LOS ANGELES — This is a difficult time to be in search of leadership, but the stripped-down Celtics are in indeed in that situation, their veterans mostly shipped away with Evan Turner their only starter born before 1990.
Now that Rajon Rondo, the last link to the 2008 championship team, and Jeff Green, the team’s leading scorer, have been traded, the Celtics are moving forward with a younger core. Most of the players who are in their rotation are expected to be part of the team’s future, but they are painfully inexperienced and dealing with the challenge of constant defeat.
The Celtics aren’t winning, but they are competing and they are making young mistakes and battling discouragement. Such was the case Friday when the Bulls put together a couple of 3-pointers that turned into a game-defining run and a 119-103 win.
The Celtics fell apart in the fourth quarter and their potential cornerstones, such as Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, and Avery Bradley, freely admit they are still learning how to win. In addition, the Celtics are also trying to gain chemistry after losing so many teammates.
It’s a challenge as the team faces a grueling six-game, 10-day road trip that features three of the top teams in the Western Conference — the Clippers, Trail Blazers, and Warriors.
“I’ve had those discussions with them about needing to continue to challenge themselves to be better than they are,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Just because we know they’re a big part of us moving forward. Same thing with a guy like Marcus Smart, same thing with a guy like James [Young]. For us to be competitive, we need all those guys to play above their age.”
The Celtics are a completely different team than the one that beat the Nets on opening night. The team has been stripped of its veteran core, as team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge is moving any player with an expiring contract.
The younger players have had to adjust to losing friends and teammates, leaving the leadership role truly void. Gerald Wallace is considered a leader, but his playing time is minimal. Brandon Bass leads by example and his focus, realizing he could be the next to be moved, has drawn the raves of his teammates. Marcus Thornton, just 27, has become one of the sages in the locker room because this is his sixth NBA season.
“What we’ve really tried to emphasize is what all can we do in a small way to add to greater cause, rather than putting that on one person,” Stevens said. “A lot of these guys are going through things for the first time or haven’t gone through it very much. They’re going to have to lean on guys who have, and they’re going to have to grow up sooner than other guys might have to that aren’t here. They’ve got to look at it as a great opportunity and great benefit for them.”
Stevens agrees that it’s a difficult request to ask younger players to bond, grow, and flourish without much intervention from experienced veterans. Other franchises have tried going with younger players, believing that the “trial by fire” method would eventually lead to on-court success. That philosophy has come with mixed with results, with teams such as the Thunder and Kings. The Celtics and Magic are going through similar growing pains.
“How a guy develops, time will tell,” Stevens said. “Just because he has opportunity doesn’t mean he’s going to develop. Just because there’s minutes in a game, what other walk of life do you get thrown before you’re ready, right? These guys are just going to have to grow, get better from it regardless of how they play on a night-to-night basis.
“There’s going to be some games where a guy like James Young plays a lot. There’s going to be other games where he doesn’t play as much, if at all. The bottom line is he’s got to be better tomorrow than he is today.
“That’s our challenge as a staff with these guys and that’s their challenge as players. That’s fun to be part of. But I feel like we’re all getting better.”
The leadership responsibility is not lost on the players. They realize they are first-round draft picks and the expectations are high despite their inexperience.
“We have to take more responsibility for what goes on with the team,” Olynyk said. “A lot is expected of us and we have to perform. We have to just keep learning and getting better and we understand we have to step up.”