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The Contenders: Boston Celtics

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The Boston Celtics are a fusion of the 2001 Philadelphia 76ers and the 2004 Detroit Pistons highlighting Isaiah Thomas, Brad Stevens, and surrounding role players completely bought in to the pursuit of the NBA Finals.

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NBA: Washington Wizards at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

This is Part Four of a five-part series featuring the five most likely contenders for the NBA Championship. In case you missed it, Part One (Cleveland Cavaliers), Part Two (San Antonio Spurs), and Part Three (Houston Rockets). Check back next Saturday morning for Part Five.

The past twelve NBA champions have had at least one of these seven players: LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Dwyane Wade. Having a Hall of Fame caliber player in their prime appears a requirement for a championship. So what is the path to a title without that player? Is there a path?

The reality is that the path is narrow, but it does exist. The Boston Celtics know that, but they are still searching for it. They are doing so with a 5’9” point guard, a 6’9” center, defensive specialists, and a head coach that looks more like a middle school science teacher than an NBA savant.

On those credentials alone, many are quick to dismiss the superstar-less Celtics as a true title contender. A sense reinforced when they did not mortgage the future in an effort to land Paul George or Jimmy Butler at the deadline. Instead, the Celtics are making due with what they have: A diminutive scoring savant and a group of players in specific roles that embrace team basketball.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Stevens may not have a superstar in his arsenal, but he has done everything he can to make Isaiah Thomas as close to a superstar as possible. The talk about the Rockets and Thunder handing the reins to James Harden and Russell Westbrook is well documented, but the usage of Thomas is of equal note. Other than Harden and Westbrook, only DeMarcus Cousins and DeMar DeRozan are using more team possessions than Thomas. This type of usage is almost unheard of from anyone of his size other than Allen Iverson.

And maybe Iverson and the 2001 Sixers are a good place to start in making the argument for the Celtics title contention. The parallels between this Celtics team and that Sixers team that made it all the way to the Finals are there.

Under Larry Brown, the 2000-01 Philadelphia 76ers went all-in the Iverson boat. Actually, all-in is an understatement. Iverson shot 1,099 more shots than anyone else on his team that year. AND HE ONLY PLAYED 71 OF 82 GAMES! For some context on that number, only 25 players have taken 1,099 total shots this season. Westbrook is regarded as a massive ball hog but even he has only shot 953 more shots than the Thunder’s second-highest volume shooter, Victor Oladipo. But keep in mind Westbrook has played every game and Oladipo has missed 15 games.

That season marked Iverson’s highest career usage, much like Thomas’ career high usage rate this season. The Sixers surrounded Iverson with the rolliest of role players. Behind Iverson, the next three players in minutes played were George Lynch, Aaron McKie, and Tyrone Hill. Again, that Sixers team made it to the Finals.

They were able to make the Finals because Iverson was an extremely talented scorer and the Sixers offense was completely predicated on specific sets that let Iverson go full-Westbrook mode.

As we have discussed here before, a specific playset still used in today’s NBA is the Iverson Cut Series. The Iverson cut was first developed as an after-timeout play designed to free Iverson for a mid-range jump shot or penetration from 16-feet. Iverson would cut off of two high screens in the high post, freeing him for a 16-foot catch. The defense then has the option of having Iverson’s man fight through both screens, or have a big switch on to Iverson. Both wins for the Sixers.

This Iverson-ian specific play sets are something Stevens has implemented in Boston. Thomas is Stevens Iverson. Similar to Iverson in his heyday, Thomas is the point guard in the sense that he often brings the ball up the floor, but the Celtics are also quick to put Thomas in off-ball action, much like the Iverson Cut. In this play, you can see an immediate back screen on Thomas’ man as soon as he has swung the ball. Thomas rides the back screen into the flex-action on the same side he initially swung the ball too. Thomas’ speed and the Celtics effective screen setting lead him to easy looks all over the floor but specifically threes.

The three is the distinction between Thomas and Iverson, and a marker of the different eras. In that Iverson season, A.I. was 21st in three-point attempts (306) and shot a dismal 32 percent. In today’s NBA, that isn’t far off from the much-maligned shooter, Ricky Rubio— on pace for 200 three-point attempts where he is shooting 32.4 percent.

