The Boston Celtics’ “Only Very Good” Problem

The Boston Celtics, by virtue of having won a convoluted three-way tiebreaker, took the 2 seed in the 2022 Eastern Conference. If they can get past the 7-seed Brooklyn Nets and the winner of the 3-seed Milwaukee Bucks and 6-seed Chicago Bulls in the second round, it will be Boston’s fourth appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals in the past six seasons stretching back to 2017.

The problem is that Boston hasn’t broken through and gone to the NBA Finals since 2010. And for a franchise whose 17 championships stand tied with the rival Los Angeles Lakers for the most in NBA history, that’s simply not good enough.

Indeed, Danny Ainge left Boston’s front office and coach Brad Stevens, the face of this site since 2015, got kicked upstairs to let Ime Udoka take over as coach for the 2022 season.

Plenty of fans in plenty of other NBA cities would look at even three ECF appearances in five years (including one in 2020, falling short against this year’s favorite the Miami Heat), see the first-round exit handed to the Celtics by an up-and-coming Brooklyn Nets team, and conclude that they had things pretty good. Indeed, other than the Lakers and maybe the Golden State Warriors, there isn’t a fanbase in the league that wouldn’t take those kind of consistent deep playoff runs even if they ultimately couldn’t get over the hump and grab the biggest prize.

But Boston is different, and it’s been a disaster for the Celtics in terms of getting any traction with the city’s media or its fans.

The Red Sox, after 86 years of futility, won a World Series in 2004 and have won four such titles in the past 17 years, in 2004, ’07, ’13, and ’18. Curiously, that 2018 title represents the first time in MLB history that a team has won the World Series exactly 100 years after winning one in the 20th century (San Francisco, you’re on the clock, as the then-New York Giants won the 1922 Series in a crosstown rivalry series over the Yankees.)

The Patriots, with the ageless Tom Brady as their quarterback, went to nine Super Bowls in 18 years and won six of them, most recently at the end of that 2018 season, barely three months after the city had thrown the Sox a parade.

But the city’s indoor sports have simply not met those expectations.

Back in 2011, when the Bruins won their first Stanley Cup in nearly 40 years, Boston set a nearly unbreakable record for four-sport cities by winning four titles in a span of six years and four months (Super Bowl XXXIX, the 2007 World Series, the 2008 NBA Finals, and that Stanley Cup.)

This is what Boston expects. Any year that a team doesn’t win the whole shebang is a failed year.

This is even true when one of the franchises goes through a down cycle. The 2013 Red Sox came off a wretched 2012 campaign in which they went 69-93 under manager Bobby Valentine. Didn’t matter. They went 97-65 the next year and won it all.

The Patriots, after a 7-9 down year—the team’s first losing season in 20 years—following Brady’s departure for Tampa Bay in 2020, went 10-7 in the new 17-game format in 2021 and made the playoffs. Quarterback Mac Jones, the 15th overall pick in 2021, is the new face of a franchise with a Super Bowl or bust mentality.

And even the Bruins have been back to the Stanley Cup Finals twice since winning it all in 2011, falling short against Chicago in 2013 and St. Louis in 2019.

The Celtics? Well, you can see why “three conference finals in five years” looks a little shabby compared to the rest of the league. Every other team in the city has not just been back to their sport’s championship round but has won a title since the last time the Celtics even made the NBA Finals in 2010.

Heck, every other team in the city has made the championship round even if they lost since 2018. An 11-year Finals drought and 14-year title drought is the longest in Boston.

This is the Celtics’ problem. On paper, they look like they’re set for another possible trip back to the ECF this year.

But that just makes them the least-successful franchise in their own market. That’s just not going to fly.