For the Celtics, 2018-19 was a chemistry experiment -- and boy, did it go wrong

For the Celtics, 2018-19 was a chemistry experiment -- and boy, did it go wrong

When a relationship ends, it’s never an easy thing.

Even platonic or work relationships. And for some of us, our sports fandom even more so; our teams are always there for us, in the abstract if not in proximity, and have been a source of joy even in the midst of failure for those unlucky enough to have fallen for a team with a bad front office by accident of birth or perhaps parentage.

For those whose fandom sets the highest of bars — championship or bust — the perception of how relationships end between players and teams can make all the difference in the world.

Fandom in today’s NBA is a strange thing, with older iterations built on tribal manifestations of geography and heritage, creating conceptual barriers for those unable or unwilling to look beyond the fortifications of their fandom to see the humanity involved in team-building and player movement.

For others, many of whom discovered the sport in the AAU-circuit era, where most stateside prospects have known each other since their early teens, understand and even embrace why friendships seem to drive free agency decisions as much as money. Getting these two camps on the same page about how things ought to be in the Association can seem a near-impossible task.

That brings us back to perception, and how our individual fandom is a part of the context that shapes what transpires each summer, and likely shapes decisions made by players in an indirect way, too.

For the Boston Celtics, who seemed poised to take over the league on the first stumble of the Golden State Warriors, this is a most salient issue, as the history of the franchise and the expectations that come with it were no small part of the forces derailing that highly-anticipated freight train of a team.

You could point to as many causes as there are players on Boston’s roster for the implosion better known as the 2018-19 Celtics season, but, much like NBA fandom writ large, at least two incommensurable perspectives collided on the roster as much as it did on the viewing end of countless League Pass subscriptions; was the team to be a joyful, pleasant place — or a victorious one at any cost?

I am intentionally avoiding taking a side in this debate, because the question is subjective unless you have an ownership stake in the franchise, and that group of individuals have other, built-in imperatives to their points of view. Both perspectives are valid on an individual level, and both have produced compelling basketball and championships in the past.

The imperatives of the older-school, “at-any-cost” perspective, taken too far, can seem cold-hearted to the point of dedication to winning coming off — ironically — as a lack of loyalty to everything else, a charge understandably levied against team president Danny Ainge more than once in recent years. Similarly, the league has seen more than a few partnerships made in free agency founder when winning didn’t necessarily follow the camaraderie shared on courts with lower stakes involved.

In Boston’s case, the mistake — if there was ever a discrete one — that lies at the heart of all the mistakes and shortcomings which followed was the garbling of the message of team philosophy which came by adding Kyrie Irving. Ironically, in arguably Celtics’ president Danny Ainge’s most win-at-all-costs move, Irving, who has always been cut from a different cloth than many of his older peers, was simply the wrong guy for the job.

I’m not here for the trashing of a guy who leaves as a free agent. Not ever, honestly. It’s a job, and while you may have ideas about what is owed you by an employee of a business you have no ownership stake in, they certainly know that these “debts” are fictions, stories we tell ourselves to forget our troubles, or to create a sense of belonging that we feel enriches our lives.

So while they may play the role of the valiant soldier in your glorious army from time to time, pledging loyalty when convenient, they are also not going to show up at a job that makes them fundamentally happy just because they made a non-binding statement that makes fans feel good, either.

I am glad Kyrie’s gone, make no mistake about it. But it’s because I want him to find his goals on another team, a team where at least in the short term, “getting” what Irving wants is within the parameters of what the team wants, and hopefully the fanbase, too. That team has clearly not been Boston for some time as far as Irving is concerned, and it’s quite possible that not acting as aggressively with Kyrie when a very tangible wound was threatening the Cs’ plans may have cost them the most professional, win-at-all-costs player they had.

Of course, I am speaking of the other big name out the door in free agency this summer, who has left to a division rival for whom he was their biggest obstacle since landing with the Cs four summers ago, a move, despite parallels to Ray Allen and other unwelcome former Celtics who’ve decamped to long-standing team “enemies“, has gotten surprisingly little salt from Boston fans.

Winning at all costs doesn’t necessarily mean being a heartless automaton (though it can force decisions which look like them, such as the Isaiah Thomas deal that brought Irving on board to begin with), but it does entail understanding the goals of your most important players, and acting accordingly to ensure they (or their value) works towards the team’s as much as possible, and THAT was perhaps the greatest failure of both Ainge and coach Brad Stevens.

Trying too long and too hard to stick to the vision of what they hoped Boston would become ignored the truths of what they had to build it with, which were never a good fit to begin with. It’s easy to look back and suggest that dealing Irving for almost any assets at all would have been a wiser move, but it’s also not unclear that both he and Horford were a risk to leave this summer, a risk that likely contributed to inaction where decisiveness was needed to salvage the situation once it was clearly in a tailspin.

The end result was a muddled mess, and perhaps an impossible bargain for those at the helm after already raising eyebrows for moving a big name star who left entirely too much on the court. But the fact that the team is taking the hit not only in stride, but with strategic imperatives on their sleeves in terms of rebuilding that clear message is a good sign, and perhaps the best recovery possible after so large a misstep.

Celtics fans will have decidedly different outlooks on the exits of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, but both stem from the same mistake. For those who worship at the Church of MoreyBall, talent alone has shown it’s not enough. A shared vision is the bedrock of day-to-day chemistry, and when the former is absent, the latter becomes impossible. Rather than a clear-cut villain, what we end up with is two incommensurable perspectives — perspectives with their own pros and cons, and reasons to support or avoid based on our own inclinations and fandoms.

We should take heed, and respect the views of others, if not embrace them. Whether you want your job — or your basketball — to be about fun, success, or somewhere in-between, it’s clear that we can create space for others to do things their way, so long as our intentions and predilections are on-message with those we share fleeting allegiances in this temporary state we call life. Sometimes, there’s space to change; sometimes, there’s not, and when there isn’t, sometimes, we just have to move on.


Feature photo – Greg M. Cooper / USA TODAY Sports / AP / NBA.com / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington