The Boston Celtics are the Best Team in the NBA. There’s Just One Problem
Photo by David Jensen/Getty Images. Pictured: Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics during Boston’s loss to the Hornets.
The Boston Celtics are the best team in the NBA.
They are No. 1 in schedule-adjusted offense and defense at DunksAndThrees.com. They have outscored opponents by 28 points per 100 possessions with their starting lineup on the floor and 17.5 points per 100 possessions when Jayson Tatum is on the court in any lineup.
They have swarming defense on the perimeter with physical, active guards that disrupt everything in Derrick White and Jrue Holiday.
They have big wings who can defend multiple positions with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. And they have rim protection and switchability with Kristaps Porzingis and Al Horford.
Even their bench minutes are dominant, partly thanks to their ability to always have multiple starters on the floor. The Celtics have played zero minutes without a starter on the floor beyond what are described as "low leverage" possessions in terms of impacting win probability per PBPStats.com.
They can build lineups with Jaylen Brown and Kristaps Porzingis' chemistry, or with Tatum plus the bench, which has covered up for Payton Pritchard.
The two-man game between Jaylen Brown and Kristaps Porzingis is exciting.
"The Best Friends" as dubbed last night by @Drewdle25 have found good chemistry early in the season. They have combined for 23 assists to each other so far. Here are some of the best dimes between them: pic.twitter.com/7jLEWNBUFc
— Tomek Kordylewski (@Timi_093) November 20, 2023
They can get stops and run. They can outscore teams with 3-point accuracy (like their clutch-time win vs. Memphis).
Boston doesn't have multiple ways to beat you. They have all the ways to beat you. They are destroying teams.
They are kaiju, smashing through coastal skylines and leaving rubble in their wake.
I currently have the Celtics power-rated a full 10 points better than an average team on neutral court, tied with the Thunder (who are much better than the market assumes). They should be favorites on the road against any team that isn't OKC if assuming average homecourt advantage. That's how good they are.
The problem? We still can't really trust their playoff crunch-time offense — and nothing they do in the regular season is truly going to ease those concerns.
Had the Celtics won the title in 2022 when they led the Warriors 2-0 in the Finals, we'd be talking about the inevitability of them winning two titles in three years. We'd be discussing Jayson Tatum's MVP odds. We'd lament the lack of value in the title market, with Boston an obvious favorite at a minus number. That's how good they've been.
But they didn't win the title in 2022. They haven't won a title in the Tatum era.
The Celtics have made the conference finals three times in the past four seasons — an accomplishment that shouldn't be overlooked — and have failed to reach Banner 18.
This is not a binary. Winning a title is difficult. It often takes the right combination of health, roster construction, performance, and shooting luck. The franchise, team, and its players deserve credit for reaching the NBA's final four three out of four times (and the Finals once).
But when the goal is a title, falling short of it with so many good chances will inevitably yield questions.
Has Boston been unlucky? Not really; if anything, they've been fortunate. In 2022, they faced the Bucks, who probably topple them if Khris Middleton is available. They faced a worse Heat team in two of those three conference finals exits (with 2022 an exception that went to seven games, and Jimmy Butler almost rousted them from the postseason again).
Boston has been favored in eight out of 11 postseason series since the Bubble — every matchup except the Finals versus the four-time champion Warriors and the cursed 2021 season.
So when they get out to this dominating start with the new additions of Holiday and Porzingis, we're still unable to talk ourselves into just betting on the Celtics to win the title. And it's not just because we're only 17% of the way into the season.
The Celtics' offense is the biggest concern. It's rare to see in the regular season, but in certain games, the offense stalls and looks like it has no real direction or purpose.
Things aren't vastly different with the Celtics' offense than they were under Brad Stevens, and that's for good reasons. Boston had great success under Stevens, and coaches from Ime Udoka to Joe Mazzulla have kept the offensive tendencies mainly intact.
But those tendencies have yielded great regular season results with good but frustrating postseason outcomes.
The offense is perimeter-oriented, features few pick-and-rolls, and doesn't operate on the same motion principles for a low-pick-and-roll offense as a team like Golden State or Denver. So when things stall, it will often look like Boston is just flipping the ball around the perimeter aimlessly until one of the Jays (Brown or Tatum) isolates.
You saw signs of this in Boston's late collapse to the Hornets on Monday night. When the Hornets cut the lead to six with four minutes remaining, the Celtics ran five straight pick-and-roll possessions, resulting in six points. Then they went to isolation-centric basketball and scored just two points on the final four possessions.
