PLYMOUTH, Mass. — Boston Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck arrived at the team’s Shamrock Foundation golf tournament Monday clutching a towering bottle of his new Cincoro brand tequila. The low-hanging quip would be to suggest that the 2018-19 Celtics were so maddening to watch that the owner had to invent a sippable high-end spirit line just to ease his frustrations.
The truth is that the tequila that Grousbeck and his wife, Emilia Fazzalari, created with fellow NBA owners Michael Jordan, Jeanie Buss, and Wes Edens had been in the pipeline since a gathering in the summer of 2016. Still, there’s no denying that the storyline that won’t fade as the Celtics prepare to dive into the 2019-20 season and the start of training camp next week is how exactly the team avoids the missteps of last year.
But these Celtics are fighting to keep that page turned, preferring to put the spotlight on the potential of this year’s group and not the shortcomings of last year’s team.
“[Celtics coach Brad Stevens] and I met [Monday] morning and talked a bit,” said Grousbeck. “He’s had a lot to say, and a lot of positive vibes from the group. A talented team, a young team, and a team that’s fired up to show people what they can do.”
When Stevens arrived a short time later after pressing the flesh with golfers navigating pristine Old Sandwich, he was asked about his chat with Grousbeck.
"We just were standing there watching some of our guys work out and some of our guys play and it was — I just think there’s a lot to be excited about,” said Stevens. "We have a lot of work to do — we’ll get to that next week. … It is fun to watch them play open gym on their own and to just be around them. There’s a good excitement. I think all 30 teams have that right now and there’s a reason — because nobody has a lost a game yet.”
A follow-up question came asking if that excitement was different than past years. An affirmative response would have created headlines like, “Stevens more excited about this year’s Celtics than last year,” but the coach immediately shot down the notion with a, “No,” response, then repeated it for emphasis.
The comparisons between last year and this new season will not end any time soon, especially in the ramp to actual games. Kyrie Irving should eventually speak this week when the Nets open camp and that will re-open the discussion. But a particularly dominant narrative this summer has been how the Celtics drafted and signed players regarded for both their high character and easy going personalities to sort of overhaul the vibe of last season.
It was Irving, of course, who noted that comparison is the thief of joy. That, at least, is something he and Stevens can agree on. The coach has worked hard this summer to avoid suggesting that anything the Celtics did this summer has any correlation to the struggles of last year’s team.
The company line from the Celtics has been they turned the page rather quickly after the way last season ended. The team, with the lessons learned from last year, constructed the best roster they could. Any excitement about the new season isn’t a slight on last year’s team but simply a desire to compete again with hopes of a better result.
"I just think it’s, generally, each team is different,” said Stevens. "We have so many new guys. It’s just a different scenario, it's a different feel, it's a different group all together. There’s always going to be noise. I think no matter what the expectations are, or whether you're not projected to be any good, or whether you’re projected to be really good, the bottom line is there’s noise everywhere. And that just increases year to year, to be honest, especially with the amount of attention, the amount of media, the amount of social media, the amount of instant feedback.
"I think that’s one of the things that over time, everybody has to get used to. And I think being able to sift through what’s important and what’s not, and trying to be as good as we can be together is all we’re trying to focus on. I said this the other day: My care is that we play with great effort and togetherness. That is it. That’s what we’re looking for, that’s what we want to be. All the technical basketball plays and system, all that stuff, that stuff will figure itself out. I feel like we’re in a good foundation there, but we’ve got to play like a Boston team should.”
A follow-up asked if playing together might have been the biggest issue for last year’s team. Again, Stevens tried to steer the quickly conversation back to this year’s team.
"I thought we [played together] at times, I didn’t think we were as good as a couple years before. But I mean, that’s not brain surgery,” said Stevens. "I realize that every time we say that, that’s the headline. But, at the end of the day, this team’s done a good job of flipping the page and moving forward and focusing on itself. I really like the guys that are in our gym right now.”
With a younger roster, including the eight rookies that will be on the court at next Tuesday’s start of camp, the Celtics have seen more activity at their practice facility than recent summers. Stevens has lauded players like Gordon Hayward for setting a tone of getting in the gym and has suggested those players deserve a quality season for the time and energy they’ve put in this summer.
Stevens believes these Celtics have put themselves in a good position to be successful with the time players have devoted this summer. Not that those in the past didn’t do the same.
“My biggest thing is not about what they look like, it's about what they've invested, what they've put in, you know, some sweat equity together and just to be ready to roll together,” said Stevens. "And there's been a lot of guys that have worked really hard. That's not different than other summers, and if they weren't here, that's OK, too. They’ve been working hard wherever they’ve been.
"I think, at the end of the day, putting all those investments together and then kind of changing — not changing the lens but making sure the lens is focused on ‘It's about we,' it's about being the best that we can be.”
For Stevens, it’s not about harping on last year. It’s about taking the lessons learned and moving forward. It’s about getting back to what allowed this team to be a consistent overachiever early in his NBA tenure. It’s about playing a brand of basketball that makes sure no one is running to Grousbeck's liquor cabinet.
There’s a lot more time and energy needed to get everyone on the same page. No amount of lamenting what went wrong last year is going to help this year’s team be the best they can be. Stevens has turned the page and he has no desire to go re-read those chapters.
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