The Grizzlies and Celtics are currently climbing the standings. Memphis is backed by rising superstar Ja Morant, who scored 52 points in his last game, while Boston suddenly became a favorite to win the Eastern Conference. As the two title contenders face off tonight, the staff at Crossover answer a few questions.
Where do you currently rank the Celtics among the title contenders in the East?
Howard Beck: I don’t (rank them among title contenders, that is). The clear contenders in the East are the Bucks, Heat and Sixers, in no particular order. If the Nets ever become whole, they join the pack. I would put the Celtics on the next level, with a chance to win the East if the others falter or are derailed by injury. They just don’t have the firepower to match the Bucks, Sixers and Nets, or the consistency and depth of the Heat.
Chris Herring: Not so high yet. They’ve been fantastic since the start of the year – with a better net rating and better defensive rating than any other team – and have a pair of scorers that can take on just about anyone. It could mean a lot, but for now I’d still take the Bucks, Heat and Sixers on them. And if Kevin Durant is healthy, Kyrie Irving can play in his arena, and Ben Simmons is properly conditioned, I’d probably take Brooklyn too.
Chris Mannix: I’ve written before how wrong I was about Boston. The defense is elite, Tatum and Jaylen Brown are top scorers and Ime Udoka, after a rocky start, is in the mix for Coach of the Year. The Celtics, however, have shown vulnerability to physical teams (recent games against Detroit being a good example). And the eastern peak is loaded with physical teams. I can see Boston coming out of the first round in matchups with Chicago or Cleveland. But if he comes up against Philadelphia, Miami or Milwaukee, I think he’s in trouble.
Michael Pina: If they catch a few breaks, the Celtics can absolutely reach the Finals. They have the best defense in the NBA, two All-Star wings, depth, experience and rosters that are generating game problems for some of their conference rivals. At the same time, it’s hard to bet against any team that has Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant or the version of Joel Embiid we’ve seen all year.
Rohan Nadkarni: I have the Celtics fifth behind – in no particular order – Milwaukee, Miami, Philly and Brooklyn. I still think the Nets will be fine once Durant starts playing. The Bucks’ defense is shaky, but they always win when their big three play together. Harden and Embiid are a mismatch, to say the least. And the Heat have simply been very good for the rest of the season (and could have home ground for the first three rounds).
Robin Lundberg: I would probably have the Celtics fifth. They’re a wild card and it’s not impossible for them to run to the NBA Finals, but the East is so stacked this season. The Celtics are behind the Sixers, Bucks, Heat and Nets for me and right with the Bulls (probably above Chicago) when it comes to teams I think can progress. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t a tough opponent for anyone.
Where do you currently rank the Grizzlies as a title contender in the West?
Beck: I don’t (rank them among title contenders, that is). It’s just too soon. I know that sounds simplistic and reductive, but young people don’t usually win in this league, no matter how talented they are. (Ask the 2011–12 Thunder, which had three future MVPs.) The Grizz are seriously awesome and hugely entertaining; their future is bright. But they need time and a clear No.2 goalscorer/playmaker to complete Ja Morant. They are not ready to defeat the Suns and Warriors.
Herring: I’m taking Phoenix solidly over everyone in the West. He deserves that belief after last season and is just as good, if not better, this season. I would put the Grizzlies and Warriors in 2A and 2B. Memphis showed last year that it was fearless when it knocked out Golden State in the qualifying round, and has only gotten better this season, recording more wins against .500 teams. or better (23) than any other club in the NBA. Still, that’s asking a lot of a group to go from never winning a playoff to winning the conference. The Grizz will probably need a bit more time and firepower.
Manix: There may be a recency bias here – the Grizz led the NBA in scoring average (123.5), rebounds (49.3), rebound differential (+6.6), points in the paint ( 61.0) and second chance points (20.5) in February – but I think Memphis can win the West. They have the required top 10 in attack and defense. They win on the road and they thrive in clutch situations. And Ja Morant is special. The Warriors have looked vulnerable lately, and the Suns could be a lingering injury from Chris Paul to be the same. The youth, as they often have, could derail this team in the playoffs. But the Grizzlies are good.
Pine: This young core has championship aspirations, but it’s hard to imagine them going from a first-round elimination to the Finals in a year. The Suns and Warriors, if healthy, should win in a seven-game series. And aside from regular-season standings, it’s unclear whether the Grizzlies should be considered dramatic favorites in a series against the Jazz, Mavericks or Nuggets.
Nadkarni: I have the Grizzlies third behind the Suns and Warriors. Memphis still lacks playoff experience as a group. And I know Golden State downgraded; I just refuse to believe they can’t get him back once Draymond is back in the lineup. As great as the Grizz are this season — I wouldn’t be shocked if they made it to the conference finals — they’re probably still a long way from true playoff title contenders.
Lundberg: I still lean towards the Suns with CP3 as favorites with a hat to the Warriors if Draymond Green is healthy. And the Clippers might actually have the best team ever if they get Kawhi Leonard and Paul George back. The Grizzlies are in the mix with the rest of the teams. But considering they’re ahead of schedule and unproven in the playoffs, I can’t say I’d confidently pick them over Utah, Dallas and Denver.
Who would you rather build a team around: Ja Morant or Jayson Tatum?
Beck: Is it rude to tell my editors that I hate this question? I hate this question. (Sorry, Editors.) But if you force me to choose, I’m going with the bigger, taller guy. Multi-faceted forwards have generally dominated the past decade-plus in the playoffs. (See James, LeBron; Durant, Kevin; Leonard, Kawhi; and Antetokounmpo, Giannis.) Morant is obviously the better point guard, but Tatum can score from more places and defend more positions. Then again, if Morant ever becomes a three-point shooting ace, watch out.
Herring: If I could disable wounds? Morant. He’s the funniest, fastest and most successful player in the league, and you get the feeling his teammates love him. He can create something out of nothing and he’s a very good passer. But players with Morant’s physical and athletic profile – Derrick Rose, John Wall, Dwyane Wade – often end up on the shelf. So Tatum, who is much taller and much more versatile defensively, might be the safer choice.
Manix: As good as Tatum is — and I’ve long argued he can be a 30 ppg scorer — I’d take Morant. Beyond his absurd skills and precocious Russell Westbrook/Derrick Rose-level athleticism, Morant plays the most important position in the NBA, and he does it at the MVP level. He fully assumed a leadership role, something that Tatum, while becoming one, did not fully lean into. I can’t be wrong either, but Morant, for me, has the advantage.
Pine: Jayson Tatum could be described as the “safest” choice. A shooting season apart, he’s an elite three-tier scorer and thriving shot-maker with All-Defensive team potential. Positional versatility makes it easy to connect Tatum to any environment or style without any interruptions. Whether as a building block or a cog, this archetype is more in demand and harder to find. On the other hand, at 22, Ja Morant is that unheard-of messianic figure who could one day be considered one of the greatest point guards in NBA history. By a hair’s breadth, I’ll go with that.
Nadkarni: I hate this question. Both guys are great! Tatum is probably the correct answer. I will choose Morant, however, because I want the best player on my team to also be the most exciting guy in the league. Every night Ja provides plays, apparently no one else can come close. Morant will ultimately have to prove himself in the playoffs like Tatum has already done. But there’s no denying how fun Ja’s experience has been so far.
Lundberg: Right now, Ja Morant. He’s so exciting and can manipulate the game. But if I’m thinking more conservatively based on size, durability, and how their games might age, I’d probably go for Tatum.
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