BOSTON — While much of the NBA world remained fixated on the Jimmy Butler drama in Minnesota, the Celtics quietly went through another preseason workout Friday where the most polarizing topic at media access might have been Gordon Hayward defending his use of a personal ping-pong paddle in matches in the team’s game room at the Auerbach Center.
“You have your own golf clubs, you have your own tennis racket, like, it’s the same thing,” said Hayward, not making a particularly convincing argument for the personal paddle that has helped him dominate his teammates.
That Hayward asserting his ping-pong dominance is one of the most notable topics four days before the start of the 2018-19 regular season only hammers home just how drama free the start of the season has been for these Celtics.
Kyrie Irving’s uncertain future was supposed to hover like a small dark cloud over the season and rumors circulated all summer about his desire to play either (1) in New York and/or (2) alongside Butler. Then a very Kumbaya Kyrie arrived for training camp looking more peaceful than ever, proclaimed his love for all things Boston, and unexpectedly told season-tickets holders at an open practice that he planned to re-sign here next summer.
“I thought that was super cool,” Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck said with a smile at the Shamrock Gala on Thursday night.
Earlier in the evening, a suit shorts-and-shades-clad Terry Rozier stepped in front of the microphones and was asked about his own uncertain future and the status of his talks with the Celtics about a possible extension of his rookie deal.
Rozier could have proudly declared that he’s a starter-level point guard in this league after what he did in Irving’s absence in the playoffs. He could have dismissed the idea of an extension while knowing full well a heftier payday awaits next summer when deep-pocketed suitors will line up for a slice of Scary Terry.
Instead, he shifted the focus to the team.
“We’ve got our first [regular-season] game coming up. That’s big for us,” said Rozier. “We haven’t been playing good in the preseason, so we’ve been trying to focus on us and I’ve been trying to take the pressure off the extension thing. So I’m focused on the team.”
These Celtics are, very intentionally, boring. Drama is typically handled behind closed doors and the team works hard to ensure that players keep the focus on team goals instead of individual agendas.
This is not a team short on opinions, particularly not with the likes of Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, Irving, or Rozier. This is a confident group that isn’t afraid to tell you as much.
And yet players rarely veer off course, following the example set from the highest level.
The Celtics even endured a couple of notable legal matters this preseason with the arrest of guard Jabari Bird on domestic violence charges and a guilty plea for bribery for assistant coach Jerome Allen. The Celtics were able to distance themselves from Bird, who is not with the team while the NBA determines his status, and Allen’s ownership of a situation that occurred before he joined the Celtics became a teachable moment to the team’s younger players.
One of the things that Irving has often stressed since he arrived in Boston is how much he appreciates the openness of Boston brass, from ownership to the front office to coach Brad Stevens. And a drama-free environment — something he hasn’t always enjoyed in his NBA career — is undoubtedly part of what sold Irving on committing to the Celtics long-term.
Will things remain this way? There will be blips during the season. If Boston sputters out of the gate amid lofty expectations, it will be interesting to see how players react. If Stevens can’t find playing time for everyone, there could be some grumbles about roles.
But the Celtics are virtually drama free as they prepare to set sail on the regular season. Everyone is pulling in the same direction toward a common goal.
“I think that, as you can tell, we’re getting closer as a group, but we have something special here in terms of the environment we create,” Irving said.
Echoed Grousbeck: “This bond between these guys I think is the real deal. I’ve seen 16 rosters now and this team is knit together. They’re a real team and they’re taking a great approach to this season.”
Things could be a lot different. Just ask Grousbeck. He was the one who got booed by season ticket holders at the 2016 draft party when he announced that the Celtics had selected Jaylen Brown with the No. 3 pick. Fans eager for this team to launch into full-on contender mode had wanted the Celtics to trade that pick for a more certified star such as Butler.
Now, Brown is part of a young core that could ensure that these Celtics remain heavy on contention and light on drama for the foreseeable future.