- The elite of the Eastern Conference all have loaded rosters for the homestretch of the regular season. But which of the East’s top four can give Golden State the best fight in the Finals?
The biggest takeaway from the NBA’s Feb. 7 trade deadline is that the Eastern Conference is going for it. With LeBron James no longer holding a kung-fu grip on one half of the country, the teams he often thwarted now seem more emboldened when it comes to roster building. The Sixers, Bucks, and Raptors all made substantial moves around the deadline. The Celtics stood pat—though the Celtics will certainly benefit from having Kyrie Irving healthy for this postseason run. Philly, Milwaukee, Toronto, and Boston are definitely going to make up the final four in the East, and all have taken major steps forward since last season. But once they’re done beating each other up, can any of them take down the mighty Warriors?
While depth will certainly be important in the playoffs, I’m most curious how the East’s elite will match up with the Dubs when Golden State trots out its Infinity Gauntlet lineup of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and DeMarcus Cousins. (That group has a 23.9 net rating in 66 minutes together as of Feb. 8) There’s no way to really defend this lineup. Teams basically have to play defensive whack-a-mole for 24 seconds and hope the Warriors get a good shot instead of a great shot, or a great shot instead of a perfect shot. At an absolute baseline to defend Death Lineup 3.0, you need: Five nimble athletes capable of guarding multiple positions, length on the perimeter, someone who can bang with Cousins in the post, and that someone also has to be capable of switching onto Curry at the three-point line. Oh, and they have to be able to score at the other end. (Basically you need four Kawhi Leonards and like, Steven Adams with his agility turned all the way up.) So which East team best meets this criteria? Let’s rank ‘em.
Most Likely Lineup: Eric Bledsoe-Malcolm Brogdon-Khris Middleton-Giannis Antetokounmpo-Brook Lopez
Milwaukee is a juggernaut and it could very well make the Finals. But I think Cousins gives the Bucks the most problems out of any team in the East. The Deer have become an absolutely unstoppable unit with Brook Lopez on the floor. He’s become an incredible matchup problem for so many teams because of his ability to shoot. My fear is, if Milwaukee keeps Lopez on the court against the Dubs, what happens when Lopez is forced to play on the perimeter? Brook can bang down low with Boogie, but what if he has to switch late in the shot clock? What if Cousins is initiating offense at the top of the key? Milwaukee could theoretically counter with Antetokounmpo and Nikola Mirotic in the frontcourt, but the Warriors can come back with either a) last year’s death lineup or b) wear down Giannis on the block with some Boogie post-ups. Again, this isn’t a reflection of the Bucks’ chances to come out of the East. This is the team with literally the best defense in the league! The Warriors are just that specific of a problem.
Most Likely Lineup: Ben Simmons-J.J. Redick-Jimmy Butler-Tobias Harris-Joel Embiid
It’s already getting absurd trying to separate these teams. Philly’s lineup should be hellacious offensively. I’m most curious to see what happens with Redick here. Can he stay on the floor against the Dubs? Does Brett Brown try to hide him on Draymond Green? Butler almost definitely matches up with Durant, so who is chasing Klay Thompson around? Embiid, at his healthiest, can follow Boogie anywhere on the floor and switch in a pinch. Come playoff time, I almost wonder if James Ennis, Jonathon Simmons, or Buyout Guy X plays a little bit more than Redick, if only because opposing offenses will be targeting J.J. relentlessly. (We saw Boston do this with Jayson Tatum last year.) It seems blasphemous to put this group—maybe the second-best five-man unit on paper—third, but if you have even one less-than-strong link on the court, Golden State can and will exploit it. Redick is going to be something of a barometer in this hypothetical matchup.
Most Likely Lineup: Too Many Options
I’m mad at myself for pitching this story. I don’t know. I go back and forth between Boston and Toronto for the top spot. Al Horford is such an incredible defender. Remember how he guarded both Simmons and Embiid in last year’s East Semis? He’s equally important against the Warriors, being able to harass Cousins on the block and keep up with anyone else on the outside. (I keep talking about Boogie post-ups like that’s the Warriors’ first option. It’s not. But it will be if you try to hide someone on him. That’s why you need a bruiser.)
The Celtics can go in so many directions for the Warriors. They can start with Marcus Morris and Marcus Smart on the floor, and mix and match one or both of those guys with Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown. Boston’s OG Death Lineup (Kyrie-Hayward-Tatum-Brown-Horford) may never come back and be the unit we expected, but Brad Stevens can tinker on the wing to add more offensive or defensive firepower as necessary. If Hayward starts to look a lot better come playoff time, I think him and Smart will both be on the floor down the stretch. Otherwise, Stevens will have to decide between Brown and Morris at the four. Smart plays no matter what.
Most Likely Lineup: Kyle Lowry-Danny Green-Kawhi Leonard-Pascal Siakam-Serge Ibaka
This lineup already plays a lot and it doesn’t have eye-popping numbers. It also depends heavily on Lowry being fully healthy by June, which as I type out, already feels incredibly risky to depend on. But here’s what nudges Toronto up for me: Kawhi. At his absolute best, I think Leonard is one of only two defenders in the world (him and Paul George) who can legitimately harass Kevin Durant. Leonard can not only slow Durant down, he can force him into bad offense. That becomes super important here. Let’s say Leonard neutralizes KD for just one game. Danny Green is a great option for Steph. Lowry will have to chase Klay. Ibaka can follow Boogie. And Siakam can sag off Draymond and leverage his athleticism. It makes some sense, right? Please say yes? Toronto can also try funky stuff, like using Fred VanVleet ahead of Lowry, Marc Gasol ahead of Ibaka (though I worry about him on switches), or finding a spot for OG Anunoby. (A real radical move for Nick Nurse would be to stick Kawhi at point and sub out Lowry for OG. But that maybe only works in 2K.)
I don’t know. Part of me already feels like I talked myself out of Toronto having the best antidote for the Warriors. But I just keep coming back to Kawhi. If he’s playing at his absolute, very best, then he’s by far the best defensive player in the East. And when that’s your starting point, surrounded by length, athleticism, and experience, you may be onto something.