The NBA season is almost upon us, but Hot Take SZN is here, and at the end of another eventful summer we will see how close to the sun we can fly and still stand the swelter of these viewpoints.
On the Boston Celtics bench this season are a handful of guys who combined to start 42 games on their way to within six minutes of reaching the 2018 NBA Finals. Depth doesn’t necessarily translate to championship success, but when your starting lineup is also filled with All-Star potential, it makes you as formidable a challenger to the dynastic Golden State Warriors as we’ve seen since at least 2016.
In other words … there’s a decent chance the Celtics win the 2019 NBA championship, right?
LeBron James left the Eastern Conference, and even if he had returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Celtics would have been heavy favorites to come out of the East. With apologies to Tristan Thompson, the Cavs are an afterthought now. Boston eliminated the Philadelphia 76ers in a five-game conference semifinals series and nearly toppled LeBron’s Cavs without the playoff services of injured Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. The Toronto Raptors swapped DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard, and the Milwaukee Bucks hired a new coach, but neither closes the gap between the field and a Celtics team that is essentially reintegrating a pair of All-Stars onto a roster that should have made the Finals.
[Hot take we might actually believe: LeBron’s Lakers won’t make the NBA playoffs]
That leaves the Warriors. We’ll get to the Houston Rockets later in this hot-take series, but they replaced two of their best defensive weapons on the wing with Carmelo Anthony, and Golden State countered by adding DeMarcus Cousins, who is expected to return from his Achilles injury around Christmas. Where Houston features the reigning MVP and an aging All-Star in the backcourt, the Warriors boast two MVPs, five bona fide All-Stars and a Finals MVP coming off the bench. There is no Western Conference team that can match the collective talent at the top of Golden State’s roster.
The Celtics come closest, featuring a trio of established stars — Irving, Hayward and Al Horford — at the three most important positions on the court and rounding out the starting lineup with recent third overall picks Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, both of whom are threats to make the All-Star team this year with even the most natural of development trajectories from last year’s performance.
The Warriors have built their success on fielding a death lineup of five shooters who space the floor offensively. The Celtics may not feature three of the greatest long-distance shooters in NBA history, but they can field a five-out lineup full of 40 percent 3-point shooters. All five of Boston’s starters can create offense for themselves and each other, which should make them a handful matchup-wise.
We often forget that Golden State’s championships have been built on stout defense, too. With Draymond Green serving as the fulcrum of a revolutionary switching defense, the Warriors ranked among the league’s top defensive units during their previous two title runs, before dropping to merely a top-10 level last season, when they still came around to post the best playoff defensive rating.
Likewise, four of Boston’s starters stand between 6-foot-7 and 6-10, fully capable of defending any switch and shrinking the space Golden State creates. The Celtics posted the NBA’s second-best defensive rating during the 2017-18 regular season, second only to the Utah Jazz, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be an elite outfit again this year. With expected improvement on the offensive end, their net rating may not match Golden State at its best, but they’re a matchup nightmare nonetheless.
We’ve seen Irving go toe to toe with Stephen Curry in an NBA Finals and live to tell the tale of the game-winning shot that erased Golden State’s 3-1 lead for good in Game 7. And we’ve seen Boston finish 3-3 against the Warriors with lesser lineups over the past three seasons, playing them tough in all but one of those six meetings, thanks to a ferocious defensive backcourt and a brilliant coach in Brad Stevens who was voted the NBA’s best in a survey of the league’s general managers.
There’s no other team with those credentials, and Klay Thompson knows it, declaring on media day, “I like the team out East in Boston. They’ve got a very nice young team. One through five, man, they’ve got a team that kind of mirrors ours, as far as their length, guys who can shoot and play defense, and an unselfish way about things. So, I think that they are going to be a team to reckon with.”
Back to that depth again. Where the Celtics will roll out Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris, Semi Ojeleye and Aron Baynes — a handful of tough-minded players in their primes who played key roles in Boston’s conference finals run — the Warriors will counter with 34-year-old Andre Iguodala (arguably the sixth man of the decade), 33-year-old Shaun Livingston (as crafty a backup point guard as there is) and a trio of talented youngsters without much of a playoff track record (Quinn Cook, Kevon Looney and Jordan Bell). Boston’s bench is capable of closing leads its starters might lose.
The Celtics are young and hungry, and they will push the Warriors to limits they didn’t have to reach in last year’s Finals, when David West and Livingston credited coach Steve Kerr for keeping the team together during a “B.S.”-filled season with a series of motivational tactics designed to hold the attention of a team that reached the finish line in four straight years. Add the increased speculation that Kevin Durant could leave in 2019 free agency, the “curious“-ness surrounding Cousins, another year of wear and tear on all of them and this feeling that the sun is past high noon on Golden State’s run, and there’s reason to believe the Warriors are as vulnerable as they’ve been since at least 2016.
That’s a hot take for another day. Today we’re saying the Celtics will win the 2019 NBA championship. We could always change our minds tomorrow, because sometimes hot takes turn into dumpster fires.
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