certain vision of the team he wanted. In the end, the critiques and Rozier jokes aged like mayonnaise in the sun when the full roster was finally revealed.
Ainge was, in fact, willing to trade assets to make things work. It began with giving up an easy chance to make the consensus number one pick to draft Jayson Tatum. We laughed at the time when he said Tatum was the guy they wanted all along because it ran so counter to popular opinion. Now, fans are already giddily waiting to look back on this trade three years from now as Ainge fleecing yet another counterpart.
But he wasn’t done yet.
Avery Bradley had to go in order to bring in Hayward. Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, and the final Nets pick were shipped out for Kyrie Irving.
The team was torn down to the studs and rebuilt, and only now do we see what Ainge and Stevens have been talking about with “positionless basketball.”
The Celtics roster is now a versatile mix of wings, bigs and ballhandlers. No one thinks there are too many small forwards on this team anymore because, really, there are no “small forwards” anymore. Scratch that term from your basketball dictionary because Steven and the Celtics don’t use it anymore.
Positions are relics of the past with this team. This amorphous blob of players isn’t some mess of choosing from a weird player pool. This is what Ainge had in mind all along because in today’s bombs-away NBA where everyone shoots from long distances and lanes to pass and drive are constantly being pried open by spread offenses, switching is your only defensive hope. Having five players on the floor who can switch again and again and again without being hopelessly lost in mismatches is really the best chance teams have a stopping today’s high powered offenses.
We should have seen it sooner. I guess if we did, though, we’d be running NBA teams and not complaining about them until the vision snaps into focus.
It’s one thing to construct a roster like this. It’s another to make it work well.
Allow me to borrow from KG’s cooking analogy playbook…
Some chefs are great at their niches. They can make some great dishes with ingredients with which they are familiar. Give them those ingredients and they will make you fat and happy.
But if you tell them to cook with different ingredients, their food loses something. It might be OK, but it’s nothing special.
The best chefs, though, will take whatever ingredients you throw at them and create palate-tingling creations.
Mike D’Antoni is crushing things in Houston because he has the right mix of players that will execute his vision. With the right guys for his system, he’s a Coach of the Year. With the wrong guys for his system, he’s being run out of New York and Los Angeles.
Stevens, on the other hand, would be the Ken Jennings of “Chopped.” He could open a basket and turn an old boot, a bicycle chain, leftover scrapple, and a bottle of Robitussin into Thanksgiving dinner.
His mantra of “do what you do well” is at the center of his coaching success. Instead of being like Tyronn Lue and constantly asking a player of Kevin Love’s ability to play an uncomfortable style, Stevens simply asks each player to do what he does best and then puts the onus on himself and the coaches to figure out how to use that skill set.
Why do you think the Evan Turners of the world play for Stevens and find success? Why are guys coming to Boston and consistently unlocking unrealized potential?
In part, because even “bad” NBA players are really good basketball players and there’s always some underlying talent there. And also, in part, because Stevens and his staff have a remarkable way of connecting to these players and getting them to just do the things that got them to the league in the first place.
We often get on Stevens for a fair amount of early-season lineup tinkering, but it turns out that’s just him following his own advice. If he wants players to do what they do best, then it’s up to Stevens to find the right combination to maximize everyone’s potential.
Just about everyone on this roster is playing above expectations right now. Steven has put them all in spots to play their best, and they’re rewarding him with performances that few on the outside have expected.
We often say Stevens is a wizard, but his simplicity is his genius. He’s not reinventing anything, he’s just making it work more precisely that most others.
At 7:40 p.m., five men in Boston Celtics uniforms gather around a giant Celtics logo along with five men in other uniforms and one guy in a grey shirt with a basketball. None of these men is the owner, General Manager, or the coach. For all the accolades of the previous 1,700 words, not one of those people runs, jumps, shoots, switches, or rebounds on any given game night.
In reality, it’s the players who make the coaches, executives, and owners look good. Yes, it takes the talent to spot those guys, willingness to spend money to sign those guys, and the brain power to properly utilize their talents, but if Jayson Tatum missed layups instead of making them, the conversation about him is completely different. If Al Horford’s threes didn’t fall, the “Average Al’s” of the world would be crowing instead of eating crow.
When the Celtics, already without Hayward and Horford, lose Kyrie Irving, fall behind by 18 to a decent team, and then come all the way back to win… that’s on the players. Great coaching motivates guys and puts guys in the right position to succeed, but it’s on the Shane Larkins of the world to knock own shots and run an effective offense.
It’s very Belichickian to say “do your job,” but that phrase has become a phenomenon for a reason.
No player on this team has really tried to play outside of himself for too long. Sure, there are stretches where things go wrong and guys make bad plays, but the guys on this team usually stick to the plan and they trust each other to make the right play.
This team is by no means a finished product. They will have a losing streak at some time. They may even lose to the Nets. But they are winning games in a way that most other streaky teams don’t. This isn’t about some crazy hot streak from a marginal player or some other lightning in a bottle.
The Boston Celtics have been constructed to weather storms. They have versatile, athletic players who can fill multiple roles and, through hard work, can fill in gaps while stars are out for short times. And even though we should probably expect some regression to the mean, we shouldn’t expect any outright collapse.
That’s not who these guys are. From top to bottom, this Celtics team has been building towards success this season. There is plenty of credit to go around at a time like this, and everyone deserves their fair share.