When members of the Boston Celtics huddled for Media Day one year ago, a dark cloud seemed to hovered over an already emotionally drained team.
Just days earlier, the Celtics suspended head coach Ime Udoka and promoted behind-the-bench assistant Joe Mazzulla. Rotation bigs Robert Williams III and Danilo Gallinari had both undergone September knee surgeries.
After being tantalizingly close to Banner 18 in June of 2022, the Celtics found themselves shrouded in distractions before their quest to get back to the title game could even begin.
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What a difference a year makes.
President of basketball operations Brad Stevens told The Boston Globe on Tuesday that both offseason acquisition Kristaps Porzingis and reigning Sixth Man of the Year Malcolm Brogdon are healthy for the start of training camp, and that the team could be at full strength for its first camp practice on Tuesday.
Stevens' positive update comes as each of Boston’s primary Eastern Conference rivals swim in their own ocean of drama.
In Milwaukee, the Bucks must ensure Giannis Antetokounmpo remains content with the direction of an aging team after some curious offseason comments about his future. In Philadelphia, trade-yearning James Harden reportedly won't report for the start of training camp under new head coach Nick Nurse. In Miami, the Heat are in Month Four of trying to pry Damian Lillard out of Portland, while the Raptors seem to be pondering the possibility of making their own push for the All-Star guard.
The Celtics are not without their own question marks. How will Porzingis fit with this core, and can he stay healthy over a potential 100-game season? How do the Celtics replace Marcus Smart, especially his grit on the court and his voice off it? How does Mazzulla respond in Year 2 after being thrown into the fire a year ago?
But smoothing out the wrinkles with Brogdon, who was nearly dealt in the Porzingis deal in June, is a little less daunting than the sort of drama that Boston was faced with a year ago.
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The only thing hovering over the Celtics this year is the burden of expectations. Boston hasn’t always responded well in those instances (am I right, 2018-19 season?) But it’s easy to see why the Celtics will enter the 2023-24 season as favorites to be back in the NBA Finals.
In his brief tenure as president of basketball operations, Stevens has worked tirelessly to keep his players focused on the task at hand. He’s prioritized extensions that help both player and team stay in the present. Could Derrick White be next? The rest of Boston’s core players enter with some measure of security. Jaylen Brown signed the biggest contract in NBA history in July and can’t be traded for a year. Jayson Tatum will sign a bigger one next summer. Porzingis tacked two years onto his deal when he arrived in Boston.
Even Brogdon has two years and $45 million left on his contract. As someone who helped negotiate the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement, Brogdon has to be aware of the difficulty Boston will face in keeping his big money on the books beyond this year. That will keep Brogdon entrenched in trade rumors for the next 12 months, but the Celtics must keep him content because he could be vital to the title quest this season.
There will be curveballs along the way. There always are. But the vibes entering the season will be exponentially more positive than they were a year ago.
Drama is always lurking, but the Celtics need to embrace its absence. Anything short of a title this season leaves this team with big decisions about its direction next summer.
While the rest of the league deals with drama that could easily derail their title hopes, the Celtics need to embrace the fact that their only focus at the moment is getting back to the title stage.