Dynasty time?: Celtics well-positioned to make run at multiple championships

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum holds, center, up the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy as he celebrates with the team after they won the NBA championship with a Game 5 victory over the Dallas Mavericks, Monday, June 17, 2024, in Boston. (Charles Krupa/AP)

Dynasties aren’t what they used to be, in any sport, it seems. 

Can the Boston Celtics, crowned 2024 NBA champions on Monday night, change that?

Boston became the NBA’s sixth different champion in the past six years, a stretch of egalitarianism unprecedented in league history. They did it with a blowout 106-88 win over the Dallas Mavericks in Game 5 of the NBA Finals in Beantown, completing a dominant season when they led the NBA in regular-season wins with 64, and then went 16-3 in playoffs to go 80-21 on the year. 

Is it the start of something, or just a good team peaking at the right time only to make way for another champion a year from now?

History says the latter. 

Business considerations have made dynasties harder and harder to create and maintain. Over successive labour agreements owners in all the major North American sports have worked to ensure themselves of more and more cost certainty by putting upper limits on salaries. It’s often sold as an effort to ensure parity — if a franchise is roughly limited in what they can spend on talent, the best players get spread around the league and more teams have a chance to win. The argument is that if more teams and cities have a chance to contend, interest is more widespread, more eyes on the product and more money flows into everyone’s pockets. 

It’s a nice theory but ignores the fact that it has always been dynasties that have built fanbases to begin with. Dynasties are so often the source of the lore that creates the stories that sustain interest over time. 

In the NBA no one was complaining that Magic Johnson’s Lakers or Larry Bird’s Celtics were too good in the 1980s, or Michael Jordan’s Bulls in the 1990s or more recently that the Golden State Warriors were bad for the sport. 

Quite the opposite. 

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Nowhere is tradition and mythmaking more a part of the fabric of a place in the NBA than in Boston, where 17 championship banners already hang in the rafters at TD Garden. 

Make it 18. 

The latest edition of the Celtics capped a seven-year run as one of the most consistently competitive teams in the NBA by winning the first title of the ‘two Jays’ era, featuring Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the pair of athletic, versatile wings who together have been to five Eastern Conference Finals and two Finals before finally getting over the hump against Dallas. 

The 18th banner sets an NBA record, breaking Boston’s tie with the Los Angeles Lakers. 

It doesn’t matter that the first 11 of those titles were won when the NBA included between eight and 14 teams; two more when the American Basketball Association was in full flight, cutting down the NBA’s talent pool, before Bird led Boston to his three titles and the salary cap wasn’t nearly as restrictive. 

Since then? Boston has just one title (2008) to show for the past 38 years, the same number — before last night — as the Toronto Raptors, who are in no one’s eyes a franchise dripping in championship tradition. 

But all that history matters, turns out. 

It may not have been the difference on Monday night. 

Boston beat Dallas in Game 5 in part because Tatum (31 points, eight rebounds, 11 assists) was brilliant, playing arguably his best game of the playoffs, and certainly of the Finals. He had plenty of help from the likes of Jrue Holiday, Derrick White and Brown (21 points, eight rebounds, six assists), the Finals MVP, who took possession of the award named after the greatest Celtic of them all, Bill Russell. 

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But mostly Boston won because they are better, deeper and more experienced than Luka Doncic and the Mavericks, who were rebuilt on the fly over the past 12 months. Dallas’s weaknesses — the ability to generate offence outside Doncic and Kyrie Irving, in particular — were exposed because everyone who takes the floor for Boston can defend well or exceptionally well. This means they can do a good job containing the ball against elite ball handlers while also staying home on shooters. 

And offensively, Boston rains threes. When they go in — Boston was 10-of-21 from deep in the first half, were up by 21 to start the third quarter and never looked back — they are very tough to beat. Boston made 22 more threes than Dallas for the series, a math deficit the Mavericks couldn’t overcome. 

Lots of teams have tried to replicate Boston’s formula: draft well, make key trades and hope for the best, but in a league designed to create parity, perhaps history and tradition are a differentiator. 

What happens in Boston is seen as part of a continuum. The past matters. 

“I do notice, especially this time of the season, playoff time and obviously being in the Finals for the second time, when you drive around and go to the gas station, or I wanted to go get some ice cream yesterday, it’s Celtics gear everywhere and everybody is super excited about this team and what we have accomplished and what we have the chance to accomplish,” Tatum said in the build-up to Game 5.

“You really just feel the love and support from everybody in the city of Boston, and how bad they want us to win, how much they have been cheering for us. So I don’t look at it as pressure. Just unconditional support, and that we have an amazing fan base here.”

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It takes some learning. Tatum grew up in St. Louis. He was a Kobe Bryant fan. He came to the NBA as a teenager and didn’t fully appreciate what he was getting into by joining Boston. 

It did take some time. For one, normally, when you’re a top-five draft pick, you go to a lottery team that is rebuilding,” Tatum said. “I was in a unique situation from the rest of the guys in my draft class in that the Celtics were the No. 1 seed in the East before. We were competing for a championship ever since I’ve gotten here.

“When you come into the NBA, you just think every organization, every franchise is the same,” said Tatum, who leads all NBA players in playoff scoring and games played since entering the league in 2017-18 as the No. 3 pick in 2017. “That couldn’t be any further from the truth. I’ve been fortunate to be a part of something that is special, that has had some of the greatest players to ever play wear this uniform. You realize early on that it’s an honour and it raises your level of commitment, I felt like, to this city and to this franchise.

“So there were just different instances throughout the season in my rookie year where I would learn about different people that played an intricate part in this organization — the history throughout the Celtics and what the Celtics mean to the game of basketball. You just grow a level of appreciation through your time here.”

It’s not for everyone. The Mavericks’ run to the Finals had been driven by Doncic’s brilliance and the reemergence of Irving as a game-changing force after six seasons when the electric guard was known more for off-court oddness than his on-court magic. 

Irving’s lost years began in Boston where he never quite grasped that being a Celtic was supposed to be special 

“When I look back, getting traded here, it wasn’t one of my options. It wasn’t like No. 1 on my list. So when the trade opportunity got approached to me, instead of going back and appreciating the Celtics’ history, I just came in with an open mind and just kind of like, ‘all right, I’m just going to go with the flow into this.’ But I think that was the wrong approach, just being young,” said Irving.

The Duke product was the target of the Celtics fans’ ire in all three games in Boston — he was 5-of-15 for 15 points Monday night — struggling against that and Boston’s defence. 

“Now being older with hindsight looking back, I definitely would have taken time to know the people in the community and talked to some of the champions that have come before me and actually extend myself to them instead of the other way around, expecting them to be there giving me advice,” said Irving. “Because they have been through this. They have championship pedigree here. They have shown it for years. They are one of the most winningest franchises in all of sports.”

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And for now, they are again. They are well-positioned to stay on top for a while. Tatum is 26, Brown is 27. All of their key players — Tatum, Brown, Holiday, White, Horford, and Kristaps Porzingis, along with bench stalwarts Peyton Pritchard and Sam Hauser — are under contract for next year. 

Keeping them all together is expensive. When Tatum signs his extension this summer, Boston will have more than $600 million tied into that pair alone. 

But they’ve proven they can win, that they’re worthy of the Celtics tradition. Maybe they can defy the well-established current in the NBA and do it again.

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