Boston averaged the most isolations of any conference finalist in the playoffs last season. They were highly efficient at them, scoring over 1.03 points per possession. But those plays are hard to keep efficiency up, and their offense fell apart against the grind of Miami.
The Celtics averaged just 95 points per 100 possessions in the halfcourt against Miami per CleaningTheGlass.com, the third-best mark of any opponent Miami faced in the playoffs. The Bucks, who Miami knocked out in five games, had a better offense than Boston against the Heat in both the halfcourt and overall.
And even with Holiday and Porzingis, things aren't all that different. Boston's actually averaging more isolation possessions than last year. Most of their offense is generated by spot-ups from pick and roll and isolation, effectively leveraging the defense and kicking to shooters.
But some of this is also largely predictable, which has previously gotten Boston in trouble in the postseason.
Porzingis is key here. He presents a major weapon in pick and roll; of the 27 players with 25 attempts on the roll this season, Porzingis is third in scoring efficiency. The Celtics should be able to use him to stabilize possessions when things get tight and they have lost spark. But so far, there's not much to suggest the shape of the offense will be all that different. It's an option, but one that they haven't used, or maybe simply haven't needed to use.
At the top of all this is coach Joe Mazzulla. Mazzulla was immediately elevated after Udoka's suspension last fall, thrust into the head coaching job suddenly and without warning. He managed to help the Celtics to the 2-seed and the conference finals, one game away from a return trip to the Finals.
But it's also difficult to ignore how there were times it felt he was outcoached in last year's playoffs. His assistant coaching bench is considerably better this season with veterans Charles Lee and Sam Cassell.
Mazzulla has also been open to input and flexible with the players. He put Jrue Holiday effectively in charge of the defense on the floor, for example:
"(My job's) to be safety, to tell guys what I see," Holiday told Boston Sports Journal in Philadelphia. "I talk to Joe about it too and tell him what I see, and then go from there if we want to go zone, if we're switching, if we're staying connected to our man, whatever it is. I feel like Joe and the coaching staff have empowered me to see through a different lens where before I didn't have to worry about that. Whatever the coach would say defensively, that's what would happen, but I think by him doing that, that empowers us to really have to be in tune with the game. If we're playing against Duncan Robinson, it's probably not good to switch sometimes. Just trail him. I feel like being able to do that as a player and realize that on the court is just another skill that I get to add to my game."
But will Mazzulla Ball, which has had the Celtics top-two in 3-point rate both seasons (and up from last year's mark), solve their postseason problems and avoid the stall-outs that have plagued them? Is that challenge on Mazzulla or Tatum and Brown?
The question becomes whether the Celtics need better offensive process to create great shots, or if they need to simplify things to attack weaknesses late in playoff games.
Boston is ninth in percentage of field goals unassisted. That alone isn't an indicator of healthy or unhealthy offense. They have great shot makers. Boston is third in post-up possessions per game this season, up from 27th last year. From a playoff standpoint, this provides an opportunity to punish mismatches more directly. If the Celtics can't beat Miami's switching and zone defense and rotations with ball movement, maybe they can overcome it by targeting the weakest link, either on the perimeter or post, while also out-pacing the Heat in 3-point rate.
(This assumes Miami does not shoot 43% as they did in the conference finals.)
Boston is the favorite at +370 to win the title. But the necessary skepticism about their chances given the last four years, despite their incredible regular season success, hints at the disparity between the regular season and the playoffs — and the problem that creates.
Boston can't do anything in beating up on teams in the regular season to prove to us they're ready to finally have the answers to the playoff tests.
You can say the same about most contenders. Still, for a team that's been there so consistently and presents an irrefutable case as the best team in the league, we're left wondering if this is just another setup of the Playoffs' Lucy with the Celtics' Charlie Brown. Will it be any different this time, or is Boston's case as the undeniable best team in the league only setting them up for the biggest failure yet once spring arrives?
If you think this team is different, that the combination of Holiday and Porzingis have added different levels, if you think Payton Pritchard will be playoff viable by April, then this is the best number you will likely get on Boston.
Really, though, you should give Boston time not only to stay healthy but to prove that somehow, someway, this year will be different and Charlie Brown can finally kick through the Banner 18 uprights. Boston was +350, this exact same average price in the market, before Round 1 of the playoffs last year. They might be shorter then, but not by much. And we'll know a lot more.