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How Celtics, Mavs built around homegrown stars to reach NBA Finals

How Celtics, Mavs built around homegrown stars to reach NBA Finals originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

How do you construct a championship-caliber roster? Having the No. 3 pick in the NBA Draft is a good place to start.

The 2024 NBA Finals will feature two teams built around the No. 3 pick in three consecutive drafts -- Jaylen Brown (selected third in 2016) and Jayson Tatum (2017) in Boston and Luka Doncic (2018) in Dallas. It's been a long road since those drafts for both the Celtics and Mavericks, who have gone through multiple roster iterations while trying to build the best supporting cast for their homegrown stars.

How each team landed on the current group that propelled them to the NBA Finals is an intriguing lesson in roster-building.

We'll start with Dallas, which made it to Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals just two years ago before bowing out to the Golden State Warriors. Of the Mavs' nine top scorers from that 2022 postseason, only three are still on the 2024 roster: Doncic, Maxi Kleber (who just came back from a shoulder injury and averaged 4.4 games this season) and Dwight Powell, who's averaged just 2.9 minutes per game this season as an emergency backup big man.

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That means the Mavs essentially blew up their entire roster around Doncic, beginning their overhaul with a point guard swap. Jalen Brunson signed with the New York Knicks in 2022 free agency, and Dallas sent Dorian Finney-Smith, Spencer Dinwiddie and draft picks to the Brooklyn Nets for Kyrie Irving ahead of the 2023 trade deadline.

Dallas missed the playoffs in 2023, however, and was just three games over .500 in early February 2024. Then came a pair of lower-profile but crucial frontcourt deals: Grant Williams and Seth Curry for Charlotte Hornets forward P.J. Washington, and Richaun Holmes for Washington Wizards big man Daniel Gafford.

Washington has blossomed into the Mavs' third-leading postseason scorer behind Doncic and Irving (13.6 points per game), while Gafford has formed a formidable two-way frontcourt duo with 2024 first-round pick Dereck Lively and Williams turned out to be addition by subtraction.

Dallas has gone 36-14 since, rewarding general manager Nico Harrison's last-minute deals by surging to its first NBA Finals appearance since 2011.

How does the Mavs' overhaul compare to that of the Celtics, who made it to the Finals in 2022 before losing to the same Warriors team that ousted Dallas?

If Harrison hit a pair of doubles with the Washington and Gafford trades, Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens swung for the fences with a pair of bold offseason moves -- and produced two home runs.

The first was Stevens' stunning decision to send heart-and-soul veteran Marcus Smart to the Memphis Grizzlies as part of a three-team trade in June 2023 that brought Kristaps Porzingis to Boston. The second was a late-developing trade for Jrue Holiday, in which Stevens dealt fan favorite Robert Williams and reigning Sixth Man of the Year Malcolm Brogdon to the Portland Trail Blazers in September 2023 to land the former Milwaukee Bucks guard and NBA champion.

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Apart from those two deals and Grant Williams' offseason departure to Dallas, Stevens kept Boston's roster relatively the same. It turns out that was the right call: Porzingis and Holiday fit in seamlessly with Tatum and Brown, Derrick White continued to blossom into an elite two-way guard and the Celtics steamrolled to an NBA-best 64-18 record.

For Dallas, it was a complete roster overhaul marked by the acquisition of a dazzling offensive talent (Irving) and a trade deadline shakeup that finally drew out the best version of Doncic. For Boston, it was relative continuity and the addition of two unselfish stars (Porzingis and Holiday) that allowed Tatum and Brown to blossom into the best versions of themselves we've seen yet.

Expect both strategies to be emulated by rival general managers with homegrown superstars in the future. But in the present, we're about to find out which foundational piece has the better supporting cast.