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What can the Knicks learn from the 2021-22 Celtics?

Celtics vs Knicks Staff Photo By Stuart Cahill/Boston Herald

P&T Hive, #knickstwitter, friends, Romans, etc. How we been? It’s been an interesting few months over here, writing about music intermittently, watching basketball for fun, *deep breath* spending time with my kids. The offseason of a team that missed the playoffs is generally a tough time for a guy who doesn’t care, nor pretend to care about college basketball or the many prospects coming up through the system a panoply of monorail salesman will convince you our team absolutely can’t live without. Do we trade up? Trade down? Draft for fit? Draft the best player available? Who will that be and how are we evaluating that?

Well folks, I can’t lie, and I won’t pretend. I’ll leave that to the experts and the people on your timeline claiming expertise. (You spent an hour on YouTube? Tell me more about Shaedon Sharpe’s “sick measurables” or Johnny Davis’ “intangibles”.) I start evaluating talent at Summer League, and it will take me literal years in most cases to come to anything close to a real evaluation of things as ephemeral and meaningless as talent within the context of ever shifting fit.

But something I’ve always enjoyed is watching the playoffs and thinking about them as Darwinism happening in real time. Many of the ways teams are constructed are not replicable. You can only draft Giannis once. You can only pull off a heist of the century trade with the desperate, newly minted Brooklyn Nets once, there’s only so many brilliant coaches or generationally talented and game breaking shooters that get drafted the pick before your slot, but in many ways the NBA playoffs can also be understood as a competition of ideas. It’s also about construction, it’s also about strategy.

So that’s what I’d like to use my time and space for here today. Specifically about the Boston Celtics, a team that not so long ago was thought of as a young and jumbled core with a low ceiling. I’d like to take the many hours I’ve spent watching these playoffs, and unfortunately the Celtics, and apply the lessons I think I’ve learned to how the Knicks can construct their team and utilize their own pieces and potential pieces going forward.

1. Size Matters

An old NBA chestnut that has gone out of vogue in a league where Rudy Gobert is deemed occasionally unplayable, but worth noting because I’m writing this on the heels of a Time Lord masterpiece in which he was +21 and had help, but arguably won the game for the Celtics with his work on the boards and with his shot contesting.

I’m putting this as my first takeaway, not because it’s the most important lesson, but the most timely. If you believe Twitter randos, Mitchell Robinson is all but gone, and that would be a real shame, because as I’ve written and researched, Time Lord is his closest league counterpoint. For years leading up to this season, Robert Williams’ ability to stay on the floor, both health wise and with his aggressive play, were points of contention. What Ime Udoka showed is the problem was largely user error, a failure of imagination on the part of former coach Brad Stevens. Given the right defensive scheme and direction, Williams became the lynch pin of a historic defense.

What you see during a “Time Lord Game” is how for some teams, in a league in which it’s increasingly rare to see a freak big who can switch onto any position, contest shots from anywhere, is a dominant offensive or defensive rebounder at all times, and is an automatic roll finisher, this kind of player can serve as a poison pill. There’s no answer for guys like these, and we might not have seen Robert Williams on this stage if the Celtics hadn’t had the conviction to extend him in 2021.

I’m on record giving an exact dollar amount to what I think Mitchell Robinson is worth to the Knicks. And comparing the value of two different players isn’t absolute. Williams got hurt late in the season and has only intermittently been as important as he was during the Celtics regular season rise to their current success. But when you watch a game like game three, and consider his leap over this past season, it’s hard to justify letting Mitch walk over a dollar discrepancy that may not be seismic.

2. No Panic Trades

A valuable one for all Knicks fans. It’s easy to forget now, but as late as January of this year, hardcore Celtics fans were giving serious thought to breaking up their battery of athletic wings. This came after years of biting at the apple, albeit in a weak East in which, at least I never thought the team was a real threat to compete for a chip (I know, they got LeBron to a game seven in the ECF. I know. I know.) but the organization never pulled the trigger on a trade that may have remade the franchise after some tremendously bad luck with free agents Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving that nearly cost them their window.

The Knicks have a large young core, and all those pieces will certainly not be making it to whatever the “finished” and best version of this team will eventually look like, but right now, with both the Celtics, and the long constituted Warriors, we are seeing the value of patience and continuity.

