No one should be surprised that the 2023 NBA Conference Finals resulted in a rematch of 2020’s Walt Disney World bubble teams. While there have been personnel changes, all four squads have retained attributes that made them successful during the pandemic season.
The Eastern Conference finalists have thrived on a core of talented players who’ve “bought-in” to an effective system, while the Western Conference competitors built their teams around superstar athletes who can steal games over the course of a playoff series.
The 2022–2023 Boston Celtics and Miami Heat look and play similar to their 2020 counterparts, but each has made beneficial adjustments since then. The C’s have found a unique blueprint over the past year and change. Their run to the 2022 NBA Finals was headlined by then-head coach Ime Udoka’s emphasis on strong premier defense.
First-year head coach Joe Mazulla has attempted to continue that ideal approach while also encouraging Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and others to be aggressive from behind the arc. The 2023 C’s took the second-most 3s per game and had the NBA’s third-best defense rating over the regular season.
NBA Playoffs: This year’s conference finalists have a blueprint for success
Similarly, the Miami Heat have developed a style of play that has been hard to match. Their “Heat Culture” has allowed star players like Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo to mesh with undervalued role players such as Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, and others. The Heat have been willing to bring in veterans such as Kyle Lowry and Kevin Love, who can provide the sort of experience necessary to withstand a grueling season as well as an intensity that can help turn a play-in team into a championship contender.
While both Boston and Miami have bona fide superstars, it is evident that most of their success has been a product of holistically good team play. The Western Conference’s Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers constructed their clubs in a different way that relied more on sheer star power.
The Lakers won the 2020 NBA Finals primarily because of LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Of course, forces such as Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope helped LA grab the 17th title in franchise history, but they would not have been close without their two stars. One season after winning in the bubble, the Lakers were unceremoniously eliminated in the first round of the playoffs due to the wear and tear on their superstars.
Davis dealt with a groin injury. They compromised LA’s championship hopes by placing too much responsibility on James. Had both Davis and James been healthy, it’s fully possible that the Lakers could have made a more serious run in 2021.
Likewise, Denver has built on the back of 2-time MVP Nikola Jokic. This is one of the first seasons where his supporting cast has been mostly healthy and truly deadly. Make no mistake though, without Joker, Denver is nowhere near a perennial threat in the West.
This season’s Conference Finalists showcased distinct ways of building a Finals-caliber team. The Eastern side built a system where depth, coaching, and culture are the primary focal points. The Western elites thrived on an approach that’s not possible without the presence of superstar talent.