The Boston Celtics will be participating in the NBA's first-ever play-in tournament tonight, taking on the Washington Wizards for ownership of the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. It is a rather large disappointment for the team after getting all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals in the bubble last season. But COVID protocol, injuries, and an overall lack of intensity combined for a very poor-tasting stew and the Celtics stumbled to the end of the 2020-21 regular season with no real hope for a deep playoff run, if they qualify at all.
Falling so far below expectations will draw the ire of even the most reasonable of fans and analysts. Head coach Brad Stevens has had a big target painted on his back all season long as a result. Only halfway through the year Boston faithful were calling for his head. Then he was connected to the Indiana job. And then the Celtics disappointed through the second half of the season. The angry mob called into WEEI to demand Stevens' departure and that Boston somehow finds a way to get Doc Rivers back.
If that sounds like an overreaction, that's because it is! Which is why it is no surprise that Adrian Wojnarowski made a rare Get Up appearance today to drive home what most of us level-headed folks already knew: Stevens' job is not in jeopardy and he will be on the sideline for the C's next season.
Let's get this out of the way before I start getting angry emails. This was not Stevens' finest year as a coach. In fact, it was probably his second-worst of his NBA tenure, behind only the disastrous 2017-18 team. He was unable to fine-tune an offensive system that requires too much isolation out of the main stars. Open shots were not created unless Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, or Kemba Walker did it themselves. The majority of Boston's possessions this year ended with one of those three on an island with a ticking shot clock as the last hope to salvage a possession. They're all good enough that it works more often than not, but it isn't an efficient offensive system and sapped the energy out of the team's most important players by the last few minutes.
The defense was also uncharacteristically terrible. This is in part because of Stevens' inconsistent rotations from the bench and inability to adjust when it was clear everyone either didn't or couldn't bring the highest level of intensity every night. Night after night, the Celtics fell into a huge hole in the first half and then woke up in the second, mounted a furious comeback, and still fell short. When that happens a few times over the course of a long season, it is what it is. When it happens with regularity, the coach needs to do something to change it up, whether it's preparation, scheme, or execution, and Stevens failed to do so. Some amount of blame for Boston's underwhelming performance this year absolutely falls on Stevens.
But let's just consider a few things, shall we? Boston started more than a dozen different lineup combinations all season because their starters kept missing games due to injury or COVID. It was a lot more difficult for the top players to sustain the high defensive energy Stevens' system requires because of the shortened offseason. He had to deal with essentially a brand-new bench of rookies and free-agent signings without an offseason to get them adjusted to his style of play. All this while the team regularly played four or five games a week with essentially no practice time and COVID protocol interrupting their daily life.
Most of these are not unique to the Celtics, I'll admit. But when you take it all into account and look at the big picture, demanding Stevens be fired because of an underwhelming season with those circumstances is just absurd. He has six seasons' worth of coaching at the professional level to prove that he is, in fact, a very good coach and two that suggest he's only pretty good. Yes, Stevens has room to improve. But to think he shouldn't get the chance to work on his weak spots is exceptionally short-sighted.
Stevens deserves another year. Hell, he deserves several. There are about 20 other franchises in the NBA who would love to have a coach like him, a coach with the level of success he's had in such a short timeframe. He'll be in Boston next year. Maybe the Celtics will improve. Maybe not. But going to the ECF three times in four years (all featuring different stars, on top of that) is more than enough evidence to justify giving Stevens some margin for error. If you don't believe that, I don't know what to tell you.