Hot Takes We Might Actually Believe: Celtics more likely than Warriors to return to NBA Finals
The 2022-23 NBA season is almost upon us, but Hot Take SZN is here, and at the end of another eventful offseason we will see how close to the sun we can fly and still stand the swelter of these viewpoints.
The rebuilt Boston Celtics could almost taste the champagne midway through the 2022 NBA Finals, when they were five minutes from taking a 3-1 lead, but the Golden State Warriors flipped the series in favor of their waning dynasty with a blend of Stephen Curry and championship guile, cascading to victory in six games.
Four months later, the Celtics carry with them the experience and hunger that comes from their collapse on the game's biggest stage, while the Warriors will attempt to extend their reign for at least one more season.
Despite an offseason of unexpected turmoil, the Celtics have more convincing reasons to believe they can ride last season's momentum to greater success against an Eastern Conference that features only one truly fearsome playoff opponent. The opposite is true for the Warriors, who are balancing an aging core atop a reshuffled and untested depth chart in a Western Conference that now boasts two reloaded contenders.
The case for the Boston Celtics
The elephant in Boston's locker room is the suspension of 2022 Coach of the Year candidate Ime Udoka, whose alleged "crude language in his dialogue with a female subordinate prior to the start of an improper workplace relationship with the woman" rattled the organization just days before the start of training camp.
Udoka was instrumental in the Celtics' midseason turnaround from sub-.500 team to title favorite, both from a strategic standpoint and as the backbone of a team that had lost its toughness. They replaced him with 34-year-old Joe Mazzulla, whose lone experience as a head coach was at the NCAA Division II level.
Boston can either rally around its interim coach or fold in the face of a title shot, and the early returns indicate they are falling in line behind Mazzulla's stoic leadership through turbulence. Udoka's issues are not theirs to fight. We should allow for the possibility that a winning system and culture is on firm ground, and fresh tweaks from a coach lauded for his game preparation might actually spark some improvement.
The continued progression of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown alone could accelerate their ascent. Tatum is a bona fide MVP candidate, capable of leading the league in scoring and guarding at an All-Defensive level. Brown is hungry for All-NBA consideration, which would serve him threefold — avenging his Finals foibles, eliminating trade speculation, even for Kevin Durant, and securing a supermax contract extension offer.
Given their two-way abilities at the game's most coveted position, Tatum and Brown are the NBA's best young duo. They were two of six players on Boston's roster to earn All-Defense consideration last season, including reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart and second-team center Robert Williams III.
The Celtics posted the league's top-rated defense last season (106.2 points allowed per 100 possessions) and maintained that level against a brutal slate of playoff opponents. A second arthroscopic surgery on Williams' left knee in six months is unwelcome news in that regard, since his athleticism along the baseline adds a vertical threat to Boston's switching scheme. It also might not be the worst idea to rework a rested Williams into the rotation around Christmas, considering how he limped to the finish line last season.
The loss of veteran Danilo Gallinari to ACL surgery in August is another blow to Boston's regular season aspirations. Signing him to the midlevel exception, the Celtics had hoped his ability to space the floor in various frontcourt capacities could lessen the load on both Tatum and 36-year-old Al Horford. If there is any consolation, Gallinari was there more to keep the Celtics fresh for the playoffs than to participate in them.
Boston will hope the combination of Grant Williams, Sam Hauser and recent signee Blake Griffin can eat those regular season minutes instead. The Celtics have been lauding Hauser's sharpshooting since they signed him as an undrafted free agent last year. Griffin will break glass in emergencies. Only Williams is expected to earn playoff minutes, and he filled them admirably through three rounds in his third season.
The injury to Robert Williams does temporarily leave the Celtics thin at center, where Luke Kornet — already out 1-2 weeks with an ankle sprain — is the only 7-footer on the roster. Two-way signee Mfiondu Kabengele might be their next best option to avoid overtaxing Horford and over-relying on their small-ball lineups.
Far more important is the addition of Malcolm Brogdon, arguably the biggest offseason upgrade for any top contender. Boston added him to a guard rotation that includes Smart, Derrick White and Payton Pritchard. It is hard to imagine a more complementary backcourt for two elite wings. The guards can lock down the perimeter, and Brogdon brings another steadying hand to an offense that desperately needed one when games got tight. As he said in training camp, "I know what they’re missing, and I know what I can provide."
The disruption they have experienced over the past month can be overcome, and none of it may matter by the playoffs, when the Celtics hope to field an eight-man rotation of Tatum, Brown, Smart, Brogdon, White, Horford, Robert and Grant Williams — a wonderfully balanced depth chart, capable of scoring in droves and dominating on defense. Upgrades on the trade and buyout markets are not out of the question, either.
