The Denver Nuggets are NBA champions.
But if the first couple of weeks of their reign is any indication, opposing teams are coming for the throne.
First it was the Bradley Beal trade, before the Nuggets had even cleaned the streets from their victory parade. I’m not a huge fan of the Suns roster construction, but Matt Moore is a bit more optimistic.
Then in the 24 hours heading into the NBA Draft, two more contenders struck. The Celtics traded for Kristaps Porzingis, saw it fall through, then traded for him again, and the Warriors dumped Jordan Poole to bring in Chris Paul and chase another ring.
I love the moves for both Boston and Golden State, and they combined to make Denver the biggest early loser in their push to defend the title in 2024. Let’s get into the trades for each team and how the Nuggets could feel the ripple effects going forward.
Celtics Make a Smart Move Trading for Porzingis
Three teams were involved in the Porzingis trade, with the outgoing picks from Memphis:
- Boston gets Porzingis, a 10-pick draft bump, and a 2024 Warriors first
- Memphis gets Marcus Smart
- Washington gets Tyus Jones, salary filler, and a second
The Celtics got the best player in the trade and the best draft asset. I like the deal for all three teams — Washington got something for nothing since Porzingis would’ve opted out, and Memphis got its wing defender and point guard depth all in one player — but let’s focus on Boston.
Kristaps Porzingis was really good for Washington. He, not Beal, was the best Wizard with the best year of his career, and has quietly become the player we’ve waited for. Porzingis has filled out his frame and added strength to become a legit center and rim protector, a quality defender on one end and an efficient scorer and stretch big on the other.
Think Brook Lopez, if you traded in some defense for a lot more offense. Think Al Horford and Robert Williams combined into one player — floor spacing and shooting as a vertical threat offensively plus some defense to boot.
Porzingis gives Boston another legitimate scoring threat, and at 7-foot-3, a guy who can get his shot anytime. His presence allows the Celtics to play four- or five-out at all times, four only if Williams is providing a vertical lob threat instead. Boston’s offense is far more versatile now.
Marcus Smart is a loss. But that may not be all bad.
Smart was the heart and soul of this franchise, but from what we just saw this postseason — six home losses to inferior teams including a home Game 7 to end the year — maybe it was time for a heart transplant. The Celtics needed a culture change after repeated failures at the highest level. Removing Smart from the team is, for better and for worse, a major culture change.
Smart’s absence makes Boston less versatile defensively, no doubt. He was the (undeserving) Defensive Player of the Year a season ago and a real weapon against the league’s best perimeter players, and his presence gave Boston its switching defensive identity. That’s gone now. Horford is getting too old to switch regularly, and Porzingis is more of a drop defender.
But less versatile doesn’t necessarily mean worse.
I think I love this trade for the Celtics.
Exact sort of shake-up they needed.
— Brandon Anderson (@wheatonbrando) June 22, 2023
Boston made a concerted decision to get bigger with this trade. They’ll play two bigs at all times, with some combination of Porzingis, Horford, Rob Williams, and possibly Grant Williams if re-signed. That moves Jayson Tatum back to the three and makes Jaylen Brown the de facto “shooting guard” with Derrick White the lone true guard (with Malcolm Brogdon off the bench).
That’s a big, nasty defensive lineup. White is every bit the defender Smart is — I’d argue better from a team perspective — and this is now a BIG lineup with size everywhere. They also used the pick in the deal to nab Jordan Walsh, my single favorite defender in the draft, and four extra seconds (that’s two-thirds of a Bradley Beal!!) they’ll use in future trades.
We just saw how important Denver’s size advantage was in the Finals. Boston now has the size to match a team like that. Porzingis is stout enough to hang with a player like Jokic, allowing Rob Williams to wreak havoc at free safety, and the perimeter defense will be long and bothersome. All that size will create myriad mismatches on offense too.
Boston was already an intriguing Denver matchup. They’re even more interesting now. Remember, the Celtics were big Game 7 favorites before a turned Tatum ankle on the opening play, and they would’ve been favorites in the Finals with home court advantage.
This trade firmly re-establishes the Celtics among the title contenders at the top of the league. Boston goes as its big men go, and Horford and Williams came up short when it mattered most in this year’s playoffs.
Porzingis is a star, a genuine All-NBA consideration. Boston’s defense got less versatile but bigger and perhaps more stable, and the offense added a serious weapon and major optionality. And the Celtics still have a deep war chest of future picks and aren’t done yet.
Boston remains a title contender with as good a chance as anyone.
