Culture eats strategy for breakfast

Kemba Walker’s impact in Boston will be felt beyond his production

BY DAVID THORPE

A season ago, the Boston Celtics had a solid strategy in place: "Destroy opponents with our superior talent." It started with All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Al Horford. It included a young trio comprised of top 3 picks Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, plus another first-rounder in Terry Rozier that nearly toppled LeBron James’ Cavaliers in the Conference Finals. Add to that mix All-Star Gordon Hayward, a full year removed from his season-ending fractured left tibia and dislocated ankle, and in terms of collective talent and on-court fit, the Celtics had few equals.

Their plan, based on that talent, resulted in far too many losses amid a culture that could never make them play consistently as a TEAM. One 6-foot-1 guard, tiny in today's game, can change all of that. Kemba Walker, acquired by the Celtics in July’s free agency frenzy, is not quite the player Kyrie is, but his impact can be greater. Much greater. 

Gregg Popovich coined a great phrase years ago: good to great. He asked his team to look for a good shot before making an extra pass or two to create a great one. It was, and is, part of building an overall culture of “we, not me.” For the Celtics, that proved to be a challenge too difficult to handle consistently last season.

The 2018-19 Celtics never became a real TEAM
Don’t take that the wrong way. The Celtics scored often and were efficient. Their offense ranked 10th overall last year. They were fifth in overall assists per game despite playing at the 16th-fastest pace. In general, they moved the ball well. But they could never get away from their rough start and create that same sense of TEAM.

Rozier admitted frustration in his role, after showing what he could do in the previous postseason. Brown suffered, too, having finally played to a level Boston fans and executives expected when they drafted him third overall in 2015. Tatum seemed oblivious to anything beyond proving he was a “max player," driving into crowds and simply not looking the part of an offensive force, after being precisely that in the spring of 2018.

And then there was Kyrie. Maybe the toughest guy to peg as any in the NBA. It might even be harder to know what makes him tick than it is to defend him in space. And thanks to his elite skills with the ball, that's an impossible challenge. Irving can't quite say the right thing at the right time very often. He’s difficult enough that Horford, admired league-wide, or Brad Stevens, a coach respected by players everywhere, couldn't galvanize the team as it started to splinter. They had the roster to be a top 5 team in offense, defense, and wins, and instead finished 10th in offensive efficiency, seventh on defense, and tied the Thunder for ninth overall in wins.

Kemba can help fill the Celtics culture vacuum
Without Horford and Irving, who chose to play in Philadelphia and Brooklyn, respectively, there is now an excellent opportunity for Kemba, who’s coming off an incredible season at Charlotte, and Stevens to both repair, and then improve the Celtics culture. Handled well, this team can do the opposite of last season–that is, exceed expectations and prove to be a tough team to beat four times in seven tries come the postseason. It’s a little like addition by subtraction, though Kemba is an awfully talented player in his own right. 

In Kemba Walker, the Celtics signed what amounts to the “Bizarro Kyrie” (our longtime TrueHoop fans will remember I watched a lot of Seinfeld in my younger days), in that he’s a potent force as a player AND a charismatic and loving leader of men. His work at UConn, carrying the Huskies to the 2011 NCAA national championship, foreshadowed his ability to play himself into a special level of skill, and rally guys around him to do similar things. At a basically broken franchise like Charlotte, he was the glue to help the Hornets have reasonable success. Last season, he was the only Hornets’ player to finish in the top 70 in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (by season’s end, the Bucks had seven).

Those same charms and abilities earned him a co-captaincy for the current Team USA version that went undefeated in China’s pool play this past week. He’s not one to offer reporters a juicy quote, nor something to chirp about on social media. Like Horford, he leads by example and positivity rather than inflammatory remarks or tweets. Search “Kemba Walker controversy,” and you will get a third of the same number of results as you will if you substitute Kyrie’s name, and the Kemba links are mostly him commenting about someone else’s situation as the voice of reason, or his departure from Charlotte.

No one, and yes, that means no one, blames him for that. The Hornets are in tank mode, which means they didn’t want to pay him his market value, despite his public suggestions he was excited to remain there. The same can’t be said about Kyrie. 

