The Boston Celtics had excellent chemistry last year; here’s where it could go south.
The Boston Celtics have had no issue with chemistry.
I cannot stress this enough. The media have not reported any major chemistry issues with this team. This article is not meant to be a report of chemistry issues. From all accounts, the chemistry last year was fantastic. Kyrie Irving spoke in November about how he was building great relationships after every single game and practice. Terry Rozier spoke in May about how everyone was playing together on both sides of the ball. The Celtics had excellent chemistry this past year, an impressive feat considering all the new faces in the locker room. There’s nothing to knock here.
Having said all that…
The media tends to treat this subject as if team chemistry is linear. Last year’s group had amazing chemistry both on and off the court, so it should just get better with more time together, right?
Except it’s just not that easy. Just because everyone got along last year and the team chugged like a well-oiled machine does not mean it will this year. This article is not an argument that things will go south, but an exploration of where the fire may be if you start to smell smoke.
For starters, here’s an easy thing to speculate about. Take a look at Boston’s salary makeup, per Basketball-Reference.
Matt Moore and Jon Gold of the Action Network talked about this in their August 9th ‘Spread the Floor’ podcast (it’s talked about throughout, but you can skip to 22:00 to hear one relevant bit specific to the Gilbert Arenas gun incident).
The pay gap between the big dogs and the role players in today’s NBA is simply enormous. It’s not frequently talked about, but that can have big implications on a locker room. What if player a is making half what player b makes, but is producing more? What if player c is making a huge salary and doesn’t try in practice?
The Celtics have three stars (Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Gordon Hayward) being paid upwards of $20 million, then Marcus Smart earning $11.7 million, then a whole lot of guys down below. It’s not that they aren’t earning a decent living – they are, in spades. But that pay gap is there, and it can have a real impact on locker room dynamics. You’d think that it would have a smaller impact on Boston (whose low-contract players are mostly young guys, not grizzled veterans who will feel cheated by the free-agency market) than it would on other teams, but it’s worth noting at the least.
This point leads naturally to the contract-year guys. Marcus Morris, for all his off-court problems and his fire, has largely been considered a positive locker room contributor. At 28 years old, though, he’ll be playing for what is supposed to be the biggest payday of his career. How is he going to react to a reduced role upon Gordon Hayward’s return?
Kyrie Irving is the most interesting one to speculate about. Even alongside LeBron James, he had plenty of freedom on the offensive end. He was sixth in the league in isolation frequency at 21% in his final season with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
That made sense for them; their basic offensive scheme was just LeBron penetrating and making things happen, with Kyrie giving him breaks by going iso. As the focal point of Boston’s (often struggling) offense, he still had a healthy 16% isolation frequency. Will that hold with Gordon Hayward back in the mix, and with an improved Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown demanding touches? How will he feel about that in his contract year?
Speaking of the kiddos, Tatum and Brown are going to have to make adjustments, too. They were both thrust into larger roles than expected last year thanks to all the injuries. In the playoffs, this 20 and 21-year-old led Boston in scoring, respectively. That’s amazing. They led a team to the brink of the NBA finals. After getting a taste of that, how will they react to decreased roles? They’ll still be key cogs, of course, but leading a team to victories as options one and two is very different from contributing to victories as options three and four.
And, of course, narrative is a factor. The second Gordon Hayward went down last year, the narrative shifted to “welp, next year they’ll be great, and this season the kids will get plenty of playing time at least.” Nobody seriously expected the Boston Celtics to contend for a championship. Everything felt wonderful, because they were exceeding what minimal expectations they had and were playing with house money.
That’s not the case this year. The Celtics are expected to make the Finals; that’s a big shift from last season, when we weren’t even sure they’d make the playoffs after opening night. High expectations have an effect on locker rooms, especially when the team is as young as this one. The NBA annals are filled with teams that cracked under pressure. How does this team handle it?
Oh, and the obvious thing: they lost some guys and added some new ones. This isn’t a 53-man NFL roster. Every person matters significantly, and we have no idea how the new guys will mesh with last season’s crew. Robert Williams has already given us reason to pause.
The most likely case scenario is that Boston looks fantastic and everything on and off the court is gravy. Up and down the roster are guys considered low-maintenance, the team has a great culture, and winning (which they should do a lot of) leads to happiness. Again, this is not an argument that chemistry issues are on the way. They’re probably not.
But if things go south, don’t be shocked. The seeds, while dormant, are there.