Watching The Boston Celtics, A Pretty Good Basketball Team
The conventional wisdom in the NBA is that it's worse to be in the middle than to be terrible. This doesn't explain the Celtics, who make "pretty good" seem great.
Photo by Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Never before has being a pretty OK basketball team seemed as noble as it seems right now. The current NBA runs on long-odds bets and dreams, draft picks three years distant and free agent pitch-meetings so desperate that you can see flop sweat running off ESPN's ticker. Winning teams need stars, the conventional wisdom goes, and stars are attained in the lottery or the summer's signing period. If you can't be great, be crummy, because crumminess leads to the desired draft slot or the requisite cap room. To be anywhere in the vast middle—to be respectable, competitive, ultimately doomed—is to be lost.
The 76ers, of course, are the poster organization of shit-basketball-as-Phase-1, but they are hardly alone. Most every aspirational team in the league treats an eight seed as a pyrrhic victory, an initiation into a multi-year purgatory of first-round playoff exits. In this view, maxed-out competence leaves neither room to grow nor opportunity to replenish. It signals a kind of settling, a willingness to chase vacuous wins in Decembers and Februaries instead of important ones in May.
The Boston Celtics are a pretty OK basketball team. They have acceptable pedigrees, run reasonable sets, and get down into solid defensive stances. They sit at 14-10 on the year, putting them in line for the Eastern Conference's seventh seed. Every win has been deserved, every loss explicable.
The Celtics devote themselves to a task their peers have deemed silly, working to improve last season's 40-42 record by some minor degree and, in so doing, delay their inevitable bowing out. They are trying to win basketball games, and they are alright at it, and those two non-superlative qualities make them strangely distinct.
It is nearly impossible to adhere to any hierarchical organization when describing the 2015-16 Celtics. Do you begin with Avery Bradley, the cruiserweight combo guard who stops up opponents' pick-and-rolls like caulk, or Isaiah Thomas, the shrimpy crossover artist who swivels and scoots his way into the lane when the Celtics' sets get stopped up themselves? Who is more representative: Brad Stevens, the third-year coach with the air of a state senator, whose trapping defense takes on an extra strategic tint on Boston's parquet floor, or Jae Crowder, who hasn't encountered a basketball scenario that can't benefit from the quick application of his muscled shoulder? Maybe the best figurehead for this squad, with its staunch ideals and physical flaws, is backup guard Evan Turner. He has an agreeable enough midrange game, all spin moves and 14-footers, and he looks, putting it into practice, as if he has just been thawed.
The Celtics make more sense as a composite. They play a haranguing, direct defense wherein no early-shot-clock formality—dribble handoff, skip pass—goes unchallenged. They seem less on a string than bound by a kind of pact of desperation. Bradley assumes a crouch designed for the maximum release of lactic acid and moves his feet as if every high school coach from every basketball camp the world over is simultaneously shouting at him to do so, and Crowder does the same, out of the obligation of honor.
On offense, where plain gumption is not quite so valuable a currency, the Celtics do what they can. Owing to their relative lack of born scorers, their pick-and-pops tend not to create much space. Sometimes, one player or another launches a quick one-on-one campaign, abandons it, and sends the ball across the court, where its recipient faces a shorter shot clock and a taller task. The buckets they do get often seem cobbled together, the results of oddity, not expertise. Kelly Olynyk hits a stepback three, and somewhere in Montana, a biscuit turns up looking like John the Baptist.
Last Friday night, the Celtics took the then-undefeated Golden State Warriors to double overtime. They did this by trapping Stephen Curry, stepping into passing lanes, and getting out on the break, with the usual smattering of Thomas disappear-drives and Bradley stop-and-pops added in. They generally endeavored to treat the lovely geometry of Curry and the Warriors the way ants treat a cake left out at a picnic.
It wasn't enough. Turner converted a halting layup with under a minute left in the second OT to pull the Celtics within one, but Golden State spent the rest of the game making the requisite free-throws. The tired Warriors lost the next night in Milwaukee, though, and the Celtics could take some grim and characteristic satisfaction in having made them work.
As it happens, Boston does have the kind of help usually available to less upright franchises on the way. The Celtics hold a healthy number of picks in upcoming drafts, including Brooklyn's presumed high-first-rounder in 2016. They'll have a shot at the sort of talent teams endure 20-win seasons for, the sort that Sam Hinkie talks about with the desperate belief of a subway preacher.
It would be in the best interest of everyone who enjoys adequate basketball if the Celtics' current professionalism proves beneficial to whichever touted prospect they acquire in June. Boston may, in the season following, jump up to 55 wins. They may mark out an alternative to the contemporary ideology of rebuilding, proving that piecemeal improvement, and building a team that learns to play together in a specific way, yields better and quicker results.
They may not, though. Fortune itself was not impressed by the Celtics' game effort against the Warriors Friday night, and it may see fit to burden them with a draft dud and consign them to the endless middle-ground so many teams fear. The historical arc of the NBA recognizes logic and reason only vaguely; it has a total disregard for competitive morals.
But right now, at least, the Celtics can play in good basketball games. They are no non-partisan's favorite, but they hold interest. That is maybe the rarest thing an NBA team can do, at the moment. It's admirable, and not just because it's so scarce.