Proceed With Caution Before Burying Kyrie Irving and the Celtics

There is no debate that the Celtics have not lived up to expectations this season. After suffering their fourth straight loss since All-Star break, is it time to hit the panic button in Boston? Not so fast.
Publish date:

Here are three thoughts that one can hold concurrently.

1. Considering what was expected, the Celtics have had one of the most disappointing seasons in the NBA. Each week it becomes a little weirder and more surreal. Wednesday against the Blazers was the fourth straight Boston loss since the All-Star Break. Last Saturday, there was a blowout loss to Lauri Markkanen and the Bulls. After a blowout against the Raptors Tuesday, Marcus Smart became the latest Boston player to vent and tell the media that the team is "not together." It's gotten so bad that Kyrie Irving had to stop giving postgame dissertations on leadership and what it takes to win in this league. Tuesday, he adopted a simple "It's up to Brad" approach. 

2. In particular, the past six weeks have been a best case scenario for Celtics haters around the world. It goes beyond an underachieving season. Along the way, Kyrie has backtracked on his long-term commitment to Boston earlier this year and made it clear that he plans to explore his options this summer. His exact words: "I don't owe anybody s—." Losing Kyrie would likely cost the Celtics a chance at Anthony Davis, too, as it's unlikely AD would be interested in re-signing to play with Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, and Gordon Hayward. Boston's best draft asset (this year’s Kings pick) is suddenly half as valuable as it looked six months ago. And all of these offseason implications are subtext to the losses that continue to pile up in the meantime. It’s been an incredible stretch. However...

3. Any true Celtics hater knows that it probably won't be this easy. And everyone should be careful about jinxing the collapse. I feel guilty about this tweet already. I'm speaking less as a journalist here and more as a longtime Wizards fan who knows that as surely as everything goes wrong for the Wizards, things just work for this stupid team. In life and in Celtics hate, when something seems to good to be true, it usually is. 

Granted, there's no debating that this season in Boston has been a full-blown disaster. Look up and down at the supporting cast—Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier—and almost all of these players have been exposed this year. A few have looked totally overwhelmed. Meanwhile, Al Horford remains great, but his health has been its own question mark for various stretches of the season. And Kyrie, while individually brilliant more often than not, hasn't been able to make life any easier for his teammates. 

You could also throw in some questions about the corrosive effect of Kyrie's leadership if you want; it's honestly hard to tell how much that has mattered, but there's no question that most of this stuff is nonsense. If his teammates ever led a mutiny, millions of outsiders would understand. And in any case, all the factors above—coupled with four straight losses after the All-Star break—are why people are selling Celtics stock right now.

The problem is that it's late February. This is the most useless stretch of the entire season, and reading too much into any of these games is a rookie mistake. For example: Toronto blew out the Celtics this week? This time last year the Raptors were in the midst of an 18-2 stretch that had them looking like the best team in the East. We know how that ended in the playoffs.

And the Blazers team that beat Boston Wednesday? This time last season, Portland was in the midst of a 17-3 stretch to secure the third-seed in the West. We know the end of that story, too.


Damian Lillard is better than Kyrie Irving? Wednesday's loss spawned a number of those arguments on Twitter, some of which came from Celtics fans. And if a high regular season floor is what you value, then sure, Lillard is clearly the correct answer. Lillard would win 55-games with this Celtics roster. 

But compare their playoff numbers; where Lillard's playoff shooting percentages suffer a steep drop-off, Kyrie's playoff numbers improve across the board. And while playoff comparisons shouldn't necessarily decide who's "better" in a vacuum, it's a reminder that Kyrie's value is more complicated than what happens in the regular season. At the highest levels of basketball, Irving has skills that make him as lethal as anyone in the league. Hand-wringing over his success in February is almost as shortsighted as worrying about Draymond Green's regular season numbers. If the goal is a title, you want 16-game players. The Celtics have one of the best.

Flatlining through these regular season months doesn't come without a cost. Boston is currently sitting in fifth place. That would mean a first-round bloodbath with the Sixers if the playoffs began today. More likely, it will mean a Pacers series in round one, and a matchup with a dominant Bucks team in round two. Getting blown off the floor and swept by Giannis could definitely be the death blow that convinces Kyrie he needs to go elsewhere to chase a title. In that case, AD is out too, and the Celtics are not far off from overpaying Jaylen Brown and building around Tatum, Brown, Hayward, and Rozier. That nightmare scenario is very much in play.

But again, it's never that easy. The Celtics have played the Bucks as close as any team in the NBA this season. They beat them in Boston and they had every opportunity to win in Milwaukee last Thursday. And by May, most of that 16-game Kyrie logic will apply to the rest of the Celtics roster too.

The playoffs reward versatility, depth, and elite shotmakers. Boston has all three. Stevens has to resolve the Gordon Hayward issues that have been looming over the entire season—either Hayward rediscovers his game in the next month, or his minutes should be cut in half—but Jaylen Brown has looked better over the past two months, Marcus Morris has been steady all year, and Jayson Tatum still has enough talent to scare the crap out of teams in the postseason. Those options on the wing will be invaluable as teams go small and begin to switch everything in the spring.

There is also Horford, who will be stretching the floor on offense and anchoring a defense that has been in the top five all season long. Smart will be making kamikaze plays on both ends of the floor. Stevens is going to be scheming teams to death. Boston playoff crowds will unbearably loud and drunk and effective. Kyrie will be there as a closer. 

The point is, haters should proceed through these next few weeks with extreme caution. Savor the misery today, but don't jinx anything by jumping to conclusions about tomorrow. The Celtics can still give teams problems when it matters. They are not the juggernaut that everyone expected, and they are kind of a mess at the moment, but they're not dead yet, either.