The beginning of the NBA offseason has not be kind to the homes of teams located in the Eastern Conference. The conference that has been historically weaker than it’s west-side counterpart just got a whole lot more uninteresting. From elite players such as Jimmy Butler and Paul Millsap to mid-tier level players such as Patrick Patterson and Jeff Teague, the East has been drained of most of it’s top talent.
The only teams who managed to keep their stars together were the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics. For a while, it was looking as though the Celtics might wiff again on another high-profile free agent, but after a hectic day of leaked social media news and plenty of feelings being hurt, the budding star from Utah, Gordon Hayward, decided to sign with Boston and transfer to the Eastern Conference.
While the Cavaliers and Celtics are setup nicely to contend for the Eastern Conference championship, the rest of the conference is a mess. The Toronto Raptors reluctantly decided to keep the band together after they saw the collection of talent that began heading out west (I don’t blame them for doing this in favor of a tank/rebuild). The Washington Wizards did nothing of value to improve their team besides adding an injury-prone Jodie Meeks to their bench rotation (and practically being forced to match the huge offer sheet for Otto Porter Jr.). The Atlanta Hawks are in the beginning stages of a total rebuild along with the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls — who were all three playoff teams last postseason.
The Miami Heat are shelling out tons of money to average talent in hopes of sneaking into the playoffs this season. The Milwaukee Bucks are doing exactly what they normally do - nothing. The Detroit Pistons and Charlotte Hornets have made some moves that could propel them into the playoffs, but with no added stars, they’ll likely hover around 40-45 wins next season.
Then there’s the New York Knicks, Orlando Magic, and Brooklyn Nets who will be confined to the bottom of the conference and the entire league for probably ever. And lastly, the Philadelphia 76ers will play the role of the favorite “League Pass” team who will hopefully stay healthy long enough for them to entertain the idea of making the playoffs. Most teams in the East have corroded since free agency started and the ones who improved are still light years away from the Cavaliers or Celtics. This leaves the two aforementioned teams as the only remaining candidates to be crowned the East’s next champion.
But this Celtics team is completely different now. Instead of being led by a 5’9” point guard who can’t play defense, the Celtics now have a bonafide superstar who is about to enter his prime. Hayward has the ability to become a top-10 player in this league in the coming years and he’s got his old college coach to help him get there. The Celtics now have their own version of the “Big Three” with Hayward, Isaiah Thomas, and Al Horford but to be able to afford them, they had to let someone go.
The Celtics traded Avery Bradley to the Detroit Pistons for Marcus Morris and a future pick. Adding Hayward and losing Bradley is not a bad trade-off, although it’s a shame the Celtics couldn’t send off one of Marcus Smart/Jae Crowder/Terry Rozier instead. Bradley would likely cost too much to extend anyways once he is due to get paid next summer, so this way the Celtics get something instead of nothing. Now, the question is are the Celtics legitimate candidates to take down the Cavaliers?
The short answer is yes, they are capable, but the long answer makes it seem less likely. LeBron James will turn 33 in December and while most players would be a year or two past their prime, I’m still not sure we haven’t seen everything LeBron can offer. Horford struggles against Tristan Thompson and if the Cavaliers can keep him for next season, an aging Horford will still stand no chance going toe-to-toe with the best offensive rebounder in the league. Kyrie Irving is only 25 with plenty of time to take another leap in production before he can officially take over the team.
The Celtics losing Bradley is huge and when Smart and Rozier have to guard Kyrie for 40-plus minutes, it will be become painfully obvious why. But that’s the risk they took to sign Hayward. Hayward was a first-time All-Star this past season while averaging 21.9 points per game and shooting nearly 40 percent from deep. He can score from practically anywhere on the court and his size and length allows him to guard most wing players and multiple positions.
But he doesn’t put the Celtics over the top. The Cavaliers were far and away the better team in the East last season and the entire league knew it. Despite the injury to Isaiah Thomas, the Cavaliers were clearly the better team during their playoff series, but now they add Hayward and third overall pick, Jayson Tatum, while losing only Bradley. It will be interesting to see how the Celtics work with three players who all have similar size and skill sets (Hayward, Tatum, and Jaylen Brown), but that is something I expect Brad Stevens to incorporate well into his offense. There still isn’t a player on the Celtics roster who can effectively guard Irving or James. Thompson will still out-rebound Horford to oblivion. Kevin Love no longer has to fear the Kelly Olynyk will rip his arm from it’s socket after he signed a deal to play for the Miami Heat.
Simply put, the Cavs are still a better shooting and rebounding team. The Cavaliers still have the Celtics beat at every starting position and, at least for next season, Cleveland will continue their dominance of the Eastern Conference.