By Zach Naidu
Bold prediction: The Boston Celtics won’t make the NBA finals.
Bolder prediction: They won’t even make it past the second round in their conference.
Coming into the season, the Celtics were all but anointed Eastern Conference Champions and hailed as the biggest threat to the Golden State Warriors’ quest for a third straight title.
The hype was in some ways justified. The Celtics were one win away from reaching the finals last year without their supposed two best players, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Simple addition (and the subtraction of LeBron James from the East) should yield a result of the Celtics in the finals.
However, there are a couple things to consider when challenging the notion the Celtics are the clear-cut favorites out of the East.
The Celtics have tremendous depth; their third best player is Jayson Tatum. Or is it maybe Hayward? Or could it actually be Irving? Herein lies the problem: Despite their deep roster, the Celtics do not have a bona fide, top-10 NBA player. That’s fine during the regular season when a grueling 82-game schedule rewards depth with wins. However, how will Boston fair against an improved Bucks team featuring arguably the best player in the conference, Giannis Antetokounmpo, or against the challenger to that title, Kawhi Leonard? The Celtics beat the Bucks without Irving and Hayward last year, but that was a different Bucks team, one that wasn’t leading the league in scoring as it is now. Yes, the Celtics have a tremendous edge in the coaching and depth department, but in a seven-game series, can this squad really be relied on to deny Antetokounmpo or Leonard? Even more, can Kyrie Irving really be the crunch time leader without LeBron James on the court to ease some of the pressure?
The best players in the NBA in no particular order are Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and Joel Embiid. All of these players have the capability to lead teams to a championship; the only things that have held them back in the past have been subpar supporting casts, injuries or poor coaching. That does not appear to be the case this year for Antetokounmpo and Leonard, and now Embiid has added a top-15 player to his starting lineup in Jimmy Butler. Brad Stevens is a tremendous coach, but he can’t score 51 points in three quarters (Curry) or average 25+ points and 13 rebounds (Embiid, Antetokounmpo)
The same reason the Celtics won’t win the East, and possibly won’t advance past the second round, is the same reason why nobody feared the 60-22 Atlanta Hawks in 2015: They had no superstars. In the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals, who did Atlanta have to go toe to toe with LeBron James? Paul Millsap, who averaged a whopping, team-leading 16.7 points per game. To the shock of no one, the Cavaliers promptly swept the Hawks.
Of course, the 2018 Boston Celtics are better than those Hawks. But they will face the same problem if they run into Philadelphia, Toronto or Milwaukee, and unless they finish with the number one seed, they are all but guaranteed to play one of those teams in the second round. By no means will I be stunned if Brad Stevens leads the Celtics past one or two of those opponents. But if Boston does indeed triumph over two teams that have a sizable advantage in the “best player” category, it will not be because Irving and Hayward were the missing pieces. It will be because their coach is that good – and that’s not something you hear too often in a superstar driven league.
Contact Zach Naidu at znaidu ‘at’ stanford.edu.