February 3rd, 2020. Kevin Durant is balling out in the Boston Garden tonight. Celtics fans in 2016 would have loved to hear that statement all those years ago, when a plucky Boston squad led by 5’9” Isaiah Thomas, the ever-reliable Al Horford, and Brad Stevens’ coaching genius seemed to be on the upward trend considering the team’s cornucopia of draft picks and cap space. Unfortunately for them the dream of Durant never came to pass, but at least they can sleep easy knowing that Kyrie had a great game tonight too, dropping 34 points and 12 assists on the way to a big time victory. Yeah, that’s what we all thought.
We all know the story. The Celtics, after years of their “advanced rebuild” have neither KD nor Kyrie to show for it, but are instead left with an empty feeling as KD, Kyrie, and their New York Knicks leave Boston with an emphatic win, finishing off a sweep of the season series.
The Celtics are now 28-25 on the season. Jayson Tatum has had a bit of a bounce back year from his catastrophic sophomore campaign, but his pedigree is still nowhere near where it was projected following his blow up in the 2018 playoffs. Jaylen Brown is also on the up-and-up, yet, the fact that Brown is far and away second best player on the Celtics is the problem. If you had told a 2013 Danny Ainge that his bold move to clear out Doc, Pierce, and Garnett and reset the franchise would result in a 2020 starting lineup of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Smart, and Robert Williams, and trader Danny might have tried to explore a few different timelines.
The Kyrie departure was already hard enough. The expected savior of the franchise turned antagonist in less than a year, Kyrie cemented his legacy of infamy in Boston on July 1st, 2019, when him and Kevin Durant announced from their own private jet on Instagram Live that they were both taking their talents to New York City. The only thing more appallingly arrogant than this announcement was Kyrie’s subsequent lecture about how everyone’s perspective of time is wrong.
Somehow, the worst was yet to come. Kyrie had worn out his welcome to the point that several Boston fans were all but ready to drive him to the airport. But not Al Horford. Not the low profile, do-it-all center that was a rock amidst the tides of drama for Boston in 2019. Poor Al, worn out by the dysfunction throughout the organization, declined his 30 million dollar player option and signed a three-year deal with the Indiana Pacers: a franchise who exemplified his demeanor and gave him a chance to play with a homogeneous team rather than a loose collection of talent. A chain reaction ensued, as the Pacers chose to hold onto Domantas Sabonis out of their young big men tandem, and swapped Myles Turner plus some salary fillers straight up for the Grizzlies’ point guard Mike Conley.
Those Pacers, flaunting a revamped lineup of Mike Conley, Victor Oladipo, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thad Young, Al Horford, and Sabonis as a sixth man, are third in the East with a record of 37-16, trailing only defending Eastern Conference champion Milwaukee and a Knicks team loaded to the brink with Kyrie, Durant, and of course number one overall pick Zion Williamson. Not far behind them are the Philadelphia 76ers, who have staggered after Jimmy Butler signed with the Lakers and JJ Redick decided to join the Nets for more money and to play in Brooklyn, where he lived even the last two years as a member of the Sixers. Fifth place belongs to said Nets who have ironically supplanted the Celtics as the youthful Atlantic Division team with likable role players and oodles of cap space. The Raptors have fallen to the sixth seed following Kawhi’s flee to the warm weather of Los Angeles, where he and Anthony Davis have led the Clippers to the top record in the West. Some thought they might dig around the trade bin to revamp themselves yet again, but Masai Ujiri clearly dictated his plans to rebuild as just a month after Kawhi Leonard left, the Raptors traded face of the franchise Kyle Lowry to the Phoenix Suns for Josh Jackson, Dragan Bender, and a protected first-round pick, hoping that Jackson might splash when given a new opportunity. Fortunately, the Raptors do not have to slog through a process-like reformation, but rather, already have their star to build around in Pascal Siakam, a lock for the all-star game and the leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.
And here we are. The Boston Celtics, a seventh seed in the conference they were supposed to rule. That loss to the Knicks was the precursor to an even more deflating loss to the Orlando Magic, who rode the 29 points of free agent pickup Terry Rozier to victory. Gordon Hayward had a rough outing, only 4 points on one for seven shooting from the field. Boston fans wish this was just an off night but the sad truth that this wasn’t too far from the norm for Hayward, averaging nine points per game on the season. Boston’s front office can only pray that Hayward does not opt in to his player option for the 2021 season, as they have not been thrilled that he only averages one point for every 3.5 million dollars they pay him.
The Celtics are currently in position to play those same New York Knicks come playoff time, barring some unforeseen scenario in which the Knicks rally to catch Giannis and the Bucks, currently sitting atop the league with a record of 45-8. What’s sad is that I’m not even sure that the Boston crowd will be up for the task of booing Kyrie when he comes back to play in April. Ever since that game one win over the Bucks in round two of last year’s playoffs, the entire franchise has taken bad turn after bad turn, resulting in a depressed fanbase that attends game like a family member’s funeral, filled with grief and just waiting for the ordeal to be over.
No one could have predicted this, and I mean no one. The most amazing thing to me is that the true turning point didn’t take place in that morbid 2019 season. It really started in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 17, 2017, as two minutes into the game Gordon Hayward’s leg tragically snapped upon his descent back down to the hardwood. That tragedy was masked by the surprising play of Boston’s young talent, which almost shocked the world to reach the Finals that year. But the damage had been done. Hayward, who was supposed to be Kyrie’s sidekick and a top 25 talent, turned into an offense-only role player. The success of the previous year that seemed so joyous at the time was actually a curse, as it created tension between Kyrie and his teammates, leading to a continuous saga of hostile and perplexing interviews. Milwaukee laid the final nail in the coffin by mercilessly pounding the life out of the Celtics for four straight games, and within two months, every free agent on the Celtics left for a new start, leaving the shambles of a once promising team in Boston. Most people blame Kyrie. Some look to Tatum and Brown. Others even point to Ainge and Stevens. However, the people who actually need to be examined ourselves. Not that we did anything wrong or inherently corrupt, but we have to ask ourselves the question: How could we all be this wrong about a team?
(This article is courtesy of future Daniel Olinger, who for all we know could be working for an actual publisher next year at Northwestern, but is probably still just writing for his own blog.)