June 15, 2015

Dreaming the dream

Jumping on a plane today, so I may not be able to blog for quite some time depending on Google's policies regarding fictional bloggers in the Netherlands, Germany, Malaysia, and France.  Usually they're cranky about it.  Twitter is less...selective, so maybe see you there.

I'd hoped to post this after Game 6, with the Warriors either triumphant or returning home for The Last Showdown.  But this is better, while their fate hangs in the balance.  It is just as Lasker said of chess, "it is too beautiful to spend your life upon...the conflict between ideas and opinions, attack and defence, life and death."

That Game 7, if it happens, will be beyond epic.  LeBron has been somewhat mediocre in this series (a .399 field goal percentage?  seriously?), but in that Game 7 the Warriors would face, on a home court, for all the marbles:
  • The greatest combination of athleticism and basketball talent since Wilt Chamberlain,
  • With the opportunity to win a third NBA championship for himself,
  • And the first for his city,
  • For the team he abandoned and then rejoined,
  • Against the man who won the MVP ahead of him,
  • and is the only threat to his claim to be the greatest basketball player from Akron, Ohio.
It will make High Noon look like My Cousin Vinnie.  

(Tim Roye's all-Akron team:
  • C - Nate Thurmond
  • PF/SF - LeBron James
  • PF/SF - Gus Johnson
  • G - Steph Curry
  • G - Some other person from Akron, Ohio )

Anyway, as I've mentioned, I don't think it matters all that much how the Finals turn out...the Warriors are a great team, a classic team.  The '76-'77 Sixers - the Playground All-Stars - lost in the finals to Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, and their minions, but the Sixers were a monster team and everyone knows it.  And anyone who knows basketball knows these Warriors are even better.

But how good?  Looking up and down that list of top seasons by Elo rating, I kept turning over in my mind how my beloved '85-'86 Celtics would do against this Warriors team.  It would be an intriguing contest.  The Celtics only had that lineup for one year (in 1987 Walton was DNP/Injury, McHale played on a broken foot, and Bird - playing too many minutes - started to break down).  But in that one magic year, they were something.  Like the 90's Bulls at their peak, no one could give them a game.  According to Dr. Elo, and me, that was the best Celtic team ever, which is saying something (interactive tool is here).

