Can the Celtics repeat as champs in today's NBA? Why Boston will remain in the title picture

As happy as he was to be hoisting the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy again, Jrue Holiday sounded nearly as excited to have a front-row seat to watch Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown get their hands on NBA championship gold for the first time — to see the Boston Celtics’ two young superstar wings reach this watershed moment, as they have so many others over the past seven seasons, together, and with joy.

“It's been great to experience on this side, and to be on this side and get this win,” Holiday said on Monday night, after the Celtics put the finishing touches on a 106-88 win in Game 5 of the 2024 NBA Finals, eliminating the Dallas Mavericks to reach the top of the mountain. “Hopefully, it's a burden off of their shoulders.”

There’s something a vet like Holiday understands about this, though, that his younger, gleeful colleagues might not yet have internalized. See, the relief of sloughing off the yoke of Can’t Win the Big One — the pleasure that comes with putting down that weight and picking up a great big golden trophy — can be fleeting. Because, after all, what is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.

“Another burden,” Holiday said, “is doing it again.”

That’s a trick that’s become harder and harder to pull off in the modern NBA, where the pace of player movement and roster reconstruction has continued to accelerate at such a blinding clip that virtually every crowbarred-open path to contention seems to begin closing in two years, max.

The last six seasons have each ended with a different team lording over the league; we haven’t seen a repeat champion since Kevin Durant was a Warrior. In a 30-team sport featuring arguably the deepest talent pool and the widest distribution of said talent in league history, you’d probably be better off taking the field over the incumbent when projecting out to this time next year.

And yet — and this may be recency bias and a near-total lack of sleep talking — it’s not hard to see a pretty compelling case for why Boston could find itself right back in this position next June … and, maybe, for a few more springs after that.

“I think we have an opportunity,” said Brown, who began the league year by signing the richest deal in NBA history and ended it by being named the Most Valuable Player of the Eastern Conference finals and NBA Finals. (Which, y’know: pretty friggin’ good year.) “I think we definitely have a window.”

Before turning the page to next season, it’s probably worth crystallizing a bit just how remarkably dominant Boston was this season. The Celtics were the 26th team in NBA history to win 64 or more regular-season games; no team has ever had more 50-point wins, 30-point wins or 25-point wins in a single season. At 16-3 in the playoffs, they boast the second-highest winning percentage of any champion since the league went to seven-game series in every round, behind only the 2016-17 Durant-infused Warriors.

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, left, celebrates next to Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca, right, near the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy after the Celtics won the NBA championship with a Game 5 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Monday, June 17, 2024, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Jayson Tatum should enjoy this championship feeling while it lasts. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

They’re just the 14th ever to top 80 combined wins in a season, joining a who’s who of some of the greatest teams the league’s ever seen:

  • The 1971-72 Lakers that won 33 straight games;

  • The 1985-86 Celtics and 1986-87 Lakers that arguably represent the peaks of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson’s iconic runs;

  • The 1999-00 Lakers, led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant;

  • The Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce/Ray Allen 2007-08 Celtics that beat the Kobe/Pau Gasol Lakers;

  • The 2008-09 Lakers squad that bounced back the next season beating the upstart Orlando Magic in the Finals;

  • The 2012 Big Three Miami Heat; and

  • Three iterations of both Michael Jordan’s Bulls (1991-92, ’95-96 and ’96-97) and Stephen Curry’s Warriors (2014-15, ’15-16 and ’16-17).

The Celtics finished with the fifth-highest point differential ever in a regular season, outscoring opponents by an average of 11.34 points per game, and the 22nd-highest differential in a postseason at +8.05 per game. (Their 16 victories came by an average of 14.1 points; that Game 4 blowout dropped them down the rankings quite a bit.) They outscored opponents by 8.6 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs, according to NBA Advanced Stats; that’s the sixth-best net rating of any champion in the play-by-play data era (1996-97), behind only the 2001 Lakers, 2017 Warriors, 2018 Warriors, 2014 Spurs and 2016 Cavaliers. And they did that while only getting three full games of the starting center who kind of unlocked their entire team.

