The aftermath of the Celtics’ stunning Game 7 loss is just beginning, and yet it’s evident the franchise needs to make offseason changes, significant ones.
Brad Stevens and the brass can’t run it back with the same roster and hope for different results. The Heat have a PhD in exposing the weaknesses of opponents, finding those cracks that may go unnoticed by lesser teams.
On basketball’s biggest stage, the Celtics were revealed as a team that relies too heavily on the 3-point shot, despite coach Joe Mazzulla’s denials, and that struggles with interior scoring and offensive cohesion against elite defenses.
The Celtics don’t have a lot of major needs. They did, after all, reach the Eastern Conference finals and were a good shooting night from the NBA Finals, but they need to make changes to become a true championship favorite.
First, Stevens needs to upgrade the frontcourt. Al Horford will turn 37 on Saturday, and he began to show his age in the playoffs. He had trouble defending Heat center Bam Adebayo and became an offensive liability when he wasn’t hitting 3-pointers.
In Horford’s fourth NBA season in 2010-11, when he earned his second consecutive All-Star appearance, 99.5 percent of his shot attempts were 2-pointers. During this regular season, only 32.1 percent of Horford’s shots were twos, and that dropped to 28.8 percent during the playoffs. Horford made just 23 2-point shots in 20 playoff games during this run, meaning he averaged just one paint bucket per game.
On several occasions during the conference finals, Horford caught the ball in the paint in the middle of Miami’s zone and passed up shots to pass it to a teammate beyond the arc. Horford’s mentality this late in his career is not to score in the post. It is no longer a viable part of his game.
When you pair Horford with Robert Williams, who has yet to develop a post game in his four seasons, the Celtics have two centers who can’t score without the help of lobs, especially in Williams’s case. The Celtics needed another productive center and Stevens passed on Jakob Poeltl and decided to go with the Williams-Horford duo, with Luke Kornet and Blake Griffin essentially unplayable in the postseason.
The Celtics could have taken a chance on a veteran such as DeMarcus Cousins or more of a bargain in the middle, but they passed. And the offense suffered because Horford shot 29.8 percent from the 3-point line in the playoffs, and he and Williams combined to average just 6.3 2-point shot attempts over 20 playoff games.
Second, if the Celtics are going to continue with their 3-point-heavy offense, they need more shooters. The hope is Danilo Gallinari, who missed the season with a torn left ACL, will opt into his contract for 2023-24 and provide frontcourt long-range shooting.
Again, the Celtics slipped on replacing Gallinari, who was injured in August. Stevens said Sam Hauser could assume Gallinari’s minutes and role. And while Hauser played in 80 regular-season games and shot 41.8 percent from the 3-point line, he was squeezed out of Mazzulla’s playoff rotation and relegated to garbage time, robbing the Celtics of an elite shooter.
Hauser was never a great defender but he did try, and like the Heat used sharpshooter Duncan Robinson to make a major impact in the series, Mazzulla could have found a way to keep Hauser’s shooting on the floor in a more meaningful way. Instead, he sat on the bench.
Stevens will also have to decide whether the Celtics need another facilitator in the backcourt. The Celtics don’t have a reliable shooting guard off the pick-and-roll, or a guard who can drive into the paint with speed. Marcus Smart has done some wonderful things in eight years in Boston, but the Celtics still struggled to execute offense late in games, and neither he nor Malcolm Brogdon improved that this season.
Brogdon became more of a scorer off the bench instead of a late-game point guard. And the Celtics needed a definitive floor leader, especially late in Games 1 and 2 against the Heat. There could be a restructuring of the backcourt.
What will be a must if Mazzulla is retained is a more experienced coaching staff. According to an NBA source, assistants Ben Sullivan, Aaron Miles, and Mike Moser are expected to join Ime Udoka’s staff in Houston, leaving three or more openings on Mazzulla’s staff.
It was inexplicable why the Celtics never replaced assistants Will Hardy and Damon Stoudamire, but it cost them. Mazzulla was outcoached throughout the playoffs and there was no veteran coach to offer advice or support. There are a number of former head coaches and quality assistants who would likely be interested in coming to Boston to work with the likes of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, and help the Celtics win a championship.
It’s been proven that Mazzulla cannot flourish without proper support. And he also needs more tools to use if the Celtics are to take the next step. Stevens tried adding to the depth with the acquisitions of Gallinari and Brogdon, but the trade for Mike Muscala did little to enhance the roster.
Muscala was expected to be another frontcourt player to stretch the floor, but he quickly fell out of the rotation and saw few meaningful minutes in the past few months. Mazzulla also didn’t play Payton Pritchard, who may be non-tendered in the offseason so he can find a new home.