Statistically, Thomas is in a completely different class as a shooter. Only Stephen Curry, James Harden, and Eric Gordon are shooting more threes per game this season. However, Thomas is converting his threes more effectively than both of the Rockets players at 38.2 percent. This gravity to Thomas on the perimeter causes all sorts of problems in defending him when he also has become one of the most adept guards at getting to the rim.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Boston Celtics Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

The Craft of a Champion

Thomas’ craft all over the floor is second to no one. With the same build as Floyd Mayweather, Thomas gets away with all the little guy things that a normal-sized guard would almost assuredly be called for. Here, against the 6’4” Tyler Johnson, Thomas goes full-Heisman clearing space for the catch at the three-point line.

Reeling, Johnson sprints out to the perimeter but at this point, Thomas already has a step on him. His work isn’t done, the league’s best rim defender, Hassan Whiteside looms. This is where his real craft is accentuated, banking the lay-up off the very top corner of the backboard. Even the seven-foot Whiteside can’t reach it there.

When Thomas is rolling, as he was in this 52-point performance against Miami, there just isn’t much they can do against Mighty Mouse. Thomas’ diminutive size makes the narrowest of paths to the rim logical. On this play, the Heat know Thomas is shooting. Josh Richardson goes completely over the top of the screen and Horford is all but disregarded on the roll by Whiteside in pursuit of Thomas. Four Miami players make contact with Thomas yet he still finishes the left-handed layup with relative ease.

But, again, using Iverson’s Sixers team as an example, it takes more than one superhero to win a championship. Those Sixers may have made it through a weak Eastern Conference, but without the surrounding pieces, they were no match for Kobe, Shaq, and the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals. With real title aspirations, the Celtics know that the Thomas band aid for offensive success is literally and figuratively too small. Productivity from the surrounding pieces is a necessity, especially in the playoffs when opponents can and will hone in on Thomas.

The Surrounding Pieces and Brad

NBA: Boston Celtics at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Playing the role of superstar requires skill but not necessarily discipline. Thomas has shown the skill to be given freedom in the Celtic offense, but the surrounding pieces have roles. Finding a way to get buy-in from guys used to shots and stardom can be the toughest part of coaching in the NBA.

There is no better example of this on the Celtics roster than Marcus Smart. Smart won 115 games as a high school basketball player and was Mr. Basketball in the state of Texas, no small feat. (20 of the past 30 Mr. Basketball’s for Texas have gone on to be NBA draftees.) After the McDonald’s All-American Game, Smart was ranked the number one shooting guard from the 2012 class. Smart went on to be the Big 12 player of the year and was a finalist for the Naismith Player of the Year Award. Yeah, he was the man.

Then Smart showed up in Boston after being selected sixth overall and became a bench player, starting only 10 games last season. This isn’t to say Smart has been anything close to a bust. (Just ask anyone in Boston, they defend him with a fervor equal to their hate for the Yankees.) Rather, Smart has committed to the role of super-sub, a crucial cog in the Celtic machine. This type of buy-in takes a special coach.

Stevens does this by tapping into what releases peak effort from his players. For Smart, it is clear that when he is engaged on the offensive end, he will be more engaged on the defensive end. Two of Smart’s five best defensive games (via defensive rating) were also two of his three best shooting performance (via effective field goal percentage). Smart probably shoots too much for the Celtics as a 36 percent shooter from the field, but Stevens knows this may be a necessary sacrifice for Smart’s buy-in.

On the Bill Simmons Podcast before this season, Stevens said, “One of the things I really like about Marcus is when Marcus is here, you know he’s here. You know he’s in the room, you know he’s in the game, you know he’s in a defensive drill in practice.”

Smart is just one of a laundry list of players who Stevens has squeezed every last drop out of. The Celtics players are given more freedom in Boston than they were given in any previous stop in their career. This builds confidence.

Avery Bradley: 16.6 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 40.2 3P%

Avery Bradley, who predates Stevens in Boston by three years, is yet another example. Under Doc Rivers his first three seasons, Bradley was a defensive role player. The guy that would come in and bug opposing point guards when he would pick them up full court, but with Stevens, Bradley, has been squeezed into just as much of an offensive weapon. Amongst guards who have started 50 or more games this season, only Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, Mike Conley, and Bradley are making 40 percent of their threes and averaging 1.3 steals per game.

