Boston Celtics: Why the Celtics can still beat the Golden State Warriors

NBA Boston Celtics Al Horford (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
NBA Boston Celtics Al Horford (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

The Golden State Warriors shocked the world by signing DeMarcus Cousins. While the rich do indeed get richer, it’s not certain death for the Boston Celtics

LeBron James has vacated the Eastern Conference. This move effectively rendered the Boston Celtics automatic favorites to hang a conference championship banner for the 2018-19 NBA season.

The Celtics are on a collision course for a death match with the Warriors. And then DeMarcus Cousins took the mid-level exception in Golden State. This is why it doesn’t mean certain death for the Celtics.

Look, I’m risking my credibility even writing this. There is no universe that I could sell the Warriors, with the Western Conference All-Star team as their starting lineup, are anything short of immeasurable favorites to win the 2019 NBA Title. All I’m suggesting is, the Celtics might not be as dead in the water as we thought in the immediate reaction of the Boogie deal.

On the surface, a $5.3 million mid-level exception for DeMarcus Cousins, who averaged 25.2 and 12.9 before he tore his Achilles, seemed game-breaking. In the instant aftermath, the internet broke.

Celtic’s fans, don’t worry. The Warriors were the favorite without Boogie, but they weren’t invulnerable. The Rockets took them to game seven, and may well have beaten them had Chris Paul not gotten hurt in game five (the most Chris Paul thing Chris Paul has ever done).

Boogie does not make this team a juggernaut. They already were one. For the Warriors, it’s a win-win scenario. Sign Boogie for $5.3 million, and if he performs well, it was a bargain! If he fizzles out, and never quite recovers from his injury, well, the Warriors likely win the title anyway, and got Boogie absurdly cheap.

For Boogie, it’s also a win-win. He gets to rehab his leg in some of the best facilities in the league, around the best team in the league, and for the first time in his career he gets to experience a winning atmosphere. Not only that, but if he does come back and play well, he’ll be a max money free agent again next summer, with added championship shine to boot.

How could there possibly be a win for the Celtics? Well, for one, Boogie doesn’t fit with the Warriors. Steve Kerr loves to run a small ball lineup, oftentimes with Draymond Green as the center. Cousins doesn’t mesh into the Warriors switch-everything, play small, and share the ball style of play.

Sure, Cousins has been excellent as an offensive-minded center, and one of, if not the best inside/outside scoring threats from the position in the last two decades, but his defense is worrisome. While the New Orleans Pelican’s offense improved from bottom-10 to top-10 after the Boogie acquisition, the defense did the exact opposite; going from top-10 to bottom-10. In fact, during Cousins seven years in Sacramento, the only season they had a top-20 defense was Boogie’s rookie year.

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Another concern is Cousins astronomical usage number. Cousins owns a career usage rate of 32 percent, which checks in as the highest of any active Warrior (Kevin Durant checks in second at 30.3 percent, while Steph Curry surprisingly owns just a 27% rate). Cousins will not factor into the Warriors offense nearly as much as he is accustomed to, and already his game is at odds with the teams style.

The point is this: did the Warriors get significantly better by adding DeMarcus Cousins to an already loaded basketball team? In a word; no. The Celtics, meanwhile, by virtue of returning players from injury, have gotten significantly better.

One set of numbers is particularly telling for just how criminally slept on the Celtics currently are. In 2017-18, only 20 players (playing a minimum of 50 games and 30 minutes a night) shot at least 39.5% from three while maintaining a true shooting percentage of at least 55 percent. Of those 20, three are current Warriors: Curry, Durant, and Klay Thompson; while four are current Celtics: Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Al Horford. To add on to that, Gordon Hayward’s 2016-17 numbers also qualify (59.5% TS, 39.8% 3FG).

This may seem insane, but it’s entirely possible that the best 3-point shooting starting five in the NBA next season will not reside in The Bay. The Celtics will field five starters who shoot 40 percent, as well as deploying role players in Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris, Semi Ojeleye, Shane Larkin, and Daniel Theis, all of whom shoot at least 30 percent from deep.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Celtics are returning nearly the entire roster of a team that finished with the best defense in the league last year, as well as perhaps the brightest coaching mind in the NBA today in Brad Stevens. Not only that, but they also return a roster that is now bolstered with playoff experience after an overachieving run to the Eastern Conference Finals last season.

While the Warriors will be starting five All-Stars, DeMarcus Cousins will likely miss All-Star weekend this season; the Celtics will, barring injury, all but definitely start five All-Stars of their own. Irving and Horford made the squad last year, while Brown and Tatum just missed the cut, and Hayward made the West All-Stars in 2017. In a LeBron-less Eastern Conference, it’s all but guaranteed the Celtics starting five will make All-Star appearances in 2019.

The Celtics are more like the Warriors than many would have you think. Thanks to GM Danny Ainge’s foresight in gathering assets, the Celtics have spent the past four years quietly building their own version of the Hampton’s Five in Boston, Massachusetts. That lineup, bolstered by the exceptional play of rotation players Rozier, Smart (assuming he returns on what will likely be a one-year deal), Marcus Morris, and Aron Baynes, is potentially the deepest in the NBA.

Yes, the Warriors remain the class of the National Basketball Association, but time is running out. In the summer of 2019, Durant, Cousins, Thompson, and Draymond Green all hit free agency. It’s mathematically impossible that the Warriors could bring all four back.

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Meanwhile, the Boston Celtics have young superstars in Tatum and Brown, as well as Hayward, under team protection for the foreseeable future, and should they manage to retain Irving next summer, the future remains extremely bright.

Except, they may not have to wait as long as you think.