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Can the Celtics achieve the remarkable feat of becoming breakthrough NBA champions?

Teams rarely win without a previous NBA champion in the locker room. The addition of Sam Cassell should help. 

2023 NBA Playoffs - Miami Heat v Boston Celtics Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Last season, the Celtics had an undeniably loaded roster: two scoring machines in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the 6th Man of the Year in Malcolm Brogdon, and two of the league’s premier defensive guards in Marcus Smart and Derrick White. They had Finals experience, a veteran center, and a top-tier defensive big coming off the bench. They were favored to win almost every game they played, but, as we all know, fell short of the ultimate goal.

A year later after digging themselves out of an 0-3 hole only to lose Game 7 at TD Garden to the Heat, the offseason discourse has centered around the team’s shortcomings:

Tatum and Brown have offensive games that are too redundant.

Joe Mazzulla is a way-too-inexperienced head coach.

Tatum can’t be the #1 guy.

Brown can’t go left.

We could argue all day about the merits of those claims. The reality, however, is that it’s really, really difficult to break through and win an NBA championship for the first time. It’s that much harder when literally no one in your locker room has done it before.

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

The Boston Celtics, as currently constructed, don’t have a single NBA champion on the roster.

Statistically speaking, that very fact makes winning it all unlikely. Since 2000, only three teams have managed to hoist the Larry O’Bryan trophy with no champion on the roster: the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, the 2015 Golden State Warriors, and the 2021 Milwaukee Bucks. I call these “breakthrough” championship teams.

At first glance, one might think the ‘23 Nuggets were a breakthrough championship team, but they weren’t. Kentavius Caldwell-Pope was a starter on the 2020 Lakers squad that won a ring in the bubble, and his championship experience proved invaluable in Denver. He brought his championship ring to every home playoff game in order to motivate his teammates, preached defense as though he was an extension of the coaching staff, and immediately gained the respect that only a champion garners.

“He is the only one on this team who has won a championship,” then-teammate Bruce Brown told AP News during their playoff run. “He knows what it takes and what we need to do. So, we gotta listen to that guy.”

Most teams have at least one of ‘that guy,’ but the Celtics don’t. It might be strange to point that out, especially considering the organization as a whole famously has 17 banners. But no one in this current group was a part of any of those runs.

All 30 NBA teams can be divided into four categories: teams led by a ring-bearing star (8), teams with a ring-bearing role player (8), teams that simply have a ring-bearer on the roster (5), and teams who lack a ring-bearer altogether (9).

Teams with Ring-Bearing Stars: Eight NBA teams are led by stars who already have at least one ring and are vying for another.

Most of these teams are championship contenders this season, and this list includes Finals MVPs, Finals MVP runner-ups, and veteran cores that have stuck together because of the unwavering voice in their front office saying, “who’s to say they can’t do it again?

  1. Denver Nuggets: The defending champions will be once again led by Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray and returning key players like Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, and Christian Braun.
  2. Golden State Warriors: Owners of four of the last nine NBA championships, the core of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green have more collective championship experience than any team in the league.
  3. Milwaukee Bucks: The Bucks have a critical mass of their ‘21 championship team under contract next season, spearheaded by Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez, Khris Middleton, Bobby Portis, and Jrue Holiday, among others.
  4. Los Angeles Lakers: Lebron James and Anthony Davis led the Lakers to a ring in 2020, and, with a new supporting cast, will look to do the same next season.
  5. Los Angeles Clippers: Kawhi Leonard has two Finals MVPs, and if he stays healthy, could secure a third. (The Clips also have Norman Powell, also a member of the ‘19 Raptors squad).
  6. Phoenix Suns: While most of the roster lacks finals experience, Kevin Durant brings with him two NBA championships. (And, shoutout to Damion Lee, who brings with him a ring from the Warriors 2022 run).
  7. Dallas Mavericks: Kyrie Irving became an NBA champion in 2016 after sinking one of the clutchest shots in the league’s history.
  8. Toronto Raptors: The Raps still have Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby from their ‘19 championship. While Siakam and Anunoby aren’t stars of the same caliber as some of the other players on this list, they were nonetheless critical to the championship run and remain some of the go-to guys on the current roster.

