From history to nostalgia: the lost identity of the Celtics

Boston has dominated the NBA in the past, but has won a title in the last 36 years. With track and dispatch errors, they try to return to their glory days.


The word crisis has never been attached to the Celtics. At least, that has been constantly tried to avoid by the analyst, who does not want to criticize excessively one of the most important franchises in the history of the NBA. And yet the past successes, those that fans longingly remember, are increasingly distant, while the present turns gloomy and the search for a lost identity continues that tries, unsuccessfully, to resurface. The story is on the part of the green franchise, which has been and is par excellence the basketball reference of the United States (and almost the world) along with the Los Angeles Lakers, that rival with whom it has fought so many epic battles. Of course, there is no way to save the most recent times of a franchise that has passed, since the retirement of Larry Bird, from all to nothing, with certain very specific exceptions but with a drought in terms of titles that translates into numbers : one in the last 36 years, something embarrassing for an entity that had conquered 16 in the first 40 and that had been in its own right the face of a competition that does not wait for anyone ... nor is it waiting for them now.

Larry Bird retired in 1992 suffering from horrible back problems that prevented him from performing at the highest level in the later part of his career. The last Finals he played were in 1987, and the Celtics would not return to them until 2008, when they reigned 22 years after the third and last title that the Greens had won in the 80s, with Bird as a reference, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish of luxury squires and a team that included, at different times but in the same project, Bill Fitch or KC Jones as coaches, or the limp Bill Walton living a second sixth-man youth. It was the last dominant team seen by the city of Boston, at least the last to stand in time and fought fierce battles for nearly a decade, with records including three consecutive years of more than 60 wins (the cap was 67, in 1986, with the last ring), almost a decade exceeding the 50, 5 Finals and a change in basketball with an opening caused by the competition they had with the Lakers and, in particular, that developed by Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, rivals and friends.

Since then, crossing in the desert: In the last 36 years, the Celtics have been 10 times out of the playoffs, while in the previous 40 that had only happened seven times. In addition, they spent 13 years, from 1998 to 2002, without playing in the Eastern finals, and in that period of time they were up to six years without playing the playoffs, a franchise record in which the always controversial Rick Pitino actively participated, who in Four seasons lived up to his questionable reputation but not that of the team he coached. And things do not seem to improve in Boston, where the crumbs of the actions of the past are collected and they try to advance without luck towards an uncertain future, which promised them with their last great project, that of Brad Stevens, but has had a slowdown influenced by the coronavirus and by many other things, such as the structural problems they maintain, the inaction of Danny Ainge in the offices or the paths of a squad that always stays very close to the Finals but never achieves them.

From Red Auerbach to Danny Ainge: mistakes and successes

There is one figure that has always been the common denominator in the Celtics: Red Auerbach. The mythical coach and manager is a character without whom it is impossible to understand the NBA. Linked to the franchise from 1950 until his death in 2006, he was the total or partial protagonist of 16 of the 17 Celtics rings, which conquered number 17 thanks to the inheritance he left. He spent 17 years of coaching (from 1950 to 1967), winning nine championships and then letting Bill Russell (coach-player) do it, who completed his unmatched resume until he reached 11, an unbeatable number. Auerbach, later in the offices, was responsible for promoting behind the scenes the two green titles of the 70s and bringing Larry Bird later. And also of creating a culture: betting on long-term projects, keeping the same coaches for several years (himself, Tom Heinsohn, KC Jones ...), developing creation from below and having a relatively low profile, as opposed to the paraphernalia and entertainment of Hollywood, where the Lakers, their mortal enemies, resided.

His way of working was inherited, with less success, Danny Ainge, who came to the Celtics offices in 2003, after being one of the protagonists of Larry Bird's Celtics in the 80s. Match Auerbach's resume, Hall of Fame in 1969 and with the number 2 hanging at the top of the Garden (number 1 was for Walter Brown, the first owner of the franchise), it was something that Ainge did not consider, but he did continue with the continuity culture of his teacher who died in 2006 at the age of 89 and having left everything well tied up in the hands of his ward. Ainge has tried to apply the same way of doing things as his predecessor: he has opted for young coaches who he has kept in the position even after difficult years (Doc Rivers and Brad Stevens), and he has tried to promote projects from below, maintaining great loyalty to the players closest to the idiosyncrasy of the city (Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett ...) and without rushing when looking for risky movements in the market.

The latter is precisely one of the keys to the current moment of the Celtics. Ainge, who made waiting a virtue, has made his conservative character a failure. Or at least, a drag that prevents the team from taking steps in the right direction to reach Finals that have not been disputed since 2010, the second in the franchise since the retirement of Larry Bird and only the third since the last ring, in 1986. Ainge held out against Doc Rivers, who put the team in the playoffs in his first season (45-37, in 2005-05), but stayed at 33 and 24 wins in the next two. He endured it because he believed in him, he was young, he had come from doing very well with the Magic (Coach of the Year in 2000, the year of his debut) and he had a close and conciliatory character that could fit very well with what was to come. , that big three that formed Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. With them he won the title in 2008 and with Rivers as coach, well surrounded by Tom Thibodeau on the bench and with a historic season that included 66 victories and one of the most impressive defensive networks in history, causing his rivals to add the worst percentage in field goals of the entire League and, at the same time, the highest average losses, which in sum was unprecedented since there was a record of both statistical categories. In addition, they were the second team that received the fewest points per game (90.3, just two tenths behind the Pistons) and had the best defensive rating, the sixth best in the entire history of the franchise.

