To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.
Many teams are legitimate contenders next season, but at this point, the Nuggets are the clear favorites. They have the best player in the NBA (yes, it’s true), bring nearly their entire core back and have a style that will translate from year to year.
They’re not going anywhere, and anyone who thinks they are hasn’t been watching.
So, let’s run a hypothetical exercise. Let’s say the Nuggets get back to the Finals and the Celtics find a way to make it there as well. It’s Game 7, it’s tight and everything is on the line. Let’s also assume everyone is healthy. Sounds fun, right? Just for kicks, let’s debate: which players should the Celtics have floor?
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are locks, of course. When they’re at the peak of their powers, they can go toe-to-toe with Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray as well as anyone. Jokic and Murray have assumed the role of best duo in the NBA at the moment, but Tatum and Brown have something to say about that.
If this matchup does happen, they’ll have a chance to prove they’re as dynamic a duo as there is and that it’s their league until further notice. We all know Brown has to work on his left hand, and Tatum needs to start more quickly, but they’re both outstanding players and should be out there no matter how they’re playing.
It’s also safe to assume Kristaps Porzingis will be on the court. They didn’t get him to sit on the bench in crunch time. Porzingis is 4-8 all-time against Jokic, but he’s helped hold him to 5.9 assists per game in those matchups. Jokic is most lethal when his assist numbers are in double digits. When he’s looking to score, he’s still terrific, but he’s not quite as unique. So, if Porzingis is primarily on Jokic, how does that look? Can he alter his shots with his length? Does he have the stamina to tire him out? Regardless, he’ll be out there, and he’ll be involved in helping to slow him down.
OK, great. You already knew all that. But if you’ve made it this far, chances are you’re trying to decide who else is out there? At this point, barring any changes, it’s safe to assume Derrick White should and would get the nod.
The Celtics have placed their trust in him and officially dubbed him their starting point guard. He’s not at Marcus Smart’s level just yet in terms of hustle and heart, but he has the best chance of assuming that role with Smart gone. Does he have the chops to stay with Murray? White is a stellar shot blocker for his size, but is he tough enough to stymie Murray in the fourth quarter?
Murray’s late-game playoff success is absurd. Now, he has a championship under his belt, too, which has upped his swagger from a 10 to an 11. Both players are 6-foot-4, but Murray has 25 pounds on White. White wouldn’t need to win the matchup, but he would need to more or less neutralize Murray and prevent him from becoming a flamethrower. It wouldn’t be easy, but he could do it. Or if they needed to, the Celtics could put Brown on Murray and White on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Regardless, this is where they’d miss Smart.
That’s four. Let’s say the Nuggets have Murray, Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon and Jokic to close it out. Who’s the best option on the Celtics to match and ultimately exceed that lineup? This is where it gets interesting.
Malcolm Brogdon is next in terms of offensive talent. When he’s healthy, and looking like himself, he's arguably most deserving. But if Brogdon’s out there, that would mean Brown would have to stick Porter Jr. and Tatum would be on Gordon. Can they guard them? Of course they can. But with so much pressure on them to score all series and all playoffs, the wear and tear could catch up to them.
Porter Jr. has four inches on Brown. Gordon and Tatum are the same height, but Gordon has 25 pounds on him and could play some bully ball. With Jokic as the sun, and everyone else revolving around him, that means everyone else on the Nuggets has to exert a lot less energy. The Celtics, meanwhile, would be undersized height-wise in two spots and weight-wise in three. Would they have the size and physicality to trade blows?
Perhaps, so what about Al Horford? Would he make more sense instead of Brogdon? That way, Brown can slide back to the 2 and pick on Caldwell-Pope. KCP’s a good defender, but that’s a tough matchup for him. Then Porter Jr., who’s very skilled but is basically a poor man’s Tatum, would have to stick him. Gordon would likely guard Porzingis (a seven-inch difference) and Jokic would likely take Horford.
The stats show that Jokic becomes more of a passer when Horford is on the other side. Horford has the smarts, length and experience to make Jokic look human, but maybe that’s what Jokic wants. Again, when his teammates are shooting the lights out, that’s when the Nuggets go from great to almost unbeatable.
There’s another option, too. Robert Williams plays extremely well with Tatum and Brown and provides a dynamic that no one else on the roster does. Of course, we have to take offseason videos with a grain of salt, but he does appear to be placing extra emphasis on adding to his offensive arsenal this season.
Even if he can hit that 10-to-15-footer once or twice a game, that’s huge. If Williams is out there, the Celtics of course have less shooting, but they have more length, athleticism and defensive versatility.
A White-Brown-Tatum-Porzingis-Williams lineup is super duper long and rangy. The Nuggets are long and athletic themselves, but the Celtics might be the only team in the NBA that can produce a longer lineup.
We all know Williams is great, but can you trust him with the championship on the line? Ideally yes, but realistically, it’s a tough call. As springy and superb as he is, he’s also the least experienced of the bunch and somewhat one-dimensional.
So, with all that in mind, the question remains: Brogdon, Horford, or Williams? You make the call. But here’s my two cents: in the end, you want the player you have faith in the entire way. The guy who’s been there throughout and who always has your back. The player where even if it doesn’t always go his way, you know he gave it absolutely everything he had.
Horford provides almost as much shooting and passing as Brogdon and almost as much rim protection and length as Williams. What he lacks in mobility and youth, he makes up for in wisdom, savviness and poise.
So, if this scenario unfolds, I hope to see Horford out there. Remember how overcome with emotion he was when the Celtics made the Finals? Imagine what he’ll look like if they win it. The guy would have retired by now if he didn’t think it was possible.
He knows it’s within reach, and he deserves to be out there if they have the chance to clinch it.