So here we go: Our ninth (!) annual Tiers of the NBA. The order within tiers does not matter!Tier 1: Golden State Warriors
Yeah, these dudes, again.
Warriors have to try their hardest
Searching for the proper paperwork to move up one tier
Most projections favor Toronto over Boston. Toronto finished four games ahead of the Celtics last season, and doubled Boston's per-game scoring margin. They traded one top-25-ish player who shrinks in the playoffs for an MVP candidate who is, at worst, the seventh-best player in the league when healthy.
They trailed only Golden State and Houston in points per possession last season, and they should hum along once the new guys adapt to Nick Nurse's go-go system. They ranked fifth in points allowed per possession, and replaced a sieve with the greatest perimeter defender since prime Scottie Pippen. Almost every combination of four perimeter guys and one big man -- Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas, Pascal Siakam or Greg Monroe -- would rank between solid and smothering on defense. Their postseason tormentor is gone.
Meanwhile, Boston looks shaky in preseason. Gordon Hayward admits he is behind reacclimating. People fret about Kyrie Irving's knee. The reinvention of last season's average offense may take longer than expected.
But these tiers are about May, not October. The infusion of Hayward and Irving, and the way that infusion transforms Boston's bench, should give the Celtics enough firepower to build a borderline top-five offense when the games matter.
Boston's offense cratered last season when both Horford and Irving were on the bench. Irving, of course, missed 22 regular-season games and the entire playoffs. Hayward was supposed to prop the offense up during those minutes; we know what happened to him. Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris missed 56 combined regular-season games.
Toronto, meanwhile, enjoyed pristine health. They have gotten a ton of mileage for years out of giving zero minutes to below-average players. Boston should enjoy that luxury this season. They don't even have to play Semi Ojeleye, Daniel Theis, or this year's versions of Abdel Nader and Shane Larkin in games they care to win.
Skeptics expect a regression on defense. Boston opponents hit only 36.2 percent of their wide-open 3-pointers, the lowest such figure in the league. Enemy teams recorded an effective field-goal mark on all 3s almost 2.5 percentage points lower than expected based on shot location and the proximity of defenders -- the league's largest gap by a huge margin, per tracking data from Second Spectrum.
But the Celtics do this every season. We have long since passed the point where anyone should chalk even half of it up to luck.
Boston has three A-minus-level stars in their primes: Irving, Hayward and Horford. Toronto has one such player, Kyle Lowry, and one A-plus superstar in Leonard. Unless Leonard reaches his 2016-17 level -- and maybe even if he does -- I'd take Boston's star veteran trio over Toronto's duo by a hair. Normally, the one true superstar wins this debate. But Boston's three are all so good, in complementary ways, that their combined value (barely) carries the day here.
Toronto is teeming in plus supporting guards and wings: Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright (capable of sliding across all three perimeter positions), Danny Green, OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles, maybe even a reinvigorated Norm Powell. That depth compensates for a thin big man rotation that includes ground-bound behemoths -- Valanciunas and Monroe -- who will struggle in some matchups.
But take a gander at the five guards, wings, and tweeners surrounding Boston's three key vets: Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, Smart and Morris. Egads. Tatum and Brown are the best of the 11 supporting perimeter players on these two teams -- almost ready to be stars in their own right.
Insiders who would slide Toronto above Boston warn that we should not assume linear improvement for Tatum, or even that he can duplicate his insane rookie season. They may be right. Tatum probably isn't going to shoot 43 percent from deep again. But the guy is a stud, and Boston at full force has the goods to make his life easier on offense -- and withstand any temporary step back.
Tatum, Brown and Rozier have proven themselves on both ends under the brightest lights, against the team and player who reduced the Raptors into annual simpering surrender. (Smart's jumper remains a liability in some postseason games, but his balls-out intensity overcomes it in others.)
I'm not sure we can say that yet for Toronto's guys. Their vaunted bench didn't trample second units in the playoffs the way it did in the regular season; patsy bench units cease to exist in the playoffs. Anunoby was ready, but he's only in Year 2, and more of a fifth-option type on offense until he shows otherwise. (He might. I love that kid.) Siakam's jumper is an unknown. Green is 31. Miles requires hiding places on defense that some playoff opponents don't provide. Serge Ibaka quaked when things got hard. Toronto needs him even more now, and perhaps mostly as a center. (The combination of Ibaka and Siakam was dynamite last season in limited minutes.)
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