Rivers became trustworthy and escaped ignominious situations in the first and second rounds (seven games against the Hawks and LeBron's Cavs), to lead the Celtics to the title, something that had not happened 22 years ago. The culture was flourishing again and the Ubuntu team (what was shouted in the pre-match huddle a South African ethical rule focused on the loyalty of the people and the relationships between them) had a continuity that did not translate into more titles. The 62 victories of 2008-09 were left without a prize due to Garnett's injury and in 2010 they perished in the Finals against the Kobe Lakers, who won their fifth ring. And Phil Jackson, who won his eleventh and last and, by the way, maintained a rivalry with Red Auerbach enhanced by the Celtics legend, who always reproached him for not having created projects from below and was not happy with him surpassing him in titles (11 from Zen Master by Auerbach's nine)

The Celtics of yesterday ... and those of today

Many years later, the Celtics are still what they were because history is written, they wrote it. But, at the same time, they have ceased to be the reference of an NBA eager for new stories, and that has partially forgotten the rivalry they had with the Lakers and some rings that belong to prehistory, no matter how much Bill Russell and his eternal ( and eternalized) figure continues to deliver the MVP of the Finals (which bears his name) at 87 years old. Since Larry Bird's retirement until now, Boston has won a ring and reached three Finals; The Lakers, for their part, have won six wound games, are the most successful dynasty of the last two decades and have played two more Finals (2004 and 2008). This has allowed them to be matched in rings, reaching the once-unattainable number 17 that has put the tie in the light. But, you know, in basketball you can't tie: there has to be a winner, someone who takes the prize. And the historical responsibility that the Celtics have, coupled with their own sense of urgency, is not being enough for them to react and be considered true candidates.

Ainge knew how to wait for the right moment to pay homage to his last winning team, that of 2008, and took advantage of Mikhail Prokhorov's haste to win a huge number of draft rounds with which he has completed his new project, which was accompanied by a Butler University's young coach who was called to be the next Gregg Popovich but, for now, is (being very good) halfway there. However, the Kyrie Irving operation, which made water dramatically and threatened to break the group chemistry that has always identified the Celtics rosters, soured the character of an Ainge who played it to bring the point guard but has not done it again . Gordon Hayward, after being Stevens's right eye, has also left through the back door and, by chance in life, the weak link in the current dressing room is a Kemba Walker with horrendous shooting percentages and, with less time on the ball in his hands that he enjoyed on the Hornets, does not suit the game scheme. And that's not to mention that Al Horford also came out. That is, the ones that have worked the best (although Hayward worked at times and Horford worked a lot) have been the draft elections and the problems (either in chemistry or because they ended up dating) have been with those who have come from outside. In other words, Ainge's theory is reaffirmed ... dangerously.

The manager has now said that he is willing to make a move, with 14-13 for Boston and some bad feelings that have been enhanced by the coronavirus, which has affected players like Jayson Tatum, who has declared nothing that he is feeling side effects having passed the disease and fatigue very easily. The Celtics also have the worst defensive rating since 1996-97, a year in which he led the ML Carr team and which ended ... 15-67. And they do not get along on the track, they continue with the total and absolute absence of a guarantee center (which they have not had since Horford's departure) and they are totally lost in defense since Marcus Smart's injury (which also came via draft, of course) . Stevens, who is untouchable in spite of everything, cannot find a place for Kemba and the string of untouchables that Ainge has always handled prevents him from moving. The manager already has a reputation for being intransigent in the negotiations, and his reputation has been enhanced when it was learned that Boston had James Harden within range but did not accept the Rockets' conditions.

And there is Boston right now. When you stay two victories from the Finals and you don't make moves, these things happen and the Heat, finalists, most affected by the coronavirus and who also had Harden within reach, are in tenth place (11-16), but only at three victories for some Celtics that go fourth (14-13), but they do not fuel. And that, if they relax, they can go backwards very easily. What's more, it has already happened to them: after being 8-3 at the beginning of the course, they reached 10 defeats in 15 games (now there are 10 in 16), seven in the last 10 (seven out of 11 after their last victory), two of they were very worrying against the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards, two nights in which the Greens stayed at 102 and 91 points. Only with rounds of the draft do you get anywhere (Sam Presti, who has more than anyone else, will realize) and some movement must be made to jump forward. For that, and end a drought that translates into only one ring in the last 36 years and a comeback by the Lakers that has left them with the same championships as the eternal rival. From history to longing. For now, to continue looking for a lost identity in an NBA that does not wait for anyone. Not even the Celtics.

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