Two years ago, the Celtics roared to the NBA Finals and put an early scare into the Warriors using their top-ranked defense. This past season, even as coach Joe Mazzulla emphasized his offensive system built on spacing and 3-point shooting, the Celtics still had the second-best defense in the league.
But significant roster alterations this summer appeared to be centered on Mazzulla’s offensive structure. Marcus Smart, the 2022 NBA Defensive Player of the Year, was traded to the Grizzlies in a three-team deal that brought center Kristaps Porzingis to Boston.
The 7-foot-3-inch Porzingis is an underrated defender and a strong rim protector, but his diverse offensive game has been his foundation.
Then the Celtics sent Grant Williams, another physical and gritty defender, to the Mavericks in a sign-and-trade.
As Celtics forward Jaylen Brown sat at a dais Wednesday and signed his five-year, $304 million contract extension that is the most lucrative deal in NBA history, he took a moment — with Mazzulla and president of basketball operations Brad Stevens sitting nearby — to make it known that he does not want this team to have a full shift from an approach that has been successful.
“I think what Kristaps can bring to us defensively, and the additions some of our other guys can bring to us defensively, I want to make sure that’s where we hang our hats this year,” Brown said. “And that starts with me. That starts with Jayson [Tatum]. That starts with guys like Rob [Williams].
“With Marcus gone, we don’t want our defensive identity to go out the door as well, so we have to really emphasize that at the start of training camp.”
While meeting with a small group of reporters about 20 minutes later, Mazzulla was asked about Brown’s comments, and whether they mesh with his own philosophy. He pointed out that over the years this Celtics core has been built on defense. There were lineups anchored by multiple big men, such as Williams and Al Horford, and groupings that leaned into more switch-heavy schemes.
“I think we have an opportunity to kind of blend both of them to where we do maintain our system and do some of the things we did well for the majority of the season, and then just kind of reinvent and find small ways that adhere to our roster,” Mazzulla said. “We’ll be playing more double big, probably, so with that we can do some different stuff.”
Mazzulla said that, overall, he does not expect the team’s defensive approach to be altered all that much, despite the notable personnel changes. He would like to see more consistency at that end of the court, and he will make small tweaks.
“I think we’ll have the ability, with the current team, to play both big and small, and bounce back from that,” he said. “And we’ll just do whatever fits our roster, whatever makes the most sense on both ends of the floor. But we have some versatility and we’re able to go to that, and I’m kind of looking forward to playing with that versatility.”
The departure of Smart, the longest-tenured Celtic, will shuffle the backcourt regardless. Mazzulla confirmed that Derrick White, who emerged as the team’s second-most valuable player behind Tatum for much of last season, will be the starting point guard.
But reigning Sixth Man of the Year Malcolm Brogdon and Payton Pritchard will have expanded roles as well.
“I think that’s really important that those three have an opportunity to grow, and help them on both ends of the floor,” Mazzulla said. “Those three guys at the guard spot are part of our identity and a part of what we need to get to on offense and defense.”
Brogdon, of course, was initially the one who was going to be sent away in the Porzingis trade rather than Smart. But the three-team deal involving the Clippers crumbled when Los Angeles decided it did not have enough time to complete a full physical exam of Brogdon, who was slowed by a forearm strain in the conference finals last May.
Mazzulla said the organization has had discussions with Brogdon since then.
“There is a healing process, there is a listening process, and to see where we are at and where we have to get to,” he said. “We’ve had some conversations as an organization, but at the same time, we understand that as the situation and the healing process go on, we will move forward as well as you can.”