Brad Stevens is no stranger to losing in the National Basketball Association. After he was pried from Butler in 2013, he won only 25 games in his first year as the Celtics’ head coach. He still had more setbacks than victories in his second year, but somehow snuck into the playoffs, where he promptly got swept in the first round. He did better in 2016, winning two postseason games, and then took the green and white to the conference finals the next two years. Given his track record, it’s fair to argue that he’s no stranger to adversity.
For all the trials Stevens has undergone, and particularly at the start of his stint with the Celtics, his characterization of his 2018-19 campaign as “the most trying” of his career is nothing short of remarkable. No doubt, much of the disappointment he conveyed in the aftermath of their elimination from the postseason yesterday stems from heightened expectations. With familiar foil LeBron James heading westward and the roster slated to be complete following the convalescence of marquee names Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward from injury, they were pegged to be legitimate contenders for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Instead, they went through a roller-coaster ride that told as much about their collective weaknesses as their individual strengths.
“I did a bad job,” Stevens said, and not just in reference to the Celtics’ inability to present a better challenge against the Bucks in their semifinal-round series. It appeared as if they would take the measure of owners of the league’s best slate, taking Game One in convincing fashion. Combined with the short work they made of the Pacers in the first round, their performance off the gates gave way to rosy projections. Unfortunately, they failed to stay focused on the task at hand in the midst of a resurgence from their opponents. They should have been ready for it, but they ultimately proved wanting.
Which, perhaps, is why Stevens could not help but be hard on himself. It wasn’t that the Celtics lost. All the third-party prognoses aside, the Bucks were superior, due in large measure to the mere presence of presumptive Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo. Even as they had the more recognizable names, their competition boasted of the more solid aggroupment. “If your team doesn’t find its best fit together, that’s on you,” he contended. And he’s right. At the same time, it’s also on Irving, who constantly craved for the mantle of leadership to the point of butting heads with teammates, but who then went on to fall woefully short of promise.
No doubt, the Celtics will be spending much of the offseason planning their next steps. The blueprint looked ready at the start of the season: keep the roster propelling ahead by hooking up with Irving anew. Now, however, it’s much hazier. They didn’t move forward. They actually regressed. And, under the circumstances, everything should be considered — even the prospect of resetting the clock. It’s not what fans want to hear, but it’s for the best. As Stevens noted, “a lot of deep dives on how to be better” is required.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994.