The Celtics were big-time underachievers last season. Presumed front-runners to get to the NBA Finals, they feuded and fumbled all season. As they staggered into the spring, toxic Kyrie Irving told us not to worry. He told us we would see the real Kyrie and the real Celtics in the playoffs.
We did. In round 2 of the playoffs, Kyrie stunk up the gym and the Celtics got pantsed in a feeble five games against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Mud on their face . . . big disgrace . . . dishonoring championship banners all over the place.
And then they got worse. Lyin’ Kyrie took his talents and goofiness to Brooklyn. Al Horford, one of the few adults in a room of child prodigies, bolted for Philadelphia where he thinks he can play for a true contender. Marcus Morris went to the Knicks. Terry Rozier and Aron Baynes were traded.
Despite all of the above — despite a 6-foot-8-inch starting center (Daniel Theis) who seems to have been delivered from the NBA of the 1950s — we are hearing the message that everything is awesome in Celtics land. They are the Hakuna Matata Five once again. They may not have as much talent, the ceiling may be lower, but you are going to love these guys. This is the Green Team narrative.
At the Shamrock Foundation Gala Thursday at the Westin Waterfront, Celtic co-owner Steve Pagliuca told the crowd, “This is the most positive and uplifting team I have seen in my 15 years.’’
Swell. But is this feel-good vibe grounded in hope or reality? Pags was here in 2007-08 when the Celtics went to Italy for preseason camp with newcomers Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. That team was built on “Ubuntu” and blitzed to the NBA championship, wiping out the vaunted Lakers, 131-92, in a sixth and deciding game on the Garden parquet. Can this 2019-2020 team really be more “uplifting” than that?
I dove into the Globe clips to recall exactly how bad things were here in mid-May when the Celtics were humiliated by the Bucks. There was a lot going on in Boston sports during those days. Half of the members of the world champion Red Sox visited with President Trump, while almost all Sox players of color boycotted. The Bruins were finishing up with the Columbus Blue Jackets en route to a Stanley Cup Final. The Patriots were claiming to have had the best draft day since Red Auerbach made off with Bill Russell, Tommy Heinsohn, and K. C. Jones in 1956. There was crazy talk about the Celtics maybe trading for Anthony Davis.
The Celtics never had a chance for Davis, of course. But they did make a deal for 6-foot guard Kemba Walker and Walker is now being asked to drive the Green bus into the new decade.
Everybody loves Walker. He is the anti-Kyrie — also shorter and less accomplished. But he is lovable the way Isaiah Thomas was lovable.
This worries me. Isaiah was a wonderful talent, but the Celtics were never going anywhere with him as their best player. We don’t need another little-engine-that-could.
It worries me that Walker teamed with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart on the 2019 Team USA squad that finished seventh in the FIBA Basketball World Cup. They could not beat France. And now we need them to beat the Sixers, Bucks, Clippers and Lakers? Walker will have the ball in his hands all the time, but if the Celtics are going to contend they need Tatum and Brown to be their best players and they need Gordon Hayward to return to the form that made him an All-Star in Utah. These guys won’t have Kyrie to kick around anymore. Time to step up.
The Celtics are going to have trouble with interior defense. Horford, Baynes, and Morris were their paint defenders. Now we are going to see a steady diet of Theis and Enes Kanter. Look out below. Who is going to guard Joel Embiid when the Celtics open their season Wednesday in Philadelphia?
The Green Team is projected to finished third in the Eastern Conference with about 48 wins. That might be generous. The Sunday New York Times had the Celtics finishing fourth in the Atlantic Division, just ahead of the woeful Knicks.
The 2019-2020 Celtics will be more fun to watch than last year’s edition. And easier to coach. They will play team-above-self basketball. They will possibly exceed expectations and the same fans who regularly torch the Red Sox and Bruins will be happy.
Once again, the franchise that’s won a single championship in 33 years will operate noise-free in a town that can be brutal toward its teams.
When it comes to the Boston Celtics, optimism always trumps reality. It’s a Green Team thing.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org