Malcolm Brogdon heard it repeatedly after last summer’s surprising trade that delivered him to Boston: The Celtics had found their missing piece.
Less than a month after coming up short against the Golden State Warriors in the 2022 Finals, the Celtics acquired Brogdon from the Indiana Pacers in exchange for a package headlined by Aaron Nesmith, Daniel Theis, and a 2023 first-round pick (slotted at No. 29 after Boston finished with the second-best record in basketball this season).
The popular post-trade spin was that the Celtics had gotten a player who, if he had been on the roster last season, could have helped them finish off the quest for Banner 18.
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So how did that land with Brogdon? Did it add motivation? Pressure?
"All of the above. I heard that term a lot. I've continued to hear it," said Brogdon. "There's definitely motivation in it because you want to be the missing piece. You want to be the piece that helps them get over the hump. But there's also pressure associated with it, that comes with it. Which is expected but I embrace it."
The Brogdon acquisition has worked out well for both sides. The Celtics essentially moved a collection of bench pieces that they couldn’t confidently lean on during last year's postseason run, and parlayed them into maybe the best reserve in basketball and someone that could be vital to this year’s playoff success.
Brogdon embraced that backup role and made all 67 of his appearances off the bench. His playing time dropped 8.5 minutes per game from his career high two seasons ago in Indiana where he was one of the faces of that team. The downturn in play helped Brogdon, nagged by injuries throughout his basketball career, stay on the court for 67 games -- the most since his Rookie of the Year season in 2017.
Brogdon was named the 2022-23 NBA Sixth Man of the Year on Thursday. He beat out New York’s Immanuel Quickley, winning what quickly became a two-horse race in the second half of the season.
Brogdon understands the rich history of sixth men in Boston. He joins an elite group from John Havlicek (whose name now adorns the Sixth Man trophy) to Kevin McHale (a two-time winner in 1984 and 1985) to Bill Walton (the sixth man on the 1986 Celtics, one of the greatest teams in NBA history).
It’s been nearly four decades since Boston has had a player earn that honor. In recent years, the award has skewed towards volume-scoring guards.
Brogdon’s impact runs deeper than his point output. He’s given Boston a nice scoring jolt -- his 1,000 total bench points were second-most among any player who didn't start a game this season -- but it was Brogdon’s ability to give the game what it needed that really distinguished him. His poise and pace have been vital.
For his part, Brogdon warmed to the possibility of the Sixth Man award after initially downplaying it. But he’s consistently noted that winning is far more important.
Truly being the missing piece in Boston’s title quest would mean far more than any individual honor.
Before the start of the postseason, we sat down with Brogdon to reflect on his first season in Boston and the Celtics' playoff quest:
Q: Take me back to before the season started. Robert Williams III and fellow offseason signee Danilo Gallinari need surgery, the coaching drama -- what was going through your mind at that point as you ready to embark on this new experience?
"It's gonna be tougher than I thought. In a lot of ways, I thought I was walking into a very solid situation. Everything would be solidified. It'd be a well-oiled machine. And the organization is such -- it is a very well-oiled, a very well-run organization. But things happen and the NBA in itself, the business is so fluid, things happen, and you gotta keep turning the page."
Q: How quickly did you realize that this team could still achieve its loftiest goals?
"Honestly, in preseason. Seeing how guys responded to [first-year coach] Joe [Mazzulla], I knew that was going to be a big piece for Jaylen [Brown], Jayson [Tatum], Al [Horford], [Marcus] Smart, the main core. Seeing how they responded to Joe and if they would buy in. And once I realized they were buying in to what he wanted to incorporate and how he wanted to coach, I realized we can still be on track."
Q: Tell me about Joe's evolution, from first impressions to now with a full year under his belt?
"I think NBA coaching is about feel. It’s about reading the room. It's about managing egos. At the beginning, Joe was feeling it out. He was trying to figure out how not to wash away everything that the team did last year and [former coach] Ime [Udoka’s] style. How to incorporate what Ime did well but also incorporate his own style. And I think he's done that. I think, most of all, I think he's earned the respect of the players. As an NBA coach, that’s the main thing you want."
Q: How hard is it to earn that trust?
"It’s hard. It's hard. Especially on a team that's achieved as much as it has, and that achieved it with another head coach. You're stepping into a new role and your team is expected to get that lofty goal of winning a championship. It can be extremely hard."
Q: We’ve heard Joe is extremely competitive. We see some of that in his coaching but what do you see behind the scenes?
"He's extremely competitive. I think the best thing about Joe is that he practices what he preaches. He's a guy that wants us to take care of our bodies, he wants us to be ready, he wants us to be mentally tough. If you watch him during his daily routine, he's a guy that's up early in the morning, he's working out before we get here.
"He put me on bone broth, drinking that every morning. But he's a guy that wants excellence in every part of his life. So when he expects that from us, I think it's easy to get on board."
Q: How's the bone broth?
"It's nasty. But it makes you feel better. So that's what it's all about."
Q: What's it gonna be like playing inside the Garden in the playoffs?
"I think special. I’ve been here, I think two playoff series when I played with Milwaukee. And it was special as an opponent coming here. But being on the other side, being a Celtic in the Garden, I think it’s going to be surreal for sure."
Q: Did playing here leave an impression? I think about Horford saying how much it resonated before he signed here in 2016.
"Yeah, absolutely. I think Boston and Toronto were always the two that left huge impressions on me playing in the playoffs. But Boston, of course, was more energy, more special."
Q: You have Atlanta roots, what's it going to be like playing back home this series?
"I'll have some family there. I don't know how many tickets I'll have, but I'll definitely have family there. It'll be nice to be back in Atlanta. I never really thought or imagined myself playing the playoff series in Atlanta. So it'll be interesting to see what the arena's like and how the fans come out."