The Boston Celtics are NBA Champions: I Was Wrong

The Boston Celtics are NBA Champions: I Was Wrong article feature image
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(Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images) Pictured: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown

Brian Windhorst once said: "If you win a championship, you never have to say sorry."

The Celtics are deserved NBA champions and their No. 1 doubter (me) has to reconcile it. I have four main thoughts going through my head right now, and figured I'd share where I went wrong and how the Celtics won the title. So, here's where I went wrong:

The Celtics don't have a former MVP, a contrast to most other NBA champions

This is true. But part of building a contender is putting the team in a position to win if things break right, and the Celtics did that and more this season. The former MVPs I covered at the start of the year were either hurt (Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid) or too old to still be dominant (LeBron James and Steph Curry). Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets were clearly wiped, and faced a tough matchup.

The Celtics, meanwhile, assembled a team that had five players who are among the top 30 in the league and another in the top 50. There was just so much talent and it fit so well that it ended up being more than enough to carry them (rather easily) to a title.

Is Joe Mazzulla a good enough coach?

There was a lot to be concerned with during Boston's 2023 playoff run, whether it was playing Blake Griffin in Game 5 versus Atlanta or waiting too long to start Robert Williams. But this time around, Mazzulla — from early in the season — identified his best players and put them in positions to succeed.

He got Al Horford to buy in off the bench and Jrue Holiday to take less of an offensive role than he was used to. Mazzulla also identified that the best way for this team to win was to "out math" the opponent. It was a masterful job and has made me reconsider his skill as a coach.

Similar to another champion

A brief interlude here:
In the late 80s, the Pistons were starting to emerge. After losing in the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals to the Celtics, Detroit made the NBA Finals the following year and lost in seven games to the Lakers. In Game 6 of that series, Isiah Thomas sprained his ankle, but played through it, and perhaps that cost his team the series and a chance at the title.

The following season, the Pistons swapped their leading scorer, Adrian Dantley, for Mark Aguirre. Dantley was mercurial, needed to have the ball and didn't always care about the team's success. From a statistical perspective, it seemed like a downgrade, but from a chemistry perspective, it allowed the Pistons to find themselves and meld as a complete team. The Pistons went 63-19 during the regular season and 15-2 in the playoffs, sweeping three of four teams, with their only close series being a 4-2 win over the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan. Joe Dumars, likely their second best player, was named NBA Finals MVP over Thomas after leading the finals in scoring.

The similarities between these teams are astounding. I'm going to dive more into the team building later, but between the similar Game 7 losses the year before, ankle sprains and the second-best player winning NBA Finals MVP, these teams are kindred spirits. When looking for parallels to the Celtics this season (and potentially next), this is it — and it should have been all along.

The Pistons repeated as champions in 1990. Will the Celtics do the same?

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This was a masterclass in team building from Brad Stevens

This version of the Celtics came into being in 2022, when they surged after the All-Star break, finished with the No. 2 seed and made the NBA Finals. Outside of a coaching change, the team was largely the same for 2023. But NBA champions don't stay stagnant, and the Celtics knew that.

Boston swapped out Malcolm Brogdon, Robert Williams, Grant Williams and Marcus Smart for Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis. Some people were concerned about the Celtics losing their heart and soul in Smart. I knew I had concerns about them losing the defensive impact of Robert Williams, and at times in the Eastern Conference Finals last year, Grant Williams was the only player who looked like he cared.

Now that the Celtics are champions, it's obvious these moves paid off. Perhaps the most striking, with Porzingis not playing most of the playoffs, the Celtics essentially swapped those four players for just Holiday, and won the title. How is that possible?

Similar to the 1989 Pistons, it seems clear there was an improvement from both a chemistry and fit perspective. Smart and Grant Williams are more aggressive personalities, and my guess is that removing them helped smooth out the locker room.

Removing those two also dropped Boston's two highest turnover players. When the playoffs rolled around, that limited the opposition's transition opportunities, helping Boston on both offense and defense. Removing Smart also removed the Celtics' least efficient offensive player, who took up 20.6% of their possessions. Replacing those players with Holiday, a better defender who makes the right decisions on offense and doesn't hijack shots, drastically improved the team. Holiday is also a much better 3-point shooter.

To win a title, the Celtics needed to build the perfect mix of players around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. They surrounded them with hyper-efficient players who could shoot the three and defend with no weaknesses.

Drafting Payton Pritchard (2020) and Sam Hauser (2021) led to the Celtics having youth on their bench. Again, this was an incredible exercise in team building and it's why Boston was a better team, even in the playoffs, after swapping four players for Holiday.

Where the Celtics rank all time will be debated, but regardless, they're NBA champions. They built a team that had no weaknesses — five strong defenders on the court at all times and a boatload of 3-point shooters.

Without Robert Williams, I was worried neither the offense nor defense would be top-tier enough to be a title contender. Ultimately, the swap led to both units being strong. Boston's flexibility meant one great player couldn't beat the Celtics, and that's exactly what we saw in the NBA Finals.

I still believe a team needs an MVP-caliber player to give itself the best chance to win, but chemistry and fit are incredibly important. The NBA is on the cusp of a new era, where most of the stars from the 2010s have aged out (Curry, James and Kevin Durant), and some of the future stars aren't quite in their prime (Luka Doncic, Victor Wembanyama and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander). The middle stars — Jokic, Embiid and Antetokounmpo — have dealt with injuries and/or fatigue.

The Celtics, having been building to this moment, seized the opportunity with a team that didn't need an MVP, but rather had players who played their best within the team construct.

They don't ever have to say that they're sorry. They won the title, deserved it and have cemented their legacy. Congrats to them!

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Doug Ziefel
Jul 22, 2024 UTC