As we enter the off-season, there's no way to predict what the league will look like next year, but for now, all paths lead to and through the Golden State Warriors. They’re champs again with their third Larry O’Brien in four years, but frankly, it’s just not about the banners. They are a generation-defining dynasty, just as the Celtics and Lakers of the 80’s built their legacies with two of the best traditional front courts in history and dynamic playmakers in Bird and Magic or how the Spurs dominated the 2000’s with their brand of beautiful basketball.
The Warriors have revolutionized the modern NBA and installed a style predicated on versatile players on both sides of the ball. Their Death Lineup features triple threats (particularly shooting) from every position and the ability to switch on defense. They’ve become the blueprint of the all singing, all dancing roster that to a man, does everything.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and the NBA is a copycat league. When asked about his fixation of beating Golden State, Houston GM Daryl Morey said, “I don’t understand the teams that aren’t obsessed with beating them. To win the championship, you have to beat the Warriors.” After taking the defending champs to the limit in the Western Conference Finals, the Rockets will continue to search for pieces to overthrow Golden State.
It won’t be easy. They’re rumored to pursue LeBron James and Paul George this summer, but could lose some of their depth in July (Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute). With their their middle-aged core trying to trying to keep their championship window propped open with future MVP James Harden already in the fold, there isn’t much flexibility for a team trying to erase mistakes (Ryan Anderson, Nene Hilario) and retain young talent (Clint Capela). To beat the Warriors, you have to beat them at their own game and that starts at the beginning.
Here come the Boston Celtics.
The Celtics’ story is eerily similar to the Warriors’. Both teams hit gold with their lottery picks. Both teams capitalized on cap space and signed big free agents when they could. And for Boston, a series of timely trades eventually landed them one of the top-10 players in the game. When Danny Ainge broke up The Big Three, he recognized the shifting style and maybe more importantly, the economics, of the new NBA. Stars still dictated the fate of teams, but they would need to be surrounded by cost-controlled contracts, preferably impact rookies that could be groomed into the system.
In each of the last three seasons, the Celtics have added All-Stars via free agency and trade and over a five year period, have added four core members from the draft. Right now, the talent edge at the top is certainly in Golden State’s favor, but cracks have started to form and Boston is poised to take over the throne (regardless of where the King goes).
Consider some of the key story lines in both conference finals and eventually, The Finals: 1) isolation basketball as teams hunted mismatches (see LeBron vs. Rozier or KD vs. the world), 2) living and dying by the three, and of course, 3) the performances of the superstars and the margin of error they afford their teams. Over the last two months, we’ve seen Golden State on the winning side of those balances. It’s made easy when you have two of the best shooters in the game in Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, two of the best glue guys and defenders in Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green, and Finals MVP Kevin Durant. The Celtics fell victim to many of those pitfalls in the playoffs, but they’ll be better suited to face those issues next season.
When healthy next season, Boston could be even bigger and badder than Golden State. From what we’ve seen over their last four meetings, the Celtics match up fairly competitively with the Warriors because of their size and athleticism. Curry-Klay-Iggy-KD-Draymond come in at 6’3. 6’7, 6’6. 6’9, and 6’7. The tale of the tape for Irving-Brown-Tatum-Hayward-Horford is 6’3. 6’7, 6’8, 6’8, and 6’10. From a defensive perspective, there’s no clear advantage in size and Boston is stocked with even more plus defenders off the bench. If they decide to run it back, their second could also include Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, and Daniel Theis, all players capable of switching on the perimeter. In 2017-2018, the Celtics boasted the best defense in the NBA with a 101.5 DefRtg. In two games vs. Golden State, that dropped to 100.6, the third best against the Warriors.
Celtics Three Point Shooting
|Gordon Hayward (2017)||6'8||5.1||39.8|
The Celtics infamously lost Game 7 to the Cavaliers on their worst shooting night of the playoffs; on the doorstep of The Finals, they scored just 79 points on 7-of-39 from behind the arc. It was terrible timing, but a blip for Boston considering the big picture. They were 7th in the league in made three pointers in the regular season and 2nd only to Golden State in 3FG% at 37.7%. The trend lines--particularly for the young core of Rozier/Tatum/Brown--all point to improved shooting as the year progressed and the Celtics should enter 2018-2019 as one of the best shooting teams in the league. That will lead to better spacing and more room for one-on-one playmakers like Irving and Hayward to work.
But ultimately, the numbers don’t really matter right now. Analytics can tell a story about the past and be used to predict the future, but the bottom line is that players have to perform and even though the Celtics enjoyed unexpected run in the playoffs, in the end, they didn’t when it mattered most. Fans know there future is bright, but there was the inevitable backlash and doubters questioning whether or not the Celtics, with their abundance of riches, could put it all together next year. They’re not even the favorites out of the East in 2019.
“Yeah, but what happens when Kyrie and Hayward come back?” “There’s only one ball.” “Tatum and Brown’s growth will be stunted.” And of course, “Danny needs to make a trade.”
The Warriors fielded the same concerns when they were first put together, especially after signing Durant two years ago. The media loves narratives about behind-the-scenes drama, who’s the alpha, or “who will take the last shot with the game on the line.” The Celtics won’t be immune to this dysfunction, but if there’s anybody I trust with all this talent, it’s Brad Stevens who, for what it’s worth, reminds me a lot of Steve Kerr.
I love this thread from The Basketball Dictionary’s Dylan Murphy:
1) To me, this is the genius of Steve Kerr: On multi-star teams, the instinct is to squeeze the juice out of the top-top guys: 100% from Star A, 100% of Star B, and 50% of Star C. But when A or B is off, C still struggles due to lack of reps and diminished confidence.— Dylan Murphy (@DylanTMurphy) June 1, 2018
2) GSW consistently gets 80%-90% of Stars A, B, C + D. Part of this is the motion-style offense, but the other part is a CLEAR lack of emphasis on one player. So while it might decrease the ceiling of each player, it substantially increases the floor. THAT is the key.— Dylan Murphy (@DylanTMurphy) June 1, 2018
Basketball is fascinating that way. Inputting talent doesn’t guarantee an equivalent output, because there is only one ball. Recognizing that 90%, 90%, 80% is the best allocation of resources is the easy part. Getting the team to function that way is hard.— Dylan Murphy (@DylanTMurphy) June 1, 2018
Every season, Stevens has proven this ability to manage his roster and get the most out of his players. It was just a year ago that he shepherded a starting lineup of Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson, and Horford to the ECF. A month ago, he nearly took a team minus two All-Stars and a key rotation player to the franchise’s first Finals in eight years against these Warriors.
Next year, Boston will be healthier and more equipped to challenge Golden State in what could be the peak of their talent pools. For the Warriors, it’s the final year of Klay Thompson’s contract and the last guaranteed for Shaun Livingston. For the Celtics--if they do decide to run it back--it could be the final seasons of Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris, and even Al Horford and Kyrie Irving’s in green. Maybe it’s just me, but I think that’s a championship series for the ages.