MILWAUKEE — Celtics coach Brad Stevens pinned the failures of the 2018-19 season on himself, suggesting that it’s ultimately a coach’s responsibility to get the most out of his talent.
Moments after one of the most disappointing seasons in Celtics history ended with a whimper — the Milwaukee Bucks dispatching Boston with a lopsided Game 5 victory in an Eastern Conference semifinal series — Stevens fell on the sword after the C's came up woefully short of lofty expectations.
"I’ll be the first to say that, as far as any other year that I’ve been a head coach, it’s certainly been the most trying. I think I did a bad job,” said Stevens. "Like, at the end of the day, as a coach, if your team doesn’t find its best fit together that’s on you. So I’ll do a lot of deep dives into how I can be better.”
The Celtics were widely anointed the new kings of the East after LeBron James fled for Los Angeles last summer. Boston was coming off a surprising run to the cusp of the NBA Finals — nearly upending James and the Cleveland Cavaliers along the way — and the return of a healthy Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward was supposed to deliver the Celtics back to title contention.
Instead, the Celtics endured one of the franchise's most drama-filled roller-coaster seasons in recent memory. Boston bumbled its way to a disappointing 49 wins, settled for the fourth seed in the East, and lost four straight games to Bucks team that, thanks in large part to the presence of Giannis Antetokounmpo, might just have supplanted James’ Cavaliers as the primary roadblock for East teams trying to GPS their way to the Finals.
Nothing about Boston’s season went to script. The Celtics’ were supposed to have a starting 5 that could be the antidote to the Warriors’ death lineup but it fizzled in less than a month and was rarely seen again. Boston limped to a 10-10 start and didn’t often put together stretches of encouraging play.
Along the way, they bickered. They held team meetings. They shoved each other.
These Celtics also routinely blew double-digit leads. They cracked at the first signs of adversity. And while they sometimes teased us with their potential, they never gave any real indication they would ever emerge as legitimate contenders.
Lingering above it all was the uncertain future of Irving, who found out that being the leader of a team with lofty expectations was harder than he could have imagined, and he caused internal strife with the missteps he made in trying to lead this group.
It all culminated with Boston’s five-game exit against a Milwaukee team that responded to a Game 1 loss by simply dominating the rest of the series, showing a mental toughness the Celtics so clearly lacked. Irving and Hayward routinely got outplayed by the likes of Pat Connaughton and George Hill, let alone the stellar series that Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton put together.
Stevens admitted that the drama and speculation about what might happen this summer ate at his players. Not only the Irving uncertainty but the constant speculation about whether the Celtics might eventually trade for Anthony Davis, and the price they might have to pay by parting with young talent like Jayson Tatum and/or Jaylen Brown.
“There’s no question [the speculation impacted the Celtics],” said Stevens. “[Players] have TVs, they have phones, they hear everything. And to be quite candid, when you live in it you do your best to just kind of block out the noise and do your best to focus on what you can control. But these guys are all so young and there’s a lot of pressure to live up to all these expectations, to put on a cape, to do all those things. And that’s hard to do.
"I always say this about — and I always kind of reference Jayson and Jaylen — I mean, I can’t imagine having to handle what they have to handle at 20 and 22. Like, I just can’t fathom it. I would have cracked long, long, long ago. I’ve been given the time to grow up and be 42 now. Those guys have done a really good job of just trying to stay the course and trying to become the best they can be. The other thing I told the team in there was, all the stuff that we’ve been through, they’ll all be better because of it. It didn’t show itself on this stage by any means, but they’ll all be better because of it. Because we learned a lot.”
Tatum never quite made the Year 2 leap that most expected. Brown struggled out of the gates but was one of Boston’s most consistent players since the start of the calendar year. Still, Stevens never quite found the right recipe for success. It didn’t help that Hayward struggled to consistently impact games as he continued to work his way back from two ankle surgeries. Short glimpses of success — like Boston’s first-round sweep of the Pacers — fooled many that the Celtics might ever put it all together.
Now, the only answer might be wholesale changes to the roster.
Does Irving want to be back? He put a spin move on those questions after Wednesday’s game, suggesting his initial offseason plan was to, "get back to Boston first, safely. See my family, decompress, do what human beings do.”
Al Horford, who can opt out of the final year of his deal, was likewise uncertain about what’s next. The Celtics will have an obvious interest in bringing back Horford on a deal that gives him some additional long-term security while easing the Celtics’ cap burden. When asked about his future, Horford said, “It’s something that I haven’t even stopped to think about. … We’ll just have to wait and see what we’re going to do as a team.”
The Celtics might need a bulky salary to send out in order to fetch a player like Davis, which is why Horford might be leery of opting into the final year of his deal without knowing the plan of attack.
Then there’s Rozier, who is about to wade into the often murky waters of restricted free agency. He’s been frustrated by his own reduced role and it will be interesting to see if teams are interested in him based on the glimpses we saw a year ago when Irving was sidelined.
Alas, the first domino is Irving. Does he desire to be back? Do the Celtics want him back? In a league where talent is king, it would seem the Celtics would want Irving, warts and all, and maybe that makes the decision to pursue Davis, even with only one season of certainty in green, in hopes of finding the title-contending chemistry that this year’s team lacked.
Or does Boston simply turn its eyes to the young core that had so much success last playoffs, and hope that pairing the likes of Horford and a healthier Hayward with that group leads to improved play without Irving as the focal point of the offense.
There are no easy decisions ahead for Danny Ainge and his staff. Heck, Ainge’s future remains cloudy after he suffered his second mild heart attack in a little more than a decade during this series.
A year ago, the Celtics were the darling of the league. A team that oozed talent and potential, and was positioned for long-term success. But now there are tough decisions ahead and no obvious path to follow.
Stevens will likely have a new challenge next season, one that may force him to evolve and grow. Like his players, he never quite met the challenge this season, but the blame pie has many slices.
Stevens served himself a hefty slice but he should grab extra forks. The Celtics’ issues ran deeper than one coach or one player. Boston never figured out how to make it work and it’s likely they’ll always look back and wonder what could have been.
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