The Ring-Bearing Impact Players: Eight teams have impact players who played important roles on previous championship teams.

Some might say some of the players on this list are overpaid — maybe even overrated. Their large contracts, however, are a reminder that front offices recognize that championship experience matters.

  1. Philadelphia 76ers: PJ Tucker won it all with the Bucks in ‘21, and was a key veteran voice in the locker room for a team led by notorious playoff droppers (sorry, the Celtics writer in me is coming out).
  2. Chicago Bulls: Defensive stalwart Alex Caruso was key to the Lakers ‘20 championship, and while the Bulls are not contenders next season, Caruso brings championship experience to the roster.
  3. Indiana Pacers: Bruce Brown was the X factor in the Nuggets successful Finals run last year, and the Pacers paid big bucks to have his pedigree and intangibles around their young core in 2024.
  4. Atlanta Hawks: This one’s a bit of a throwback, but Patty Mills was one of the undeniable leaders of the 2014 Spurs, and the veteran guard could be a culture-shifter in Atlanta this season. (If he sticks around, that is. Mills was traded four times in 10 days back in July).
  5. Miami Heat: Kevin Love (2016 Cavaliers) and Kyle Lowry (2019 Raptors) and were All Stars for significant stretches of their careers, but are now most known for their championship DNA, which was fundamental to a Miami roster that shocked the basketball world with a Finals run in the 2023 playoffs.
  6. Washington Wizards: Kyle Kuzma (2020 Lakers) and Jordan Poole (2022 Warriors) were key role players on their respective championship runs, and while the Wiz won’t be eyeing a banner anytime soon, Kuzma and Poole have been there before.
  7. Sacramento Kings: The Kings just signed Javale McGee, a two-time championship winner with the Warriors and one-time winner with the Lakers.
  8. Houston Rockets: New head coach Ime Udoka prioritized bringing winning experience to the roster, giving Fred Van Fleet (2019 Raptors) and Jeff Green (2023 Nuggets) multi-year contracts.

The… Ring-Bearers: Five NBA teams have at least one bench player who was on the roster for a championship.

I wouldn’t quite say this group has championship experience, but hey, they have a player on the roster who did previously earn a ring, so we’ll give them a shoutout.

  1. Cleveland Cavaliers: Damian Jones won two chips with the Warriors, and Sam Merrill was on the Bucks ‘21 roster, but hardly saw the court.
  2. New York Knicks: Donte Divincenzo was a rotation player on the Bucks 2021 team, but missed nearly the entire playoffs due to injury.
  3. Detroit Pistons: James Wiseman is more well-known for falling short of expectations as the Warriors #2 pick, but he was a member of the 2022 championship roster.
  4. Oklahoma City Thunder: Jack White was on a two-way line with the Nuggets last year, and while he barely contributed on-the-court, he can at least tell OKC teammates what it was like to win it all!
  5. Utah Jazz: Talen Horton-Tucker was on the 2020 Lakers roster that won the championship, but as a first-year player, didn’t see much floor time that season.

The Ringless Rosters: Nine teams lack a champion on the roster altogether.

Besides for the Celtics, only eight other teams in the league have rosters completely devoid of an NBA champion: the Nets, Hornets, Magic, Timberwolves, Blazers, Grizzlies, Pelicans, and Spurs. None of those are true championship contenders.

The Boston Celtics organization has 17 banners, so you don’t often hear the franchise be described as ringless. But the reality is that no one in this current group was a part of those runs.

There is definitely nuance to this conversation. I’m not going to claim that if the Celtics had Damion Jones or James Wiseman on the roster, they would have already raised Banner 18.

