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Resetting expectations for this team

What do you think success is for this year’s Boston Celtics now?

Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The Boston Celtics currently have a record of 35-26 and are the #6 seed in a tightly bunched Eastern Conference standings, just 1.5 games out of 3rd place.

If we close our eyes and imagine how we’d feel about that sentence in the preseason, we’d probably think “yeah, that sounds about right.” I was more optimistic about our chances of being in the top 2-3 teams of the East, but I was realistic enough to understand that they could land as low as 6th.

Now close your eyes and imagine hearing that sentence around New Year’s. Insert whatever “huh?” meme you want, but you wouldn’t believe a word of it. At the time the team was bouncing around .500 with a two-steps-forward-two-steps-back rhythm. The brief glimpses of greatness were overshadowed by frequent collapses and inconsistent effort.

Right around that time, I wrote an article, imploring the team to “pick a lane.”

If this team isn’t good enough to compete for a title and they aren’t bad enough to have a shot at drafting a difference maker, that puts them right in that dreaded middle ground. Do that for consecutive years and you are on the treadmill of mediocrity.

The thought process was that two stars plus a perfect supporting cast is very hard to pull off. There’s just no margin for error and the results just weren’t there. Fast forward to today and it seems like more pieces are in place than we might have imagined. Maybe Robert Williams or Marcus Smart (or some combination of the two) are the 3rd star and we just don’t accept that yet.

Side note: It’s too early for a victory lap, but let’s just say that I’m glad I stuck with this take.

I am still hanging on to my belief/hope that Tatum and Brown are an excellent starting point for any roster. Two wings with that level of skill and work ethic are rare and precious. They have the ability to be switchable on defense and complement each other on offense if used properly and surrounded by the right supporting cast.

The crazy thing is that the early season struggles really seem to have lowered expectations for this group. Even though the team has been playing the best basketball in the league (by most measurements) since the calendar turn, there’s still a bit of “well, let’s wait and see how real this is” on the minds of fans and analysts alike. And for good reason. This is still a pretty small sample size and we have to see how sustainable it is.

So now we’re kind of stuck somewhere between low and high expectations. If this team makes another long run in the playoffs, it will feel a little like “found money.” If they don’t, it will be disappointing, but not as much as it would have been stumbling into the play-in tournament. In a way, this kind of reminds me of the early Brad Stevens-led teams. They had a habit of starting a little slow, improving as the year went along, and overachieving in the playoffs.

The defense certainly seems real. That’s the kind of thing that could and should translate into success in the playoffs. Is the ball movement real? Can this team stay healthy enough in Ime’s short rotation to maximize this mix? All that remains to be seen, but at least we’ve moved on past the “should we blow it up?” phase.