The Celtics Are Untouchable
4:47 PM EST on December 8, 2022
Of all the narratives that have come to define the first third or so of the NBA season, the one I am most drawn to is the notion that this is the season where the stars of yesteryear finally start to cede primacy to the stars of tomorrow. Zion Williamson's Pelicans are top of the West, while LeBron James's and Kawhi Leonard's squads are currently non-factors. The Warriors are mostly intact yet are regularly overwhelmed by younger, punchier teams. All the early-30s guys in Chicago and Miami are creaking out to rough starts while young teams like Cleveland and (gulp) Sacramento are flying. This phenomenon is not universal—Kevin Durant is playing and scoring a ton—though it feels like the inevitable passage of time has posted a big W this year. And all of that is before even mentioning the strongest argument for this narrative, which is that Jayson Tatum has seized the title of best wing player in the NBA while the Boston Celtics have emerged as the indisputable title favorites.
Tatum has led the way during the Celtics' 21–5 start and recent 17–2 stretch, though the entire team is clicking at a pretty incredible level for early December. The numbers all back up their case as the league's best team—an NBA-best plus-8.8 net rating, the most efficient offense in NBA history—though it's the way they're playing that has most impressed me. Even though the law of large numbers tells us that Celtics players have certainly taken hundreds of bad shots this season, I don't think I've really ever classified any of their attempts as such. Their offensive engine is pure. Every single player in their rotation except Luke Kornet is a willing, able three-point shooter, and now that their stars have learned not only about the concept of passing the ball but have developed into legit playmakers, the whole team makes deadly use of all that space. I guess it's pretty, though when I watch them fly around and cut and shoot, I mostly feel like I'm watching a team that has solved NBA defense, as it currently exists anyway.
A typical Celtics possession looks something like this. Marcus Smart gets the rock and watches as the other four Celtics all sort of simultaneously screen and cut for each other. Torrey Craig loses his man amid all the movement, and Derrick White easily cashes an open three. If he played it right, Jaylen Brown was already running over to Grant Williams to start a strong-side action. Every one of the five guys the Celtics have on the floor will happily splash threes if given the opportunity, and White did.
The Celtics, of course, lost in the Finals last season, but even then, the velocity of their evolution into this type of offensive team is startling. Just 11 months ago, the Celtics blew a 25-point lead and dropped to 18–21 after a brutal loss to the Knicks in Madison Square Garden. Then-head coach Ime Udoka, whose team had not righted themselves despite a contentious players-only meeting and their veteran leader calling their two stars selfish prima donnas, ripped his squad yet again, calling them a bunch of mentally weak babies who didn't have the brains or heart to fight for each other in tough games. From essentially that point onward, the '21-'22 Celtics became the '96 Bulls, racking up a hilariously lopsided point difference en route to a Finals berth that unraveled at the last second thanks to Robert Williams's weird knee injury, a brutally timed offensive regression, and Steph Curry's hero act.
What was more real, then, the regression or the run? You wouldn't be blamed for picking the former. Udoka, who rightly got a ton of the credit for turning the Celtics around, was mega-suspended like two weeks before the season began after doing, well, something improper with a Celtics staffer. Had the Udoka suspension been handed down earlier, the team would likely have been handed off to presumptive coaching heir Will Hardy, but he was hired by Utah three months before Udoka was let go. Into his place strode Joe Mazzulla, who is only 34 and had also never been a head coach before. Without the still-injured Williams, without Danilo Gallinari after he tore an ACL, and without a full summer's worth of rest after a long, brutal playoffs slog, it would have made all the sense in the world for the Celtics to ease into the season.
Nope. Brown's bully-ball game has matured a step further and Malcolm Brogdon looks like an all-star in the 23 minutes he gets per night. The defense lingered in the league's cellar for the first month of the season, but is now just outside the top 10. Brogdon gives the team another apex ball-handler, to the point that they can now engineer great shots even with Tatum and Brown both resting. Presumably the defense will improve once Williams gets back, though Kornet has been great in his stead, and there are four series' worth of evidence that the Celtics can lock in a championship level come playoff time. They're simply cruising, and last night's showdown with the Suns turned into a hilarious echo of Phoenix's Game 7 toiletfest from the 2022 playoffs. Boston led by as many as 45 points, and even Blake Griffin was out here clowning on the Suns.
The degree to which the Celtics are the favorites is remarkable. The other contenders are nowhere near as complete. It's unclear how well Milwaukee can score in the half court. The Warriors are struggling. The Clippers basically don't exist, and Philadelphia looks its age. May is a long ways away, and presumably a bunch of consequential trades will happen and some players will get hurt while some hurt players recover. The Celtics will have to prove it when it matters, but there is no reason right now to think they won't.