Even with a new coach, a new president of basketball operations, and a handful of new players, the 2021 Boston Celtics look surprisingly like the 2020 Boston Celtics.
The future was shining brightly when the Celtics made it to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cavs in the spring of 2018. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were young, talented, looked to be cornerstones of the franchise, and with a little experience, they surely would lead the Celtics to their 18th NBA title.
Fast forward three years later, and things are looking more bleak.
It can take time for some NBA players to develop into the superstars fans paint them out to be. Tatum (23) and Brown (25) are still young by NBA standards. Giannis Antetokountupo, thought by many as the greatest player alive, was a rare exception. At 26-years-old, Antetokoutupo helped deliver a championship to the Milwaukee Bucks last season.
But something just doesn’t feel right in Boston. Tatum and Brown certainly aren’t Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, John Stockton and Karl Malone, Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, or even Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki. They might be as talented as some of the greatest duos of all time, but the problem is they just don’t work well together. Rarely do you see them gel on the court, exhibit chemistry, or complement each other like any of those other great tandems did.
The trajectory of the Celtics dynamic duo might be stardom, yes, but will it result in winning? The way things are currently constructed within the organization and the roster, from management to players, the answer appears to be no, so some things will have to change. Here’s five areas of concern:
1. Do Brad Stevens and Ime Udoka know what they’re doing? Why should we think they do? Sure, we could give them the benefit of the doubt. They might. But neither has ever done the job they’re being asked to do now, which is construct a championship roster and coach a team expected to win now. Early signs are not positive. Absolutely they should be given more time. But there’s no evidence that either Stevens or Udoka is heading in the right direction.
2. Does Tatum, arguably their best player, have the makeup to lead a team to the NBA title? It’s clear, Tatum has the talent. It’s obvious to just the casual NBA observer, the man can score. He has the body and the skills. But does he have the heart? Does he have the killer instinct, or the LeBron James “get out of my way this is my game” mentality to carry a franchise to the promised land? Or is he more concerned with making All Star teams, posing on video game covers, and padding his stats? Sadly, I don’t think it’s the former.
3. Your No. 2, or 1A if you will, is Jaylen Brown. It’s hard not to love the player and his skill set. If everything were to fall into place, he’s near the top of the NBA hierarchy. But will it? He’s a young player who is clearly wise beyond his years both off and on the court. He cares about social causes and acts on them. He speaks with an eloquence that feels generational. And his talent? Undeniable. But even Brown comes with his own question marks. Like Tatum, many have accused him of caring more about his numbers than his team’s success. And there are other issues. Throughout his young career, he has suffered a plethora of injuries. Brown has battled knee soreness now for a number of years. Over the last two seasons, he’s played 57 and 58 games respectively. Is this something to worry about? A basketball player who has knee tendinitis? Yes, one thousand percent. Last season, Brown missed the last 24 games with a torn ligament in his wrist. Already in 2021, he’s hurt again, this time with a hamstring which will cost him at least a couple of weeks.
4. The bench. This is perhaps the most frustrating question mark. It’s bordering on mind boggling how this organization has yet to create any semblance of a bench around its stars, or even a functional one over the past few years. Tatum, Brown, Marcus Smart, and Rob Williams, are all playing way too many minutes for their own good. They need help, and at some point, the excess playing time will catch up to them. Why didn’t Danny Ainge build a better bench for Brad Stevens? Why didn’t Stevens build one for Udoka? The bench is BAD. It lacks experience, skill, and depth.
5. Is this 2021-2022 team really muc h different from the 2020-2021 squad? You have a different coach, a few new faces, but the same exact style of play. Give your two stars the ball, have them try to isolate, don’t move the ball around, complain to the officials for missing fouls, and have everyone else try and figure it out. Yes, it’s still early. But this picture has been painted for too long. The Celtics sit under .500, and look like just that — an average team. Being mediocre in the NBA is just about the worst place a franchise could be. You either want to be a title contender, or a lottery team. Being in the middle, or fighting for a play in spot, is purgatory for NBA franchises.
So where does that leave the Celtics? They’re a group centered around two All Star players who seem more focused on stat padding, than banner raising. They feature a drama centric point guard who seems to cause more harm than good. There’s an aging center in Al Horford who’s being asked to do way too much. They have a young and gifted athletic center nicknamed Time Lord who has yet to prove he can stay on the court. And there’s the incredibly young and shallow bench.
The 2021-2022 Boston Celtics are as talented as they have been in quite a few years. And the hope is they can find their groove, and more importantly their identity. They have the talent to be one of the better NBA teams. Hoop fans in Boston want nothing more than an entertaining and enjoyable season to get them through the long cold winter ahead. But the Celtics are mired in the uncomfortable position of having a collection of ingredients that don’t work when you mix them all together. And the guy stirring the drink seems to be no different than the last guy. So how do things get fixed? No one seems to have the answer.