The question in the title of this article is impossible to truly answer until the Finals. So, you can either stop reading now and revisit this in June, or you can play along and ponder the question in an existential sort of way.
The Boston Celtics have been an exceptional team for the last few seasons. They were one game away from a repeat appearance in the Finals last season. Roughly 25 teams would gladly trade their last two seasons for those results (the Warriors, Nuggets, Heat, and Spurs are just fine with how things played out).
Still, search as you might, you won’t find any banners hanging in the rafters celebrating almosts and woulda-couldas. So how does a team go from exceptional to NBA champion-level? While there’s still time before my self-imposed 20 game rule kicks in, there have been some very encouraging signs thus far.
Jayson Tatum has grown man strength
Say the line, Bart!
Umm, this team only goes as far as Tatum take them?
No, the other one!
Oh, ...but he’s only 19.
I know old habits are hard to break and memes live forever. But it is clear to all that Jayson Tatum is “all growns up.” It isn’t just the 12 extra pounds of muscle either. Tatum has grown man strength which is all the more effective because he’s using it in the right way.
He has always had the natural skills and a tireless work ethic to keep adding to his bag. His shooting touch is elite, his footwork would make a dancer jealous, and he has great IQ and feel for the game.
What he’s doing differently this year is not just attacking the rim, but running through his defender’s chest on the way to the rim. Instead of relying on his burst, shake, and finesse, he’s running in a straight line to the hoop and challenging the defenders to stop him.
That puts defenders on their heels, gets them in foul trouble, and generally beats them up throughout the course of the game. It isn’t just on dribble drives either. Sometimes he gets the ball in the mid post or even at the 3-point line and if he needs a little bit of space, he’s doing a three-quarter turn and leading with his shoulder blade. Even against the best defenders, that’s all the space Tatum needs to get his long arms up for one of his Kobe/MJ like fadeaways.
He may not win MVP because Nikola Jokic might win the next 20 of them. But Finals MVP is within reason.
The defense has several pitches
Two years ago, Ime implemented the switch everything defense and that was wildly effective, especially once they started using Robert Williams as a free roaming wildcard. Last year, the defense was still very good, but opposing offenses seemed to “catch up to the fastball” so to speak, especially in critical playoff moments.
So, Joe Mazzulla spoke at length this preseason about having a curveball to keep offenses honest. I don’t know how much of it is Joe getting back to his defensive roots and how much Charles Lee and Jrue Holiday brought over from Milwaukee, but this defense has a full array of pitches now.
They still have a fastball, but now they can throw the curve (drop coverage), a cutter (zone), mix in a change up (a mix of drop and switching), and even the occasional knuckleball (full court press).
Based on the comments from the team in last year’s playoffs, they wanted to get back to a defensive identity. Some of the faces have changed and the system is different, but the Celtics are back to winning with defense (and they happen to be pretty special on offense as well).
The difference between good and great is consistency
This is the part of the science experiment where we have to wait and see how it develops over time. We need a larger sample size and data sets from a higher pressure environment (the playoffs). If you squint, you can compare this year’s start to last year and come to the conclusion that things could fall apart later on.
With that said, if I slip on my Joe Mazzulla tinted protective glasses, I think I can see encouraging signs of sustainable play.
Quick comparison on last year's 21-5 start to this year's first 11 games.— Jake Issenberg (@jakeissenberg) November 16, 2023
◽️OFFRTG - 119.9
◽️DEFRTG - 110.8
◽️3PAs - 41.5 (40%)
◽️NETRTG - 13.4
◽️OFFRTG - 120.0
◽️DEFRTG - 106.6
◽️3PAs - 44.2 (36.8%)
This year's team has the goods.
As Jake points out above, the team is fueling success based on a better defense (see above section) and an even better offense despite shooting a lower (and more sustainable) 3-point percentage.
It isn’t just the numbers either. So far this year, the team is passing the eye test as well. They aren’t giving up big leads to lesser opponents by taking their foot off the gas. They don’t get bogged down in isolation step-back offense nearly as much (and when they do it is an effective change of pace). They have spent less time chewing out referees and more time focused on rebounding and transition defense.
Some of that is personnel related. I still miss Marcus Smart dearly, but he was always a high variance kind of guy. Holiday is about 20% more sane and less prone to the peaks and valleys of the Love &Trust Experience. And some of it is just the stars understanding how hard this is and how important it is to focus on the details.
All I want for Christmas is a duck boat parade this summer
As great as this feels right now, it won’t matter if it doesn’t result in a title at the end of the season. Even the best teams have a variance in outcomes. Championships always require some degree of good fortune and luck. This year’s team seems to have a larger margin of error than last year’s did. That’s about all you can ask for at this point.