Let's come to terms with the fact that this is not the 65 win Celtics team that was promised in October. They are the only team to have not won a game post-All-Star Weekend and are 4-6 in their last 10. But is now really the time to consider this team a bust?
There is no denying that this is weird and are contention for being the most disappointing team considering the hype and expectations that were placed on the Boston Celtics before the start of the 2018-19 season. They are fully capable of going on great stretches, but their low points are just as vibrant. The loss against the Raptors was determined when they went on an 18-0 run early in the first half. A blowout loss at the hand of the Bulls last week was leaving proof that the Boylen Bootcamp Era was paying dividends. Their most recent loss at home against the Blazers capped out one of their most bizarre weeks of the season. All of this has resulted in Kyrie Irving appearing to let go of the leadership reigns with his remarks on their loss against the Portland, "I don't know. It's up to Brad."
The drama that has come about over the last month and a half has been a godsend to the rest of the East. This is not just a team that is not reaching its peak. The uncertainty surrounding Kyrie Irving's free agency has rocked the boat to the point after committing to the franchise during the preseason. Now, every team might battle it out for his signature. "I don't know anybody shit." That was on February 1st, less than four months after publically tying his next five years to the TD Garden. Losing Kyrie Irving this summer will result in the Danny Ainge having nothing to show for the trade that sent Isaiah Thomas to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Should the successfully trade for Anthony Davis, the chances that he will re-sign with the franchise will be ridiculously slim considering that there will not be a box-office attraction left. Their war chest of assets may not be as valuable as the Celtics once thought it would be. The Kings pick that was meant to be their prized jewel might land outside of the lottery should their playoff drought end. Boy, this must not be fun for the Celtics.
Safe to say that their season has been terrible with regards to their expectations. Asides from Kyrie Irving, every other player on the roster has blatantly revealed their flaws on the hardwood. Everyone of: Jason Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier has looked like shadows of their best selves for long runs. Gordon Hayward is just now coming up to speed with the rest of the roster but it still far from the player he was with the Jazz. Al Horford's consistency and continued ability to make life a living hell for Joel Embiid has been a blessing. Although, the nagging knee issues he has endured this season have hampered him from being the dominant force that we saw during last seasons playoffs. Irving was an All-Star was the 6th time in his career, but he has been able to fully integrate and get the best out of the other 14.
His leadership has come under much scrutiny and his reminiscent of LeBron James when the two played for the Cavaliers (and this come after Irving made if evidently clear that he forced a trade away from the King to be the leader that he wasn't). Most of his shenanigans are ludicrous, and nobody can blame if the young Celtics core were to stage a revolt. But is all this panic warranted?
The playoffs begin in 5 weeks with the season already decided for much of the NBA. The Celtics are a lock for the playoffs. Their narrative is set in stone - such is the case for most teams. Reading too closely into the tea leaves could be a dangerous proposition. The 76ers went on a 16-0 run to finish the season but were summarily dismissed by this exact Celtics side (minus Irving and Hayward) in the second round of the playoffs. The Blazers were the 3rd seed, and Damian Lillard deservedly earned a 1st Team All-NBA berth. They went 18-7 after the All-Star Weekend and were thumped by the Pelicans in the first round of the playoffs. The Raptors also when on an 18-7 run and had their best season in franchise history. And nobody north of the border wants to talk about what happened after.
It has now gotten to the point where Damian Lillard > Kyrie Irving has become a legitimate talking point among national analysts and the Celtics faithful. If regular season success is the be-all end-all, then Lillard is definitely the man that can lead the Celtics to a better, less chaotic season. Their playoff numbers say otherwise. Lillard significantly drops off in comparison to his regular season performances while Irving steps up across the board. Playoff numbers alone should not dictate if a given player is better than other. There are 82 game players and 16 game players. And with the regular season losing its meaning and value, a 16 game player is becoming increasingly priceless.
The playoffs are built for teams that have the best blend of deep rosters, versatile lineups, and an otherworldly ability to score big in the clutch. If Boston had that last season, their ceiling just got exponentially higher with a healthy Irving with Hayward being their biggest x-factor. He has to rapidly improve in the next month or be a bit part player. Much of his shortcomings are not his fault, but Brad Stevens has a $131 million problem to solve. Brown has had a horrendous start to the season but has made strides this calendar years. Morris was the MVP of the Celtics for the first 30 games and has plateaued to be very impactful. Tatum still has the potential to go on a tear in the postseason and will give nightmares to the rest of the East. The versatile wing is the ultimate weapon of the modern NBA, and the Celtics might just have the creme de la creme of the lot.
Hordon is the proto-typical contemporary center with his ability to stretch the floor and be a deterrent on the wing. Smart's irrational confidence and tenacious defense are a deadly combination, and he often punishes teams with his energetic play. Stevens can still draw up some of the most innovative plays and last season proved that he can hinder some of the league's most unique players. And Kyrie is a cold blooded killer.
At the end of the day, their combination of talent, versatility, and playoff experience might be second to none in the East. The agony and disarray of today could be a bump in the road. The stars align in the playoffs, and this is not the final chapter of their season. When on song, they are one of the most dangerous teams in the league. By no means can they steamroll through the NBA but they sure as hell cannot be discounted.