Monday, August 06, 2007

Celtics - What went wrong - 2006-07

This is a response I wrote in answer to the question of how the Cs 2006-07 season became such a trainwreck originally posted on 2/26/07:

Interesting question, posed in an interesting manner, Patrick. You begin with a basic observation: early in the season we were at least competitive (even if we did lose more often then we lost), but we are now a train wreck.

You then very succinctly review the usual suspects (injuries, coaching, GM) and find yourself facing two options: active tanking or 'loss of momentum.'

My first move would be to reassess the usual suspects, and perhaps toss a few more into the mix.

Basketball, like all sports, is very psychological. I am not a brain doc, but I would hazard to guess that basketball may well be the major sport most susceptible to the influences of team psychology, given that the size of the team is smaller, the influence of teamwork more pronounced and the margin of error so slight.

Baseball is notorious for its ability to segregate the impact of the individual from the team, which is a leading reason why statistical analysis of baseball players is so much further advanced. Both hockey and football have much larger squads, and the players on a football team tend to be much more specialized, whereas as the margin for error in hockey strikes me as far higher - if a pass does not connect, you chase it down in the corner, whereas if a pass does not connect in basketball it is likely a turnover and quite possibly a fast break for the other team.

All these factors tend to enhance the impact of psychology in basketball, so it seems to me. Add to that the fact that apart from football I suspect that basketball players have the shortest careers on average and hence tend to be younger, and I think you have a recipe for potentially dramatic impact for psychological factors.

Hardly a season passes in basketball where a team that has been mired in the lower half of the league begins with a new coach/star/GM whatever and seeks to break from the mediocrity of the past. The start the season with some promise, playing scrappy ball and winning a few upsets but losing a larger proportion of 'moral victories.' Then at some point mid-way to the all-star break, things begin to break down. They become less competitive and less consistent. The 'fresh' aspect of the season that gave the team hope and heart is no longer fresh and as the losses pile up - some heartbreakers, others blowouts - the 'momentum' correspondingly becomes lessens. Before long they are enduring long losing streaks and the promise of the early season seems to have completely evaporated as the team seemingly settles for what they have been in the past: also-rans, losers, the Washington Generals to the league's Harlem Globetrotters.

This scenario, it seems to me is quite relevant to the question Patrick has asked. How is it that a team that at one time was at least passably competitive can fall so low? I think a major part of the answer relates to the psychology of the team, but not in terms of pseudoscientific 'braintypes,' but rather in simple, concrete ways in which we can all empathize.

One item I would not dismiss quite so quickly is the impact of injuries. Our injuries have not just resulted in loss of man-hours on the court. In part because the way the injuries have been handled, the injuries our team has suffered have not only stolen man-hours, but it has reduced (quite substantially in some cases) the quality of those man-hours that HAVE been played. I think Sczcerbiak and Perkins are two excellent examples of this. Neither is the most fleet of feet in the best of times, but to insist that they 'play through the pain' and show 'true grit' has rendered the time they have spent on the court painful in more ways than one. It has hurt the team and it has hurt the team's morale.

After all, it is one thing to lose when you are shorthanded and have to play second-stringers who lose despite giving it their all - that is understandable, particularly given the knowledge that today's loss at least bought time for fielding a stronger team tomorrow. But how must it feel to be cemented to the bench when you see teammates literally struggling to make basic plays due to the handicaps that they suffer? To know that even though it is painfully obvious that a player cannot play anywhere near up to their capabilities, that they are still going to see court time simply because of their status within the team hierarchy? Is that going to spur teamwork and mutual sacrifice? Or might it instead numb you to what true teamwork is all about? Perhaps I am making too much of this point, after all, I could simply state that by not allowing what should have been minor injuries to heal the team has in effect made the proverbial 'mountain out of molehill,' hamstringing the team in the short term by playing a bunch of banged up players and in the long term by preventing those same players from healing, all the while eroding the confidence of their bench compatriots.

In short I see the injury problem as something that has unnecessarily become a cumulatively increasing issue. What could have been a been a plus in some ways (rewarding backups with time when the starters were less than 100%) has instead turned into a psychological negative. Furthermore, one might argue that the injuries themselves have been much more significant than the loss of Pierce, Wally and Ratliff. Surely the loss of Tony Allen must loom as a major shadow over the second half of the season. So I would conclude that injuries have been a major contributing factor to our current dejected state, although the situation has been compounded by a shortsighted approach to player health and the utilization of team depth.

As far as coaching goes, I think it too could do with a reexamination. Every team starts the new year with a wrinkle or two. Some take that and grow with it. Others seem to treat it as a passing fad, and soon it is back to the 'grind' again, and with the grind all to often comes the losing. The long rumored but never seen 'running game' certainly comes to mind. I think it is fair to assess some of that blame to the coach. But even more importantly in assessing the season is how the coach manipulates his roster.

