When LeBron James hedged his bets with Cleveland and packed up to head to the Lakers, consensus around the league was that the Boston Celtics were once again the Kings of the East.
Even after a loss to LeBron’s Cavaliers in Game 7 of The Eastern Conference Finals, Boston headed into the offseason with a positive outlook. All Celtics GM Danny Ainge had to do was maintain the roster, and he would be returning a top team in the Eastern Conference. Boston fans heard the team’s name in rumors surrounding the NBA’s A-list, even LeBron himself. The rumor mill rotated to Kawhi Leonard, to Jimmy Butler, to Kyrie possibly leaving, and several other possibilities.
As James signed with Los Angeles and Paul George resigned with Oklahoma City, the list of stars on the move dwindled to just few, and all the attention was to Spurs’ All Star Kawhi Leonard. The Celtics were favorites for him at one point, as well as the Lakers, Clippers, and other teams, but the Spurs shocked the league recently by trading him to Toronto in return for Demar Derozan.
The trade has several hidden storylines- Derozan wanting to be a career Raptor, Leonard not wanting to play for his new team, but expect to see Kawhi suiting up for Toronto on Opening Night. Assuming it all settles smoothly, the reigning #1 seed in the East has just added one of, if not the best two-way forwards in the league. So what does this mean for Boston? The two teams split the season series last year, 2-2, and without James on the throne, the Eastern Conference is wide open between the two.
The only move Ainge made over Free Agency was to resign Marcus Smart for 4 years/$52 million. The Raptors were disposed of in the playoffs last year by Cleveland, and they just traded away one of the greatest players in franchise history.
While Leonard may be proven, his new teammate Kyle Lowry certainly isn’t, and neither is the rest of Toronto’s roster, really. The addition of Kawhi and Spurs’ Danny Green will certainly make the East more interesting, but it may not push Toronto over the powerhouse that Boston has built over these last few years. With a new coach, as well, and Leonard’s head set on leaving for Hollywood in a season, the Raptors don’t pose as big a threat to Boston’s chances as fans may think.
As of right now, the starting lineups would compare in Boston’s favor, with the Celtics potentially starting Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford with Smart, Terry Rozier, and Aaron Baynes as some of the reserves. Toronto would send out Lowry, Leonard, Green, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunis with a halfway decent mix of guys coming off the bench.
The Celtics would have the advantage at the point as well as the big man combo. Irving is one of the best, if not the best, point guard in the East. Tatum was a contender for rookie of the year, and was arguably one of the best players on the court in the Eastern Conference Finals. Horford shone through as one of the leaders on the team with his experience last postseason, and will benefit with guys like Irving and Hayward returning to the floor.
Should Ainge stay conservative on guys like Jimmy Butler, Toronto would have the advantage at the guard and forward positions. Green and Leonard have played together before in San Antonio, and between Lowry and the two, Toronto should have no issue finding a shooter. The interior defense is a little scary, as Tatum isn’t a true big, but the ability to stretch and run will be what puts Boston ahead.
Toronto and Boston aside, the Philadelphia 76’ers have a new path opened up for them with LeBron gone. While they missed out on the big names they had hoped for, Philadelphia still returns a solid core with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Boston exposed the lack of a consistent third option, but the comeback of Markelle Fultz is something that teams could overlook.
There’s still a lot of offseason left, and GM’s from any squad could still shock the league. With Irving’s uncertainty as well as the looming stars looking to be moved, the NBA may look a lot different at the start of the season. At the moment, Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto are the three teams poised to own the Eastern Conference this season, with Boston holding the slight advantage. Once the season rolls around, anything can happen and nothing is guaranteed- but that’s just the beauty of sports.
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