It’s hard to say what the Boston Celtics are doing. They were scuffling through the first month of the season, then appeared to find some consistency, then fell into a swoon, and now they’re coming off an impressive win over the Toronto Raptors, one of their strongest competitors for the Eastern Conference crown. The simplest way to put it is they’re having a bumpy season. The Celtics are obviously talented, but they might have too many guys, Gordon Hayward is taking some time to get back to his normal self, and Brad Stevens, despite his wonderboy reputation, still has yet to get his team to play truly great offense. We see this happen every year: some teams enjoy the regular season, some merely survive it, and a couple benefit massively from being able to spend 82 games figuring stuff out. By the time the playoffs roll around, Boston will probably belong to that last group.
Every better-than-its-record team reaches its final form awkwardly, but the Celtics are fascinatingly messy. Jayson Tatum, who’s playing professional basketball at the age most kids can’t even tie their shoes, is developing some troubling habits with regards to heroically crummy mid-range pull-ups. Jaylen Brown’s jumper has gone to hell and he’s not getting the amount of minutes or touches he would like. The fact that he’s constantly placed in Anthony Davis trade rumors doesn’t seem to be helping his confidence either. Al Horford hasn’t been totally healthy, but he also might simply be getting old. Marcus Morris has been all exclamation points and question marks this season, mostly in a good way, but also Marcus Morris has been arguably the team’s second best player? Marcus Smart has been a stabilizing force, in a way, just by being his typical maniac self. Some of this makes sense and a great deal of it doesn’t.
The locker room isn’t in fine shape either, which brings me to Kyrie Irving. He’s having a terrific year. His efficiency numbers are strong; his assists are up; and he can still take over a fourth quarter when he needs to. But it’s less than optimal to have somebody like Kyrie leading your team. I’ve written about this before: basically nobody in the NBA is a good leader, but some models work more smoothly than others, and LeBron James, But Believes In The Power of Crystals isn’t what you would pick, if you had a choice. Except for having Kyrie in common, these Celtics and the Bron-and-Kyrie Cavs aren’t particularly similar, but they share a bitchy-yet-functional vibe that made the Cavs curiously unpleasant to watch during the four consecutive seasons they went to the NBA Finals. I’m far from the first one to point this out, but some of the things Kyrie has been saying about his younger teammates—the passive-aggression, the Some of These Guys Gotta Grow Up Fast admonishments—sound a lot like LeBron (barely indirectly) talking about Kyrie a few years ago. You could argue it worked back then, because those Cavs teams were really good, but it always appeared that they could have competed for titles without LeBron so deeply immiserating them.
There’s this thing that powerful people do that I’ll never quite understand. Getting to the top of any field is rough for obvious reasons—you have to work exceedingly hard, establish yourself in the minds of people who have no idea who you are, overcome failures and setbacks—but also because the folks already at the top before you get there tend to treat you like crap. Have you ever read an account of how awful it is to work an entry-level gig in a kitchen? It’s essentially nothing but dicing onions, getting yelled at, and never being able to take a day off—for years. The conventional wisdom is that your betters are toughening you up, and there’s some merit to that, but more than anything, it just seems like they’re being vindictive because power has its privileges. What’re you going to do about it? You’re only some kid.
Now that sous chef Kyrie owns the restaurant, he’s doing the same things he hated putting up with when he was younger. Because? Because that’s how you do it, I guess. He told the media after the Raptors game that he recently called LeBron to apologize for being so annoyed with him when they were together in Cleveland. Mind you, Kyrie left the Cavs just a year-and-a-half ago in part because he couldn’t stand LeBron anymore. And it was pretty understandable! LeBron was overbearing and should have laid off his star teammate. But apparently Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown need to be sold out to the press. That’s how you improve, is through everybody sort of resenting the squad’s best player.
None of this is to suggest the Celtics are doomed or on the brink of an intrasquad brawl. They’re likely going to be fine. It’s just strange, if predictable, that Kyrie, who fancies himself the NBA’s most creative thinker, is falling back on the old Treat The Young Guys Like Idiots strategy. It’s tried and tested, but there has to be a better way. It’s difficult enough to make something of yourself in the NBA without dodging the insults and condescension of somebody who’s supposed to be helping you.