Watching the Boston Celtics is equal parts frustrating and intriguing. Last season, the Celtics were a good shooting night away from eliminating the Cleveland Cavaliers and advancing to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010. And the remarkable thing about last season’s postseason run was they did it without all-stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. It was the perfect mix of coaching and player harmony coming together. After that, the Celtics became the trendy pick to represent the East in the NBA Finals this June. After all, they were basically adding two all-stars to a team that was so close to going to the Finals without them. However, there’s a disease going around that Celtics locker room. This disease has infected the team with dysfunction and drama. And to better understand this sickness, we must consult one of the best basketball minds of all-time.
Today, we know Pat Riley as one of the best coaches and executives in the history of the NBA. He coached the Showtime Lakers, coached the Knicks the last time they were relevant, and served as the architect of the Miami Heat organization. What you may or may not know about him is that he wrote a pretty good book as well. The title of the book is ‘The Winner Within: A Life Plan for Team Players’. Whenever I hear a news story about the dysfunction within the Celtics locker room, I immediately think of this book. Within this book, Riley offers some timeless wisdom about the disease currently afflicting Boston. The disease I am speaking about is, of course, the ‘disease of me’.
“The most difficult thing for players to do when they become part of a team is to sacrifice. It is much easier, and much more natural, to be selfish”. That is a direct quote from Riley himself. And it fits the current Celtics perfectly. The individuals of that team are focused on individual things like minutes, stats, and recognition. The six warning signs of the ‘disease of me’ also fits the Celtics pretty well. According to Coach Riley, these are the six warning signs:
1. Chronic feelings of under-appreciation - focus on oneself.
2. Paranoia over being cheated out of one’s rightful share.
3. Leadership vacuum resulting from the formation of cliques and rivalries.
4. Feelings of frustration even when the team performs successfully.
5. Personal effort mustered solely to outshine one’s teammate.
6. Resentment of the competence of another.
Sound familiar? The Celtics have a wealth of talent on their roster. Naturally, some will have to come off the bench or accept lesser roles. And if the media is to be believed, some players are struggling to adjust. Players who were major contributors in the playoff push of 2018 are now regulated to picking their spots. Maybe they feel under appreciated? There’s a clear rift between Kyrie Irving and the roster. Thus creating cliques within the team. And we all know Kyrie’s desire to be seen as the unquestioned leader and face of the Celtics. And the only reason he can justify Boston’s future success is that he’s on the roster. All of this is sounding a lot like the ‘disease of me’ discussed by Pat Riley.
The Celtics still have time to come together and make a run in the postseason. But if history is any indicator, it won’t end well. The ‘disease of me’ broke up teams like the 90s Orlando Magic, the 90s Mavericks, and the Lakers of the early 2000s. And now it looks likely to claim this version of the Celtics. This is just the latest in a reoccurring lesson in team sports. Egos can destroy a team. We’ll leave the Celtics to their fate and let them write their history from here on out. And for better or worse, it will be intriguing to see if they can cure themselves.