That success was fueled in large part by what will go down as the most efficient regular-season offense in NBA history, and the fourth-most efficient postseason offense of any team to win the title, behind only the ’86-87 Lakers, last year’s Nuggets, and the Year 1 KD Warriors.

The C’s offense wasn’t quite as historic as all that once you account for pace and era, but it was still an absolute monster. According to Jared Dubin’s adjusted efficiency metrics, which measure how much better or worse a team’s offense/defense was than the league’s average unit in that season, the 2023-24 Boston attack was the 10th-best offense since the NBA/ABA merger in 1976-77. The only teams ahead of them: two peak Dirk Nowitzki Dallas teams, two peak Steve Nash “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns squads, the 73-win Warriors, the ’95-96 and ’96-97 Bulls, the 1997-98 Stockton-to-Malone Jazz and the 2003-04 Chris Webber-led Kings.

The glass-half-empty take: It’s not exactly easy to replicate one of the 10 or 15 greatest single seasons in NBA history. The glass-half-full view, though: Thanks to the maneuvering of team president Brad Stevens — which, holy crap, what more can you say about the job he’s done since moving from the bench to the corner office? — the Celtics will feature the kind of continuity that at least gives them a shot.

There may be some losses on the margins; third-string centers Luke Kornet and Xavier Tillman Sr., for example, are unrestricted free agents. (We’ll always have Game 3, X.) But Boston will bring back all eight players who logged at least 1,000 minutes during the regular season and 150 minutes during the playoffs — the entire eight-man rotation that reduced the league to rubble.

Brown’s set to begin the record-breaking extension he signed last summer; Tatum’s almost assuredly, like, minutes away from agreeing to terms on his own. A new deal for the also-extension-eligible Derrick White won’t reset the market like the Jays’ pacts, but it’s a pretty safe bet that one’s coming … which is enough to make you smile even after Dereck Lively II just accidentally smashed your face into the hardwood.

Linchpin veteran big man Al Horford still has one more year on the absolute steal of a re-up he agreed to early in the 2022-23 season; a starting-caliber stretch-5 who just posted 51/42/87 shooting splits during the regular season, shot 37% from distance on volume in the playoffs, and gave world-class isolation roasters Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving fits when they tried to hunt him on switches is going to cost Boston less than 7% of the salary cap next season. Larceny.

Perfect-fit offseason additions Holiday (through at least the 2026-27 season, with a player option for ’27-’28) and Kristaps Porziņģis (through 2025-26) inked multi-year extensions after their arrivals, too. Heave god Payton Pritchard is around for the next four years; pitch-perfect second-unit sniper Sam Hauser has a dirt-cheap $2.1 million club option for next season.

They’re all coming back … and, crucially, they all know exactly what they’re coming back to, and what they’re coming back for. Remember: This was only Joe Mazzulla’s second season as the Celtics’ head coach, his first since having the interim tag removed, his first with an actual training camp — a camp that began right after Holiday was added to the roster.

“I just think this year, everything was different when we came in for workouts before training camp,” Horford said. “[Mazzulla] really, I felt like, put a sprint on everything how he wanted it to be — how he wanted us to work, how he wanted us to carry ourselves, and how determined he wanted us to be. And it started from there.”

When the Celtics reconvene in the fall, they’ll do so with a full season’s worth of familiarity with one another within the context of what Horford called “Joe Mazzulla ball.” On offense: a commitment to five-out spacing in which every contributor can handle, shoot, pass, cut, set screens, drive a closeout, read the game and comfortably attack from different spots on the floor, forever searching for new pathways to creating open catch-and-shoot 3-pointers or mouse-in-the-house mismatches for Porziņģis in the post. On defense: a versatile, attacking structure that can switch screens across every perimeter position, lock down the paint in drop coverage, and toggle back and forth among different schemes and matchups at a moment’s notice.

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - JUNE 17: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics hugs head coach Joe Mazzulla of the Boston Celtics during the fourth quarter of Game Five of the 2024 NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks at TD Garden on June 17, 2024 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Joe Mazzulla won an NBA championship in only his second year as Boston's head coach. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

It’s a means of creating mismatches but never conceding them; of generating extra possessions (on the offensive glass, by creating turnovers, etc.) without giving them up; of applying constant offensive pressure while almost never sacrificing transition defense; of forcing opponents to face tests full of impossible questions while always seeming to have the answers. It feels, to some degree, like the solution for modern NBA basketball.

