By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
It’s an October Wednesday in Boston – usually the time of year when the Bruins and Celtics are ramping up to carry us through the New England winter, hopefully thawing out in the spring as playoff contenders to lead us into the warm embrace of June.
Instead, we’re taking what we hope is a short break from basketball and hockey, as the pandemic stretched out the 2019-20 NBA and NHL seasons to nearly 365 days in length. Through the twists and turns, both of Boston’s winter sports franchises flashed brilliance, hinted that a run at a shiny trophy was in the offing, then popped like a giant soap bubble in the hands of a 2-year old.
With Tom Brady in Tampa and the Red Sox ready to take a Rip Van Winkle nap from contention, either or both of these teams could have leapfrogged the Patriots above the fold of your local sports section. Instead, Boston remains fixated on a football team that doesn’t have a realistic shot at a Super Bowl, with the source of the city’s next major pro sports championship undetermined (shout to the Cannons).
A week into free agency, Don Sweeney and the Bruins appear to be watching the window close. Whether or not you think Torey Krug was worth the money, a key piece of their recent success is gone. Free agent Zdeno Chara is already the eighth-oldest skater in NHL history, and while his expected re-signing will not come with the expectation of heavy minutes, his presence is a reminder that most of Boston’s core group is a bit long in the tooth.
The Celtics’ window may be opening – their key players are in their early 20’s, after all – but only if Kemba Walker stays healthy and they can take the learning experience of this summer’s (at times frustrating) postseason and emerge better for it. Danny Ainge may need to make a move. After waiting out LeBron in the East and the Golden State dynasty out West, the future is now.
But, as it turns out, a soon-t0-be 36-year old LeBron James will remain a factor, regardless of time zone, continent, or solar system.
Following two decades of unprecedented sports success in this city, we’re told winning is all that matters. And while the Patriots (and Red Sox) have piled up hardware, the Bruins and Celtics have blessed their fans with a single championship run. That’s nice and all – thanks for the memories – but those parades seem like ancient history as we hurtle through 2020.
The Bruins have been standing outside the window with a John Cusack boombox for years. It’s been a decade since they faced off with the Phoenix (!) Coyotes to begin the 2010-11 NHL season – one that would end with them hoisting the Stanley Cup. There’s been a raft of unfulfilled expectations since.
A first-round exit in 2012. A President’s Trophy campaign spoiled by the Canadiens in 2014. Failing to make the playoffs at all the following season (despite being a preseason favorite). Last year’s botch in the Cup Final. And now, we can toss in a listless performance in the Toronto bubble.
This doesn’t absolve the Celtics. They’ve frittered away plenty of opportunities, not the least of which was a 3-2 lead in the 2010 Finals. While not a single player remains from that squad (and Rajon Rondo is the only one still in the NBA), we can scan the shelf for a more recent vintage – perhaps last year’s Kyrie Irving-curated meltdown? Or maybe this postseason, when the Miami Heat were ready for the moment and the C’s tripped on their untied shoelaces.
The Celtics have employed two very different approaches over the last decade-plus. They chased a ring with a veteran group, rebuilt from the ground-up and once again, the future appears bright.
The Bruins have had the same core for most of that time. As the seasons roll on, you have to wonder – as the Felger & Mazz crew asked following Boston’s second round exit against the Lightning – if 2011 was the anomaly. The B’s have been among the preseason favorites most years, and as they exit that conversation, they’ve got a decade-old trophy to show for it. It’s enough to put a couple numbers in the rafters, sure, but you wonder if it could have been more.
The last decade of Bruins hockey should be a cautionary tale for the Celtics’ young core. While hockey has a lot of idiosyncrasies you just don’t hear about in basketball (take “puck luck” or the “hot goalie”) contenders can certainly get sidetracked on the path to success.
A championship run has officially gone from a pleasant surprise to an expectation, and it’s about time to cash in.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can find him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.