In his famous interview with Bill Simmons, Larry Bird agreed, saying this was the best Celtics team he ever played on.  Here are matchups for that team against our Golden State Warriors.  We'll go Celtic-by-Celtic, in descending order of minutes played in the regular season.  We of course assume modern training methods and conditioning, normalized rules, and officiating that is fair to both teams, and not letting Cleveland get away with murder on every damn...but I digress.  Here are the matchups:
  • Larry Bird (Small Forward) - The toughest matchup for the Warriors, or any other team.  At this moment Bird is the prototypical modern player, the first of his kind:  a big man (6' 9") who can post up, pass, rebound, and win the NBA 3-point contest.  His basketball IQ is stratospheric.  He is close to his physical peak here - stronger and faster than you probably remember - and you cannot intimidate him.  In 1986 he is winning his third consecutive MVP award and, really, no one - not even "athletic" players - can guard him.  Later in his career he had trouble with extremely quick defenders, notably the Lakers' Michael Cooper, but like LeBron and Michael, no one can actually shut him down.  The Warriors would have to tag-team Bird with Iguodala and Green, as they do with LeBron, and hope for the best.  
    • Big edge to Celtics
  • Dennis Johnson (Point Guard) - Johnson is the Celtics' cooler on the defensive end, but probably isn't quick enough to cover Curry, so in this series he's on Thompson.  On the offensive end Johnson can shoot, and won a championship for the Sonics doing so (he was Finals MVP), but on this team he prefers to execute astonishing pass plays to Bird.  Not really a 3-point threat.  Thompson is a great shooter, with three point range, and also a capable defender.  But at this stage of his career he has nothing like Johnson's playoff experience and court savvy.  
    • Edge to the Celtics
  • Robert Parish (Center) - Parish and the Warriors' Andrew Bogut have similar, lunch bucket roles.  Both men are the fifth option in their team's offense, though Parish had a serviceable post-up game.  Parish's big problem was receiving the entry pass, and quick defenders could get the Celtics into a loose ball situation if they went to the well too often with him.  Bogut is even less of a shooting threat (he passes up dunks), but he is a deadly passer, and well-suited to the Warriors' ball-movement offense.  Both men are strong and mean and willing to knock down a disrespectful person if necessary.  But Parish will draw fouls and make his free throws, which is an issue with Bogut.  
    • Slight edge to the Celtics
  • Danny Ainge (Shooting Guard) - This is the worst matchup for the Celtics, by far.  Ainge was a decent shooting guard - never at the top of the League, but capable.  He had tremendous fire, but his ambition often exceeded his talent, as his career .469 field goal percentage will attest.  Ainge is facing off against Steph Curry, the greatest shooter of all time (Curry shoots .440 just on 3s).  As a defender Curry would completely shut down Ainge's limited repertoire, and/or cheat away to double the Celtics' bigs.
    • Big edge to the Warriors
  • Kevin McHale (Power Forward) - McHale is, at this moment, one of the two or three best post-up men in the League, and a good defender (early in his career they'd have him guard Erving, and he wasn't terrible, usually).  He has unnaturally long arms for his size, and he's 6' 10".  He draws fouls and makes his free throws.  The Warriors would have either Iguodala or Green on McHale, and they're both good, but he'd score a bunch anyway.  On the other hand, he can't run with either of them, and he's not coming out to challenge their three point shots.
    • Slight edge to the Celtics, but McHale vs. Iguodala at Center is not great for the Celtics when the Warriors go small
  • Jerry Sichting (Bench Guard) - This is ugly for the Celtics.  Sichting is a spot-up jump shooter, and makes 55% of his shots in '85-'86, one or two of which were actually contested (his defender would normally be doubling the Celtics' big men).  But he couldn't create his own shot.  With the Warrriors' switching defense, he'd play no role in this series.  Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa can both score and would easily handle him defensively.
    • Big edge to the Warriors
  • Bill Walton (Bench Center) - Well, there's your problem.  Now, this is not the Bill Walton who won the 1977 NBA Championship with Lucas and an otherwise forgettable supporting cast (Johnny Davis, Bob Gross, Dave Twardzik).  At this stage of his career he's been hurt, he's kicked around the League, and he's not as mobile as he once was.  But he is still:  extremely smart, strong, defensively astute, a fine rebounder, and one of the greatest passing centers in the history of the game.  The Celtics bring him in off the bench to spell Parish, and sometimes even play them together.  Walton plays about 20 minutes a game, and it is amok time.  In the halfcourt Walton and Bird whip it around like the Globetrotters.  The Warriors counter with Festus Ezeli and Ognjen Kuzmic, and that's not going to go well for them.
    • Very large edge to the Celtics
  • Scott Wedman (Bench Forward) - Wedman is a little past his prime here, a former All-Star who can come in and score, but is not much of a force on defense.  The Warriors counter with David Lee, who is a little past his prime here, a former All-Star who can come in and score, but is not much of a force on defense.
    • Draw
  • The rest of the bench - Now the Celtics have a big problem: they are out of players.  Rick Carlisle, David Thirdkill, Greg Kite - these guys are not going to have any impact whatsoever (although I have a soft spot in my heart for Sly Williams).  Meanwhile, the Warriors have two very good players left - Harrison Barnes is young but good for 10 points a game (with legit defense and three point range), and Marreese Speights ("Mo' Buckets") comes in for 15 minutes a game and scores another 10 points for you.
    • Big edge to the Warriors
  • Coaching - The Celtics are coached by Larry Bird.  A man named KC Jones stands on the sidelines and claps.  This works for them.  The Warriors are coached from the sidelines, by a rookie coach, but one who has selected a great staff and has brought them to the threshold of an NBA championship.  Steve Kerr is also one of the few people who has a competitive spirit comparable to Bird's, as evidenced by his (insane) willingness to fight Michael Jordan during a scrimmage in his first year with the Bulls.
    • Small edge to the Warriors
  • The Crowd - Boston Garden against Oracle Arena?  Two of the greatest crowds in the history of the game.  The Bostonians are vocal and loyal to a fault, but incredibly savvy, astute, cerebral.  They heckle Don Nelson (a former Celtic) for his disguised zone defenses.  The Oracle crowd is even louder, less interested in nuance, but capable of becoming a primal emotional force more powerful than any other in the history of the game.
    • Draw
The Verdict:  Wow, this is tough.  If it's one game, I'd give an edge to the Celtics, who could use the Cavaliers' strategy of slowing it way down and throwing up random shots while the front line gets rebounds and putbacks, and Larry Bird's not going to shoot some weak-ass .399 against you, either.

In a longer series, however, the Warriors' running game, greater depth and durability will start to tell.  This was the deepest of the Celtic teams of that era, but even those guys can't put five fresh new faces on the floor like the Warriors can, and they will struggle when the Warriors go small.  Just as the Celtics had trouble against the fast-breaking Laker teams, they would surely struggle against the team that invented the fast break to the three-point line.

Maybe/probably if you adjust for everything, the Celtics are little better (the Rockets or Cavaliers with three or four all-stars instead of just one).  But if you can stand next to Larry Bird and not look completely outclassed, you are pretty damn good.

Maybe that's another reason I enjoy this team so much - they invite comparison with teams that brought me a lot of good memories, even as they create new ones.


Blogger Laird of Madrona said...

It's weird how quickly I went from ignoring the NBA to being insanely proud of this team.

Part of it is how they demolished all conventional wisdom regarding what you must have to Win It All.

June 20, 2015 at 12:22 PM  

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