Bradley’s defense has always been his strength but his shooting has taken off with an increased role under Stevens. No longer the guy waiting for a pass in the corner, Bradley now has offense drawn up through him. With under two minutes left in a one-point game against the Denver Nuggets, Stevens draws up a variation of that same Iverson Cut Series following a timeout. The difference here is that Stevens isn’t drawing up the play for his Iverson (Thomas), the Iverson Cut is a decoy as Evan Turner cuts across the lane only to be swung back to Bradley coming off yet another screen for the open three.

The mainstay of the offensive diet is Isaiah Thomas, but the confidence Stevens instills in the surrounding pieces is felt when he draws up specific sets for numerous different players. This ambiguity, especially out of the timeout, makes it extremely difficult for the defense to focus on any specific player.

How many coaches would draw up the final play of the game for Tyler Zeller? Remember this buzzer-beater against Utah?

Stevens knows that Rudy Gobert will guard the inbounder and therefore not be in the paint. He also knows the Jazz will switch all screens on Thomas and Bradley. In knowing this, the Celtics enter the ball directly to Zeller after Bradley’s defender (Rodney Hood) calls out the switch. The seven-foot Zeller can finish easily over Hood.

It often looks as if Stevens is playing chess when everyone else is playing checkers. His top-tier coaching is most discernible out of timeouts, but also in the simple ways the Celtics score on inbound plays. Watch the inbounder repeatedly take advantage of the defense sleeping as the off-ball screener (Jerebko and Zeller) settle in to open looks.

It’s simply simple for the Celtics to score on inbound plays, and that slight difference adds up to points over the course of a game and wins over the course of the season.

But Does Winning the East Even Matter?

The Celtics are on pace to have the best record in the Eastern Conference this season. Fivethirtyeight.com gives this Celtics team a 64 percent chance of finishing with a better record than the Cleveland Cavaliers. But does this matter?

Historically LeBron James-led teams have regularly avoided “flipping the switch” until the playoffs. Regular season wins have not been a relative priority. James has made the Finals the past six seasons, but his teams have only held the one seed twice over that span: last season and 2012-13. The other four one seeds were the Tom Thibodeau Bulls (twice), the 2014 Indiana Pacers, and the 2015 Atlanta Hawks. As it played out, none of the four presented major threats.

LeBron and this Cavs team fit that initial narrative of having a superstar in their prime, not to mention Curry, Harden, and Kawhi Leonard in the West. Again, this has been the blueprint for the past 12 season’s champions. The Cavs moderate regular season effort coupled with the Celtics void of superstar talent takes some wind out of the sails from their one seed accomplishment. But does it make a championship impossible? I think it’s possible. If we go back thirteen years, there is an NBA champion who better fits the mold of this Celtics team— The 2003-04 Detroit Pistons.

Loved that team.

The Pistons are the go-to example of a weak NBA champion, but the Pistons were not bad. For seven straight seasons (2002-2009) they had at worst the second-best record in the East and won fifty or more games each of those seasons. 2004 just happened to be the year the proverbial cookie crumbled perfectly into a championship when, objectively, the Pistons were probably the fourth best regular season team in the NBA.

Memory Lane: The 2004 Lakers, Pacers, Wolves, and Pistons

During that season, the Los Angeles Lakers had the most talent in the NBA. After adding Gary Payton and Karl Malone to the core of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, the Lakers had put together the first super team. Similar to the four-headed beast that is the Golden State Warriors of this season.

The Indiana Pacers had the best record in the league. Their 61 wins marked the high-water mark of the Reggie Miller era. They fit the mold of a veteran-led, consistently successful team, a la San Antonio Spurs. Indiana was slowly handing the reigns to a 24-year-old Defensive Player of the Year (the artist formerly known as Ron Artest) and a budding post presence that could stretch out to the midrange, Jermaine O’Neal. Under the tutelage of one of the league’s best coaches, Rick Carlisle, the Pacers were the Kawhi Leonard-LaMarcus Aldridge-Gregg Popovich Spurs.

