A Season Deferred
The Boston Celtics have been eliminated from this year’s playoffs, by the “Fear the Deer” Milwaukee Bucks. The Celtics dismissal from postseason play cannot be regarded as an upset. The moment the seeding was set, their fate was destined for an insurmountable showdown with the Bucks. No one outside of the Celtics organization and fan base had any hope or expectation that Boston would prevail and advance to the Eastern Conference Final. They were outmatched, outplayed, outcoached and outmanned, particularly when considering the critical absence of Marcus Smart due to injury, at the start of the series.
An opponent’s superiority and an injury depleted roster would absolve any team from the harsh summary of failure. However, given how poorly the Celtics underperformed in postseason, their elimination is only the borne fruit of how dysfunctional the team played all season. Last year, the Celtics were a game away from defeating the LeBron James led Cavaliers and playing in the championship final. Preseason predictions had them highly regarded, as a team to emerge from the East. The post mortem is now underway.
Two individuals have had the most fingers aimed at them, for the Celtics not living up to expectations and their level of talent: future Hall of Fame guard Kyrie Irving and Head Coach Brad Stevens. Regarding the latter, Stevens pointed himself out for blame, immediately following the playoff-ending 116–91 loss against the Bucks.
The start of the 2018–2019 season had great promise — on paper. Kyrie Irving, the undisputed star of the team, and Gordon Hayward, a Brad Stevens protégé tailormade for Celtic pride, were returning to the roster. Paper gets crumbled.
Sports media analysts and fan critics ironically blame the demise of the team on their return. One perspective sees it as the consequence of having a gluttony of riches. The Celtics’ roster is so replete with talent, that finding a balance to direct an effort for a championship is too great a challenge for any coach or group of players. That a player as talented as Gordon Hayward struggled to find comfort, while players like Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown struggled to find minutes supports that perspective. Likewise, the strategically agile Brad Stevens appeared flatfooted about the team’s internal dynamics, which became more vexing when they became so publicly visible.
Most observers, however, lay the reason for the team’s disappointing season at the fantastically talented and fleet feet of Kyrie. This perspective concludes that his me-centric, hero ball, shot clock consuming style of play proved too alienating and disruptive for a squad that found tremendous cohesion and success at the conclusion of last season. With his presence, the chemistry of the team no longer supplied the energizing elixir of splendid solidarity. It could only brew the toxic tincture of a debilitating discord.
Neither assessment is complete on its own. Combined, they draft a more comprehensive critique. A more complete evaluation could consider, that the genesis of the Celtics’ calamity can be traced back to before the first jump ball of the regular season. The adage, failing to plan is planning to fail, offers a clue.
I had a concern about their talent riches, when I spoke with a principal of the franchise in early October 2017, just days before the start of the season. The conversation lasted 40 minutes. I proffered myself as a consultant for the organization, to aid in developing better leaders. My premise was that their talent abundance could put team unity at risk for destabilizing tensions, due to the significance, roles and minutes allocated to players. I suggested that preparation to address this concern would be required, to preempt that potential. When I was questioned about the type of preparation I had in mind, I described grouping players into cohorts. The structure and activities of the cohorts would be designed to weave the fabric within each group with greater cohesion. This would provide a learned and shared framework for how players could collectively unify as a team.
I was challenged for details about activities and other ideas presented, which I furnished but my offer was eventually declined. It was explained to me that there was no way I would be granted access to the players. Accepting this, I offered to only advise the coaching staff about how to facilitate the player cohorts. Also declined. I was told, “Brad Stevens understands team basketball”, and later in an email “Our coaches and players seem well connected”.
I never questioned Brad Steven’s aptitude. My perspective was more an understanding, that developing a cohesive team culture is quite different than expertly preparing a team to execute and play well. A failure to understand the former can prevent the latter. Not even the most sympathetic judgment could support that this season’s Celtics exhibited a cohesive team culture.
The team was set to perform at a high level, when I had that October conversation. Moreover, Stevens had an impeccable record stemming from his Butler College coaching days. Even after having lost Hayward five minutes into the season, and Irving with 17 games remaining in the season, the team looked ready to leverage its talents to conquer LeBron James, going into the playoffs in 2018. Extending the Cavaliers to a game seven in the series was a testament to that. The thunderous dunk by Jayson Tatum over LeBron was an emphatic declaration that they would not go gentle into the night. Despite the series loss, the Celtics left NBA fans and speculators very optimistic that the 2018–2019 season would be their year.
As a teen, when I watched Phil Jackson coach Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls to consecutive championships, I thought I was witnessing a new era of “basketball mindfulness”, a process of harnessing the power of self-awareness for personal improvement. It never totally caught on. Any coach can pass out books, burn sage and integrate meditation as a practice. But what accounted for the domination the Bulls demonstrated, aside from Jordan’s brilliance, was that Jackson’s preparation created a near psychic connection between the players. They performed as if they were neuropathically linked. When they took the court, that connection gave the Bulls the singular focus and unified effort to do everything all the time, to win. For them, there was no such thing as home court. Every stadium and arena they entered was theirs and when they came to play you, they came to claim it. The onslaught was sublime.