Kyrie is better. So?
This is not an exercise in comparing Kyrie and Kemba on the court. Kyrie is better by nearly any measurement. Instead, as evidenced by what’s happened the past 1.5 seasons, the Celtics as a whole can be better with the lesser player because there won’t be a fight for oxygen (meaning dribble drives and shots).

Kemba is a lot like Steve Nash that way, not as a passer but as someone who is above any criticism of being a ball hog. Walker finished ninth overall in usage rate in 2018-19, one above Russell Westbrook, but no one in Boston is worried that Tatum or Brown won’t want to play with Walker. There is an aura around him that can’t be measured. But the stats on how he and his team play are measured, which is why I think this year we’ll see Kemba at his very best. With the talent around him, he'll be able to do less of everything on offense and still be equally effective and efficient.

Less dribbling and pick-and-roll actions mostly. He’s never averaged more than 6.1 assists per game in his career. The odds are strong that he will this season, despite having less asked of him. Kyrie averaged 6.9 last season. Kemba had to do SO MUCH in Charlotte he’s likely to relish his new role of helping his young wings achieve career highs. In fact, I would guess there will be an article written in Boston this year about how Kemba needs to shoot and attack MORE than his current rate.  

Kemba’s unselfishness will buoy the Celtics 
Assists are one thing. But how players FEEL when another teammate is successful is an integral part of locker room culture. I once coached a rising star who told me he was in the locker room in the middle of a breakout season when his starting point guard told him, loudly, in front of another key player, “I will never let you lead this team in scoring.”

Just because most players don’t do that publicly doesn’t mean younger players don’t feel that vibe. As a result, the culture withers. Trust is lost. With Kyrie, it’s hard to see where he made those young guys feel like he was excited they were heading to stardom and not so hard to think that he wasn’t thrilled they might. As the Bizarro Kyrie, Kemba will give off a very different feeling to Tatum, Brown, and the rest of his new Celtics teammates. Kemba is their best player today, and if he isn’t the best one tomorrow, no one will be more thrilled than him.

Walker has toiled long enough with, at best, mediocre teams. Sharing the postseason stage with a teammate or two won’t be causing him to say or do anything to create tension. And maybe more importantly, if there are early-season struggles, Kemba won’t go public about how “we have a bunch of young men in our locker room who feel they're capable of doing a lot more than they're doing,” as Kyrie did–even as the Celtics were playing well. Perhaps the best way to measure Kemba’s impact this year, beyond wins, is to see the growth of Tatum and Brown. Both players had worse seasons last year than they did in 2017-18, based on ESPN's RPM. Not what a franchise wants from such high-value draft selections early in their careers. 

It doesn’t have to be all about Kemba
Team USA’s entry in China is 12 players strong. Four of them–Walker, Tatum, Brown, and Marcus Smart–will play this year for the Celtics. Together, they can create a bond that lasts into the season. Of course, this can work the other way. If dissension starts there, it can bleed into the NBA season, but so far, that isn’t at all what we’re seeing unfold.

Brown and Smart play roles; Tatum and Walker both start and star (Tatum will miss a few more days after suffering an injured ankle on his game-winning rebound and hard drive that led to Khris Middleton’s two free throws to defeat Turkey on Tuesday). But watching them interact shows nothing but camaraderie. There is every chance that the group finds a common thread that has escaped the Celtics the past year. That can happen to a favored team playing far from home where the fans always root against you. 

The experience isn’t just going to help their chemistry. Stevens won’t be the first coach they have this season pressing them to defend better. It’s a hallmark for Pop and something that Team USA has recognized it must do to stay afloat in China. Defending with passion and toughness makes up for lack of experience (Team USA is the fifth-youngest team in the tournament).

Walker stepping up on defense in China
Walker has clearly accepted the challenge, showing an ability to pressure the ball on the perimeter and on dribble drives that we don’t see as often in the NBA, mostly because he’s always been obligated to carry the offense. He took a vital defensive charge late in the game against Turkey, one we can even call a game-saving play. He’s also made some impressive steals and had a highlight-worthy blocked shot against Japan Thursday. He has admitted that he wants to show Popovich and everyone else that he can be a plus defender. Last year in Charlotte he was not, but he should be at least solid this season if he maintains this level of intensity. He won’t need to expend all his energy on the other end, finally. 

