What if the Celtics get off to a slow start?

The expectation is that the 2022-2023 Boston Celtics will be a championship contender, and perhaps the frontrunner.

BET MGM gives them +450 odds to win the title. Caesar’s Sportsbook also has them at +450, DraftKings at +500, and Odds Shark at +400. All of these sports books gives Boston the best odds to win it all. Not the defending champion Warriors or the re-tooled Clippers or the healthy Bucks – the Celtics are their favorite.

The expectations are high but not unreasonable. Boston finished the season 33-10 while boasting the league’s top offensive and defensive rating. They swept the Durant/Kyrie Nets, took down the previous two Eastern Conference champions, and came two games from winning the championship against a team whose core players played in five previous Finals.

They did it without a veteran secondary playmaker/ballhandler, but filled that need in resounding fashion by trading for Malcolm Brogdon. They didn’t have the bench scorer/shooter who could create offense, but got that by signing Danilo Gallinari.

DraftKings and Pointsbet each have the Celtics over/under win total at 55.5, while Tipco Sportsbook has them at 56.5. Our fearless editor, Bill Sy, went through the schedule and predicted 59 wins. Jeff Clark ran a poll asking whether the team would win over 55 games, and 75 percent of you said they would.

With great expectations come’s great responsibility.

Nope, that’s not the quote.

There’s a Chinese proverb that goes something like, “expectations are a m****er f***er.”

Or maybe my information’s wrong.

Nonetheless, the Celtics will be expected to win on most nights, and now have to deal with the burden of high expectations. They have a ridiculous 37 games on national television, and every loss will be scrutinized to the nth degree. If they lose a few games in a row, it’ll feel like the house that Brad built is collapsing.

So, I beg the question: what if the Celtics get off to a slow start?

Is there a chance Brogdon won’t fit as seamlessly as expected? Might 36-year-old Al Horford not look as spry after coming off a deep playoff run? What if the KD trade rumors create a locker room rift?

I’m not trying to be pessimistic just for the sake of it. I know you – the reader/commenter – haven’t been so ecstatic about CelticsBlog’s “What If” week. You killed Adam Taylor yesterday when he mused on the idea of Russell Westbrook joining the Celtics bench and thriving in a super-small lineup. You eye-rolled Jack Simone’s idea of trading Smart/White/Brogdon for depth at other positions (for this one, I don’t completely blame you).

High expectations will put any team under a magnifying glass. When the Orlandos and the Houstons come to town, it’s their Super Bowl, and they won’t play like the lottery-level teams their records indicate. This 22-23 team has the highest expectations since… well not too long ago.

I’m still scarred by the 2018-2019 Kyrie-led Celtics. We entered the year joyously optimistic but finished it questioning why we’re fans at all. The previous season, they reached Game 7 of the conference finals without their two best players, and with LeBron leaving the conference, Boston was a shoe-in to make The Finals. Everyone, not most people, but yes, absolutely everyone had the Celtics in The Finals.

What happened? They started 10-10, Hayward hadn’t psychologically recovered from his injury, the Jays weren’t happy about taking a back seat, Kyrie proved he wasn’t a leader, and we had to suffer an entire season watching stick-in-the-mud offense with a team of guys who hated playing with one another and regularly aired their grievances in public. Aside from the 2011 Red Sox, it was the biggest disappointment in Boston sports history.

Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The NBA is perceived as a predictable league, but last season, everybody and their grandmother had Brooklyn winning the championship, and many had them defeating the Lakers in The Finals. How silly does that sound today? Sure, we can’t predict vaccine holdouts and freak injuries, but the Nets were the consensus best team and the Lakers were a consensus contender.

In their first 10 games, the Celtics play the Bulls twice, the Cavs twice, the Grizzlies, Sixers, and Heat. It’s entirely possible they lose four out of these seven games, then drop one out of three to either the new-look Knicks, the youthful Magic, or the surprisingly deep Wizards. Wouldn’t the locker room and front office be just a little worried about a 5-5 start?

The 2010-2011 Miami Heatles started 9-8 after many had them winning 70 games. The 2018-2019 Rockets came off a season taking the supervillain Warriors to the brink of elimination, and they started 4-7. Both teams had enormous expectations, and it seemed improbable that they struggled the way they did.

If the Celtics start slow, and Durant still isn’t traded, do those trade talks heat up? Maybe instead of looking at the Celtics as a team that missed the championship by two games, they’ll be viewed as a team that needed seven games to beat the Bucks without Khris Middleton, a team that was a Jimmy Butler three-pointer away from having one of the worst collapses in playoff history.

Championship teams typically start the season strong. Last year’s Warriors started 18-2, the previous season’s Lakers were 24-3, and the champion Raptors started 20-4. The 2008 Celtics started 29-3, and the 1996 Bulls didn’t get their fourth loss until February.

But not all championship teams get off to dominant starts. The 2021 Bucks started 11-8. The 2006 Heat were 10-10, the 1999 Spurs started 6-8, and the 1998 Last Dance Bulls went 8-7. Last year’s Suns started 1-3 but won 64 games, while the 2007 Mavs started 0-4 and won 67 games. Sure, both teams were major playoff disappointments, but you get my point – bad starts ≠ bad season (just ask last year’s Celtics).

For those of you who haven’t already flocked to the comments to call me an idiot and this blog trash, let me be very very clear (*Stephen A. voice*), I don’t believe the Celtics will get off to a slow start. I think this team will come out of the gates wanting to prove they’re the NBA’s best team and that last year’s dominant second half was no fluke.

I believe Gallo and Brogdon are eager to win and willing to play reduced roles on a championship contender and will fit seamlessly. Tatum, Brown, Smart, and Horford all have the disappointment of 2018-19 fresh in their memory, and they’re not gonna allow this year’s team to falter like that team did.

I’m not just writing this for clicks or because we’re trying to contrive storylines during the August doldrums. I’m writing this because I’m still partially traumatized by the albatross that was the 2018-19 Celtics. To a lesser degree, the 2020-21 Celtics had similar high expectations after reaching the Eastern Conference Finals in the previous bubble season, and they responded by finishing .500 with mitigating circumstances. Expectations plus Boston Celtics hasn’t equated to success in recent years.

We’re all feeling good about the upcoming season, as we should. But when the expectations are Finals-or-bust, the threshold for discomfort is lowered. Every loss hits harder, every rumor rings louder, every questionable quote gets hyper scrutinized. A bad start doesn’t mean a bad season, but it doesn’t hurt to temper expectations.

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