The Celtics have emerged as legitimate contenders. After an ugly start to the season which saw growing pains from rookie head coach Ime Udoka, a shooting slump from Jayson Tatum and underwhelming play from full-time point guard Marcus Smart (among other issues), Boston has finally found its identity:
The Celtics have won 14 of their last 16 games, typically in blowout fashion. That stretch included a 48-point thrashing of the rival 76ers, multiple dominant wins against the Nets, and recent impressive victories against the surging Grizzlies and vs. the Nets in Tatum vs. KD duel.
Despite their less-than-ideal start, the Celtics have become the No. 2 team in defensive rating, boasting the best defense in the league by far since the start of 2022.
In order to see just how dominant Boston has been recently, check out Kirk Goldsberry’s latest efficiency chart over the last fifteen games:
The Efficiency Landscape. What Jumps Out? pic.twitter.com/fNJpJfOpwx— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) March 4, 2022
With fewer than 20 games remaining in the regular season, should Celtics fans really have title aspirations for this team? To find out, let’s examine how they match up with some of the recent NBA champions.
Analyzing the Celtics’ roster
PG: Marcus Smart
SG: Jaylen Brown
SF: Jayson Tatum
PF: Al Horford
C: Rob Williams
Bench rotation players:
Ime Udoka has been running a tight 8-man rotation for a while now, which leads us to believe Boston’s head coach will stick with the same formula in the postseason. Barring an unexpected injury, the 10 players listed above should be the only ones seeing the court in the playoffs.
A consistent theme is found within that core, as each player is — at the very least — a capable defender. (Yes, even Payton Pritchard can hold his own.) Boston runs a unique switch-everything defense that has been giving opposing teams headaches for months. Typically, teams look to switch players onto easier matchups. You can’t do that against this Celtics team.
On offense, everything revolves around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The Jays are each averaging over 23 points per game, but both have bought into the selfless style of basketball that Ime Udoka brought over from his time under Greg Popovich in San Antonio. The stats don’t necessarily show the steps forward that Tatum and Brown have taken as playmakers, especially the former. That being said, when Boston needs a bucket, they always turn to these two.
After the Jays, four more players are averaging double-digit points per game: Marcus Smart, newly-acquired Derrick White, Al Horford, and Rob Williams. Williams has arguably been Boston’s most improved player this season, nearly averaging a double-double while also ranking among the league leaders in blocks with 2.2 per game.
While the bench lacks some experience, young players like Grant Williams and Pritchard stepping up has been huge for Boston in the second half of the season.
Now, let’s compare the Celtics to a few recent champions to see if this roster has what it takes to win it all.
Almost no similarities
Let’s get this out of the way first. Over the past 10 years, GMs have constructed rosters in a variety of different ways to win titles. The following championship teams are not similar to the Celtics and Brad Steven’s vision for this squad:
2017 & 2018 Golden State Warriors
This one is a no-brainer. They added one of the best players in the league to a team that set the NBA record for wins in a season the prior year. The Warriors were solid defensively, but hung their hat on the offensive end with Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, and Klay Thompson. Boston simply can’t match that type of firepower. No one can.
2012 & 2013 Miami Heat
Like the Warriors, these Heat teams didn’t have nearly as much chemistry as the Celtics. Luckily for them, they had Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, along with Chris Bosh. Sometimes in the NBA, talent trumps effort. Miami relied on the skill of their Big Three to win two championships but really should have won many more.
Close, but not quite there
The following teams have components that are close to Boston’s current situation, but aren’t the most similar out of the past 10 winners.
2014 San Antonio Spurs
Looking back on this team, it’s genuinely shocking how dominant they were defensively. The effort that it took to beat the Miami Heat’s Big Three is almost unfathomable. Ime Udoka is clearly trying to model this Celtics team after that system, but he also has much more to work with on offense. San Antonio’s leading scorer that season was Tony Parker, who averaged just 16.7 points per game. Yes, you read that correctly. A team won the NBA championship with their leading scorer averaging 16.7 points per game. That feat is truly incredible, and will certainly never be matched again with the game’s current pace.
2015 Golden State Warriors
While the Warriors teams with Durant have almost no similarities to the 2021-22 Celtics, the young 2015 Warriors do. GM Bob Myers built that team from the ground up around Curry and Thompson. Draymond Green’s role as the defensive anchor and playmaker mirrors Marcus Smart’s current role for Boston. This Warriors team also led the league in defensive rating. However, the system of running Curry and Thompson off of countless screens and relying on their three-point shooting doesn’t match Boston’s offensive style.
2016 Cleveland Cavaliers
This Cavaliers team was better at stopping opposing teams than you probably remember, ranking 10th in defensive rating. That being said, they didn’t have the array of dominant defenders that Boston boasts. Their offensive structure was somewhat similar to the Celtics’ with LeBron and Kyrie Irving serving as the clear 1a and 1b. Outside of that, these teams aren’t that alike.
2021 Milwaukee Bucks
While the 2016 Cavs were better defensively than you remember, the opposite is likely true for the Bucks, who barely squeaked into the top-10 in defensive rating last year. Their roster construction included a clear top scorer in Giannis Antetokounmpo, along with a secondary scorer in Khris Middleton and a third key piece in Jrue Holiday, which is similar to Boston’s. However, Giannis was coming off back-to-back MVPs. As much as Celtics fans want Jayson Tatum to reach that level, he’s not there yet.
The closest teams
There are two teams left out of the past 10 NBA champions whose rosters are the closest to Boston’s current team. Let’s dive in.
2018 Toronto Raptors
This Raptors team went on a miraculous postseason run led by Kawhi Leonard, but they were initially built on an elite defense with very similar pieces to the current-day Celtics. Leonard and Pascal Siakam were the clear No. 1 and 2 scoring options. Serge Ibaka emerged as a strong anchor on both sides of the ball, similarly to Rob Williams’ present-day breakout campaign. Meanwhile, Kyle Lowry was the team’s heart and soul and leading playmaker. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Marcus Smart plays the same role for the Celtics. It’s also worth noting that this was Nick Nurse’s first year as a head coach, and that the elite defense he implemented was almost as effective as Udoka’s. The similarities between the 2018-19 Raptors and 2021-22 Celtics are uncanny.
2020 Los Angeles Lakers
Celtics fans won’t love being compared to the Lakers, and on the surface this may not make sense. However, when you dive into the stats, the construction of this Lakers team is incredibly close to Boston’s current squad. Similarly to the Tatum and Brown combo, LeBron and Anthony Davis served as the top two scoring options. Los Angeles’ bench was a mix of youth and experience, with Kyle Kuzma playing an instrumental role in their championship run. The Lakers were dominant on the other side of the ball, boasting the third-best defensive rating in the league. It’s also worth noting that this team struggled with shooting from behind the arc, which unfortunately is similar to Boston’s current situation.
Nowadays, so many people believe that you need three stars to win a championship. It’s refreshing to see that this is not the case, with teams like Milwaukee, Los Angeles, San Antonio, and Toronto serving as proof. The Celtics have the necessary roster components to raise Banner 18, but they need a variety of factors to work out in their favor. Can Marcus Smart become a Jrue Holiday-esque third piece? Can Jayson Tatum rise to Kawhi Leonard’s level and carry this team offensively? Can Rob Williams continue to change opposing teams’ entire offensive game plans because of his rim protection? Only time will tell, but there’s reason to hope for the best.