Celtics’ Success Offers Blueprint for Young Mavericks

Getting back to the NBA Finals won’t be easy because the Western Conference is only getting stronger, but Dallas now has the experience and foundational core.
Doncic and the Mavericks will have a tough task returning to the NBA Finals.
Doncic and the Mavericks will have a tough task returning to the NBA Finals. / David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Late Monday night, as the Boston Celtics’ celebration picked up steam, Luka Doncic made the long walk to the interview room that had become all too familiar. Three times Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks came to Boston in these NBA Finals. And three times they had been defeated, the last a 106–88 thumping that ended Dallas’s season. As Doncic—still in a sweat-drenched uniform—sat down to address reporters, he struggled to find words to describe the moment.

“Nothing,” Doncic said. “Sad we lost.”

The autopsy of the 2024 Finals will reveal many things. Inefficient Dallas offense. Great Boston defense. Kyrie Irving’s struggles in his old arena and a Mavericks supporting cast that didn’t provide enough support. Strip it all away though and there’s this: The Celtics, hardened by years of failures, were ready to win a championship. The Mavericks were not.

“They’re a great team,” Doncic said. “They have been together for a long time, and they had to go through everything. So we just got to look at them, see how they play, [the] maturity, and they have some great players. We can learn from that. We got to fight next season.”

Indeed, for Dallas, Boston offers something of a blueprint. In 2022, the Celtics lost in the Finals to the Golden State Warriors. Those Celtics were young and not ready for a veteran team like the Warriors, just as the Mavericks weren’t ready for them. Boston’s stars, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, have been together for seven seasons. Doncic and Irving have been teammates for fewer than two.

“I think we learned more than anything from this series on what it takes to not only get back to this level, but win at this level,” Irving said. “And the Celtics are the perfect example.”

Irving drives to the basket against Celtics guard Jrue Holiday and center Al Horford during Game 5 of the 2024 NBA Finals.
Irving drives to the basket against Celtics guard Jrue Holiday and center Al Horford during Game 5 of the 2024 NBA Finals. / Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

This was, in many ways, an improbable run. Dallas won 50 games, a strong record but one that sandwiched the Mavericks in the middle of a crowded Western Conference playoff field. But then they beat the Los Angeles Clippers, upset the Oklahoma City Thunder and put an abrupt end to the Minnesota Timberwolves’ storybook season. Only the Celtics, hardened by five conference finals appearances in the last seven seasons, had enough to beat them.

“Success can be new for a lot of people, too,” Irving said. “But when you fail at the Finals, it’s not something that you want to carry the disappointment forever, or on to next season. We worked extremely hard to be one of the final two teams. We didn’t achieve our goal, but we achieved most of our goal. So, this is just the last step that we have to get back to, and we know it’s not going to be easy.”

Boston’s rise was fueled partly by organic growth: Tatum’s jump from All-Star to MVP candidate and Brown’s leap from All-NBA to Finals MVP. Dallas, too, will see improvement: Dereck Lively II is a 20-year-old star-in-waiting, an active rebounder and shot blocker who thrived as a lob threat. When Lively knocked down a corner three-pointer in Game 4, the grins on players on the Mavericks’ bench could be seen from Frisco, Texas. 

“That’s the next step for his development,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “He has all the skill set.”

The Mavs’ roster is loaded with players who have yet to hit their ceiling. P.J. Washington is 25. Daniel Gafford, too. Josh Green (23) and Jaden Hardy (21) are barely of drinking age. Even Doncic, who won’t turn 26 until the middle of next season, has room to grow.

“We’re a young team,” Kidd said. “This isn’t a team when you look at, you know, do we have to replace some of the older players? We have a core, a young core at that, and so this is an exciting time to be a Mavs fan and to also be a coach for the Mavs.”

The Mavericks have a young core based around Doncic but will need to make some changes in order to reach the NBA Finals again
The Mavericks have a young core based around Doncic but will need to make some changes in order to reach the NBA Finals again. / Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

Still, there will need to be changes. Boston identified its foundation pieces—Tatum and Brown—and spent years tinkering with the players around them. In the last three years, the Celtics reacquired Al Horford, traded for Derrick White, flipped Marcus Smart for Kristaps Porzingis and moved two key rotation players (Malcolm Brogdon and Robert Williams III) and draft capital for Jrue Holiday. 

Dallas revamped its roster at midseason, bringing in Gafford and Washington, deals that significantly improved the defense. And there may be more moves to make. The Mavericks could use another shooter. Tim Hardaway Jr. was Dallas’s third-leading scorer in the regular season but played just 12.7 minutes per game in the playoffs. And the Mavs will have to decide if Derrick Jones Jr., a free agent this summer, is worth a significant financial investment. 

Getting back to the Finals won’t be easy, if for no other reason than the Western Conference is only getting better. The Denver Nuggets will be back, Minnesota, too, and Oklahoma City with its young roster and bevy of draft picks is a looming terror. But the opportunity is there. To the surprise of many, Doncic and Irving work. Doncic has welcomed having a reliable scorer alongside him. And Irving, surprisingly, has thrived in a sidekick role. When Kidd pulled the starters late in the fourth quarter Monday, Doncic and Irving embraced on the sideline.

“We said, ‘We’ll fight together next season,’ ” Doncic said. “And we’re just going to believe.”

Chris Mannix


Chris Mannix is a senior NBA and boxing writer at Sports Illustrated. He began his tenure at SI in 2003 and has covered the NBA Finals and major boxing matches since 2007. Mannix spent three years at "The Vertical" at Yahoo Sports before returning to SI in 2018. He hosts Sports Illustrated's Open Floor podcast. A nominee for the 2022 National Sportswriter of the Year, Mannix has won several writing awards from the Boxing Writers Association of America and the Pro Basketball Writers Association. He is a longtime member of both groups. Mannix graduated from Boston College in 2003.