A couple days ago on Sunday, September 27, the Boston Celtics lost in game six of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat. The Celtics have worked tirelessly over the last few years to build a championship contending team. In fact, in the last four years, the Boston Celtics have made it to the Eastern Conference Finals three times, only to fall short before reaching the NBA Finals. As an avid Celtics fan, I have decided to analyze why the Celtics failed to make it to final stage in the playoffs for the fourth year in a row. The Boston Celtics are one of the most talented teams in the NBA. They have point guards, shooting guards, small forwards, power forwards and centers who excel both offensively and defensively. The Celtics were one of the most impressive teams during the regular season and managed to beat some of the best teams in the league. Teams including the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors and many others. You name any of the top teams in the NBA, the Celtics beat them and some of the games weren’t even close. This season, the Boston Celtics Organization and most Celtics fans expected the team to take the next step and win it all. Therefore, why were the Celtics stopped yet again from pursuing their goal of winning the NBA Finals? The answer is shown through a weakness of leadership within the team. Specifically, a flaw in the leadership of Boston Celtics Coach, Brad Stevens.
During Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics absolutely dominated the first half and went up seventeen points by half time. However, within eight minutes of the second half, the Celtics not only lost their seventeen-point lead but they went down seven points. When the Celtics called timeout, Brad Steven’s said something along the lines of, “Okay guys, just keep playing simple, nothing to worry about, just keep playing your game”. He said this very passively and with little passion or sense of urgency. This type of leadership and communication is what the course material refers to as supportive leadership. Supportive leaders are friendly and approachable leaders that attend to the well being and needs of their followers (PSU WC, 2016, L.6). However, this was a huge mistake because first of all his “employees,” or Celtics players, were not “playing their game”. They were doing the opposite actually, as they failed to pass each other the ball and instead continued to shoot pointless shots that kept missing. During this timeout, Coach Brad Stevens failed to motivate his followers to accomplish their goal, one of the essential purposes of the Path Goal Theory (PSU WC, 2016, L.6). Within leadership situations, followers often face certain obstacles and challenges that can prevent them from reaching their goals (Northouse, 2016). In this particular situation, the Boston Celtics lost a seventeen-point lead and were losing as a result of the other team’s momentum and relentless passion and intensity. During this game, Coach Brad Stevens should have used the achievement-oriented leadership style.
Achievement-oriented leadership shows how a leader challenges followers to perform work at the highest level possible. These leaders establish a high level of excellence for followers and seek continuous improvement (Northouse, 2016). As stated in the beginning, the Celtics had beaten all of the top teams in the NBA. Heading into the playoffs, the expectation around the Celtics organization, as well as the fan base, was for the team to win the championship. Brad Stevens failed to communicate this vision and expectation to his followers. He also failed to adapt his leadership style to specific situations. For example, in game six, one of the Celtics players got into early foul trouble. Brad Stevens showed the supportive leadership style, as he talked to the player and encouraged him to keep hustling and playing hard. However, this same player failed to stick with the team’s game plan just minutes later. The player continued to shoot three pointers, when the game plan was to move the ball and drive the ball to the hoop. In this situation, Brad Stevens should have cracked down on his follower and adapted his leadership style to the achievement-oriented leadership style. This leadership style states that leaders need to adapt to the motivational needs of their followers (Northouse, 2016). During the last playoff series against the Miami Heat, Brad Stevens continued to use the supportive leadership style. This style failed to motivate his players to play with the required intensity and drive to beat the Miami Heat.
The Path Goal Theory shows how leaders must assess follower characteristics and task characteristics when choosing which leadership style to use (Northouse, 2016). In Table 6.1 in the text, the follower characteristics include high expectations and the need to excel. The task characteristics include ambiguous, challenging and complex (Northouse, 2016). In this situation, the Boston Celtics players wanted to excel and win the championship. They had high expectations for themselves and knew what they were capable of. In terms of the task, it was a little ambiguous because there were two teams that were capable of winning. Therefore, the team with the better game plan and higher levels of motivation would win. The task was definitely challenging because the Miami Heat were a great team. The task was also complex because the players were playing without fans, one of the main sources of energy and motivation for the players. With all these factors and obstacles considered, Brad Stevens needed to use achievement-oriented leadership behaviors to motivate his followers. Leaders who challenge and set high standards for their followers raise their followers’ confidence in their ability to achieve their goals (Northouse, 2016). Instead, the supportive leadership style Stevens used was ineffective, as his players did not receive the motivation to accomplish the challenging task against the Miami Heat. NBA analyst and one of the NBA’s all time best guards stated, “I saw that they lost their collective will and trust and belief in their system. When you look at the last four to five minutes of their play, the Celtics fell out of character” (NBA.com). The Celtics had the ability to make it to the final series this year. Brad Steven’s choice in leadership and his failure to approach the situation using the Path-Goal Theory led to another disappointing end to a great season for the Celtics.
Northouse, P.G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and Practice. 7th Edition. Los Angeles: Sage
Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2016). Psych 485 Lesson 6: Introduction to Path Goal Theory. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/2075467/modules/items/30110450
Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2016). Psych 485 Lesson 6: Leader Behaviors. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/2075467/modules/items/30110451
(2020, September 27). Heat execute in the fourth to advance to the finals. NBA.com. https://www.nba.com/video/2020/09/27/20200927-gametime-heat-advance-finals