“I think Joe is a basketball genius,” White said after Boston’s Game 3 win. “So whatever he says, I'm going to try to just do it to my highest capabilities.”

They’ll also return with full confidence in Mazzulla’s proof of concept — having seen firsthand that, when you give yourself over to it, it can make you the best team in the world.

“Everything that he wanted to do, he was able to accomplish,” Horford said. “He always knew when to push the buttons.”

It’s reasonable to think that Mazzulla, who doesn’t even turn 36 for two weeks, will get even better at finding even more buttons to push and learning when to push them. It’s reasonable to think that Tatum — already a three-time All-NBA First Team selection by age 26, fresh off averaging 25 points, 9.7 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game in Boston’s title run, having shown dramatic growth as a playmaker and off-the-dribble engine — isn’t done improving.

(I also don’t think we should undersell Tatum’s willingness to reorient some of his game away from individual scoring and statistics in favor of creating space for the rest of Boston’s top six. He might not be a megawatt superstar of the same magnitude as the top three or four MVP finishers, but it’s fair to wonder whether the Celtics would have coalesced into a constellation this brilliant if he insisted on shining as bright as they do. I’m not sure they would; I am sure that he’s happy with the way it all worked out.)

It’s reasonable to think that Brown, who in his age-27 postseason showcased the most ferocious and polished defensive and facilitating work of his career, might also have an even higher ceiling to scrape. And it’s reasonable to think that, with two prime-aged elite two-way wings as his building blocks, Stevens can build damn near whatever kind of team he wants around them as the years wear on.

The staggering of the contracts on Boston’s books presents some potential pivot points and off-ramps: Horford hitting unrestricted free agency next summer, Porziņģis in the summer of 2026, Holiday’s 2027 player option. If the mix stagnates, Stevens — who’s proven his willingness to take opportunistic and sometimes risky swings — will have chances to shake things up, and he’ll have the benefit of being able to do it with a safety net. Tatum and Brown afford the Celtics the luxury of malleability; the lack of glaring holes in their game that have to be filled in or hidden should make it easier for Boston’s brass to reimagine their team on the fly and plug in different kinds of pieces as needed.

And they’ll need to — whether because players like Horford and Holiday eventually age out of their perfect-fit effectiveness, or because it simply becomes too expensive to field five of the 40 or 50 best players in the NBA under the new collective bargaining agreement, with the significant restrictions imposed on teams that surpass the “second apron.” Those prohibitions don’t pose a major threat this season, with the top eight already locked up; they could loom large in the years to come, though, once all the massive extensions go on the books and Stevens and Co. need to find more low-cost talent to backfill the rotation. Good thing, then, that the Celtics only owe one future first-round pick (their 2029 first to Portland, from the Holiday deal) and one future first-round pick swap (2028, top-one-protected, to the Spurs, from the White trade) over the next seven years.

Hitting on all those picks, and continuing to nail every signing and trade, is very, very hard. Even the smartest, most creative, most forward-thinking front offices don’t bat 1.000 in the transaction market, and swings and misses can have massive, long-ranging consequences. But Boston is built to give Tatum, Brown and Mazzulla multiple bites at the apple over the next few seasons to continue the run of conference finals and championship contention — which, in an age of increased parity, might be as close to dynastic ambition as we’re going to get.

The Celtics have grabbed the brass ring, but they also have the opportunity to grab even more of them. How they handle that success — organizationally, but also on a human, personal level — promises to be fascinating.

“That's what makes this thing beautiful, too: When you get to the top of that mountain, how do you stay motivated there?” said Mavericks star, former Celtic and known ruminator Kyrie Irving. “Now that they're there, I think those are questions they're going to have to answer for themselves.”

When in doubt, they can always lean on Ol’ Reliable: owning the haters.

“Yeah, the doubters, they may be quiet now, but they will be back,” Brown said. “They will be back next year with something to say. I'll embrace that moment the same, and get after it yet again.”