No NBA team had more representatives on Team USA’s roster than the Celtics. Which is to say no team had as much of a hand in its failures than Boston. Four Celtics—Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum—made the trip to China, and all four were featured heavily in the rotation when healthy. Walker led the team in scoring at 14.4 points per game, and averaged the third-most minutes. Brown and Smart added 7.9 and 6.4 points per game, respectively, with Brown adding just over four rebounds per night. Tatum, limited by an ankle injury, scored 10.5 points with 7.5 rebounds across two games.
Unfortunately, the games were hardly a springboard into the Celtics’ first season out from under Kyrie Irving’s puzzling leadership. The U.S.’s roster rivaled the worst squads in Team USA history, and the team’s seventh-place finish was its worst ever in major competition. With so many dropouts before training camp last month in Vegas, there were plenty of opportunities for any of the young Celtics to help carry this year’s U.S. team to a title, and set themselves up for an even bigger season in Boston. Instead, they exit the competition having been part of the most disappointing unit in American history, with nagging injuries to two of its best young talents and a potential hangover looming.
Walker is new to Boston, having signed a max contract in free agency, but the other three Team USA Celtics should be familiar with disappointment by now. Last season, the Celtics were a popular NBA Finals pick, coming off a 55-win season in which they fell one game short of the Eastern Conference title. But Boston fell flat. Infighting sprung up practically from the jump, and the team that many expected to be a 67-win juggernaut stumbled to 49 wins and a second-round playoff shellacking at the hands of Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.
Gordon Hayward’s falloff following a gruesome injury in 2017 and Irving’s unique approach to motivating teammates were major reasons for Boston’s disappointing season, but the big concern moving forward is how little progress its young core made after breakthrough 2017-18 campaigns. Tatum shone as a rookie in Hayward’s absence, looking like a potential superstar to open the season before cooling and finishing third in rookie of the year voting. But his shot selection drew ire as a sophomore, and his improvement failed to match his lofty expectations. Brown and Smart, meanwhile, saw their contributions reduced in correlation to their playing time.
All could be reset for the young Celtics now that Walker is taking Irving’s place; a rash of stories came out of Team USA training camp talking up the unique opportunity the four Celtics had to build chemistry. But without a medal to show for their efforts, it’s starting to feel like four key members of a team expected to compete in the East added a bunch of extra miles on their legs for nothing. Last season, Walker ranked fourth in the league in total miles logged (209.3), covering more ground for Charlotte than similar do-it-all players Paul George and Damian Lillard did for Oklahoma City and Portland. Tatum topped Boston’s leaderboard, running more than 180 miles, and Smart and Brown clocked in third and sixth on the team, respectively. Not only did they run hard during the season, but they added miles over the summer. Meanwhile, other teams’ stars were home resting and recovering.
Tatum’s sprained ankle kept him out of the U.S.’s last six games of the tournament, though reports seem to indicate the injury isn’t serious enough to threaten the start of his season. His coach, Brad Stevens, told The Boston Globe on September 3 that he didn’t think the injury was significant. He added that he was glad his players were getting international experience.
“I always say the first road game of the year hits you like a ton of bricks. These guys are doing it in late August [and] early September,” Stevens told the Globe. “At the end of the day, they’re going to be playing 5-on-5 other places. I don’t think you can get any better prep than doing what those guys are doing.”
That’s the optimistic interpretation of this summer’s tournament. Despite the ugly finish, Walker was the U.S.’s most consistent offensive weapon for the majority of the World Cup, reaching double-digit scoring in each of his seven games on 48.6 percent shooting from the field, and 38.5 percent from beyond the arc. At times, Brown and Smart looked superb during the tournament, providing lockdown wing defense. Each had his own highlight moment, with Brown swiping the ball against Japan and going coast to coast, and Smart frustrating Antetokounmpo in a second-round win over Greece. Even Tatum managed some flashy buckets before exiting the competition.
If the Celtics once again experience a sluggish start to the season, fans and pundits alike will point to the minutes logged by their four representatives this summer as a cause. How dare they put their bodies on the line, they’ll say, when they could’ve been preparing for a grueling NBA season. If they start the season blazing hot, their Team USA experience will be lauded, with the players commended for pushing themselves against superior competition. As is true in the debate over the merits of success or failure in the preseason, it matters only if it proves what you think is right. Otherwise, it was just an exhibition.