The NBA Finals appear to be heading to their conclusion. The Toronto Raptors have taken advantage of a smattering of injuries to the once seemingly unbeatable Golden State Warriors, and now have three cracks at claiming a title (two of which come at home).
The Boston Celtics entered the year hoping they might find themselves in a similar situation as the Eastern Conference representative with enough talent and gumption to take down the mighty Warriors under unexpectedly favorable conditions. Instead Boston collapsed in a ball of interpersonal turmoil, inconsistent play, and general rudderlessness.
The Celtics are a far cry from the kind of team the Raptors have proven to be this year, but they still have plenty of talent to build with. Toronto’s showdown with Golden State is instructive in how they might apply it towards winning a championship. Let’s take a look at a few key points that would prove particularly valuable for Boston to learn from.
The Celtics should have traded for Kawhi Leonard...maybe
That Boston should have pushed more chips into a deal with the San Antonio Spurs to land Kawhi Leonard this summer jumps off the screen as an easy takeaway to anyone watching the Finals with a Celtics-specific lens. Leonard is averaging 30.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game, with .452/.400/.938 shooting splits, despite not being nearly 100% physically.
He’s a basketball death machine that has used a blend of strength, footwork, and ruthless efficiency to grind every opponent that has crossed him this postseason into dust - exactly the type of undeniable top-tier talent that Boston proved it desperately needed this year. There is no guarantee that the Celtics would have made the Finals - or played well enough to win when they got there for that matter - with Kawhi in the fold, but it’s awfully hard to imagine anyone stopping them given just how well Leonard has played.
The Spurs were reportedly very interested in Jaylen Brown when looking to move Leonard during the off-season. Not making a deal to land him seems a fairly striking mistake on Boston’s behalf. But only really when thinking in terms of the current campaign.
Leonard has been as clear as an individual that hardly ever speaks can be that he wants to play in Los Angeles in the long run, and the Celtics were looking at giving up a number of assets that may enable them to play at a high level for the next decade in order to orchestrate a deal. Boston did the math and determined that trading for Leonard was too big of a risk. Whether or not their calculus was correct should ultimately be determined by their goals for the future.
If winning a single championship within the next 5-10 years is the most important outcome in Boston, then the team absolutely dropped the ball by not making a stronger push for Leonard. Players of his caliber are a prerequisite to winning a championship, opportunities to acquire them are exceedingly rare. Having Leonard on your roster changes your title odds substantially, even if just for a year.
If the Celtics were more concerned about being good to very good (and possibly great if things break right) over the course of multiple years, then passing on Leonard holds up as the right choice. That may change if he decides to stay in Toronto this summer, but for now Boston doesn’t deserve an inordinate amount of criticism for its decision.
Experience should inform expectations
Among the 19 players on the Raptors and Warriors to average more than 10 minutes per game during their respective playoff runs, just 5 are under the age of 25. The Celtics’ roster included four such neophytes that logged similar minutes during postseason play. Youth isn’t necessarily a death knell for playoff success, but there is a lot of truth in the adage that The Finals are most often won by teams full of veterans.
Expectations should be set accordingly. That wasn’t the case in Boston heading into the year.
We may be overstating the general concept here a bit. The Celtics have plenty of experienced players on their roster, and should have been better than they were, and their young players proved to have plenty of postseason moxie just one year prior. Building along multiple timelines is incredibly hard though, and to watch the two contenders for this year’s championship and wonder if going all in along just one is the smartest option would be a fair conclusion.
Ball movement is beautiful
Brad Stevens tried to get the Celtics to play a beautiful brand of offense this year. It didn’t really work. Too many players were too willing to try to take over possessions with ill-fated isolation attempts to make Boston’s offense really hum. That can work from time-to-time. One need not look any further than the aforementioned Leonard for proof positive letting great players dominate has substantial value at the game’s highest level.
The Raptors have found an incredible balance between relying on Leonard and sharing the rock, however. Having ball movers like Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry is hugely helpful in that regard, but the whole team is comfortable making quick decisions and confident that when they let go of the ball there’s a decent chance it will wind up back in their own hands for a quality look.
The Warriors have been pinging the ball all over the court for years. Things slowed down a bit with the addition of Kevin Durant - the most unholy combination of length and shot making ability the league has ever seen- and rightfully so. Durant is an incredible isolationist, capable of producing good shots for his team essentially at will.
He’s been missing all Finals, however, and that’s meant a bit more of the old Golden State style of play.
Both the Warriors and Raptors stand out as models for the kind of offense the Celtics should be seeking to establish - talent-laced units with players that are willing to function as cogs in a high-end machine rather than seeking to always play the hero. Boston failed to realize such an ecosystem this year.
Where the blame lies for that fact is a matter of perspective. For those that believe the kind of ball movement that Golden State and Toronto utilize can be taught, Stevens is at fault. For those that think it is an inherent talent only some players possess and as such more the result of roster construction, Danny Ainge is the culprit. Both elements are likely at play.
Regardless, figuring out how to form Boston’s pieces into an offense that mirrors the strengths that the Raptors and Warriors have demonstrated throughout the Finals should be a top priority for the Celtics.
Being there matters
The Warriors were supposed to be unbeatable. They damn well may have been if everyone stayed healthy. But that didn’t happen. Losing Kevin Durant was a massive blow, and injuries to Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevon Looney, and DeMarcus Cousins have turned Golden State from an overwhelming juggernaut into one that’s held together with tape and paperclips.
The Raptors are reaping the benefit of the Warriors’ misfortune, and are now just a single victory from being crowned the best team in the league. That mantel may be partially attributable to Golden State’s injuries, but it won’t be stripped from Toronto because of it. A title is a title is a title, and the Raptors are looking a strong bet to get their first specifically because they were good enough to be the team in position to take advantage of the first real crack in the Warriors’ armor that we’ve seen in the past three years.
It speaks to the value of building a team that’s good enough to get a foot in the door. Boston has a ton of talent on its roster, even if Kyrie Irving walks in free agency. If the Celtics can continue to build on their current core, they might be closer to a championship than they feel right now.