The Boston Celtics are currently chasing an NBA championship as they’re taking on the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. Their journey towards the hopeful ring has been built on their ability to play both ends of the floor at a high level, and teams around the league needs to take note of the lesson Boston is teaching.
No place for liabilities
During this year’s playoffs, both the Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers drastically reduced minutes for players that they relied on a ton during the regular season.
Duncan Robinson averaged 25.9 minutes over the course of 79 games for the Heat this year, but saw his minutes decline to just 12.2 in the postseason, due to his inability to defend at a high level. Robinson is the definition of a speciality player, as he also isn’t a shot creator nor a particularly effective rebounder. His one value – spot-up shooting – simply wasn’t worth enough to justify his weaknesses in all other areas.
But if you think only offensive players will get placed on the bench, think again.
In Philadelphia, Matisse Thybulle had a formidable regular season seen through the perspective of defense. He averaged 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks in 25.5 minutes and made the All-Defensive 2nd team. However, in the playoffs, his complete lack of offensive game forced Doc Rivers to play him just 15.2 minutes. Thybulle has never averaged more than 5.7 points per game, and he isn’t a threat to hit three-pointers off the catch, allowing opposing defenses to widely ignore his presence on offense. This forces Philadelphia to play 4-on-5 basketball, which isn’t exactly a recipe for success.
The Celtics have decided to simply not play the game of liability. Their shortened playoff rotation of Robert Williams, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Grant Williams, and Derrick White are all capable of playing both sides of the floor. By not having a single one-way player in that group, the Celtics entirely rid themselves of having to worry about potential weak links.
New roster construction ideology
Teams that are currently not looking at Boston’s blueprint will quickly learn they’ve become dinosaurs. It may appear extremely obvious that players who can play both sides of the floor are more valuable than players that can’t, but there’s more to it than that.
The Celtics are currently proving that you needn’t gather the best of the best in order to create a viable product. Yes, you do need stars, as is evident by the presence of Tatum and Brown, but neither are Top 5 players in the league, and Brown is closer to being a Top 25 player than he is Top 10.
The collective cohesion of a roster that closes holes, in the manner that the Celtics are doing, allows them a much larger margin for error. That margin is also necessary, because most members of the aforementioned rotation have flaws.
Smart is a player who too often gets trigger happy, and has never been known for his offensive efficiency, hitting 38.2% of his shots for his career. Neither of the Williamses are capable of creating their own offense and mostly needs to be set up to be effective. White and Horford can both drift in and out of games on offense.
But because all can still put the ball in the basket, in varying degrees, the collective result of the Celtics beats individual performances.
Game 1 of the Finals was a great example, as Tatum shot just 3-for-17 from the field, but Boston still won the game. All three of Horford, White and Smart had monster offensive performances, and it’s that ebb and flow the Celtics use as a security blanket, which has led them this far. The Warriors might be slight favorites to win the series, but nevertheless, the Celtics have opened some eyes.
With the draft just weeks away, it would behoove NBA teams to look to the future and envision whether their draft targets can deliver in such a fashion. Will the player they have circled be a high-scoring performer, who can’t compete defensively? Will he be a great defender who can’t make shots? Or, optimally, will he become a player who can be an asset on both ends, even if it means potentially sacrificing elite status on one end?
Those are the questions teams need to answer moving forward.