Such is the status of the melodramatic Celtics that it’s easier to identify who isn’t to blame for their maddening play than it is to pinpoint the main cause of their struggles, which include massive blown leads over the Lakers and Clippers in their last two games.
So let’s say this: Marcus Smart, always dogged, an underrated playmaker, and (gasp) a 36.8 percent shooter from 3-point territory this season, isn’t to blame.
Neither is Brad Wanamaker, whose toughness gives him a chance to be more than a Garbage Time All-Star, and Daniel Theis, who plays his role as the backup athletic big man with effort and results. And if you can forget that Guerschon Yabusele was drafted ahead of the likes of Pascal Siakam, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris LeVert, he’s good for some comedy relief.
Good job, guys. Now, about dividing up that blame pie among the rest of ’em . . .
The young players
Nothing confirms the complexities of this entire situation like this truth: The Celtics’ young players — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier — are most to blame for the team’s ongoing issues. And yet they’re also sympathetic.
Consider the situation from their viewpoint: The Celtics advanced to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals last year against LeBron James and the Cavaliers despite the absence of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, and they might have won the thing if the Celtics didn’t forget to involve Tatum over the final four minutes of Game 7.
All three young players landed somewhere between stellar and exceptional in the postseason. It cannot be easy for them to take lesser roles and subjugate their games for Irving, whose idea of leadership sounds awfully passive-aggressive to us outsiders, and Hayward, whom they had to know long before we did was nowhere near his old self as he worked his way back from the injury.
Now the specter of some of them being moved in a trade for Anthony Davis hovers over their heads. And they’re the ones who are supposed to be sacrificing?
It’s a lot to ask, and I get their resistance. But to a man, it doesn’t seem as though they’ve handled it well.
Tatum is a wonderful offensive player . . . when it comes to his own offense. But he doesn’t pass the ball well, and too often maneuvers his way into long twos.
Brown, who is already a very good player but one with so much room for improvement, has moped some this year, but he has been asked to sacrifice the most, and he was spot-on in suggesting back in January that Irving needs to stop blaming the young players for all of the problems.
Rozier plays as if he’s trying to cram 36 minutes of statistics into 18 minutes of playing time. The crossover-crossover-18-foot-jumper-brick routine got old in November. The desperation for numbers is understandable for someone who is about to be a free agent, but that doesn’t make it easier to watch.
It’s hardly all their fault. But in sum, Tatum, Brown, and Rozier could have handled their situations with more maturity — and much better shot selection.
Blame pie: 30 percent, or 10 percent for each of the trio.
What an awesome, annoying enigma he is.
There are few Celtics I’ve enjoyed watching play more. He’s one of the best shotmakers I’ve ever seen, especially for a guard in traffic. He’s a genius at the geometry of the game, basically the Barry Sanders of basketball. He’s ball-dominant, and he should be, but it’s also telling that the young guys whip the ball around among each other more effectively when he’s not playing.
He’s smart and perceptive, but sometimes it seems important for him to come across that way, and he either lacks self-awareness or enjoys being deliberately obtuse and making situations more complicated. I suspect it’s the latter.
I’d love to have seen the text thread among his younger teammates when he apologized in January for blaming them, then revealed that he called LeBron to apologize for being a pain in the neck as a young player. That is some Olympic-level passive-aggression, and he’s doing the same thing, to the team’s detriment, with his contract situation.
I do know this: If he leaves, he’ll be a Boston villain on the Roger Clemens-as-a-Yankee scale.
Blame pie: 25 percent.
The coach’s biggest mistake, by far, was inserting Hayward into the starting lineup right away. He wasn’t ready, and rushing him interfered with opportunities for Brown and Tatum.
Other mistakes? They’re all small things, like choosing not to call a timeout as the Clippers whittled away at the lead and Patrick Beverly slowly drove them mad Saturday night.
There seems to be a sports radio element that is gleeful in being able to finally nitpick his coaching; I heard one host over the weekend calling him “Bad Stevens’’ (get it? it’s Brad, his real name, but without the R!) and suggesting his job should be in jeopardy if the Celtics don’t reach the Eastern Conference finals, a take that was as ignorant as it was unfunny.
Dividing up the minutes of such a talented group is a new challenge for Stevens, though. Long gone are the days when Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard were his second- and third-best players.
But he repaired this once by inserting Smart and Marcus Morris into the starting lineup Nov. 26, and I trust he’ll fix it again. He’s a great coach.
Blame pie: 15 percent.
I suppose Morris’s frustrations the other night came from a genuine place, but I don’t get what benefit comes from telling the media the team isn’t having any fun. And if sharing the ball is this team’s biggest on-court issue, let me leave this right here: He’s 12th on the team in assists per 36 minutes, leading only Semi Ojeyele, Robert Williams, and P.J. Dozier.
Al Horford hasn’t been the same this season defensively. He’s gone from the fulcrum to a middle-of-the-game detriment.
As much as the Celtics’ issues are related to Hayward’s struggles in his return, what can we blame him for specifically other than missing too many open shots? The guy snapped his leg. A comeback from that is never linear or clean.
Blame pie: 15 percent
I’m not going to fault him for accumulating too much talent. First, there’s no such thing, and second, whom was he supposed to trade, especially since the ultimate goal of acquiring Anthony Davis and his eyebrow are now within reach? Don’t say Rozier; he’s valuable Irving injury insurance at the very least. It would not shock me at all if he plays great and they beat the Sixers Tuesday night.
Ainge has done such an exceptional job of rebuilding this organization since the last days of the New Big Three that we sometimes forget how high the degree of difficulty is to do what he has done. I’d call it Auerbachian, but Red didn’t have to deal with the financial variables Ainge does.
Blame pie: 15 percent.
Yes, this has been a frustrating season in comparison to expectations. It’s also one that is far from over. The Celtics have risen to the occasion against good teams this year, and their 4-point loss to the Warriors Jan. 26 was their only defeat in an 11-game stretch.
This team has issues to solve, and while I sometimes think that open roster spot should be used to bring in Kevin Garnett to yell at all of them periodically, I don’t believe anyone has bad intentions. They just need to have the same intentions. There’s still time.