Warriors Embrace Their Winning Identity Swapping Poole for CP3
Golden State’s core has won four championships and made six Finals in its last eight seasons. Don’t forget this group had never even lost a Western Conference playoff series until a month ago.
And with the move the Warriors made on Thursday, Golden State showed it is finally coming to grips with what makes it great and embracing its winning identity in a win-now push with this championship core.
For half a decade, Golden State management believed it was light years ahead of the league. After the Warriors built a title core around team chemistry and elite hoops IQ for the game, Golden State abandoned its identity and tried to play two timelines at once.
The Warriors hoped the old guard would hold down the fort and keep winning while they developed a new guard built not around feel and team play, but traits and athleticism. They used draft picks on Jordan Poole, James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody, and Patrick Baldwin Jr.
That’s a long list of raw upside and athleticism with little feel for the game, and the results were disastrous. Poole developed just enough to have moments early in the playoffs before disappearing late, then got a bloated $122-million extension. Wiseman was a total bust. Kuminga and Moody can’t buy rotation time, leaving the roster barren of depth in its sputtered run. Baldwin was such a poor first-round pick you didn’t even know he was on the roster — or that the team quietly dumped him last night.
Golden State tried to be light years ahead but instead set itself back half a decade with poor drafting and development.
But on Thursday, it looks like the Warriors finally accepted who they are — a smart, high IQ team built around team play and that old guard core pushing its chips in for another run at a ring.
Out with the new, in with the old.
To get Chris Paul, the Warriors gave up Jordan Poole, a heavily-protected 2030 first, a 2027 second, and Baldwin. Think of it less as the Warriors giving anything up and more of them moving on from pieces Golden State is ready to put in its past.
Poole’s absence should immediately signal the return of Draymond Green, and that’s already a win. Green is just as important to this franchise’s identity as Stephen Curry. The title window was slammed shut and broken into pieces if he had gone.
I’m also genuinely excited about what Chris Paul brings to this team. The more I think about it, the more excited I get.
Start with the bench unit. The first Warriors title teams won with #StrengthInNumbers depth, but for years, Golden State has had to hold on for dear life in non-Curry minutes. That’s gone with CP3. Paul will elevate Klay Thompson on the second unit, and he’ll have instant chemistry with Draymond Green and an effective pick-and-roll game with Kevon Looney.
Out with the inconsistent bench units led by Jordan Poole’s goofy turnovers. In with a well-run unit that takes care of the ball and increases leads instead of giving them away.
Paul is also a significant upgrade in crunch time.
Those final minutes have often been Golden State’s Waterloo with sloppy late turnovers and Curry unable to find his shot in the clutch. Chris Paul is Captain Clutch. More than any player in modern history, Paul has repeatedly pushed teams to elite clutch play. He can get to that dangerous elbow jumper anytime he wants it, and he’ll settle this team’s nerves and cut the sloppy play late.
Think about what’s missing from past Warriors championship rosters and how Chris Paul can replicate what’s gone.
Shaun Livingston was the crafty veteran with a knack for finding crevices and shooting 128% in the mid-range. Paul can do that.
Andre Iguodala is a smart team defender and a leader on and off the floor, with an ability to push in transition, act as a secondary handler, and make a winning impact even without scoring. Paul can do that.
Kevin Durant was the one guy who could get to that valuable territory in Golden State’s offense — the mid-range that’s always open with Steph and Klay’s spacing. When the offense bogged down or a possession went awry, Durant could find his shot or get to his middie. Chris Paul can do that too.
The Warriors have six championship-level players now, and that gives them real versatility.
Start with Steph and Draymond in any key lineup along with Andrew Wiggins on the wing. Need size and defense? Add Looney and Klay for last year’s best lineup. A more traditional lineup with a true point guard and center? Now it’s Looney and Paul with Klay or Wiggins as the wing. And remember the Death Lineup? Allow me to introduce CP3, Steph, Klay, Wiggins, and Draymond. Hoo boy.
Golden State isn’t done yet.
The Warriors need to add depth to make up for the regular season innings and scoring Poole would have provided. Kuminga is probably gone too, for another veteran. Moody and Gary Payton II fit the team identity.
This year’s Warriors were flawed but were also the biggest stylistic threat to the Nuggets in the West.
Denver has struggled to defend Golden State with all of its movement and shooting and no real defensive matchup for Jokic. Next year’s version just got a lot better by going all-in on win now and embracing its team identity and winning, high IQ culture.
Denver is still the favorite — and the reigning champions — but the Nuggets’ road just got harder. Denver’s two toughest stylistic matchups got better this week, and the 2024 title race is already heating up.