For the last handful of seasons, the Boston Celtics have fancied themselves legitimate contenders for an NBA title. With three conference finals appearances in four seasons, they had every right to do so.
Now, however, things are a bit different.
Boston is coming off a season where they finished seventh in the East and fell swiftly to the Brooklyn Nets in the first round in five games. In their defense, last season was filled with injuries and COVID-induced chaos, but a fresh start doesn’t change the fact that the conference landscape has undergone some pretty significant changes.
The Milwaukee Bucks are the defending NBA champs. The Brooklyn Nets enter this season as Finals favorites. Independent of what happens with Ben Simmons, the Philadelphia 76ers still employ last season’s MVP runner-up. The Atlanta Hawks took a massive step forward last season to assert themselves in the playoff picture. Miami made upgrades to a roster that proved it could reach The Finals.
Just before the start of last season, I wrote about how the 2021 campaign was Finals-or-bust for the Celtics. But with their own struggles coupled with so many teams leapfrogging them in the unofficial hierarchy, expectations for the Celtics feel vastly different.
So, what exactly are they?
Remember the days when you thought the Celtics had all the time in the world because, as good as they’d been at such young ages, neither Jayson Tatum nor Jaylen Brown had reached their prime?
Neither is older than 24 years of age, but the days of waiting for them to reach their full potential are over. Both were All-Stars last season. Both will play out this year on the $100 million extensions they signed. Even if they have more room to grow, their time is right now, so Boston’s should be as well.
Thankfully, the Celtics’ roster has been retooled with the present in mind. Sure, they’re likely to rely on the likes of Robert Williams III, Payton Pritchard, Romeo Langford, Grant Williams, and Aaron Nesmith as part of the rotation. A leap by any one of them would greatly aid Boston’s bottom line. But it’s the additions of Enes Kanter, Al Horford, Dennis Schroder, and Josh Richardson that offer the tangible talent their younger teammates don’t. After a season in which the production outside of Tatum and Brown was never a guarantee, some stability is much-needed in Beantown.
If the Celtics upgraded their team, they should feel confident in aiming for more than a single victory in a first-round loss. How is that possible, though, given the state of the conference?
Boston isn’t better than Brooklyn or Milwaukee. Is the hope then that they can push themselves to the top of that second tier? Is that where the top of the bar lies? Assuming good health, the #3 seed doesn’t seem too outlandish considering the star power that can carry the Celtics through the ups and downs of the regular season.
After last season’s .500 finish, there isn’t too much hype surrounding the Celtics, which feels strange on several levels. Their two All-Stars are still improving. Their roster is better. Their young guys should improve. And their new coach should offer a much-needed breath of fresh air.
Maybe that manifests in homecourt advantage in the first round or something greater beyond it. Or maybe, given the silence about Boston’s chances in comparison to Miami after their offseason additions or Atlanta following a stellar postseason run, success for the Celtics this season is all about reentering a conversation a one-year blip shouldn’t have removed them from.