“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” - Hamlet
The Boston Celtics were 2 wins away from winning the NBA Finals. They are bringing back their core and added Malcolm Brogdon and Danilo Gallinari (return TBD) to it. They are poised to take the next step and raise another banner in the rafters. Right?
That’s the line of thinking that makes the Celtics the odds on favorite to win the title this year. But does that logic stand up? Or is it more complex than that? (Well yes, astute reader, of course it is more complex than that. You are clever to see through my oversimplified setup.)
Winning an NBA championship is always hard. Always. Even for an overwhelming favorites. There are just so many things that can go wrong during the course of a season and postseason. From injuries to team chemistry to matchups to just plain bad luck.
I’ll submit that one underappreciated complicating factor is the weight of expectations. Maybe some guys on the team can’t handle the added pressure. Some get over-inflated egos and bristle at being boxed into the same role they had the prior year. Other teams are suddenly circling the calendar to take down the new favorites.
For an example, one need look no further than the 2018-19 Boston Celtics. The logic heading into that season was seemingly sound as well. They reached the Eastern Conference Finals the prior season with their two star players sidelined with injuries. So logically they appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and seemed destined for greatness.
We all know how that went. Young players who carried the team in the playoffs expected larger roles. The stars that returned from injury were unable to or unwilling to adapt their games. In short, there were too many mouths to feed and they never found their balance as a team.
Here’s the part where I take a right turn and explain why this year’s team is different.
With all that said, the 2022-23 Celtics are not the 2018-19 Celtics. There’s a clear hierarchy and the two stars were instrumental in the previous season’s success. Everyone else on the team, including the new guys, at least publicly acknowledges and accepts their role in the current ecosystem. They are all trying to get better and maximize their talents, but they seem to understand that team success will translate to achieving their own personal goals faster.
Some of the credit for that goes to head coach Ime Udoka. Not only does he have the Spurs culture pedigree, but he was the one that got this team to buy in last year. That buy-in led directly to the NBA Finals, so everyone should be right back on board this time around.
It also takes a winning mindset from the players to really buy in (instead of giving the concept mere lip service). Look down the roster of key rotation players. From Marcus Smart to Al Horford to Derrick White to Robert Williams III. Each one seems hard-wired with winning as the primary goal.
And now I swing back to the other direction and provide some cautionary warnings.
There still are challenges related to heightened expectations. Jayson Tatum will be expected to compete for MVP. Anything less than that will be seen as a disappointment, and that’s a really, really high bar to maintain all year. Jaylen Brown will have to answer questions early on about being involved in trade talks (yet again). While his free agency is still two summers away, his performance on the court can and will play a major role in what percentage of the cap he’ll be able to earn on his next contract. Udoka was able to get the team to sell out in part because of the large hole that they dug for themselves early in the year. If they have some early success, will he find the right motivation to keep them on track rather than slipping into old habits?
Don’t forget that the rest of the East is out to take down the Celtics. There are really only 3 teams that don’t have much hope of sniffing the play-in, but the rest of the conference is going to be out to win as many basketball games as possible. The Bucks will be back with a (knock on wood) healthier roster. The Miami Heat and Philly 76ers will be back. Strangely enough, the Brooklyn Nets are back. This is not going to be an easy road by any means.
And now the optimistic flourish.
Still, I’m a believer in this team. Not just because of the easy narrative, but because I’ve seen something growing in their character and culture over the last several years. I think Tatum and Brown are poised to have their best years yet. I think the team surrounding them is not just talented, but well suited to maximize their style. I think the defensive identity will buy them a lot of room for error.
In short, the expectations are high because this team could be very special. Here’s hoping that they meet and maybe even exceed expectations this year and for years to come.