The Celtics aren’t necessarily the favorites in the Eastern Conference after their trade for Kyrie Irving on Tuesday, yet it’s safe to say they remain heavy favorites to reach the conference finals because besides Cleveland, the rest of the conference has taken a step back.
For the first time in the Brad Stevens era, the Celtics will have a good opportunity to win every game they play — even the two regular-season games again the Golden State Warriors (although they’ll be underdogs). And Boston will have an opportunity to dominate the East, with Cleveland and Washington as the two legitimate challengers.
Cleveland’s fate is tied to the health of Isaiah Thomas. Thomas has yet to be cleared for five-on-five drills with his injured right hip and could miss some regular-season time, as Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge revealed during his trade conference call Tuesday night.
The Cavaliers will have to integrate Thomas and Jae Crowder into their arsenal, and adjust to life without Irving. Before the Thomas trade, the Cavaliers added Derrick Rose, former Celtic Jeff Green, and veteran guard Jose Calderon to their roster.
The Cavaliers feature an aging roster that may not respond favorably to another year. The positive about the presence of Rose is that Thomas can move to perhaps a more natural shooting guard position in certain situations. But Rose is another ball-dominant player who likes to score, so the dynamic with he, James, and Thomas will be an interesting one.
As for the remainder of the Eastern Conference, there’s been a considerable dip. Kyle Lowry opted out of his contract hoping for a max deal, perhaps in his hometown Philadelphia. But the 76ers were able to wrestle the No. 1 overall pick out of the Celtics and draft Markelle Fultz, so Lowry went back to Toronto on a three-year, $100 million deal.
The Raptors weren’t active in free agency. Instead, they acquired complementary shooter C.J. Miles from Indiana for backup guard Cory Joseph and they also re-signed Serge Ibaka. Ibaka proved to be a factor for the Raptors after coming over from the Magic, but he could do little to help them compete with the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Toronto got swept.
Toronto is essentially the same team as last season, which is likely not good enough to take the next step.
Washington was able to re-sign Otto Porter (now the highest-paid player on the team until John Wall’s extension kicks in in 2019) and added sharpshooter Jodie Meeks. But as with Toronto, the Wizards will enter the season with essentially the same roster as last season, hoping Ian Mahinmi can stay healthy and Kelly Oubre can develop.
With no major signings in free agency, the Wizards are likely headed for a similar fate as last season.
The Miami Heat made a serious bid for Gordon Hayward but fell short. So they spent that available money on signing former Celtic Kelly Olynyk, re-signing swingman James Johnson and scoring guard Dion Waiters, and then drafting Kentucky center Bam Adebayo.
The Heat will always be a factor with Erik Spoelstra as their coach. He nearly led an often-injured bunch to the playoffs last season. But like the Raptors and Wizards, Miami is one major player short of being a serious Eastern Conference contender. Still, the Heat won’t be an easy team to beat.
Indiana and Atlanta are going through rebuilding projects. The Pacers were forced to deal Paul George, who said he would not re-sign with the club after next season. The return for George from the Thunder was questionable at best in Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. The Pacers’ biggest free-agent acquisition was Darren Collison so they won’t be a factor.
The Hawks allowed Paul Millsap to sign with Denver, and then traded Dwight Howard, leaving Dennis Schroder and Kent Bazemore with little roster support. New general manager Travis Schlenk has decided to rebuild, so count the Hawks out of contention.
Milwaukee appears a team to watch. The Bucks didn’t make any free agent splashes, but they’ll get a hopefully healthy Jabari Parker back along with a full season of Khris Middleton and of course, the gifted Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks have given the Celtics plenty of problems in recent years, and with their defense, should be improved from their playoff experience last season.
The 76ers should be improved with Fultz, Joel Embiid, and Ben Simmons all healthy and eager to make an impact. Meanwhile, Celtics fans won’t have to follow every Nets game because that final first-round pick they owned has been traded to the Cavaliers. Brooklyn should be better with D’Angelo Russell, Allen Crabbe, Timofey Mozgov, and DeMarre Carroll, but it will still finish in the lottery.
The rest of the Eastern Conference — Detroit, Charlotte, Chicago, Orlando, and New York — is made up of teams still trying to find their identities. The Pistons, Hornets, and Magic could make playoff pushes but nothing to threaten the Celtics.
Free agency and trades were unkind to the Eastern Conference. Millsap, George, and Jimmy Butler all departed for the West, giving the Celtics a better opportunity to reclaim the No. 1 seed. The question is whether Boston has enough to overcome the Cavaliers, but considering the inactivity of many other Eastern Conference competitors, it appears to be a two-team race to the NBA Finals.