Stevens takes blame for Celtics' failures but blame runs deep

Stevens takes blame for Celtics' failures but blame runs deep

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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Enes Kanter clowns Kendrick Perkins over bold Celtics trade proposal

Enes Kanter clowns Kendrick Perkins over bold Celtics trade proposal

Here's your friendly reminder that NBA players aren't oblivious to pre-deadline trade chatter.

Former Celtics big man and current ESPN analyst Kendrick Perkins tweeted his belief Thursday that if Boston wants to take the next step, it needs to acquire a legitimate center.

Perkins' suggestion: Trade Gordon Hayward to the Oklahoma City Thunder for big man (and former Perkins teammate) Steven Adams.

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Guess who doesn't think the Celtics need a big man upgrade? Current big man Enes Kanter.

Neither participant is really at fault here; Perkins is entitled to dish out hot takes an analyst, while Kanter is entitled to disagree with Perkins' hot takes, especially when they suggest Kanter isn't good enough.

As for the take itself: Perkins isn't the first person to suggest the Celtics should add a big body ahead of the Feb. 8 trade deadline to combat Eastern Conference behemoths like Philadelphia's Joel Embiid and Milwaukee's Brook Lopez.

The C's reportedly have kept tabs on big men like Andre Drummond and Danilo Gallinari, too, so this general scenario isn't out of the question.

Whether Boston would trade Hayward for Adams straight-up is a different story. Adams is averaging 11.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game as OKC's rock-solid rim protector but is due $27.5 million next season with a 7.5 percent trade kicker, and the Celtics reportedly are unwilling to part with any members of their "core," which presumably includes Hayward.

We'll find out between now and Feb. 8 whether Kanter or Perkins gets the last laugh.

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Timberwolves exec makes strong declaration on Karl-Anthony Towns' future

Timberwolves exec makes strong declaration on Karl-Anthony Towns' future

Apologies to NBA fans hoping their team would trade for Minnesota Timberwolves superstar Karl-Anthony Towns. It doesn't sound like the T-Wolves have any desire at all to move the talented center.

Towns signed a five-year, $190 million supermax contract extension with the Timberwolves in September of 2018. Normally, players with lots of term left on their deal are not talked about in trade rumors, but that hasn't stopped speculation over Towns' future in Minnesota.

For example, The Athletic reported in December the Golden State Warriors "have been monitoring Karl-Anthony Towns’ situation in Minnesota."

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Timberwolves president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas, who was hired by Minnesota in May of 2019, made it quite clear in recent comments made to ESPN's Eric Woodyard that Towns isn't going anywhere.

"Karl-Anthony Towns is as untouchable as they come. He's the best player on our team and he's the guy we're building around. Everything we do is to help him become the best player and to help us become the best team we can be. He's a special talent that we're going to do anything possible to help him achieve his highest potential."

The Timberwolves have reached the playoffs only once since Towns' 2015-16 rookie season. Minnesota enters Thursday in 13th place in the Western Conference standings and 5.5 games out of a playoff spot. The T-Wolves haven't surrounded Towns with enough talent to complete in the West. Some of the reasons for that include poor drafting, trades that haven't worked out and the fact that Minnesota is not a popular free-agent destination for stars. Andrew Wiggins also has fell short of expectations after he was acquired as the centerpiece of the Kevin Love trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014.

Towns is the type of player you unload many quality trade assets to acquire. He's averaging 26.5 points, 10.9 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game this season, while shooting 51.3 percent from the field and 40.9 percent from 3-point range. He's also just 24 years old and has a skill set rarely seen from a player listed at 6-foot-11 and 248 pounds.

The Timberwolves would be foolish to trade him. He's absolutely the type of player a franchise builds around, as Rosas noted in his comments to Woodyard. He's also signed long-term, so there's no pressure of upcoming free agency to force the T-Wolves' hand.

There are plenty of teams that would benefit from additional center depth for the playoffs, including the Boston Celtics. Towns, at least right now, doesn't seem to be a realistic option for those teams. 

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