Four issues the Celtics need to address if they want to take the last step to a championship next season
If it’s any consolation to the Boston Celtics, five of the past 14 NBA champions won it all after losing the Finals in the previous season. This pain that they’re feeling right now can be a conduit to the league’s ultimate prize a year from now, but in all five cases, the returning finalist improved in some meaningful way to take the crown.
The 2009 Los Angeles Lakers played the 2008 Finals without Andrew Bynum. They had him back for the 2009 and 2010 titles.The 2012 Miami Heat found their small-ball identity accidentally. After losing the 2011 Finals playing traditionally, a well-timed injury to Chris Bosh unlocked the best version of their team, and when he returned, they were off to the races.The most talented player on the 2013 San Antonio Spurs was second-year forward Kawhi Leonard. He played very well against Miami in the Finals, but a year later, he was nearing All-Star status and was ready to win Finals MVP.The 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers played the 2015 Finals without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. At full strength, they won it all a year later.The 2017 Golden State Warriors signed Kevin Durant. Enough said.
This is where things get a bit harder for Boston. Unlike the Lakers and Cavaliers, they can’t attribute their Finals loss to the absence of a key player. They discovered their identity over the course of the 2021-22 season, and there isn’t another change incoming. They don’t have a second-year player capable of ascending as Leonard did, and they certainly don’t have the means to acquire a player as good as Durant.
There is no easy switch to flip here. Nobody’s riding in on a white horse to save the Celtics. If they are going to win the 2023 championship, it’s going to be because the people who lost the 2022 NBA Finals figured out how to fix their issues internally. That’s what makes this challenge so daunting for Boston. While there are tweaks to be made here and there, any major effort to overhaul the roster risks what has already been built. There’s no sense in creating one problem to solve another. So let’s take a look at some of the issues Boston dealt with in the Finals, and what can realistically be done to solve them without compromising what made this team so special in the first place.
You’re going to hear a lot of people argue that Boston’s reaction to this series should be to trade for a high-level point guard to fix their offense. Here’s the problem with that logic: they’ve already had a high-level point guard. Several, in fact. Kyrie Irving didn’t get them to the Finals. Kemba Walker didn’t get them to the Finals. Isaiah Thomas didn’t get them to the Finals. Marcus Smart was the point guard that got them to the Finals.
And when they got there, they couldn’t control the ball. The Warriors shattered the record for most points off of turnovers in a single Finals series with 130 against Boston. Jayson Tatum became the first player in NBA history to turn the ball over 100 times in a single postseason. Boston gave the ball away on 15.4 percent of its possessions in the playoffs. Only the Houston Rockets did so more often in the regular season. This was an unmitigated ball control disaster.
Could a more traditional point guard solve that problem? Yeah… probably. But remember, these Celtics have never made the Finals with a traditional point guard because almost every traditional point guard is a bad defender. Thomas, Walker and Irving all fall under that umbrella. This is normally a price that teams are happy to pay for offensive competence, but Brad Stevens explicitly decided against this approach by dealing Walker for Al Horford. He wants to play with two, switchable big men to maximize his defense. Any version of “insert a starting-caliber point guard onto the Celtics” makes that defense worse. Either Smart himself is in the trade, or he isn’t, and the Celtics suddenly have to start playing either Tatum or Jaylen Brown at power forward with just a single big man protecting the basket. Maybe that’s a worthwhile tradeoff and maybe it isn’t, but nothing Stevens has done since taking over basketball operations suggests that it’s one he wants to make.
That puts the onus on the players that are already here. Brown’s ball-handling simply needs to improve. That should be his only offseason focus. Tatum’s passing has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few seasons. He still has more work to do. The Celtics need to force the issue when it comes to pace as well. That played a big part in their Game 7 win over the Miami Heat. Boston came two wins short of the title even with its turnover issues, and it’s worth noting that few teams turn the ball over more than Golden State. This isn’t an insurmountable problem. If the Celtics are something closer to league-average next postseason, the championship will be entirely attainable.
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2. Interior scoring
Boston was actually a fairly good interior scoring team in the regular season. The Celtics ranked third in the NBA in restricted area field goal percentage (69.6) and while their volume wasn’t especially prolific, 24.1 rim attempts per game is fine when supported by great shooting. Well, in the playoffs, Boston took just 19.5 shots per game in the restricted area, and they made only 63.9 percent of them.
Better defenses do this to even the best offenses, but injuries played a major role in this progression. Tatum has downplayed his shoulder injury, but the numbers suggest his shoulder played a part in his shot profile. Prior to Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, when he suffered a shoulder stinger, he was attempting 5.5 field goals per game in the restricted area. From that point on? He averaged just 3.8, and his field goal percentage on those looks fell from 63.4 to 54.8. The numbers definitely suggest that he was in pain.
