Our NBA insiders are debating the biggest topics in the league. With the Warriors and Celtics facing off for the first time since the NBA Finals, where does each team stand a little more than a quarter into the season?
Chris Mannix: All right, Howard, nearly two months into the season and we finally get the matchup we have been waiting for: Warriors–Celtics, a Finals rematch between two teams that are still Finals contenders. Both of these teams have had a lot going on early this season, but let’s start with the champs. Give me your thoughts on the state of the Warriors right now.
Howard Beck: The good news is Steph Curry has extended his shooting range to 90 feet! Oh wait, never mind. Well, the good news is, Curry is having one of his greatest seasons, at age 34, and has almost single-handedly sustained the Warriors’ title defense. But obviously, this has been one of the rockiest starts we’ve seen for a defending champion. And now they face the Celtics, who are considerably stronger than they were when these teams faced off in June. I do think the Warriors have stabilized. Klay Thompson is showing signs of a revival. Draymond Green has been excellent. The starting lineup remains one of the NBA’s best. The clear concerns are about their bench and their youth. I’d say they have some work to do between now and the playoffs. Given all that, what does this rematch mean to the Celtics?
Mannix: I try not to read too much into regular-season matchups, particularly with Boston still playing without Robert Williams III and the Warriors, as you noted, still finding their footing. But the Celtics are going to be up for this one. There’s still a sour taste from being up 2–1, nearly being up 3–1, before losing the Finals in six games. The good news for Boston is that they took the pain from that loss and harnessed it in the best way possible: They got better. Jayson Tatum is an MVP candidate. Jaylen Brown is playing like an All-Star and in the (early) mix for All-NBA. Marcus Smart has improved as a point guard, and Al Horford has somehow become a three-point sniper. Brown addressed this right after the Celtics clobbered the Suns: They were humbled by the Finals loss, and it’s been a driving force for the team this season.
But I want to fixate on Tatum for a minute. What’s impressed me the most is how he identified his weaknesses in the offseason and improved them. He needed to get to the free throw line more; he’s averaging a career-best in attempts. He needed to improve his floater; it’s now a lethal part of his offensive arsenal. Tatum’s advanced numbers—offensive rating, effective field goal percentage, true shooting percentage (I’m just scouring NBA.com now)—are up this season. What stands out to you about his rise?
Beck: It’s impossible not to be impressed. Tatum looked really ordinary at times in the Finals and alarmingly mistake-prone. If he had been even a little bit sharper throughout, especially in fourth quarters, maybe the Celtics would have won the title. But the true greats learn from their failures and come back stronger, and that’s what we’re seeing now. I think his decision-making is better, his passing keeps improving and he’s found a really nice balance between scoring and playmaking. And he’s still just 24 years old. He’ll be in the MVP conversation next spring. (Oh, right, the MVP conversation started six weeks ago. My bad.)
This game won’t really tell us much about a potential Finals rematch (assuming both teams make it back), given how much season is left. So let me ask the more pertinent question: Are the Celtics improved enough to take out a fully healthy Bucks squad next spring? And while we’re here, is there anyone else in the East they should worry about?
Mannix: Oh, yeah. They have improved enough. The numbers are ridiculous. They are first in the NBA in (among other things) scoring margin, offensive rating and net rating. They are the NBA’s best three-point-shooting team. They are battering opponents by more than five points per game on the road. Did you watch the Phoenix game? That was the (then) Western Conference–leading Suns—with Chris Paul, no less—and the Celtics treated them like the JV squad. They are a middle-of-the-pack defensive team without Williams, and it’ll be far from a stretch to call them a top-five defensive team when Williams gets back. Milwaukee is tough—you can certainly argue that the Celtics and Bucks are the top two teams in the NBA right now by a decent margin. But if they played seven today, I’d pick Boston. You?
Beck: I’d certainly lean Boston, but I still think it’s a close matchup overall. The Celtics’ shooting is likely to cool off a bit (they’re not going to shoot 40% as a team for a full season). And the Bucks at their best can be every bit as defensively dominant. Where the Celtics have the advantage is in their younger, sprier rotation, and having Jaylen Brown as a superior No. 2. All due respect to Khris Middleton, but Brown is the better overall player at this stage. You never answered my other question, so I’ll answer for both of us: No, there’s no other team in the East in this conversation. Not the Sixers (not sold on their chemistry), not the Nets (definitely not sold on their chemistry), not the Cavaliers (too young).
