Talent is important when constructing an NBA roster, but nothing is more critical than how those talented players fit together and what they're willing to do for one another.
It’s easy to say all the right things about sacrificing for the greater good. It’s another to actually do it, every night, for an entire season and championship run.
The 2012 Heat worked because LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh all made one another better. The 2022 Nets, however, fizzled because there was only one rock for ball-dominant stars Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and James Harden.
It’s a long season, and anything can happen, but so far, the Celtics are the definition of a team where the sum is even greater than the individual parts. Each player has deliberately tinkered his game to maximize the team’s potential.
Highest net rating for Celtics in December:— Chris Forsberg (@ChrisForsberg_) January 2, 2024
Highest net rating differential:
Celtics going 12-2 with Jayson Tatum being -3.8 net is wild.
This year is giving off serious 2008 vibes, in that the preexisting players and newcomers have blended together seamlessly. As recent history has shown, that’s far from a guarantee, and it shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Think back to 2018-19 for a second (sorry in advance). The Celtics had Irving, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris, Al Horford Marcus Smart, Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis. I mean, come on. That’s a preposterous squad. It looks like a championship team on paper, but paper means nothing.
Hayward, speaking on “Podcast P with Paul George,” articulated a thought many Celtics fans have had for years. He believes that team never reached its potential for a specific reason.
“It my eyes, it was just we all had too many agendas,” Hayward said. “The agenda to win the whole thing was not the main one. Not to blame anyone, either, because I think it was all human nature.”
"We all had too many agendas, and the agenda to win the whole thing wasn't the main one."— Podcast P with Paul George (@PodcastPShow) January 1, 2024
Gordon Hayward on the shortcomings of a loaded 2018-19 Celtics squad pic.twitter.com/vPm6yETr5B
Hayward admitted he was trying to prove he was healthy and still an All-Star. Irving was trying to prove it was still his team. After leading the team to the Eastern Conference Finals the year prior, Tatum, Brown and Rozier were trying to prove they had arrived and could lead the way.
At that point, George chimed in: “Y’all were loaded, God.” Well, yes, Paul, but that’s the overarching point here. Try to keep up. A team can be loaded, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to winning.
Hayward said there were too many players in the same position. They all needed the ball, they all rocked with the ball. He said they had five players-only meetings, but those meetings were generally fruitless and cyclical.
“Things were said that were the right things, but it’s just in one ear, right out the other,” Hayward said. “It’s like, ‘OK, that sounds nice. We do need people to sacrifice, but that person shouldn’t be me.’”
He Who Shall Not Be Named (Irving) was naturally a deterrent in several ways, but it was more than that. The Celtics put their individual needs above the group’s needs. Has a team with that sort of mojo ever ended up on top? Not that I can recall. The Celtics lost in the second round and went down as one of the more skilled teams that never won a ring.
Now, fast-forward five years, and this Celtics team is the polar opposite of that group. The stars complement one another perfectly, and no one cares who gets the credit. Tatum and Brown have won so many dang games, and had so much darn success, that all they want is a championship.
Kristaps Porzingis is tired of life as the 1A or 1B option on a below-average team and just wants to win. Jrue Holiday captured a title alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, so he knows how to bring out the best in those around him.
Don't even get me started on Derrick White, who takes team guy to a new level. I think if you put White through a lie detector test, he’d say he genuinely doesn’t care if he scores 30 or 3 as long as the Celtics win. The world needs more dudes like Derrick White.
OK, why not.— Sean Grande (@SeanGrandePBP) January 2, 2024
Here's where the 2024 Celtics stack up with the 2008 title team to this point (W-L, Scoring Margin, NBA Rank in Off Rating, Def Rating, Net Rating)
2007-08 29-3 +12.9 7 1 1
2023-24 26-6 +10.5 2 3 1
Let’s go back to Tatum for a second. He’s attempting his fewest shots per game (19.6) since 2019-20, but his field-goal percentage (47.4) is his best since his rookie year. Brown, who has looked like a top 10 player in the world the past few weeks, is also attempting his fewest shots (18.2) since 2019-20. His scoring average is down 3.6 points (26.6 to 23), but he’s averaging a career-high 3.7 assists.
Porzingis is attempting the fewest shots per night (12.9) since his rookie season while shooting a career-best 52.7 percent from the floor. Holiday’s 13.1 points per game and 10.9 shots per game are his lowest since his rookie year. People forget he averaged 19.3 points per game last season. But, he’s shooting a career-best 42 percent from 3-point range and snagging a career-high 6.6 rebounds.
All of their sacrifice is paving the way for a breakout season from White, who’s averaging a career-high 17 points and 3.9 rebounds. Everyone else realizes they need White to play confidently and freely in order to reach their potential, and it’s beautiful to watch his teammates lift him up and vice versa.
Then there’s Horford, who has sacrificed perhaps more than anyone on the team. His willingness to come off the bench, and average just 26.7 minutes a night so far, illustrates what makes this team unique. There will be a moment in the playoffs when the Celtics truly need Horford and he delivers. Until then, he’s content flying under the radar and attempting just six shots per game.
So next time you watch this team, make sure to appreciate just how well these pieces fit together. Briefly allow yourself to think back to 2018-19, shudder for a second, then return to your season-long state of bliss.
This is the way it’s supposed to look, when everyone’s on the save wavelength, everyone roots for the guy next to them and everyone has one singular goal.