And, while the current Boston Celtics players haven’t yet won an NBA championship, it’s not like individual players haven’t won at other high levels. Jayson Tatum was the second-leading scorer on the 2020 USA Olympic basketball team that brought home the gold, and back in the day, Al Horford led the Florida Gators to two NCAA championships. There are winners on this roster, certainly. But breaking the NBA championship wall is a whole different beast.

Let’s look at a quick timeline of the 21st century NBA champions.

The Lakers three-peated from 2000-2002, but broke through in 2000 with bench player John Salley winning his fourth ring (and, more importantly, Phil Jackson winning his seventh as a coach).

Kobe Bryant (L) of the Los Angeles Lakers holds th Photo credit should read AFP/AFP via Getty Images

In 2003, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobli won their second ring together. In ‘04, the Pistons won, and bench player Lindsey Hunter won his second. In ‘05, the Spurs won their third as a group. In ‘06, Wade let the Heat to their first ring, but Shaq helped him break through, winning his fourth. In ‘07, the Spurs dynasty continued. In ‘08, the Celtics won, and Sam Cassell (two-time winner) helped them breakthrough. In ‘09, Kobe earned his third with the Lakers. In ‘10, the Lakers repeated.

In 2012, Lebron won his first with the Heat, but Wade helped him break through, winning his second. In 2013, they repeated. In 2014, the Duncan-Ginobli-Parker core secured their fourth together. In 2016, the Cavs won, and Lebron won his third. In 2017, the Warriors won their second. In ‘18, they repeated.

In 2019, Kawhi Leonard led the Raptors to a ring, his second. In 2020, the Lakers championship marked Lebron’s fourth and Rondo’s second, among others. In 2022, the Warriors saw their Curry-Klay-Draymond core go for their fourth ring. In 2023, KCP helped the Nuggets break through.

As you can see, most of these champions were repeat winners, and when those dynasties started, typically someone else on the roster had previously won and helped open the door.

The above list omits the 2011 Mavs, 2015 Warriors, and 2021 Bucks — the teams I refer to as the “breakthrough teams” of the 21st century. Not a single player on their roster had previously won an NBA championship.

There’s an important caveat here, however. These teams did have championship experience in their locker rooms — it was just limited to their coaching staff. The head coaches of the Mavericks and Warriors both won rings as players: Rick Carlisle with the Celtics in 1986, and Steve Kerr, with both the Bulls and Spurs. Even the Bucks locker room had championship pedigree; Darvin Ham, one of Mike Budenholzer’s top assistants, won as a Pistons player in ‘04.

But last year’s Celtics coaching staff lacked that championship experience altogether. History shows it’s much harder being a breakthrough team when even the coaching staff hasn’t ever seen that level of success.

Could top assistant Sam Cassell help this group break through?

Boston Celtics Victory Parade Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

In July, the team announced Mazzulla was bringing on Sam Cassell as a top assistant coach. Cassell is a former point guard who won a ring with the revered 2008 Celtics team after a successful fifteen-year career that spanned six teams. He won back-to-back rings in his first two years in the league as a key contributor for the Houston Rockets. Cassell has been an NBA assistant coach since 2009, taking on roles with the Wizards, Clippers, and most recently, the 76ers, and was a member of Doc Rivers’s staff since 2014.

In 2008, he played a similar, culture-setting role with the Celtics, albeit as a player. Cassell joined a roster that was mostly devoid of NBA champions (with the exception of James Posey who won in ‘06 with the Heat). Needless to say, he became an important voice in that locker room in ‘08, and helped the Cs win their first championship in 32 years, something he said changed his life forever.

“That’s the only goal,” Cassell said at summer league. “It ain’t about making conference finals as a member of the Celtics, the coaching staff and the players. It’s all about winning the championship. That’s the tradition in Boston — win the championship. Playing for guys who won previously for us, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Russell, Cousy, Maxwell, the history goes on. It’s about them. That’s the thing that our guys have to understand. It’s a pride thing.”

It’s one thing to speak those words. But Cassell has actually lived them. He’s helped the Celtics break through before. And hopefully, he can help them again, enabling every single person on the 2023-24 roster to become a ring-bearer in their own rite.

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