3. Be Water

The evolution of Jayson Tatum should be either of interest to Julius Randle, or being shown to him as a clip package on loop with his eyelids taped open in restraints as Ludwig Van’s 9th blasts at ear splitting volumes. Tatum has subverted the concept of “The Star Coming Through In The Big Game” as preached by the old guys on the TNT desk post game.

He’s done this by using the attention he demands and turning himself into a valuable distributor, a dynamic point wing who can beat you in a number of ways. Part of this is his ability to take the scoring load off himself because he’s surrounded by a balanced squad of capable scorers who can pick up the slack when he ends up with a 12 point game in the Finals.

But my personal theory of how the miracle of 2021 occurred was Julius’ passing opened a new aspect of his game. He was so much more deadly when he was pass first, getting a majority of his offense in the flow, but still able to kill you with his pat the ball, face up game when the rest of the team was dry and the Knicks absolutely needed a basket.

Most Knicks fans, myself included, came off the season looking at Julius as a lost cause we would dump for pennies on the dollar. But as we get further away from that bizarro, regression nightmare with him, I can’t help watching Tatum and wondering if there might be a way to salvage that sunk cost through redirection. And all this brings us to...

4. Make, Or Miss

I have seen some writers on an approximation of this story, but no one has really nailed it for me. The weirdest thing about this Celtics run, and their corollary in the West, the Dallas Mavericks, is the three point shooting. And I’ve seen some discussion of how the three has powered these blowouts both for and against through high variance, but something I haven’t seen is an explanation for how, when a team is on, the entire team is on at the same time.

Here is how the Celtics as a team, as a TEAM, shot against Miami from three in their Eastern Conference Final, with the attempts consistently between 30-40 a game: .324, .500, .375, .235, .303, .333, .344. That’s a huge swing between their best and worst performances, with many games throughout their playoff run similarly chaotic both in how hot and how cold they would run as a collective. In Game 1 of the Finals, they had a historic fourth quarter that may eventually swing a championship. The team is breaking records for threes taken and made, but as someone who has wagered, and both won and lost a good bit on the team throughout this postseason, what’s inexplicable about the Celtics is how you can more or less tell where the game is going shooting wise right away.

To me, this postseason can either be best explained, or is most confusing, when considering Grant Williams and Dorian Finney-Smith, two role playing wings on the two most volatile teams in the playoffs. Williams has shot 25% from three in this postseason, but was a 41% shooter in the regular season and with steady improvement each year finds himself at a career 37% from three. He also had 27 points in an improbable Game 7 that saw Boston topple the reigning champion Bucks in the second round. He’s not the Rashard Lewis type, proto three and D wing that his two star teammates have developed into the platonic ideals of. He’s 6’6 and stocky, a wing/post tweener who does a lot of garbage work for the Celtics and some nights the ball swings to him and some nights it doesn’t. He’s expanding our idea of what a guy with his skillset is and what he can be.

My point is that I think on a lot of teams we never get to see what a player like Grant Williams is capable of. What the Celtics have unlocked in Williams, Horford, Smart, White, and Pritchard is an offense that should look familiar to the Warriors, that relies on movement and rhythm, and when it’s working it sings and it’s like fucking Kabbalah or something.

So how to apply this? The Celtics had a pretty similar roster last season that Brad Stevens could do little with. I’d argue the Celtic’s stellar rookie coach has quite a lot to do with it, another disciple of the great Gregg Popovich, like the coach he’s facing in these Finals. Both coaches are also genius level defensive minds, but perhaps a system offensive coach who could preach that kind of movement and life and energy would be a start.

In terms of team building, I think of a guy like Reggie Bullock, who I was fine with letting go in the last offseason after he was “exposed” against the Hawks for not being able to put the ball on the floor. But what we saw this year in Dallas is properly utilized, Bully could’ve been our own Grant Williams. He shot 41% from three last year for the Knicks and was an extremely capable defender (his percentage dipped to 36% this year in Dallas even as his estimation and value around the league grew). Much like the issues with Robert Williams, the problems appears to have been user error. If Bully is in a system that doesn’t demand more than he can offer, if he’s simply locking down on D and floating around the perimeter dropping daggers, maybe he’s still a Knick and the team isn’t dreaming of scenarios to fleece the Kings out of the fourth pick.