With the 2019-20 Celtics, Walker will have plenty of help on offense from Brown, Tatum, and Hayward, who seemed to find his game late last year. Before the new year, Hayward scored 20 or more points in one game. In the last four months of the season, he had six such games, including one in the playoffs. Considering that firepower, the number of possessions where Walker takes seven or more dribbles before shooting should be significantly less, so he should be able to bring far more energy to the defensive side of the court. He’ll have fellow Team USA co-captain Smart in his ears if he doesn’t. 

Stevens took his share of criticism for the Celtics’ unwieldy season last year. Deservedly so. It’s the coach who should start the culture-building. This is normally Stevens’ strength. But he couldn’t overcome the conditions he had in front of him. And losing Horford for the upcoming season will be a problem for the Celtics. He was a focal point on both sides of the court. As a leader, Kemba can make up for Horford’s absence, and not having Kyrie there will just make his job easier.

Stevens has to step up, too
The same can be said for Stevens, though it’s unfair to suggest that Kyrie was the coach’s only problem. Those young players did have gripes and didn’t play their best often enough. Stevens was seen as empowering their issues rather than being more like Popovich, who might have let Kyrie off the hook and been the bad guy himself.

This season, if real problems arise, it isn’t Kemba’s job to smooth things over. It’s his coach’s. The Celtics melted down under the hot glare of a great postseason the year before. Now they’re considered just a solid playoff team, not as deep or talented as Philadelphia or Milwaukee. The famed Celtics’ teams of the ‘80s could often rally around that dynastic sentiment, and push themselves to unexpected heights. If Stevens and Kemba can capture some of that spirit and maintain it through a long season, the Celtics still have the talent to shock the East and contend for a title. 

Middleton showing grit in World Cup

BY DAVID THORPE

Two weeks ago, we wrote about Khris Middleton’s opportunity to learn how to walk the path of greatness, to take a further step from being an All-Star to someone who can help carry a team through the postseason. “Should Middleton help America win gold, or at least perform very well overall, it could help get him to that level where for at least two or three games of any series, he can be their go-to scorer.”

Against Turkey, Middleton made two free throws with 2.1 seconds left in overtime to turn a one-point deficit into a win. That kept Team USA’s tournament win streak alive, last losing a game in 2006 to Greece–the last time the team didn’t win an international gold medal.

Should the team win the tournament again this year, helped by earning the top seed of their pool by way of those free throws, Middleton’s shots will go down as two of the most clutch free throws since Doug Collins swished two to put his team up one in the 1972 Munich Olympics against the Soviet Union. USA famously lost that game. Middeleton’s heroics–he led Team USA in scoring with 17 points Tuesday–are exactly what we meant by walking the path to greatness. Bucks fans and his teammates/coaches can hope for an even better season from their No. 2 star this year. 

While the Bucks must be thrilled with what Middleton did, they won’t be booking flights to Brazil any time soon. Greece, with Giannis Antetokounmpo, lost to Brazil in an upset that inspired Brazilian coach Aleksandar Petrovic to take a shot after the game at the reigning NBA MVP. "You have a guy who won MVP, he's 23 years old, and who stops him tonight?” Petrovic said.  “The guy who is 40 years old and kicks his ass."

Brazil foiled Giannis by clogging him up in the paint
He was referring to 39-year-old Alex Garcia, who managed just 47 points in his entire NBA career, “stopping” Giannis, though it didn’t all fall on him. What is true, and problematic, is that the entire Brazilian team loitered in the paint waiting to get in the way of Giannis’ patented drives and spins.

What they didn’t do is care about his perimeter shooting. And with good reason. He took just one, and it wasn’t close. We wrote about his shooting problems before the event and hoped he’d been working on it all summer. I don’t see evidence of that. His one shot looked OK, though far from as stacked, form-wise, as he needs it to be.

