First, let’s congratulate the cities of Minneapolis and Los Angeles for their combined 17th NBA championship. The Lakers are now tied with the Celtics in Larry O’Brien’s. Boston, of course, lost to Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals and today starts another journey to hang Banner 18 in The Garden rafters. With a hat tip to LeBron James and our most hated rivals, here’s what we can learn from the champs (and some things we need to ignore):
The alpha dog
I’ve resisted the notion that Boston needed an alpha dog. Earlier in the year, Jeremy outlined the importance of a Celtics hierarchy and at the time, I thought little of it. Not that I dismissed it in total, but it spoke more to role rather than deference. Sure, some guys worked better as initiators (Kemba, Tatum, Hayward), some guys were more effective off the ball (Brown, Brown, Brown). In terms of shot totals, let the chips fall as they may, even if that means Marcus Smart taking twenty-two shots in Game 6 in the Eastern Conference Finals. That happens.
That sort of democratization of the team’s offense this season yielded the fourth best offensive rating in the league at 112.8 (111.6 in the playoffs). But in The Finals, you need a leading man. Jimmy Butler knew that. Obviously, LeBron James was that.
Tatum certainly showed up for that casting call through three rounds through the rough and tumble East. In a starring role, he averaged nearly 26 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists per game 43/37/81 splits. He went to the line as much as LeBron James, averaged more minutes than anybody in the playoffs, and played those minutes with the highest defensive win share in the league.
However, his numbers cratered in the fourth quarter. There are many stars in the NBA that can put up numbers, but very few that can do it consistently in the clutch and in the clutch of the playoffs. Tatum projects to be The Man, but what we saw last month was Jordan getting swept by the Celtics in ‘86 or LeBron losing to Boston in their Finals runs in 2008 and 2010. He’ll get there and it could be as early as next year.
Culture matters, size doesn’t
Despite all the fans’ overtures for Ainge to upgrade the center position, we at CelticsBlog have written extensively about how Daniel Theis is the perfect fit for this starting lineup, particularly considering that he’s only due $5 million next season. No doubt that as the playoffs waged on, Boston started losing the War on Theis and detractors pointed to his constant foul trouble and inability to physically match the likes of Joel Embiid and Bam Adebayo.
There’s some warranted concern with Boston’s lack of size. To win a championship, they’ll likely have to beat teams with dominating bigs like Embiid, Anthony Davis, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But unless you’ve got one of those guys in your pocket, you’ve got to beat them with your strengths. The Celtics aren’t going to win from the center position.
What Boston does have to find this offseason is an identity. Against Miami, it’s easy to point to Adebayo’s 32-14-5 in Game 6 as the deciding factor in the clincher, but ultimately, it was that intangible Heat culture that won the series. The Celtics statistical profile suggests that 1) they’re a very good defensive team, especially on the perimeter and 2) they look to exploit mismatches on offenses with their wing depth. But there’s still a je ne sais quoi missing. They’re kind of a small ball team. They’re kind of a pick-and-roll team with Kemba at the point. Kind of doesn’t cut it.
For the last few seasons, the narrative has been all about what this team will be like in the future. Problem is, you can’t out-potential your opponent. You can’t beat teams with what you’re going to do two years from now. They don’t have to be nasty or be motivated by this “We Believe” false narrative that fueled the Lakers. They do, however, need to be something.
The allure of what we know
It’s nice to have a former Finals MVP like Andre Iguodala coming off your bench. There’s a luxury having grizzled journeymen like Rajon Rondo and Danny Green in moments they’ve seen time and time again in their 20+ combined years of playoff basketball. Veterans can be a stabilizing force during the ups and downs of the post season and they’ll win you a game or two on your way to a championship.
Danny Ainge will have a few options to bring in a reliable high floor, low ceiling vet, but he won’t have the flexibility to do an Expendables-style roster build that Rob Pelinka put together with the Lakers. I’ve been banging on this drum since the Celtics were eliminated two weeks ago, but I’ll say it again: Boston has to commit to this youth movement.
It might be a moot point anyway because of a tightening roster crunch and a salary sheet pushing up against the luxury tax threshold. Because the Celtics let homegrown products like Kelly Olynyk and Terry Rozier walk after their rookie contracts ran out (yes, I recognize that they were necessary evils in the pursuit of bigger fish), Ainge’s cupboard is bare of drafted role players with contracts in the $5-15 million range outside of Marcus Smart (who has outperformed his four-year, $52 million hometown discount). They’ll now have to develop from within again.
There’s some proof in the pudding already. Three trips to the Eastern Conference Finals steeled both Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. A year-long development cycle for Robert Williams and Grant Williams showed vast improvement in the bubble and they’ll surely be in the ten-man rotation next season. If Ainge utilizes the taxpayer mid-level exception, he should go young there too with someone like Harry Giles or Juancho Hernangomez.
So, maybe 2021 will be Tatum’s year. He’ll lead a brash young team fueled by a ferocious defense and an offense with four 20-plus points per game scorers. Sophomore and junior seasons will level up key young players off the bench.
This isn’t wishful thinking anymore. It’s expected.