When it comes to explaining why the Boston Celtics have struggled so mightily this season, there are just as many excuses as there are folks to blame.
The mounting losses are at a level seldom seen during the Brad Stevens era.
For Danny Ainge, the team’s president of basketball operations, finger-pointing should be directed towards one man.
“The record of our team is on me,” Ainge told BostonSportsJournal.com in a phone interview Monday. “It’s not on coaches. It’s not on all the players, even though I know some of them are capable of playing better.”
While taking ownership of the team’s struggles is notable on Ainge’s part, reality suggests that his role in the team’s sub-par play isn’t the sole or primary reason for why Boston is off to one of the worst starts under Stevens.
In fact, this is the first time since the 2014-2015 season, Stevens’ second on the job in Boston, the Celtics had a non-winning record 26 games into the season.
And while the Celtics may be seen as a really good team that’s playing .500 basketball currently, Ainge has a different take on that as well.
“We are a .500 team right now,” he said. “That’s what our record shows.”
And the reason?
“We haven’t played with the urgency we need to play with,” Ainge said. “And consistency. We’ve had some really good wins, and some hard-fought, really hard played wins and we’ve had some no-shows. Some of that it is just not taking the opponent as seriously as we need to take it.”
Boston has lost 10 of its last 15 games.
Among those 10 losses, four have come to teams at or below-.500 at the time of their meeting which includes embarrassing losses to Detroit and Washington, two of the worst teams in the NBA record-wise this season.
“We’re not real good right now,” said Kemba Walker. “But, it’s controllable. It’s us, as a whole. We’re just … we have to be better.”
The Celtics, in recent years, have indeed been among the better teams in the NBA, advancing to the Eastern Conference finals three of the last four seasons.
With that kind of success comes not just increased expectations for success, but also a much larger target from opponents who, in many instances, come into games seeing the Celtics as a measuring stick of sorts for where they stand among the top-tier teams in the NBA.
Knowing this, Boston more times than not, will get a team’s best effort which is something Ainge believes isn’t being reciprocated by the Celtics' players.
“Winning is hard in this league,” Ainge said. “With the parity there is in this league and when you are not a superpower team, you have to work hard to play to beat anybody in this league and that’s been proven to us this year. Hopefully, we can get that message.
Ainge added, “We’re not like the 2008 team or the 1986 Celtics team or the 1966 Celtics team when sometimes you could play poorly and still win games. We have to play well to win on any given night and we just haven’t.”
Ainge added that when he talks about the lack of urgency and taking teams for granted, he’s specifically talking about the players and not Stevens and his staff.
“If there’s one person I don’t ever have to worry about remaining humble and respecting his opponent and being prepared, it’s Brad,” Ainge said. “So, it’s on the rest of us.”
Of course, complicating matters for Boston all season has been the impact of health and safety protocols as they relate to Covid-19, not to mention injuries.
The Celtics have been without Marcus Smart for the last eight games. Ainge said on Monday that Smart will not play against the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday and is likely out for at least the remainder of this week. Also, the status of Romeo Langford, who still has yet to play in his first game following wrist surgery last season, will be updated at the start of March according to Ainge.
While their absences have certainly not helped the Celtics’ efforts to play better, their return won’t instantly solve all of the team’s problems, either.
“It’s not going to give us a lift if we don’t play with more urgency one through ten, one through 12 of whoever plays.
And while Ainge remains confident the Celtics will turn things around sooner rather than later, for Celtics fans this season has been a bit perplexing considering the teams near the top of the East along with Boston have, by and large, made significant changes for the better since the end of last season.
Philadelphia fired Brett Brown and brought ex-Celtics head coach Doc Rivers, who has been a major factor in the Sixers’ charge toward the top of the Eastern Conference standings. The Brooklyn Nets pulled off the biggest blockbuster trade of the season in acquiring James Harden who is now paired with Kevin Durant and former Celtic Kyrie Irving to form one of the most lethal scoring trios the NBA has seen ever.
The Milwaukee Bucks are still a threat in the East as well as the Indiana Pacers, who have suffered a number of key injuries and yet they are very much in the thick of the playoff race in the East.
So for Celtics fans, why should they feel good about this team’s chances of emerging from this abyss of bad play that we’re all seeing on a nightly basis lately?
“To be honest, I could care less what other people think,” Walker said. “That’s not what this is about; it’s about us getting better. We will. We’ll figure it out. Every year is different, every season is different. We have a whole new team, we have young guys … that’s on us. That’s on myself and some of the guys who have been around. We have to change some things and we will, we will. I’m very confident that we will change things and we will continue to get better. It’s not a great feeling the way we’re playing. It can’t get any worse than this. We’ll fix it, for sure.”