BOSTON – Expectations overflowed prior to the season for a Boston Celtics team expected to ascend to the top of an Eastern Conference without LeBron James.
The season will be remembered for how poorly Boston did fulfilling its potential following false starts, some regression by its young players and an early exit from the postseason.
Last season, the Celtics won 55 games and came within a victory of reaching the NBA Finals with All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward both sidelined with injuries.
The reintegration of both underscored shortcomings that included moments of infighting that culminated with the Celtics winning only 49 games and finishing fourth in the East. Their season ended Wednesday night in the second round the playoffs with a 116-91 loss to the Bucks that capped a 4-1 series loss .
Boston trudges into a pivotal offseason with Irving and Al Horford holding player options to return for next season and key reserves Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris entering free agency.
The Celtics assembled for the final time Thursday for exit interviews with the coaching staff and members of the front office. Players were given the option of meeting with reporters, though Irving, Horford, Morris and Rozier all declined.
Those who did speak agreed the season was a disappointment and they have no idea what Irving plans to do. But Marcus Smart was adamant the team’s failures weren’t a product of Irving’s leadership.
“Not one of us on this team knows what Kyrie has been through,” Smart said. “He was forced into a situation where it was business over friendships. Where he had to come into a situation knowing that there’s a group of guys that had something going before (he came) here. . He didn’t want to disrupt that. That says a lot.
“We took him in with full arms. We tried to understand him. We never really understood. We’re not in his shoes.”
After a season in which lack of chemistry was a recurrent issue, team president Danny Ainge will have some tough choices to make that will affect the franchise’s long-term future.
Does he blow up the youthful core and spend his chest of draft picks to trade for New Orleans’ Anthony Davis and try to keep Irving? Or does he move on from Irving and build around Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Rozier and Smart?
“I think we’re still building,” Brown said. “I think we still have some great components here to build on. I don’ think we should just throw the whole team away.”
Still, so much changed from last season.
Following a grueling 10 months rehab from his devastating ankle injury, Hayward opened this season back in the starting lineup. But he was benched after 15 games in which he averaged 10.1 points on 39.9% shooting from the field. By comparison he averaged 21.9 points and shot 47.7% in his final All-Star season in Utah in 2016-17.
While it was expected for Hayward to need time to get back to that level, his swift reinsertion into the starting lineup this season by coach Brad Stevens may have contributed to their 9-7 start.
Irving, coming off knee surgery, disagreements in the locker room, particularly with the younger players. During a losing streak in January Irving called them out, saying ““the young guys don’t know what it takes to be a championship-level team.”
He apologized after Brown took issue with the comments, but the words.
Stevens said it was clear that expectations weighed on not only Irving but the entire team.
“There’s no question. They have TVs. They have phones. They hear everything,” Stevens said. “There’s a lot of pressure to live up to all these expectations, to put on a cape. to do all those things. And that’s hard to do.”
Irving, who told a group of season-ticket holders in October that he intended to resign, backtracked on that pledge in February when he proclaimed “Ask me on July 1” after being pressed on his intentions for this summer.
It was a far cry from the optimism Kyrie brimmed with at his introductory news conference two years ago.
Irving spoke of the trade to Boston coming along “at the right time” during his career and him being “grateful” to have the opportunity to play for the historic franchise. Later that day he beamed as he shared a moment with his father, Drederick Irving, holding a Celtics jersey with the Irving name on the back.
They even made a Nike commercial in which Irving referenced Drederick’s basketball career and playing his college basketball in Boston. The spot ends with Irving saying, “He’s the reason I wear No. 11. I want to be the reason no one else will.”
Irving said after Wednesday’s loss that how this season ended would stay with him.
“I’ll never forget something like this,” he said. “The taste of feeling defeat and this type of style, I haven’t felt. For me, it’s just moving on to the next thing and seeing where it ends up.”
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