The Boston Celtics came into the 2018-19 season as overwhelming favorites in the Eastern Conference after a run to the conference finals the previous season without their two star players: Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
Instead, the Celtics were an average team for much of the year, dogged by infighting all season before flaming out in five games in the second round of the playoffs against the Milwaukee Bucks. An abundance of talent never coalesced together, and Boston was forced to hit the reset button this offseason.
Celtics president Danny Ainge believes that the team actually suffered from too much talent, as all of the young players who broke out during the 2018 playoffs came into the next season looking to make names for themselves. As he said on “The Michael Holley Podcast”:
“Certain guys thought they were going to be All-Stars this year. And they work hard all summer to reach these individual goals, but we just had too much individual goals. We didn’t have enough guys that winning was the most important thing. And when you have 21- and 22-year-old kids, that’s gonna happen.”
Throughout the season, there seemed to be fissures between the young crew of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier and the more established veterans Irving and Hayward. The trio of Tatum, Brown, and especially Rozier saw their roles diminish as other players returned to health, and it was hard for the latter two to perform at the same level during the regular season. Rozier had his impending free agency to consider as well, though that seems to have worked out well enough.
Nevertheless, Ainge scapegoating the young players overlooks the major elephant in the Boston locker room: Kyrie Irving. Irving’s free agency hung like a dark cloud over the entire season, as he started the year proclaiming that he would love to be back, and then pivoted to say that his future wasn’t decided and he didn’t owe anyone sh*t. His moodiness over dealing with free agency rumors clearly affected the team, as did his growing pains to become a leader of a young group, something he famously discussed with LeBron James midseason.
The Celtics also had to deal with the fact that one of their supposed All-Stars was no longer at that level. Hayward was not the same player while rehabbing a broken ankle, and rumors abounded that the locker room was tired of head coach Brad Stevens continually giving his former Butler star opportunities based on past performance instead of his present condition.
The young players eventually rounded into form, but Irving never did. Although it is likely true that egos got in the way of team success, it’s strange for Ainge to highlight that problem with Boston when Brown and Tatum are still on the team. It would be far easier to blame Irving, who now plays for the Nets, and move forward praising the two wings who are the centerpieces of the future.
Tatum and Brown are both presently auditioning for spots on Team USA, and their commitment to the team there hasn’t yet been called into question. Perhaps Ainge is simply stoking their competitive fire as the Celtics hope to rebound from a disappointing campaign next year.