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Basketball identity, Game of Thrones, and subverting expectations

Brad Stevens’ shocking trades of Marcus Smart and Grant Williams have fundamentally altered the Celtics against all expectations. But what is his new vision for the team?

2018 NBA Playoffs: Cleveland Cavaliers vs Boston Celtics At TD Garden Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

There’s a concept popularized by two of television’s more hated men, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (commonly referred to as “D & D”), called “subverting expectations.” D & D are best known, and really only known, for one thing: acting as the showrunners for HBO’s Game of Thrones. If you know absolutely nothing about Game of Thrones, this is all you really need to know for the purposes here: GOT had perhaps five of the greatest seasons in television history, and I don’t think that’s hyperbolic. Unfortunately, it ran for eight.

It’s based on a series of unfinished books written by George R.R. Martin that are brilliant in their own right. After season 5, D & D ran out of book material and things devolved slowly. By the series end, it felt like D & D were just having things happen because they felt like it was unexpected, and not because it matched their characters’ motivations and personalities (or what readers imagined was Martin’s vision).

That may seem like a harsh criticism, but they essentially admitted that this was their intent by saying they wanted to “subvert expectations” of show-watchers. In seasons 6-8, and especially 8, expectations were subverted largely because it seemed liked D & D had a checklist of things they wanted to happen, changes in the world-state, that they checked-off regardless of narrative. When you subvert your audience’s expectations in this manner, when you make a change or cause an event to occur just because it’s different or unexpected, there is no payoff.

Which brings us to the Celtics.

A year ago, the Celtics were licking their wounds from a painful but encouraging NBA Finals loss to the Warriors. Like the Battle of the Blackwater, the success was carried on the back of their defense. Specifically, on the back of a switch-everything, everyone guards 1-5, mistake-free scheme. It was the final step in Brad Stevens’ and Danny Ainge’s vision of the future of basketball. A team full of players that could switch on defense against any position and dribble, pass, and (mostly) shoot.

Mismatches didn’t exist. Al Horford and Robert Williams regularly switched onto guards and held up on the perimeter. Marcus Smart’s success against bigger players, (including Kristaps Porzingis) is well documented.

Grant Williams had the best season of his career coming off the bench and kept the switching defense viable when then head coach Ime Udoka turned to him. A valuable role-player that complemented the stars’ games, the Bronn to the Jays’ Tyrion.

Offensively, things weren’t quite as clean. It was a high pick-and-roll, iso heavy style that was effective enough to let the defense win games. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Celtics finished 10th in offensive efficiency in the regular season (pretty good), and 10th in the playoffs (really bad). Frustration mounted at the end-of-game execution as the Celtics continually slowed things down and let other teams seize crunch time.

This was, for better or worse, the Celtics’ identity. Their style. Their schemes. Whatever you want to call it, this is how the Celtics played basketball and how they won games.

Boston Celtics (122) Vs. Atlanta Hawks (130) At State Farm Arena Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

I think it’s fair to say that it was the expectation of the fanbase to lean into this successful style heading into last season. Maybe add a bigger, switchable wing, or a guard with size in the offseason, which Stevens did by trading for Malcolm Brogdon. Then Ime Udoka was replaced by Joe Mazzulla and there was a subtle shift. The offense came out faster, shot more threes, and was more efficient.

But as the season wore on, and especially in the playoffs, the offense of the Finals team crept back in. By the end of the playoffs, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between Mazzulla’s offense and Udoka’s apart from a few more 3s (many missed), despite the numbers favoring Mazzulla’s (4th in the regular season and 5th in playoffs, in large part to a high-scoring Hawks series). This was especially obvious when it mattered most at the end of games.

The defense, however, was mostly the same. Still quite switch heavy, but with more drop coverage against pick and roll mixed in. This, however, didn’t ever feel like “The Plan,” but instead a reaction to Horford losing a step, Robert Williams not being 100%, and Luke Kornet playing meaningful minutes. It was a temporary deviation — a quick trip to Mereen before heading over to Westeros.

Still, at their best, Mazzulla’s defense looked an awful lot like Udoka’s, and the Celtics finished 3rd in defensive efficiency in the regular season. Once the playoffs hit, however, the Celtics were caught between two styles: unable to rely on their switching scheme to bail out the offense and without an elite drop big (Rob is great, but he’s much better as a weakside helper); the defense was leaky. The Cs finished 12th in defensive efficiency in the postseason.

Most of the principles of that defense were still on the team. Re-sign Grant Williams, add another switchable wing, or perhaps a big you can leave on an island here and there, and we are right back to that Finals-level of defense, right?

Then, Brad Stevens subverted our expectations.

Instead of leaning into the style that got them to The Finals, he completely abandoned it. He drastically altered the Celtics’ world-state. With the trade of Marcus Smart for Kristaps Porzingis and Grant Williams being sent to Dallas, the Celtics of the 2022 Finals ceased to exist in a shockingly abrupt manner. He had treated their identity like the Night King.

Two fundamental pieces of the Celtics’ switch-everything defense were now gone, replaced for a 7’3” mountain incapable of replicating what Smart and Williams did on that end. Under Udoka, both Smart and Williams had the best seasons of their careers offensively. Smart was empowered to run the offense, and Williams was asked to do one thing: shoot wide-open 3s. Both regressed for various reasons last year, but even at their best, they couldn’t solve the issues that had plagued the Celtics, crunch-time offense.

What we are left to find out is whether Brad Stevens’ decision marks the type of expectation subversion of the earlier Thrones seasons, expertly executed with a clear plan in mind, or if it mirrors the type we saw in the later seasons, having something happen just for the sake of it happening.

You’d have to be as oblivious as Ned Stark to not see that the arrival of Porzingis means the switch everything defense is effectively dead. The Plan has become The Deviation. There is no other option than for the Celtics to play primarily drop coverage against pick and rolls, or some other scheme that protects Porzingis from isolations on the perimeter. Like Jamie Lannister, they’ve lost some of the versatility that made them great.

Author’s note, Game of Thrones spoiler ahead.

Which leaves us with the ultimate question: is there actually a plan here? Or is Brad pulling a D & D and just making moves for the sake of making them? Did he let his frustration at the end-of-game offense boil over until he decided “hey, let’s make Bran king. Nobody would expect that!”

I like to think Brad is much more George R.R. Martin, much more seasons 1-5, than he is D & D and seasons 6-8. If you move past the emotional hit of losing Smart and the inertia clouding our view of losing Grant Williams, you can start to see the vision. Porzingis will fundamentally alter the defense, maybe for the worse, but he will also fundamentally transform the offense.

We just watched an elite offensive team that relies on drop coverage, traps, and hedges to protect its slow footed, offensively transcendent center win the title. What Porzingis gives up in defensive versatility, he more than makes up for on the offensive end. He’s a diverse offensive weapon, walking Valyrian Steel. He’s excellent from 3, can isolate, run pick and roll, and can turn the handoff game from rote action into dangerous action. His presence alone should be enough to light some wildfire into the crunch-time offense. And it’s not like he’s a defensive liability. He protects the rim at an elite level despite lacking in lateral quickness.

No, he’s not Nikola Jokic, but Tatum and Brown are undoubtedly better than their Denver counterparts, so why can’t the Celtics be a transfigured version of the Nuggets? Slightly better defensively, perhaps slightly worse offensively, but still plenty capable of winning Banner 18. Luckily for us, just like Jon Snow, the story hasn’t concluded yet. We get to watch all play out one episode at a time.

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