There’s no need to speculate when it comes to Robert Williams III. Boston’s center adds its only real layer of verticality on both ends of the floor. When healthy, he’s one of the most dangerous lob-catchers in the NBA. He was not healthy very often in the playoffs. Here’s the problem with relying on him to be healthier next year: he’s missed at least 20 games in all four of his professional seasons. Getting him through 82 games and four rounds might not be feasible.
Does this mean the Celtics should load-manage him more aggressively? Possibly, but that leads into their next issue.
Boston trusted seven players through most of the postseason: their five starters, Derrick White and Grant Williams. As the Finals progressed, White and Williams even struggled to earn their typical minutes. In Game 6 of the Finals, White, Williams and Payton Pritchard combined for just 40 minutes. The rest of the meaningful playing time went to the starters.
To some extent, this was a Stephen Curry problem. After two rounds of mortal combat with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Bam Adebayo, Williams had to tag out of the Finals after it became painfully clear what a different assignment chasing Curry and Klay Thompson around screens would be. White has received All-Defense votes on multiple occasions, but even he got bullied by Curry one-on-one. That’s how high he raises the bar. Not every opponent whittles your depth down that much.
But one of the differences in this series is that the Warriors trusted almost their entire roster. Players like Moses Moody, Jonathan Kuminga and Andre Iguodala who were fixtures in the rotation in earlier rounds were shuffled out in favor of players who made more sense in this matchup. Nemanja Bjelica gave them a few good minutes every night after being out of the rotation for most of the postseason. The Warriors could mix and match. The Celtics could not.
Complicating their search for 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 taxpayer mid-level exception to add another major piece? How about one of their many trade exceptions, one of which is worth over $17 million (thanks Evan Fournier)? Boston’s appetite for adding salary is going to inform its ability to add talent this offseason.
At a bare minimum, the Celtics should be doing everything in their power to attach future draft capital to Daniel Theis for someone who can give them playoff minutes. Theis will make $8.7 million, and with a first-round pick or two, could probably get the Celtics another starting-caliber wing. A bigger defensive option than White would be welcomed. Perhaps Theis could be swung into a cheaper traditional point guard to at least give the Celtics some lineup optionality. Even a better backup big man would help.
Golden State’s depth won it the championship. The Warriors were able to withstand injuries throughout the regular season because they had 14 legitimately playable bodies on their roster. That kept everyone fresh for the postseason. The Celtics broke down as they relied too heavily on their best players, and then, when the Finals arrived, they didn’t have any lineup pivots because they had no worthwhile players to pivot into.
The Celtics are great at every aspect of defense except for actually finishing the stop with a rebound. This makes sense intuitively. Teams that switch well defensively tend to be slightly worse rebounders because their big men are so often on the perimeter when shots go up and because they often sacrifice size for speed. Golden State is an anomaly in this respect. When Kevon Looney was dragged out onto the perimeter frequently in the Finals, Andrew Wiggins was athletic enough to pick up his rebounding slack.
Brown and Tatum do quite a bit of this from the wing, but Boston’s big men leave a bit to be desired on the glass. This is, again, by design. Horford and the two Williamses frequently defend the perimeter. This is a sacrifice that Boston is designed to make. But it’s not a coincidence that the last few champions have been stellar rebounding teams. There’s some common sense to this as well. There are more missed shots in the playoffs, so rebounding should become more important. The Bucks and Lakers were gigantic. The Warriors aren’t, but Looney, Wiggins and Draymond Green are all great contested rebounders.
Looney is a free agent, and Boston was interested in him when he last hit the market in 2019. Maybe he’s gettable for the tax mid-level exception just to juice the rebounding slightly. If not, perhaps it would make sense to devote a front court rotation spot to a big man who is a bit more traditional defensively if it means adding some muscle to the rebounding effort. If that player becomes unplayable in certain postseason matchups, so be it, but as it stands right now that’s not even a card the Celtics have to play.
That is the overarching sentiment here. Ultimately, the Celtics shouldn’t change much. They made the Finals for a reason. Retaining the things that went right this season isn’t even a given. Horford might age out of his all-around stardom. Players might get hurt. The locker room might struggle with the weight of this loss. Retention matters as much as addition, and the Celtics shouldn’t be trying to reinvent the wheel here. But they need to tweak, because the problems that cost them the 2022 championship aren’t going to fix themselves. Finding that balance is what it’s going to take to win it all in 2023.