We agree the Celtics are a good bet to return to the Finals. How sure are we about the Warriors?
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Mannix: It’s funny, in a way I’m more bullish about Golden State’s chances of getting back to the Finals than Boston’s, simply because the Warriors don’t have a Bucks-like rival standing in the way. Phoenix has looked like the class of the conference early, but you have to have a sprinkle of skepticism about the Suns after last season. The Clippers? Talk to me if/when Kawhi Leonard proves he is healthy. Dallas? They miss Jalen Brunson more than they thought they would. New Orleans? Memphis? Denver? These are good teams, but if the Dubs continue to right the ship, is there a team in that conference you would take over them?
Beck: So you’re saying there’s a lot of, ahem, parity right now? If only someone had written 2,000 words on the topic! Yeah, the West is just weird and super fluid. If someone wants to make a case for the Nuggets, Suns, Grizzlies, Clippers or Pelicans, I’m listening to all of them. But I’m still leaning Warriors over them all, and yes, it’s absolutely in deference to their experience, championship mettle, etc. They’re the one known quantity. And for every concern we might raise about the Warriors—age, health, depth—their rivals all come with caveats, too. The Nuggets don’t defend, the Pelicans and Grizz are young, the Clippers can’t stay healthy and the Suns are still reliant on a 37-year-old point guard. But the Warriors need one of two things to happen between now and next spring: a sudden blossoming by at least two of their young guys or a trade that brings back some battle-tested vets in exchange for those young guys.
Mannix: I know we have addressed the idea of the Warriors flipping one or more of their young players for an established veteran before, but can I just say this: I would absolutely not sell low on James Wiseman. I’ve been hearing a lot of this lately. Wiseman is down in the G League and his skeptics are really starting to come out of the woodwork. Look, he may not make it. But the idea that you would trade Wiseman for Kelly Olynyk (saw that one come across the ol’ Twitter timeline this week) is just bonkers. I think Wiseman has freakish potential. He’s 21 years old with all the physical tools to be a special player. I’ve heard the Darko Miličić snickers (Wiseman, like Darko, was a workout warrior), but I’m still a believer. The question is—and I’ll flip this back to you—if the Warriors don’t need a trade to win the conference, do they need to make one to be competitive with Boston or Milwaukee?
Beck: I’m with you on Wiseman: way too soon to give up on him, I wouldn’t sell low, and yes, flipping him for Olynyk is selling low. Maybe they’ll keep developing Wiseman and trade Jonathan Kuminga or Moses Moody to get immediate help. But I do think the Warriors have to do something to fortify their bench to compete with the likes of the Celtics or Bucks in the event they make the Finals. They need more perimeter defense. They need more playmaking. They really could use a new Andre Iguodala, someone who can come off the bench and do a little bit of everything. I know, those guys aren’t easy to come by. (And I know, the actual Andre Iguodala is still around, but it’s unclear when or how much he’ll contribute.) The buyout market won’t provide sufficient help. If the Warriors want to make another Finals run—and beat the Bucks or Celtics—they have to make a trade.
Mannix: Again, I don’t want to be a prisoner of the moment, but to beat these Celtics, it seems like it would have to be a blockbuster. The Celtics are the better offensive team. They will be the better defensive team. The “first time in the Finals” won’t be a factor with this group, which has revenge on its mind. Williams (presumably) won’t be dragging his leg around like he did at the end of last season. I’ll never count out the Steph-Klay-Draymond Warriors, but it seems like there is a pretty big gap between these two teams, doesn’t it?
Beck: This sounds an awful lot like the argument some folks (ahem, you) were making last June: that the Celtics, whether they were up, down or tied in the series, “were CLEARLY the better team.” How many times was that assertion made? Except, they weren’t the better team. They lost, and those last three games weren’t particularly close. Point being, having the most talent does not always equate to having the best team.
But let’s get back to the present. As I noted above, I firmly believe this Celtics team is better than the squad that lost in June, in large part because of the strides made by Tatum, Brown and Smart. And as of this moment, the Warriors are more wobbly than they were six months ago. As of this moment being the key phrase. Thompson is still regaining his strength and rhythm. The young guys are still evolving. There’s room for the Warriors to improve along the way. Anyway, if these teams do meet again and a title is on the line, I’m still betting on Curry every time.
Mannix: I love Curry, Sports Illustrated’s (shameless plug) Sportsperson of the Year. But I do think Golden State’s problems this season are deeper rooted than in years past. Boston is the better team right now, and I think it’ll still be in June.