- Prior to the start of the NBA season, the Warriors and Celtics were considered locks to meet in the Finals. With both squads struggling in recent weeks, who should we be worried about more?
Not even two months ago, nearly every single NBA writer on the The Crossover staff picked the Warriors and Celtics to meet in the NBA Finals. The logic was unassailable. The Warriors are better than everyone else. The Celtics returned two All-NBA talents to a roster that made the conference finals without them.
Nearly six weeks into the season, however, both teams have looked creaky, albeit for wildly different reasons. (And my Nuggets-Raptors Finals pick briefly looked genius.) Which team’s struggles have been more worrisome? Let’s take a closer look.
Golden State does appear to be back on track, picking up two wins over the weekend after losing four games in a row—its worst stretch in the Steve Kerr era. An incredible defensive performance helped put away the Trail Blazers, while a huge scoring night from Kevin Durant squashed an upstart Kings squad two nights later. It’s hard not to roll your eyes whenever you write about Warriors turmoil. This roster could bicker and DNP-rest its way to the eighth seed and then still go 16–0 in the playoffs if everyone is healthy.
The obvious catalyst for the Dubs’ issues is injuries. Both Steph Curry and Draymond Green have missed a chunk of time. Forget Curry’s league-altering level of gravity on offense for a second. He does so much for the Warriors, from ensuring they play with pace to instilling the proper culture, that you can only start to quantify his massive impact with statistics. The same could arguably be said for Green, whose playmaking goes hand-in-hand with his abrasive attitude. In most cases, that attitude is channeled into thwarting opponents, and Green will also make the team better once he returns.
There are some problems to keep an eye on in the Bay, however. As much as the Warriors preach passing up good shots for great shots, they’ve settled into too many midrange Js in Curry’s absence. It’s a different game for Durant and Klay Thompson when they are tasked with carrying the offense, and there’s only so much they can do when the defense loads up on them. KD isolations and Thompson forays inside the arc are wins for the opposing team, and those two players haven’t always dictated terms of engagement during this recent stretch.
That is perhaps what’s most alarming about this late November stretch for the Warriors—the supporting cast. The depth looks great when everyone is healthy. While guys like Alfonzo McKinnie and Jonas Jerebko are certainly useful pieces, the rotation certainly has weaknesses. Defenses are happy to ignore Golden State’s non-stars on offense. The Warriors are only 18th in offensive rating since Curry’s injury. Even with one of the greatest scorers (Durant) and greatest shooters (Thompson) ever, Golden State becomes guardable with Curry off the floor.
Is there any reason for long-term panic here? No, not really. But the Warriors’ margin of error without one of their stars may be smaller than most anticipated headed into the season. If Curry were to endure any kind of injury during the postseason, Golden State certainly wouldn’t be able to coast. (Or maybe Boogie Cousins comes back as a monster and Curry rests until the Finals. I may even bet on this scenario.)
Woof. Boston’s vaunted started five has been a disaster to start the season. The Kyrie-Tatum-Brown-Hayward-Horford group has a minus-4.5 net rating, with a laughable 90.5 offensive efficiency. It’s tough to single out Gordon Hayward when the whole team has struggled, but it’s notable that Boston has a paltry 103.5 offensive rating when he’s on the court—a mark that brings the Celtics even closer to the lowly Suns. As much as it may defy logic, Boston has looked a lot better with Marcus Smart playing in place of Hayward, and especially with Smart and Marcus Morris playing in place of Hayward and Jaylen Brown.
It seems like the Celts are getting the shots they want offensively. Boston is third in the league in three-point attempts per game, but they are 19th in three-point percentage at 34.3%. Hayward, Brown and Horford are all shooting well below their career averages, and slight upticks from them could go a long way in fixing the offense.
In the wake of all the brickiness, Boston is relying on the anti-Thanksgiving enthusiast Irving to carry a huge load offensively, and it’s a little unfair to expect him to go off for 40 points every night. What is funny is hearing someone like Irving talk about how the team needs to learn to play with a target on its back when he was a key member of a targeted Cavaliers squad that famously loafed from October through the start of the playoffs.
The silver lining for Boston is that the defense is still outstanding, and the Bhagwan, a.k.a. Brad Stevens, is probably crushing Diet Cokes so he can stay up late and figure out how to fix the offense. It’s obvious the Celtics are betting on their collective talent to eventually figure it out. Boston, on paper, still appears to be somewhat of a matchup nightmare in a playoff series. If Hayward gives up one hour of Fortnite a day to simply help re-discover his three-point shot, the Celts could very well end up looking like the juggernaut they were expected to be.
Don’t worry about the Warriors. Keep your eyebrow raised for the Celtics. Golden State will be fine once Curry returns and he’s hitting threes with his eyes closed over the outstretched arms of a crying defender. Boston, a quarter of the way through the season, has some serious offensive issues that need ironing out. Maybe all it will take is for the shots to fall for this team to look like a contender. But the Celtics certainly aren’t in a class of their own in the East, and they currently have a long way to go to catch the Bucks and Raptors of the world. (Heck, Boston offensively has a long way to go to reach the Hornets and Nets.)
There are ample reasons to believe both of these teams are going to be perfectly fine. But Boston doesn’t have the luxury of Monstars-level talent to assume things will work out on their own.