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Glow Up or Blow Up: What the Celtics’ Title Means for Other Dynamic Duos in the NBA

(Photo Credit: Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons & All-Pro Reels, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)


The Boston Celtics celebrated their 18th title last night as they decisively broke the Dallas Mavericks in an emphatic 106 - 88 romp in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.  For most teams, winning an NBA Championship is the ultimate reward in patience, and it feels especially true for these Celtics.  38-year-old big man Al Horford just capped his seventeen-year NBA career and second go-round with the Celtics with his first title.  Since tearing his ACL and missing the entire 2018-19 season, center Kristaps Porziņģis endured five miserable seasons in obscurity in Dallas and in Washington before getting his first ring this year in Boston.  Most importantly, though, after years of rumors and will they/won’t they, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown put the eternal kibosh on any speculation that Boston might try to break up their dynamic duo.


The Celtics front office finally proved their point: the 26-year-old Tatum and 27-year-old Brown are too young and too talented not to get a ring eventually.  Combos like this just don’t come around very often.  When you think of teams with two exceptionally athletic, highly skilled, interchangeable, playmakers on the wing that won championships, the list kinda begins and ends with the 90s Chicago Bulls (and maybe LeBron’s Heat teams in the early 2010s).  That team was less egalitarian than the ‘24 Celtics (because when you have Michael Jordan, sharing the ball is overrated), but with Jordan and Pippen getting good looks for themselves and each other on offense, as well as being all parts versatile, aggressive, and suffocating on defense, those Bulls operated quite similarly to the title-winning Celts.


It should be clear to everyone now that the Celtics have something very special brewing with Tatum and Brown.  It’s hard enough to find one wing player who can handle the ball, threaten the defense at the rim, in the mid-range, and beyond the arc, make plays for others, and guard multiple positions at a high-level, let alone two.  In retrospect, it seems insane that anyone might have considered moving either one of the Celtics two stars, but those calls were just as persistent as they were numerous.  In today’s “rangz over everythang” culture, until Tatum and Brown won a title, their Celtics tenure was nothing but an abject failure.


Yesterday, Tatum and Brown ended the debate – and there will be no appeal.  Moving forward, it’s clear NBA teams with two young, game-changers should lean toward patience…right?


Maybe not.  Tatum and Brown aren’t like any other combo in the league.  The flexibility in their games allowed the Celitcs to build a roster with some of the most unique players in the league – and that was only possible because Tatum and Brown could make up for the others’ visible flaws.  Jrue Holiday and Derrick White are both world-class defenders and spark plugs on both sides of the floor, but they’re both prone to brutal off-nights offensively.  Tatum or Brown can easily pick up that slack.  Porziņģis is a walking shot-deterrent and useful finisher and floor-spacer, but he’s struggles in on-ball defense and has missed a ton of games over the years.  Thankfully, both Tatum and Brown are fantastic on-ball defenders and they’ve been extremely durable.  It’s not just that Tatum and Brown are great – it’s the greatness they extract from their teammates that made the Celtics truly special.


So, when it comes to keeping your prized dynamic duo around, it’s possible the Celtics aren’t the perfect measuring stick.  After all, around this time last year, there weren’t a ton of people beating the drum for keeping the Celtics band together.  Fortunately for the city of Boston, the Celtics front office ignored their detractor and stuck to the plan.  Who else should follow suit?


Dallas Mavericks


A fascinating case study, and not just because the Mavs lost to the Celtics in the Finals last night.  Okay, maybe I’m cheating by calling the 32-year-old Kyrie Irving a “young player” but I’ll be 32 in October and dammit, if anyone calls me old, I have Jack Jackson and Tom O’Leary waiting for ya, right here!  After the first full year of the Kyrie/Luka Dončić pairing produced an NBA Finals appearance in the gauntlet that was the NBA’s Western Conference, there shouldn’t be any doubts: this works.


Irving is, obviously, a controversial player, but he proved this year he can reward second third fourth chances.  He’s still, through all the shenanigans, an electric offensive player.  He’s the league’s best ball-handler, a terrifying scorer, and useful passer and when engaged, he can be opportunistic on defense too.  The real story, though, is the singular force that is Luka.


