BOSTON — One working theory about the Boston Celtics’ early struggles boiled down to this: They have too many guys. On one hand, it seems ridiculous that a team could ever be overburdened with talent, and on another there is only one basketball and so many minutes.
Over a six-week period during which he had to reacclimatize to backing up Kyrie Irving after playing a starring role in Boston’s Eastern Conference finals run, Terry Rozier both proved and disproved this theory. In the process, the Celtics found themselves Finals contenders again.
The Ringer’s Bill Simmons reported on Nov. 7 that Rozier “has been unhappy with his playing time all season, word has gotten around the league, and everyone now knows the Celtics need to trade him.” The Athletic’s Shams Charania followed that same morning by reporting “at least seven teams have been monitoring Rozier’s status,” including the Phoenix Suns, who “have aggressively pursued” him.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge saw the coverage snowballing.
“The way that so much stuff gets reported and written now, it could be nothing or it could be Terry saying something to somebody at some point like, ‘Damn, I’m just frustrated,’ and that leads to him being really frustrated,” Ainge told Yahoo Sports over the phone on Tuesday. “Heck, we’re all frustrated half the time. I played 18 years of professional sports, and half the games I didn’t play as well as I wanted. When I played well, I usually wasn’t as frustrated, regardless of what role I was playing.”
Two weeks after those reports, Rozier’s season bottomed out with a scoreless effort over 16 minutes off the bench in Boston’s embarrassing home loss to the New York Knicks. He was shooting 36 percent on the season, and his Celtics — once consensus favorites to emerge from the East after reaching Game 7 of the conference finals under his surprising stewardship last season — were a disappointing 9-9. Conventional thought around the NBA was that the 24-year-old soon-to-be restricted free agent would request a trade in the following days. He may well have, if not for a come-to-Jesus realization.
“I was going through some stuff at the start of the season,” Rozier told Yahoo Sports after his second start of the season, a 113-100 win over the New Orleans Pelicans sans Kyrie Irving (shoulder), Gordon Hayward (illness) and Al Horford (knee) that served as a reminder of Boston’s depth and playoff resiliency. “But something changed two or three weeks ago, and I’m feeling good about where I’m at.”
What changed? “My attitude,” Rozier said.
Finding a way through the frustration
A single conversation with management didn’t lead Rozier to re-embrace his role behind a five-time All-Star, replacing what was (16.5 points, 5.7 assists and 5.3 rebounds over 36.6 minutes per game in 19 playoff starts last season) and what could be (a permanent starting role and the contract that comes with it) with what is (a rotational role on a contender). It was a process, and while they “talk a lot,” Ainge said the credit for Rozier’s “paradigm shift” and “transformation” lies with him and the support system he’s cultivated, including friends, agent Aaron Turner and former Louisville coach Rick Pitino.
“Some of the things that Terry has gone through early have been predictable and understandable and even expected,” Ainge told Yahoo Sports. “He is still very humble and wanting to do the right thing, but he has big dreams and big goals. That’s why he’s special. He’s a great, great kid, and he’s been around good people. He learned the team concept under coach Pitino, so when coach [Brad] Stevens talks about sacrifice, he understands. It’s not a foreign language to him. He gets all that. He’s a team guy, and he’s a winner. Those are the characteristics I’ve always liked about him.
“I’m giving Terry all the credit for having a paradigm shift, and he’s playing better. It’s a good message for all the players. You don’t always get what you want, but the choices you make are important. You can either pout and feel miserable or you can have a positive attitude and make a positive impact.
“Terry has good people around him, but there are a lot of guys who have that and don’t listen. This is Terry’s transformation, and sometimes it takes a little bit. He worked so hard all summer, he’s coming off a great playoff run, everybody knows how good he is, and then his role is adjusted. He played a lot of minutes [on Monday night], and he’ll have those opportunities throughout the year. It’s different than how he finished last year, but it’s still a really good role, and he’s figured that out on his own.”
Rozier acknowledged that he had to weigh the balance of contributing to a contender or seeking a more high-profile and less predictable role. His frustration never boiled over into a trade request.
“If you know me, I’m not one to stir the pot,” said Rozier. “That’s not me. That’s not how I do things.”
