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Christopher L. Gasper

Last time the Celtics were anointed favorites, it didn’t end well. This time had better be different.

The Celtics, led by (from left) Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum, came within two wins last season of the franchise's 18th championship.Elsa/Getty

Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it. That was Winston Churchill’s version of a familiar maxim. Here’s hoping the Celtics learned from their recent history.

This time better be different for the Celtics, who enter the 2022-23 campaign as media darlings and betting favorites to capture the NBA title after falling two wins short of Banner No. 18 last season.

The last time they were Eastern Conference favorites was the 2018-19 season. The result was an abject disaster and failure as a title contender disintegrated under the weight of egos, expectations, entitlement, and Kyrie Irving’s capriciousness. Celtics fans shudder just thinking about that eminently unlikable iteration of the Green.


The Celtics tend to do their best work when they’re doubted, dissed, or dismissed. That was the case last season after hobbling to a 23-24 start before closing on a 28-7 tear. However, now it’s the weight of championship expectations on their shoulders, not a chip.

The Celtics have proven expert at proving anyone who writes them off wrong. But now they have the task of proving everyone touting them as rafters redecorators right. They have to do it without the exiled coach who got buy-in to collective success over individual accolades and took them to the Finals, Ime Udoka, and with a 34-year-old, first-time, interim head coach in Rhode Island’s own Joe Mazzulla.

It’s a whole different ballgame when excellence and achievement represent the baseline expectation.

Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Al Horford, and Robert Williams were all members of that ill-fated and ill-suited 2018-19 team. It was a team that never gained traction, finished fourth in the East, and bowed out in the second round to the Milwaukee Bucks in five games.

President of basketball operations Brad Stevens coached that group and encapsulated its ethos, saying, “I did a bad job.”


The good news is that these Celtics don’t have the mercurial Kyrie and have much better chemistry. Tatum and Brown are older, wiser, and better, legitimate stars and unquestioned leaders. There’s no tug-of-war for the wheel like there was that season between Irving and the Jays.

Brad Stevens the coach saw his title favorites fall woefully short — can Brad Stevens the executive help them over the line this time?Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

Unlike last time, the Celtics also sport talented players who are willing to accept a lesser role in pursuit of a ring. There’s no Marcus Morris or Terry Rozier chafing for more playing time — yet.

The team upgraded its third offensive option by trading for guard Malcolm Brogdon, who has gone out of his way to declare he’s fine coming off the bench in the name of winning. Brogdon has started every regular-season game he has played dating to 2018 but is willing to cede the starting point guard role to Smart, who craves it like oxygen.

Derrick White previously showed a willingness to do the same and will probably slide to the bench when Williams is able to return from left knee surgery to anchor the defense.

“Everybody’s coming in and trying to do the right thing. That’s one thing we’ve been trying to do for Joe, is do the right thing and let everything else fall into place,” said Smart. “I feel like we’ll get there. We’re not there yet, but we’re not far off.”

It already hasn’t been smooth sailing for the C’s with Udoka’s yearlong suspension for an improper relationship/improper behavior toward a team employee and forward Danilo Gallinari suffering a torn ACL while playing for the Italian national team.


Hopefully, those are the biggest bumps in the road back to the Finals. But inevitably some adversity or controversy will arise, like last season when Smart called out Tatum and Brown, saying, “They don’t want to pass the ball.”

The issue with the 2018-19 team was such disagreements lingered. A resulting miasma of misery hung over the entire season.

Stevens told me at the news conference to announce the signing of Kemba Walker — and the cleansing of Irving’s presence (the Celtics metaphorically saged you first, Kyrie) — “We didn’t respond to adversity well throughout the whole year, and that was our deal.”

It needs to be different this time, and it should be. Last year’s Celtics handled adversity well, winning a pair of Game 7s. In fact, their issue was that if they didn’t have their backs against the wall they tended not to summon their best.

Can Jayson Tatum rise to true superstardom?John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The Celtics already headed off one potential issue at the pass. Tatum, Brown, and Smart appear on one of the covers for Sports Illustrated’s NBA Preview issue. Originally, the intent was for it to be just Tatum and Brown. But after lobbying from Tatum and Brown it ended up including the longest-tenured Celtic and reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year.

Somehow, Smart landed front and center.

While this continues an aggravating trend of the Celtics enabling, pacifying, and inflating a role player’s ego at every turn, it’s also a sign of loyalty, unity, and understanding. The team’s two best players know the proud Smart well enough to know he would’ve been miffed if he wasn’t included.


They learned from the discordant debacle of the 2019 team, which buckled under the burden of in-fighting, back-biting, and personal agendas — the anti-Ubuntu Celtics.

A quote from that season that applies to this one came via Brown, the Celtics’ best combination of elite player and vocal leader.

“It starts from the top to the bottom. Not from the bottom to the top, but the top to the bottom,” Brown said in response to finger-pointing from Irving.

Brown, who led the Celtics in fourth-quarter scoring during the playoffs, and Tatum, who before faltering in the Finals was playing at an MVP level, are atop the Hub hoops hierarchy now.

They must take what they learned from Irving’s divisive leadership as an example of what not to do.

No one said getting back to the NBA Finals or winning a title will be easy. It won’t. But it’s definitely not going to happen if your toughest obstacles come from within.

The Celtics want some history to repeat itself. They want to return to the Finals.

But they don’t want what happened last time they were anointed favorites to happen again. This time has to be different, and it should be.

Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at christopher.gasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.