This same approach to coaching ushered a Jackson disciple, Steve Kerr, to the Golden State Warriors. He immediately prioritized team unity and joy for the game. The result of this mindset preparation has fashioned what many other NBA teams still find elusive: an environment in which the staff and players can immediately address and move through challenges, in a manner that brings them closer together.
Several teams operate with a superstar player getting 30+ minutes of play, demanding the ball and directing the other players to stage his prominence for team success. The most extreme examples of this have been James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Kyrie Irving now ranks amongst them. But today’s younger players have a different attitude towards that domineering license. They came up in an era that is less command-and-control and more rapid prototyping. They have been schooled on how to campaign and market their brand through social media. They don’t view the old school ways of complete reverence and wholesale submission to a veteran hierarchy, as their way of seeing things. They aren’t so amenable to the pecks of a pecking order.
Many Celtics players went on record this season, about the problems that plagued the team. Some felt relegated to being bit players, in a performance they had previously casted them in starring roles. Others grew disaffected and disillusioned about the lack of direction, cohesion and leadership of the team. A few players were cognizant early on of the potential hazards to their success but seemed hopeful victories would eliminate the threats. Winning often times cures what sickens a team.
Regardless of the cause of player dissatisfaction, a common concern surfaced. There appeared to be no recourse or solution to alter the circumstance. The team’s presumed leader, self-absorbed with his exploits, and its head coach, confounded by the dramatic change with his team, were not able to course correct and navigate out of the whirlpool of their predicament. This led to a growing resignation about the season, that permeated through the team.
When Kyrie returned from his injury, his teammates were eager for and receptive to his leadership. They were certain that he was the key component, to advance them to a championship. They wanted him to level up their team, but for Kyrie that meant them playing on his team. Despite the prior year’s success, Kyrie treated his fellow players like ancillaries there for whatever he wanted to happen on the court, not as valued contributors for a collaborative team achievement.
As the degree of alienation rose, Kyrie blamed other players, which created more alienation. Tensions came to a head in early March, when Kyrie aired comments that triggered reactions from several teammates. According to Kyrie, the resulting tumult was quickly resolved, on the March 4th cross-country plane ride to San Francisco. He told the media “That long plane ride helped us out”. That improvement was short-lived. Kyrie, for all his talent, character and intelligence, lacked the self-awareness and self-analysis to assess the magnitude of the problem. What further complicated this was that no one, not even Brad Stevens, appeared willing or able to confront and convince him that his leadership meant him needing to change. He would have to become less me-centric and more we-centric, for the team to actualize its potential. To that point, there exist another wounding irony.
During a March 2018 Work Life podcast, Brad Stevens talks with host Adam Grant about his success as a college coach at Butler, practicing the ‘Butler Way’. This is a culture set based on humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness. Brad explains to Adam that humility is about having “a commitment to something bigger than yourself”, and that “it’s easy to get caught up in yourself…as crippling as adversity can be, if you don’t have humility, success can be just as crippling”. The podcast relocates into the Butler gym, where the team practices in t-shirts that say, “Team above self”. Adam goes on to narrate that “the goal of the Butler Way is to make sure players don’t try to become individual stars than the bigger team”. Then Stevens unwittingly drop his tell, “It’s hard to put into words but you can feel it”.
His difficulty putting it into words may have been his downfall this season. There is a linear progression between words, thoughts and actions. If you don’t have the words, you can’t conceive the thoughts. If you can’t conceive the thoughts, you won’t produce the actions. Game over.
If Brad had found the words, he might have more effectively addressed Kyrie about how his conduct was detrimental to the success of his team. He might have conveyed to the other players, that their roles were not to subsidize Kyrie’s sense of entitlement and his narcissistic pursuit of glory. He might have facilitated a conversation for the entire team, to help express themselves with mutual support and constructive candor. He might have organized small player cohorts to strengthen the team’s social fabric, for players to comfortably and regularly have open dialogues and preempt their problems. And on that magical plane ride from Boston to San Francisco in March, from which Kyrie emerged to tell the media that the team had made amends, Stevens just might have played, over the airplane speakers, the podcast in which he describes the Butler Way.
Players practice for hundreds, if not thousands of hours perfecting their shots, refining their footwork, improving their dribbling and sharpening their passing. They put themselves through arduous training to condition their bodies for the demands of a grueling season. The go through great lengths, to extract insights and knowledge from film sessions. They scrimmage more times than a season’s 82 games, to polish the plays and schemes they must execute during the game. They impose a self-discipline on every aspect of their lives — what they eat, how they sleep, when they seek treatment.
They do all of this to prepare themselves for the job that is their passion, to play a game at a level most of us only achieve through fantasy. But that game is played between the ears, before it is played on the court. Their mental preparation for unbreakable unity, overcoming adversity, being immune to distractions and constructive leadership is as vital for their success, as all the physical preparation they undergo. Without it, they cannot maximize their talents, exceed expectations and realize their potential. Without it, all plans lead to failure.