The Boston Celtics could be at the beginning of a long reign over the Eastern Conference, or they may have missed their best shot at winning the title of the era. The outcome may depend on how they approach the 2022 off-season.
The NBA playoffs have a way of highlighting shortcomings that nothing else can. Each subsequent round of the postseason requires a higher level of execution, precision, and skill, until finally only the players and coaches are left with command of every detail. In games where every possession counts, the finer points make the difference.
The Boston Celtics’ first NBA Finals appearance (with this team’s iteration) laid bare any intricacies they still didn’t understand and highlighted any subtle weaknesses they need to address in the offseason. Chief among these problems was the inability to consistently produce quality shots on the halfcourt – a problem that only grew worse as the finals progressed.
How can the Boston Celtics improve their half-court offense?
This season marked the first of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum’s careers, with Boston fully embracing the defensive identity that made them a regular-season juggernaut. However, this commitment to defense came with an offensive compromise. The Celtics sacrificed ballhandling and playmaking for size and defensive versatility, betting they could create enough through committee to keep the offense afloat.
For most of the season, that theory proved true as they shot and moved the ball well enough to overcome their lack of a primary ball handler. But as the Finals progressed, Boston gasped from a lack of top-notch offensive creation against the Warriors’ stifling defense. Golden State shrank the floor and halted the Celtics’ ball movement late in the series, confining Boston to tighter spaces and forcing nearly 17 turnovers per game. Tatum, Brown and Marcus Smart made up most of those freebies, and the Celtics desperately needed someone to handle offense in moments of disorder.
This was made worse by a razor-thin bench that was almost non-existent by the end of the finale. After a mostly strong postseason, Derrick White became a non-factor when the Warriors challenged him to make games and Steph Curry befriended that matchup; Grant Williams didn’t have much of a role against a team without a frontcourt scorer to bat with; Payton Pritchard’s sweater never got around and Daniel Theis didn’t bring much to the table; Six other Celtics all technically logged minutes in garbage time, but none were ever even remotely viable to play competitive minutes.
This left Boston with fewer players who could really make an impact on the pitch, forcing Ime Udoka to play his stars to exhaustion. Tatum has logged more than 40 minutes per game in the Finals and 41 throughout the playoffs, which has drained not only his ability to create offense but also his defensive range. After an excellent first-round performance against the Nets, he got much closer to being a neutral defender and eventually buckled under the offensive weight he was carrying. Brown’s defense also faltered as his minutes piled up, while Rob Williams’ knee injury mitigated a gargantuan defensive strokes per minute.
As they are currently set up, the Celtics lack a player to threaten elite defense as both a passer and goalscorer, leaving them vulnerable to offensive droughts. Tatum, Brown, and Smart all pressure their opponents in different ways, but none combine the kind of elite scoring and playmaking that throws really big defenses out of shape. If Tatum is better suited as a versatile secondary creator than as the primary pillar of an offense, Boston must either find that first option elsewhere or significantly improve its depth of game to ease the pressure on Tatum and Brown.
Converting some of the deadweight at the bench end into usable talent would help, but Boston may need more substantial changes to address their offensive shortcomings. Dynamic pick-and-roll point guards aren’t easy to acquire, and barring one shocking trade, the Celtics don’t have a realistic way of getting that type of player. Rounding out the roster with capable rotary players rather than a single big fish feels more sensible than making a drastic change, although even that could be difficult when so much of the roster is already in place. The extent to which Boston is willing to compromise its top-tier defense in favor of offensive firepower this summer will be instructive.
Could Jayson Tatum become the primary creator the Celtics need?
Of course, adding a top-notch primary playmaker could be as simple as riding the next wave of Tatum’s development. The move from contender to champion often hinges on the development of a team’s best player, and those finals gave Tatum plenty to build on. He’s made great strides as a passer this season, but Tatum still isn’t the kind of playmaker who can manipulate and tear apart elite defenses in the playoffs.
Golden State aggressively helped Tatum early in the Finals, and he took what the Warriors gave him by making easy passes to teammates. By the end of the series, however, the warriors had stopped giving him these simple possibilities, which clouded Tatum’s vision and forced complex readings that he often couldn’t make:
This adaptation also pushed him to play more isolated, where he struggles to score efficiently. Tatum has finished as an average or worse isolation scorer nearly every year of his career, and for the past four seasons he has shot under 39 percent from 14 feet to the 3-point line — including 26 percent in the Finals.
For all but a handful of players, those shots just don’t translate into an efficient team offense. Tatum’s shooting struggles were also compounded by his inability to pressure defense on the perimeter like the league’s best offensive wings do. His relative lack of upper body strength and straight-line quickness makes it difficult to absorb contact and create space against strong wings or power through defenders in the color. He’s never shown much stretch or touch around the basket, and he shot just 53 percent on the rim against the Warriors’ stifling central defense.
Tatum also relies heavily on shoving defenders with his off-arm and has a bad habit of looking for cheap contact in the paint rather than actually trying to shoot. Adding power and skill as a rider could make Tatum a significantly greater threat to land on the edge, which in turn would open up easier jumps and passing angles:
None of this is meant to suggest Tatum wasn’t great in the playoffs, or blame Boston’s sizzling exit entirely on him. But these are the details that separate elite players from the greats. If a star has even a small hole in their game, teams like the Warriors will spot it and exploit it until the player either improves or disbands. Tatum is still climbing the ladder of NBA stardom, step by step. Certainly new levels of his game are waiting to be uncovered after showing him exactly what to address.