The Boston Celtics have long had an identity that does not encourage fans to live in the present. It’s hard to place much blame for that at the franchise’s feet, because any glance to the Garden ceiling will confirm that this is a franchise that has done a lot of winning in the past. As someone who’s bragged at parties about not getting frosting on my face when I eat cinnamon rolls, far be it from me to critique the “historical success” slant to the fan experience. When something good has happened in the past, it’s only natural for that to echo into the present day because people love to remember good things.
However, you can also run the risk of nostalgia paralysis if the only way you can see basketball is through the lens of history. The Celtics have a young, exciting team right now. Too often I hear Celtics fans discounting the chaotic fun of Marcus Smart to bring up that Dave Cowens once invented the Philosopher’s Stone while driving a cab after the Finals or something. It’s understandable to squirrel away the good memories for times when things are bad, like they were in 2013.
It can be nice to remember Paul Pierce dueling a young LeBron James in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals when the team is in danger of losing 60 games. It’s nice to have that history to grasp for when things are lean, and I wouldn’t trade those memories for any other teams’. That said, it’s also very important to clear some room for the new memories, and not let the historical successes block the entrance for new memories.
The flow of time can also affect how someone views a team in the moment. For example, the heyday years of the original “Big Three” were accented by a soft ‘tick-tock’ in the back of each fan’s mind. Forming a trio of stars in their 30s was much more precarious in 2007 than it is today, given the extension of careers we’ve seen with sports medicine. For example, even two years ago, the final year of Al Horford’s contract was being discussed as a possible “albatross” because he was going to be 33 years old that year. I was a teenager back then and Twitter wasn’t invented yet, but I can only imagine what those same people thought about trading a #5 overall pick for the 32 year old Ray Allen.
While an aging team can put a fan base on guard, a young team creates a sense of security, or at least that’s the thinking. GM’s can routinely prolong their job security by “selling the future” and the ferocity with which certain circles of the NBA defended the 76ers installation of “The Process” proves that public opinion will often defend building “slowly and steadily” through the draft. Some of that is for good reason. There’s a logic to maximizing your chances of acquiring a top player and, when that is the clear goal, fans and spectators are likely to be more patient with you.
The problem is that the goal is to have a good team, not “look like you will have a good team in three years.” The two are often used interchangeably when it’s actually relatively uncommon for the latter to translate cleanly to the former. Acquiring the young, exciting players is only the first step. Becoming a “good team” is the second step and one that the Timberwolves are demonstrating isn’t always a slam dunk. Making it deep into the playoffs as a contender is the third step and winning a championship is the fourth.
It’s easy for Celtic fans to not rush themselves to that fourth step, after all, the Celtics seemingly have plenty of time. Only Al Horford may (and that’s with firm stress on the ‘may’) exit his prime in the next few years, while many of the Celtics’ key young players, such as Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum will be entering their own playing zenith. On top of this, the Celtics are owed some likely valuable picks from the Kings, Grizzlies, and possibly Clippers in the coming years, made all the more tantalizing by the recent success Danny Ainge has had picking in the top half of the draft. Add all this together and it’s easy to want to take things slowly and not put much pressure on a Celtics squad that seems to have a bright decade ahead of it. It’s easy to get excited about the future.
However, I’m not most excited about the future.
I’m most excited about the present, wherein the Celtics have their strongest team since 2009 and arguably even back to 1986. The Warriors have established themselves as a historical dynasty and will be the prohibitive favorites for the title this year, but the Celtics have elite talent themselves. Adding DeMarcus Cousins on a cheap contract has many thinking the Warriors have placed the title for this year out of reach. However, cracks are starting to show in the juggernaut. The climbing luxury tax has chipped away at the edges of the Warriors’ bench depth, to the point where they are leaning on an assortment of young players and Jonas Jerebko. Any moderate injury could create a drastic shift in the talent gap, as the team has only become more top-heavy.
In contrast, the Celtics have one of the deepest teams in the league. Many of the Celtics bench players such as Aron Baynes, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris could start for many teams in the league, and, in fact, they combined to start 115 games last year. This gives the Celtics ample leverage to rest their top players and prioritize the playoffs while also keeping the goal of the best record in the NBA firmly in the realm of possibility. If the Celtics are going to defeat the Warriors in the Finals, securing home court will be incredibly important.
It’s easy to look at the Warriors roster with 6 All-Stars and conclude that it might be simplest for the Celtics to prioritize the future and wait out the growing financial burdens of Golden State. The championship window is open, however, and I caution anyone who might prioritize punting because the Warriors are looming in the distance. Things change very quickly in the NBA. The Warriors went from perennial playoff team to dynasty in a single off-season. The Cavaliers went from nemesis to a possible lottery team with a single press release. Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler will have decision to make in the upcoming years, to say nothing of
Kyrie Irving and Al Horford’s possible pending free agency.
The Celtics have been a team of the past and then a team of the future for almost 30 years. Their transformation into a team of the present has been so sudden, that it may be difficult for Celtics fans to catch up mentally. However, make no mistake, this is team that should not let the flow of time define it.
Live in the present Celtic fans and enjoy this ride. You might find the present to be the brightest of all.