Worse, he seems unwilling to try them, though that might be on orders from his coach. Mike Budenholzer, his head NBA coach, might have texted him the following day with words like “you better take the open 3s you get once you land in Wisconsin.” Giannis went 0-3 after the first two games and didn’t play well. He hit one of his three shots in Greece’s tight win against vastly undermanned New Zealand Thursday to advance to the second round, and his two misses looked very bad, his head and shoulders still far behind the rest of his body. Greece now faces Team USA in the playoffs (Saturday, 8:30 a.m. ET), but it doesn’t take a genius like coach Pop to know what to do against him. 

For the Bucks to get past the Sixers, Giannis needs to take 3s
He played much better all over the court and looked like his MVP self. No matter how confident Middleton can grow from this Team USA experience and his NBA success, Giannis needs to be able to take and make more 3s for the Bucks to have a great shot at winning a championship.

Otherwise, NBA defenses will exploit that deficiency and do what Brazil did. And the Sixers–the Bucks’ top competition–offer much more than a 39-year-old Garcia to throw at Giannis. To wit: 6-foot-6 stud athlete Josh Richardson (26); 6-foot-9 athlete Tobias Harris (27); 6-foot-10 elite athlete Ben Simmons (23); 6-foot-10 All-Star defender Al Horford (33); and 7-foot All-NBA defender Joel Embiid (25).

They all know that Giannis as a non-shooting threat means they can hang back and have four teammates help when needed. If his game Thursday is something he can carry forward through the tournament AND the regular season, the Bucks’ chances for a ring go way, way up. 

Global talent is deep enough to upset a USA team
The American national media seemed taken aback by Team USA’s fortunate win over Turkey, a  game they easily could, and probably should have lost. The expectation was the game should have been a rout. To experienced international fans, though, it wasn’t a surprise. Turkey has NBA talent and features more experienced players in these events than Team USA does, and the games are 40 minutes in regulation, not 48. Turkey also plays together every summer. Some players have been together for many years. Team USA, given the depth of the other countries’ talent, has no such thing.

Here’s my point: Team USA might or might not win this or future events, like next year’s Olympics in Japan. No matter who plays in those games, the playoff formats at these events are single-elimination, so the talent globally is good enough to pull off the upset. Eventually, it will happen, and not just once. Quite frankly, Serbia might have the best five starters in the tournament, helped hugely by the tournament’s best player, All-NBA center Nikola Jokic.

Team USA, though, is still LOADED, in terms of whom they can bring. This current group is made up of top 50 NBA players, with some below that. Meaning the depth of the team is only growing, helping ensure further gold medals down the road. In 2006, the last time Team USA lost in an international tournament, I had just formed a friendship with a blogger named Henry Abbott. He called me after that game and then wrote this, after wondering if Team USA was forever doomed going forward and I disagreed. “So, where does that leave Team USA? A couple of shots short of a world championship, I guess. But with some very achievable ways to make up the three or four baskets that kept the US team out of first place.” 

It turned out that all of the griping about that team’s loss was simply more an emotional reaction than sober reasoning. Everything was, indeed, far better than OK, just as it is now for Team USA fans and players. Take the top seven American players next summer and add 5 newly experienced guys–say, Myles Turner, Donovan Mitchell, Khris Middleton, Joe Harris, and Jayson Tatum–and that team will be heavily favored to win gold anywhere.

Future USA teams will need bigger guards
One lesson this team is showing future teams is that smaller guards have a harder time finishing inside. The opponents have enough size to both protect the rim and extend their defense out to the shorter 3-point line. Guys like Walker and Mitchell don’t have much room to finish inside effectively.

It makes sense to field a team with bigger primary ball handlers who can get to the rim and finish while also shooting it well from deep. Brandon Ingram is a guy to watch, adept at slashing to the rim, and with the size and length to score. D’Angelo Russell has the size and mid-range game, plus the elite level pick-and-roll game so prevalent in these contests. Lonzo Ball is perfect, provided he can make perimeter shots. And, of course, there’s Zion Williamson (is he a forward, a guard, or a center?). Another guy who, like Giannis, needs to add range to his area of effectiveness as a shooter.