When looking back at the NBA champions since 2000, it’s difficult to find many teams built in the same way as the 2022 Celtics with two elite wing scorers and a collection of perfectly cast role players.
The Lakers in the early 2000’s, of course, revolved around Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. The Spurs in the mid-2000’s centered around Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. The Pistons didn’t have any true stars and were incredibly balanced.
The Miami Heat in 2006 had Dwyane Wade and O’Neal, the 2008 Celtics had the Big Three, the Lakers had Bryant and Pau Gasol, the Mavericks had one true star in Dirk Nowitzki, the Heat had the Big Three, the Warriors were the Warriors, the Cavaliers had LeBron James and the Bucks had Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Nearly every squad outside of the Pistons had one of the following: a Big Three, a truly transcendent big man, James or Bryant, or a big man-guard dynamic duo. The only one that relied on two elite wing scorers surrounded by the ideal blend of talent? The 2019 Raptors.
Just because it’s uncommon, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. That Raptors team proved that with a superstar in Kawhi Leonard, a star in Pascal Siakam, the right pieces around them, a defensive identity and a couple breaks along the way, anything is possible. If the Celtics continue to follow the same blueprint, it’s possible they could achieve the same result.
The makeup of the roster
The matches aren’t perfect, but they’re pretty darn close.
Jayson Tatum plays the role of Kawhi Leonard – the two-way superstar who, at the peak of his powers, is essentially unguardable. The alpha of the group, he wants to take the last shot.
Jaylen Brown plays the role of Pascal Siakam – the No. 2 option who gladly embraces that role and provides consistency, skill and athleticism. This isn’t about who’s better between Brown and Siakam (Brown is better) – it’s about the way the pieces fit and complement one another.
Marcus Smart plays the role of Kyle Lowry – the plucky veteran guard who plays tenacious defense, makes winning hustle plays, passes first and hits big shots when he’s needed.
Robert Williams plays the role of Serge Ibaka – the defensive-minded center who protects the rim, excels in the pick and roll and has tremendous feel for the game.
Al Horford (or Daniel Theis when he’s out there) plays the role of Marc Gasol – the wily big man who always seems to be in the right place at the right time, anchors the defense and sets his teammates up for success.
Derrick White plays the role of Fred VanVleet – the sixth man who provides a spark off the bench, is a pest defensively and helps the offense flow better with his ball movement and scoring ability.
Grant Williams plays the role of Danny Green – the 3-and-D guy who spreads the floor, locks down elite players and somehow always ends up with a ridiculously high plus-minus.
Payton Pritchard plays the role of Norm Powell – the energetic and attack-minded scorer off the bench who isn’t afraid to let it fly.
The key is that everyone knows their role, is OK with their role and thrives in their role.
The identity of the team and the coach
The 2019 Raptors pieced together a strong regular season and ended up second in the East. Their offense was explosive in stretches, but their defense was consistently one of the best in the NBA. Sound familiar?
With a lineup of Lowry, Green, Leonard, Siakam and Gasol, the Raptors were able to switch just about everything, much like this Celtics team. Teams knew they’d have to earn every bucket against Toronto, and nothing was easy, as is the case in Boston.
The Raptors also had a strong blend of veterans and younger players, with a few in their primes and a few entering their primes. There were no egos or off-court controversies, and all they wanted to do was win.
First-year Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was a defensive whiz, much like first-year head Celtics coach Ime Udoka, and both excel at maximizing their players’ strengths.
The path to the title
The Raptors dispatched the Magic in five games, then they outlasted the 76ers in seven thanks in large part to the fortuitous roll on Leonard’s shot. They found a way over the top-seeded Bucks in six and knocked off the shorthanded Warriors in six.
It wasn’t a conventional path, but they survived the war of attrition and handled everything in front of them with poise and opportunism.
The Celtics could potentially face a similar path, with the Cavaliers or Raptors (ironically), the Bucks or Bulls and the Heat or 76ers. The unfortunate reality is that injuries often play a role. While Chris Paul and Steph Curry are expected to return for the playoffs, it’s possible they won’t be themselves.
Only time will tell how this Celtics team fares, but calling them anything less than contenders at this point is a disservice to all they’ve accomplished and how well they’re built.
The Raptors rode a dynamic wing duo and a strong supporting cast all the way to the title, and there’s no reason to think the Celtics can't do the same if a couple breaks fall their way.