He proved his value in last year’s playoffs, and he can continue to do so in a reserve role on another deep run. Come July, Rozier can revisit the choice between re-signing with a star-studded roster in Boston or seeking a more lucrative opportunity elsewhere. That decision may already be made, or the Celtics might make it for him, but he’s not going to let it get in the way of his success. Not anymore.
“I just need to play my game,” said Rozier, “and the rest of that stuff will work itself out.”
That has certainly been the case since the loss to the Knicks. In eight games since, Rozier is averaging 10.4 points on better than 40 percent shooting from 3-point range to go along with 4.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists in 22.9 minutes per game. More importantly, the Celtics are 7-1 in that span, owners of the league’s best offense (120.6 points per 100 possessions) and third-best defense (100.4 points allowed per 100), and they are riding a six-game winning streak that has them back among the East elite.
Buying in can be contagious
There is a bit of a chicken-and-egg argument here. Are the Celtics playing better because they’re happier, or are they happier because they’re playing better? You can trace the upward trajectory through Hayward — the rehabilitating former All-Star whose own early season struggles led to calls for decreased minutes — willingly accepting a bench role for the good of the team, to Marcuses Smart and Morris assuming starting roles, to Rozier’s realization, to Jaylen Brown also embracing a reserve role.
“I would say that the winning came a little bit after [they started to buy in],” said Ainge. “They didn’t just flip a switch, and they didn’t all buy in at the same time. I also don’t think we won six games in a row and everything is suddenly OK. It’s a combination of everything — respect for your teammates, knowing how good they are, and the competition for minutes. That’s healthy. This is not a children’s game. You have to fight for what’s yours. You play hard and play well, or your role gets lessened.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that guys have all been playing better since they started making sacrifices. There’s a good lesson there. Whether you’re a starter or coming off the bench, it ultimately comes down to how well you play. It’s a long enough game, and there are going to be plenty of big moments for the Boston Celtics; if you want to play in them, you have to be prepared.”
Rozier’s frustration is not an anomaly
Ainge wants to make sure that we understand this internal struggle is not unique to Rozier or the Celtics. One look around the league reveals a handful of teams that have struggled to meet early expectations, including the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz. Less talented teams are also filled with players constantly craving more minutes and more touches. Ainge has seen it everywhere from his time coaching the Phoenix Suns to watching his four sons play AAU ball.
“The fact that everyone wants a bigger role, more shots, wants their kid to play more minutes, to make an All-Star team,” Ainge said from experience, “that is just the world we live in at every level.”
The best teams find their way through it together, and the Celtics are fortunate to be doing so with a heightened level of talent, even compared to other NBA teams. Boston’s front office and coaching staff expected these bumps in the road and lineup experiments, and they’re still finding their way.
“Going into the season, it’s fair to say every player has individual goals on top of team goals,” said Ainge. “Everyone wants to win a championship, but they want to win in the vision they see. As a team comes together, sometimes it’s easy because the roles are so clear-cut. When you have Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, it’s clear-cut, because you have a young Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins who are thrilled to be on the court with them, and then you have good role players like Leon Powe, James Posey and Eddie House who see the opportunity to win at a high level. It’s easier to visualize. This year is different. That just means it takes a little bit more time to see how it unfolds.”
Brad Stevens’ job isn’t an easy one
Anyone, myself included, who thought Rozier would seamlessly slide back in behind Irving because, well, it’s Kyrie Freaking Irving — handles god, finisher extraordinaire and NBA champion by way of uber-clutch-ness — oversimplified the personal pride involved. This isn’t NBA 2K. There are emotions involved. Players get frustrated. They start to question their situations. When the season plays out differently than their vision for it, they can either point fingers outward or begin to look inward.
“Credit to Terry,” Ainge reiterated. “It took him fifteen games to get in the right mindset. We’re lucky it wasn’t 75 or 80 or too late. I feel like everyone on our team, not just Terry, is starting to understand how good we can be. They’re having more fun, and they’re playing better. That’s the whole objective.
“That’s why coaching is really hard. You don’t just throw players out there. Sometimes you do when you’re really good, but you’ve got to find the right pieces that fit, and just when you figure that out, you find other things to figure out. I like the versatility of our team. I don’t think it’s an easy coaching job at all, but we have a very competent coach that I’m grateful can help us get through this difficulty.”
In other words, it’s not about having too many guys, it’s about finding the right guys, and the Celtics believe they have them. Rozier’s experience through the season’s first two months is living proof.
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