There is no better pure scorer in the league than the 25-year-old Slovenian.  Any way you want it, he can give it to you, and he’s also on the NBA’s short list of top playmakers.  The only piece missing from his game is defense, and of all the pieces to be missing, that’s probably the best-case scenario.  Defense is important – as both the Mavericks and Celtics will attest to – but it’s fairly abundant and relatively cheap to acquire.  The Mavs can find a good defender in free agency tomorrow, but finding a player who can do what Luka does offensively is outright impossible.


That’s why, for the Mavericks, taking the patient approach is also the correct approach.  Their shortest path to returning and potentially winning an NBA Finals is for Luka to improve on defense, and that could happen as soon as next year.  He doesn't even have to become an elite defender – just passable.  If he can do that, his and Kyrie’s offensive output will continue to be just as malicious as it is breathtaking.


Verdict: Glow Up


Cleveland Cavaliers


The Cavs make another interesting case study, because for as many similarities as you can find with the 90s Bulls and the ‘24 Celtics, you can find an equal amount in the current Cavs and Mavs – particularly, their heavy dependence on their two guards for offense.  The Mavs feature Luka and Kyrie, which explains why they reached the Finals in a loaded Western Conference.  The Cavs feature Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland, and if that sounds like a significant downgrade, that’s because it is.


This duo needs to be separated.  Unlike the Luka/Kyrie combo, there’s no hope for 27-year-old Mitchell and the 24-year-old Garland to make huge strides defensively, and that’s for the simple fact that neither stands a hair over 6'4’’.  Their stature limits their defensive potential, and while both (particularly Mitchell) have shown outstanding offensive ability, neither approaches Luka in terms of variety and efficiency.  One could make a compelling argument that both Luka and Kyrie are better than Mitchell – and there’s still untapped potential in Dallas.  With the Cavs, it’s a different story.


Unlike the Mavs, the Cavs aren’t getting incredible offensive efficiency from their backcourt and they don’t have tons of room for growth defensively.  Unlike the Celtics, Mitchell and Garland don’t provide Mr. Gadget-like adaptability.  They’re who they are, great offensive players without complimenting skill sets and minus defenders, and that’s not likely to change.  The Cavs should be aggressive in adding an available wing like Brooklyn’s Mikal Bridges, and should the cost require either Mitchell or Garland, the Cavs would be foolish not to go for it.


Verdict: Blow Up


Minnesota Timberwolves


Unlike the Mavericks and Cavaliers, the Timberwolves are built old-school.  They’re defense-first and feature a pair of twin-towers that would make Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon do a double-take.  And while the pairing of Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns might be the most visible by virtue of their height, their most important pairing is the one between the 28-year-old Towns and rising star Anthony Edwards, who burst onto the scene during the playoffs at the ripe age of 22.


Edwards is the real deal.  He received an undue amount of comparisons to Michael Jordan in a very short period of time, but his otherworldly athleticism does warrant some acknowledgment of their similarities.  Edwards has a long way to go to belong in the same sentence as MJ, but his play in the postseason was a very good start.  In just his fourth season, he led the Timberwolves to the Western Conference Finals, their best finish as a franchise in twenty years.


In a word, for the Timberwolves, Edwards is foundational.  He’s like Luka to the Mavericks.  The question rests on Towns, who’s up-and-down play and head-scratching propensity for bone-headed decision-making make for a major risk.  He might be the best, self-proclaimed shooting big man in the league, but he also leads the league in dumbass fouls away from the basket.  There’s always some give and take when it comes to Towns.


That said, even with all the inconsistency, the Timberwolves need to stay the course with Towns and Edwards.  Heading into this season, the Denver Nuggets were heavy favorites to repeat, and the Timberwolves came back from down twenty in their building to upset the defending-champs in Game 7 of the Conference Semifinals.  Yes, things unraveled against the Mavericks, but the Mavs are facing their own come-to-Jesus moment right now after being dismantled by the Celtics.  Towns might not be a perfect player, but he can be more than good enough if Edwards continues on his trajectory, and right now, I’d happily place my money on Ant-Man.


Verdict: Glow Up

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