Does the coach get the most out of his team every night? And remember, that is the most out of the TEAM, not player X or Y. If the coach is not getting the most out of the team - and I believe a large part of that is by crafting appropriate roles for players that enhance their strengths and minimize their weaknesses - then is he 'losing' players? Are players being stashed on the bench because, due to a combination of poor usage and subsequent loss of confidence - they are WORSE players than when the season began? If so, then the coach is de facto contributing to the progressive deterioration of his assets (as well as destroying trade value), to the benefit of no one. I think that it is a sign of a poor coach that he cannot find at least one redeeming characteristic of a player and give that player a sense of ownership as a contributing member of the team. Mark Berry, as much as he does not care for Telfair, was able to identify a role for him as a quick penetrating/scoring guard off the bench. Regardless of how it would have worked out, it is still more than Doc has manage to do. And the end result of such failure to identify roles will not be limited to that one player, because it will infect the atmosphere of the clubhouse. Players will be less likely to sacrifice for the team if they see that the team is not treated as a collective but rather as a mere collection of individuals.

Finally, I would add that the coach can have a dramatic impact on the course of the team simply by deciding who plays and who sits. Earthshattering, I know lol, but it seems to get overlooked. Staying with Scalabrine or a wounded Sczcerbiak rather than going with Gomes or Powe time after time after time yields certain results, not only on the scoreboard but in the mindset of the team. And having certain pets can wreck even more havoc. Whatever you think about Delonte versus Telfair, I think we can all agree that at least when Delonte is on the court with either Rondo or Telfair, that Delonte should not be the primary ballhandler. And yet Delonte can apparently do no wrong. I know that such relationships between supervisors and employees are poison in a workgroup's team environment and imagine much the same is true in basketball. So would disagree that coaching should be understood as a constant throughout a season. As under any regime, an accumulation of poor decisions can begin to create a negative dynamic, in just the same way that good management can create a 'momentum' that enables organization to weather bad times. I would argue that good leadership and bad leadership are not static entities but dynamic ones. I think poor coaching has been an equally contributing factor to our constantly degrading situation.

I would argue that the same can be said for the GM as well. While I agree with Patrick's statement that the GM is more removed from the scene than the coach, by that same token, whatever the GM says and does (or does not say or do) is more influential than any single statement or action by a coach. The GM has the final word, both over coach and players, and his view of a situation has more influence than one might expect if one just looked at trades and signings. If players know that the GM is content with losing now to win later, then that is certainly going to color their view of their responsibilities. And I think one would have to be foolish to think that some of that is not happening here. Also, if the GM has not proven that he can pull of the 'big deal' or, for that matter, even manage some midlevel FA signings to provide veteran help, I think that has to color the collective psyche of the team as well. In short - the cavalry is not coming, good luck Custer! And finally, I think the GM's relationship to the coach can also help determine the teams collective disposition. If there is antagonism, then the players can be torn between the coach and the GM (as in the case of O'Brien). If instead the GM is cozy with an incompetent, well then there is no hope. I would agree with those who believe that the GM has compounded what was already a poor situation this season and contributed to its being worse. Whether that will work out in the 'long term' (whether by design or luck) is yet to be seen, but I don't think there is any denying the impact in the short term.

I think all these factors have come into play on the Celts this season, and in such a way as to create a negative feedback loop leading to our current death spiral. There is no need to entertain any tanking theories, such a project would be redundant on this particular team. The only other major factor I have not touched on are the players themselves. And of all the teams that have Ainge has put together, this one seems unique in that it is devoid of the sort of personalities that are most problematic. Perhaps I'm mistaken here, maybe we have yet to have all the laundry aired in public, but this team seems a sight better off than past ones with Payton, Davis, Banks and Steamboat Willy. Maybe we'll find out that Sczcerbiak is a locker room cancer or that Telfair threatened Green with a knife, but as of now it doesn't seem to be the case.

The only knock I have heard repeated is that somehow the players are just exceptionally dumb, even by professional athlete standards. My first thought is that I don't think that their IQs are dropping as the season progresses - at least I hope not! My second and more substantive thought is that, for crying out loud, we are talking about BASKETBALL. How hard can it be? And if it is that hard, then adjust the difficulty level accordingly. Wasn't that part of the problem with Pitino? He never had the 'right' players for his invincible system. I think it was Red's insight that you play the game with the team that you have, not with the ideal team that you wish you had. If the players are that stupid, then simplify the game for them. This comes back to the coach ultimately in my opinion, and that is why I will never accept the excuse that the players are just 'too dumb.'

What may seem bright in a commentator (Player X needs to work on his ABCs top become a top player) can be disastrous in a coach. Players need to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. Coaches are there to help them do just that. Working on a weakness *during* the season (as opposed to off-season) just strikes me as asking for trouble. And this is what kills me about Doc: he knows basketball, but seemingly only as an analyst, not as a real-time strategist or tactician. Coaches need to put players in position to succeed, not in a position to 'work' on a weakness. Our team needs to walk before it can run. The coach is the one that can put them in a position to do that. But it seems to me that Doc would rather that they just start flying and blame the players for the fact that they cannot. In such a situation blaming the players for being just 'too stupid' errs by forgetting that a plan, no matter how 'brilliant,' is worthless if it cannot be implemented. A 'lesser' plan, if it can be implemented, will in reality prove the superior. It is the coach's job to devise that superior plan, even if it is not 'brilliant.'