The Minnesota Timberwolves were probably the next best team. The team that had exceeded expectations as they had finally cracked the glass ceiling into becoming a legitimate title contender. The Wolves motor was first-time league Most Valuable Player, Kevin Garnett. In their own way, very similar to this season’s Houston Rockets.

The Pistons were just another consistent team in the early 2000’s, winning 50, 50, and 54 games the three previous seasons. They were not regarded as a real threat for the championship, but as the playoffs approached, everything began to crack their way.

For the Lakers, their newest addition to the super-team, Karl Malone, missed half of the regular season and proved to not be his best self when the playoffs came around. Malone sprained his MCL in the Finals and it deflated the team when he had to sit out the fifth game of the Finals.

For the Timberwolves, a less than 100 percent Malone presented an opportunity. An opportunity that was squandered. If you’ll remember, before the Western Conference Finals, Sam Cassell did this awesome dance against the Kings.

“We lost a championship by that,” Wolves Coach Saunders said. “When [Cassell] did that he had an avulsion fracture in his hip.”

Cassell agrees.

“That was a major setback because I knew for a fact that if I was healthy, we would have won a championship. We would have definitely won a championship that year. Detroit won it that year and they beat the Lakers, (the Wolves’ opponent in the Western Conference Finals). I knew for a fact – and just to play not even 38 minutes, but if I was healthy enough to play 30 minutes, we would have won a championship that year. I know in my heart.”

Cassell’s hip proved to be a major issue as the Wolves did not have other legitimate point guard options. Fred Hoiberg and even Kevin Garnett would bring the ball past half court. I don’t know if freak injury works here, but it was definitely something that forced the Wolves to rely on Garnett almost exclusively.

The title was really the Pacers to lose. After battling the Knicks and Bulls for much of the late 90s, this seemed like their shot. However, when the Eastern Conference Finals rolled around they choked. Reggie Miller was no longer himself, he shot 38.4 percent from the field and didn’t even average ten points per game in that series. Their new supposed superstar, O’Neal, also floundered when the Wallace brothers brought consistent double teams.

That Pistons team was solid. When no one could take the championship, they did.

Could the Celtics be the 2004 Pistons?

Is the league stronger today? Probably. But could Kevin Durant’s knee balk like Malone’s? Sure. Could Harden and the Rockets run out of firepower behind one star much like Garnett and the Timberwolves? Maybe. And could the mold of consistency in San Antonio randomly crack without the presence of Tim Duncan as the Pacers did without Miller. It’s possible.

The 2004 Pistons, like the 2001 Sixers, were coached by Larry Brown. A coach obsessed with maximizing his roster. Many things had to fall the way of the Pistons but under the tutelage of Brown, they were ready. And you can bet the Celtics under Stevens will be equally prepared.

That season, Detroit won 54 games, the same pace this Celtics team is on. Detroit’s team was led by a journeymen 27-year-old point guard, Chauncey Billups. Much like Boston’s Thomas who just recently turned 28. The rest of the Pistons’ roster was filled out by Ben Wallace, another undersized center, and defensive stalwarts like Tayshaun Prince. Similarly the Celtics feature Al Horford and Jae Crowder in these roles.

There is another key parallel between these two teams— A major trade deadline acquisition. At the 2004 trade deadline, the Pistons went all-in and traded two first round picks for Rasheed Wallace. Just like Boston did in trading the Brooklyn’s first round pick in addition to their own first in exchange for All-NBA forward Paul George at this season’s trade deadline... Oh wait, that didn’t happen.

For many fans, it is this that precludes the Celtics from championship contention. Celtics General Manager, Danny Ainge, erred on the side of caution and patience at the deadline and because of that Boston does not have a superstar. It is, however, important to note that even without a Rasheed Wallace-style acquisition, the Celtics have still found a way to win as many games as that Pistons team. That is because Boston is already solid.

Not every team is blessed with a superstar, but the Pistons are an example of this not precluding a team from a possible title. Sure, Detroit is the go-to example of a “weak” champion, but they are still champions. The Celtics odds of winning the championship are small, 3.2 percent according to Vegas. But don’t rule out the randomness of the 2004 postseason again rearing its head thirteen years later. If it does Brad Stevens, a 5’9” point guard, a 6’9” center, and some damn good defensive specialists will be ready to compete for a title. Even if they don’t have Paul George.