If it’s any consolation for the Boston Celtics, five of the last 14 NBA champions have won it all since losing the Finals the previous season. This pain they are experiencing right now could be a conduit to the league’s top prize a year from now, but in all five cases, the returning finalist has improved in some meaningful way to take the crown.
- In 2009, the Los Angeles Lakers played in the 2008 Finals without Andrew Bynum. They brought him back for the 2009 and 2010 titles.
- The 2012 Miami Heat team accidentally took on their smallball identity. After losing the 2011 final, playing traditionally, Chris Bosh’s well-timed injury opened up the best version of their team, and when he returned, they were off to the races.
- The 2013 San Antonio Spurs Most Talented Player of the Year was second-year forward Kawhi Leonard. He played extremely well against Miami in the Finals, but a year later he was close to All-Star status and poised to become the Finals MVP.
- The 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers played in the 2015 Finals without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. In full force, they won it all a year later.
- The 2017 Golden State Warriors have signed Kevin Durant. Enough said.
This is where things get a little tricky for Boston. Unlike the Lakers and Cavaliers, they can’t attribute their Finals loss to the absence of a key player. They revealed their identity during the 2021–22 season and no further changes are expected. They don’t have a sophomore capable of moving up like Leonard did, and they certainly don’t have the funds to acquire a good player like Durant.
There is no simple switch here. Nobody rides a white horse to save the Celtics. If they’re going to win the 2023 championship, it’s because the people who lost the 2022 NBA Finals figured out how to solve their problems internally. That’s what makes this challenge so intimidating for Boston. While adjustments need to be made here and there, any serious effort to revise the list risks what has already been created. There is no point in creating one problem to solve another. So let’s take a look at some of the problems Boston faced in the Finals and what can realistically be done to fix them without compromising what made this team so special in the first place.
You will hear many people argue that Boston’s reaction to this series should be to trade for a high-level point guard to correct their infraction. Here’s the problem with this logic: they already have a high-level declarer. Actually a few. Kyrie Irving didn’t take them to the final. Kemba Walker didn’t take them to the final. Isaiah Thomas didn’t take them to the final. Marcus Smart was the point guard who took them to the final.
And when they got there, they couldn’t control the ball. The Warriors broke the scoring record after losing one series of Finals with 130 points against Boston. Jason Tatum became the first player in NBA history to flip the ball more than 100 times in a single postseason. Boston gave up 15.4% possession in the playoffs. Only the Houston Rockets have done it more often in the regular season. It was a real ball control disaster.
Can a more traditional declarer solve this problem? Yes, probably. But remember, these Celtics never made it to the Finals with a traditional point guard, because almost every traditional point guard is a bad guard. Thomas, Walker and Irving fall under this umbrella. This is usually the price teams are willing to pay for offensive competence, but Brad Stevens has clearly abandoned this approach by trading Walker for Al Horford. He wants to play with two switchable big men to maximize his defense. Any version of “insert starting point guard caliber into the Celtics” makes this defense worse. Either Smart himself is in the trade or he isn’t, and the Celtics suddenly have to play either Tatum or Jaylen Brown as a power forward with a single big player defending the basket. It may or may not be a worthwhile trade-off, but nothing Stevens has done since taking over basketball suggests he wants it.
This puts the responsibility on the players who are already here. Brown just needs to improve his ball possession. That should be his only offseason goal. Over the past few seasons, Tatum’s departure has grown by leaps and bounds. He still has a lot of work to do. The Celtics also need to force things when it comes to pace. This played a big part in their victory over the Miami Heat in Game 7. Boston were two wins short of the title even with turnover issues, and it’s worth noting that few teams pass the ball more than Golden State. This is not an insurmountable problem. If the Celtics get closer to the league average in the next playoffs, the championship will be within reach.
2. Internal sound
In fact, Boston was a pretty good regular season scoring team. The Celtics rank third in the NBA in confined space field goal percentage (69.6), and while their numbers haven’t been particularly prolific, 24.1 rim attempts per game is normal when backed up by great shooting. Well, in the playoffs, Boston made just 19.5 shots per game in the restricted area, and only converted 63.9 percent of them.
The best defense makes it even with the best offense, but injuries have played a major role in this progress. Tatum downplays the shoulder injury, but the numbers suggest that the shoulder played a role in his shooting profile. Before Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, when he was bitten in the shoulder, he was hitting 5.5 field goals per game in the restricted area. From now on? He averaged just 3.8 and his field goal percentage dropped from 63.4 to 54.8. The numbers definitely indicate that he was in pain.
When it comes to Robert Williams III, there is no need to speculate. Downtown Boston adds its only real layer of verticality at both ends of the floor. When healthy, he is one of the most dangerous catchers in the NBA. He was very often unhealthy in the playoffs. The problem is to count on his health next year: he has missed at least 20 games in all four of his professional seasons. Getting him through 82 games and four rounds might be impossible.
Does this mean the Celtics should be more aggressive in managing his workload? Possibly, but it leads to their next release.
For most of the postseason, Boston has trusted seven players: five starting players, Derrick White and Grant Williams. As the final progressed, White and Williams even struggled to earn their regular minutes. In Game 6 of the final, White, Williams and Payton Pritchard played together for only 40 minutes. The rest of the significant playing time went to the players of the starting lineup.
To some extent, this was Stephen Curry’s problem. After two rounds to the death with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Bam Adebayo, Williams had to pull out of the final after it became painfully clear what the other assignment would be, chasing Curry and Klay Thompson across the screens. White received the votes of all the defenders several times, but even he was mocked by Curry one on one. That’s how high he raises the bar. Not every opponent reduces your depth that much.
But one of the things that made this series different is that the Warriors trusted almost their entire roster. Players like Moses Moody, Jonathan Cuminga and Andre Iguodala, who had been an integral part of the rotation in previous rounds, were replaced with players who made more sense in this match. Nemanja Bielica gave them a few good minutes every night after being out of the rotation for most of the postseason. Warriors could mix and match. The Celtics couldn’t.
Making it harder for them to find more depth is the business of basketball. Boston is already hovering around the tax line for next season after guaranteeing Al Horford’s deal. Are they willing to use the $6.1 million mid-career taxpayer exemption to add another important element? How about one of their many trading exceptions, one of which is worth over $17 million (thanks to Evan Fournier)? Boston’s appetite for pay increases will weigh on its ability to add talent this offseason.
At a minimum, the Celtics should do everything in their power to turn over future draft equity to Daniel Theis for someone who can give them playoff minutes. Theis will make $8.7 million, and with one or two first-round picks, he could probably get the Celtics another starting-caliber wing. A larger defensive variation than White’s would be welcome. Perhaps Theis could be replaced with a cheaper traditional point guard to at least give the Celtics some roster choice. Even the best backup big man will help.
The depth of the Golden State brought him the championship. The Warriors could withstand injury throughout the regular season because they had 14 legally playable bodies on their roster. It kept everyone fresh for the postseason. The Celtics broke down because they relied too much on their best players, and then when the Finals came around, they had no defensive lineups because they didn’t have decent players to look up to.
The Celtics are good in every aspect of defense except for actually finishing the stoppage with a rebound. This is intuitive. Teams that switch well defensively tend to rebound a little worse because their big men are so often on the perimeter when shots come in and because they often sacrifice size for speed. Golden State is an anomaly in this regard. When Kevon Looney was often pulled to the perimeter in the final, Andrew Wiggins was athletic enough to make up for his slack on the rebound.
Brown and Tatum do it quite often from…