In arguably the first year since the departure of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the Eastern Conference is wide open. Now, I understand what you may be thinking: It’s the playoffs, wont LeBron just turn it up a notch and secure his 7th straight NBA Finals appearance? The short answer: I don’t know that he can do much more than he is right now. Currently, LeBron is averaging 26 ppg and career highs in rebounds (8.4) and assists (8.8). He is simply having a career year that is overshadowed by a two-headed MVP race between James Harden and Russell Westbrook (though I am personally inclined to put Kawhi Leonard in/ahead of these two) and losses to non-contending teams. Let’s face it: the Cavaliers may just be in trouble. Yes, I know that at the end of the day if this Cavs team plays even close to its potential, the Eastern Conference is theirs, but its been so long since they’ve even resembled themselves. Per SBNATION, since the All-Star Break Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have had plus-minuses of -1.3 and -15.1 respectively. THIS IS ALARMING. It’s a fall from grace for a team who was 6 games ahead of the Celtics for the number 1 seed just a short two months ago.
So what does this all even mean? If the Cavs are capable (and you can bet they are) of turning this around, why should a Celtics fan even care: does competing with Washington and Toronto to be the second best team in the East mean anything? Firstly, the Cavs vulnerability means that securing a 1 seed would prevent the Celtics from having to play the Cavs until the Eastern Conference Finals. Though the 2 seed would do the same exact thing, the Celtics would own home-court advantage throughout their playoff run, a benefit exemplified by winning 73% of games at home compared to 55% on the road. The Celtics are better when they are in the Garden and it’s been that way all season. Give them a chance to play 4 games in a series at home and they can at least challenge the Cavs. Nevertheless, let’s assume that Cleveland isn’t able to piece it together and fall to the Celtics in the Conference Finals. No one who has even seen one basketball game would take the Celtics over the Warriors or Spurs, the almost surefire two teams out of the West to advance. Hell, I wouldn’t even take the reigning champion Cavs to beat either of them. But, a trip to the Finals would crystallize Danny Ainge’s master-plan of making Boston a perennial contender.
If Boston can get past LeBron and the Cavs without another superstar, imagine what they could do with two more top draft picks (crosses fingers for Markelle Fultz and Michael Porter Jr) if we do draft, a blockbuster trade for a superstar, a free-agent signing, or any hybrid of the aforementioned. Boston, if they can advance will become a free agent destination for superstars who want to win. The West is far too competitive, as there is a logjam at the top, and top free agents should shy away from that Conference if they want to win. Further, none of the contending Western Conference teams are even in play for free agents, as they either have no money to spend, or are gearing for future contracts (Utah Jazz). But what about the East? Cleveland has the highest payroll in NBA history so cross them off. The Wizards are over the cap as well and have a few bad contracts- see Ian Mahimi and Marcin Gortat- and need to save money for John Wall and Otto Porter Jr’s next contracts. The Raptors? Out of the mix if Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry are part of their plans for the future. This leaves the Celtics as the only Eastern Conference contending team with a chance to improve through free-agent signings.
Now, here comes the kicker. If the Celtics can really make a big playoff push, they may not need to trade away assets to get better. As explained above, the Celtics can simply sign in-prime players and combine them with their current young talent and high Brooklyn picks to create one of the more well-balanced teams in the NBA. Sure, they won’t have the firepower of the Warriors, but they will be able to wear any team down over seven games. This, maybe utopian, scenario would make the Celtics a threat for years to come, far past the days of the Warriors and Cavs. They’d be able to win now with Isaiah, Al, and a free agent or two at the helm and later with a young core of Brown, Fultz (please), and Porter Jr. (I’m tearing up at the thought of this). This, assuming everyone stays, will guarantee the Celtics years of dominance. The message is simple: kick it up a notch. The Cavs have never been so vulnerable since LeBron’s return and the time to capitalize is, unequivocally, now. If the Celtics beat the Cavs or take them to 7 and the ping pong balls favor us-it would be an absolute anomaly to draft outside the top 5 in either year- then the rest of the NBA should take notice. Boston could become the most dominant force of basketball in a pre-and-post LeBron world.
My hopeful Celtics lineup of the future:
PG: Isaiah Thomas
SG: Markelle Fultz
SF: Gordon Hayward/Paul George
PF: Blake Griffin
C: Al Horford
Jae Crowder, Jaylen Brown, Michael Porter Jr., Marcus Smart, Ante Zizic
How unreal does that sound?