There is no team in the East to scare the Celtics that they have not already beaten. The Milwaukee Bucks, with a healthy Khris Middleton alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo, will be an absolute bear once again. The Brooklyn Nets are as combustible a contender as there is in the league. The Miami Heat stepped back, and the Philadelphia 76ers stepped forward. Both should fall in line behind the Celtics at their absolute best.
Then, who? The Toronto Raptors, Cleveland Cavaliers or Atlanta Hawks? None of them have the playoff scars the Celtics earned from four conference finals appearances in six years to last year's breakthrough.
The case against the Golden State Warriors
And no team in the NBA has more championship equity than the Warriors. There is no questioning the mettle of Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, who when whole as a trio have not lost a playoff series since 2014. There should be concern about how long they can continue sustaining that success.
Curry is entering Year 14, when championship windows often close for good on superstars. On one hand, Thompson is four months more rested from missing 30 months to Achilles and ACL tears. On the other, he missed 30 months to Achilles and ACL tears, and he turns 33 years old in February. Green was unplayable at times in last season's playoffs, before he salvaged some esteem in Games 5 and 6 against the Celtics.
Green, Thompson, Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole are all eligible for contract extensions. None have received one yet this offseason. Green can opt out at season's end and wants a max extension that will pay him roughly $40 million at age 37, according to The Athletic. Thompson has another $43 million on his deal next season. Wiggins, the second-best player on the Warriors in the Finals, is in the last year of his rookie extension and in line for another nine-figure deal. Poole can become a restricted free agent after this season, and Miami Heat guard Tyler Herro may have just set his market at $130 million over four years.
The difference between Green, Wiggins and Poole in comparison to Brown, who is owed $28.5 million in 2023-24, is that the Celtics will put Brown into position to earn his max deal. They want him to be a co-star. Wiggins and Poole are third and fourth options behind Curry and Thompson, and Green does the dirty work as a scoring afterthought. The Warriors need them to be role players and may not be willing to pay them all.
The Warriors know all too well how these scenarios can fester. Durant's impending free agency in 2019 was a reported impetus for a midseason blowout with Green — and ultimately Durant's exit from Golden State. Three years later, Green did not wait until midseason to strike Poole "forcefully" on Wednesday, when Yahoo Sports' Vincent Goodwill reported that contract negotiations fueled the altercation at practice.
With Curry as the face of the franchise, the Warriors survived Pat Riley's so-called "disease of more" to reemerge as contenders two seasons after Durant's departure, but they are trying to extend this dynasty with a new cast of characters. Andre Iguodala has aged to the fringe of their rotation. Other vets are gone.
Likewise, Gary Payton II, Otto Porter Jr., Nemanja Bjelica and Juan Toscano-Anderson, all of whom willingly accepted roles last season and some of whom made significant playoff contributions, left in free agency. Next in line are recent lottery picks James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody, each 21 years old or younger. They have the potential to raise Golden State's ceiling. They are also eager to establish themselves in the NBA before their extensions come due, a challenge beyond relying on their inexperience.
Elsewhere on the roster are Kevon Looney, who bounced back from tearing the labrum in both of his hips to play all 104 games for the Warriors last season; Donte DiVincenzo, who did not receive a qualifying offer from either the Bucks or Sacramento Kings; and JaMychal Green, who shot 26.3% from distance last year.
There are questions about everyone on the roster but Curry, and he may be enough on his own.
Still, the playoff challenge should be greater this season than last, when the Warriors drew the injury-ravaged Denver Nuggets, the (partly) Ja Morant-less Memphis Grizzlies and Luka Doncic's one-man Dallas Mavericks show in the Western Conference, avoiding the top-seeded Phoenix Suns in the process.
This year brings at least two new contenders in the West — the healthy Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers, respectively led by two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokic and two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. The New Orleans Pelicans and Minnesota Timberwolves should also be significantly improved. Doncic and Morant are one season more experienced. And the Los Angeles Lakers are, well ... maybe they are more potent.
The Warriors, like any championship hopeful, need some things to break right for them this season. They need Curry, Thompson and Green to stay healthy and viable in their mid-30s. They need Wiggins and Poole to build off their best seasons and not let their contracts become distractions. They need their second- and third-year players to become dependable playoff contributors. And still the West may be tougher to win.
Same goes for the Celtics. They need their coach not to be overwhelmed by the weight of expectations and controversy. They need Robert Williams to return to form by the playoffs. They need to ease the burden on an aging Horford. They need their guards to collectively come together. They need Hauser, Kabengele, Kornet and/or Griffin to fortify the end of their rotation. And they need not get stomped by Antetokounmpo.
The crux, though? Tatum and Brown are on the climb. The Warriors' core is trying to delay its descent.
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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach
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