It’s easy to watch what transpired this summer and look at the Eastern Conference as a wasteland. Paul George and Jimmy Butler were shipped West for little return. LeBron James is not so quietly planning a move to LA himself, leaving the East wide open for any star who is willing to take a seat at the throne. Assuming LeBron leaves it will be the first time someone else will represent the East in the Finals.
Things are definitely in limbo to say the least. But with so much star talent outbound there will be a lot of opportunity for the other guys. John Wall has carried himself like a superstar and now he can finally make that run. Giannis Antetokounmpo made some noise last year. With just LeBron in his way, the Greek Freak could start his ascension as the new king of the East.
Same goes for the two unicorns in the Atlantic division, Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid. Can they start to carry their struggling franchises back to relevance or will the Boston Celtics reign supreme? A lot of moving parts to get to in a conference that is going through a rebuild itself.
Let’s break it down with takes from Mike Cortez and Tyler Birss of H&H.
With Kyrie Irving in Boston, do the Celtics now have enough to surpass Cleveland and finally give the East a desperately needed rivalry?
Let’s not beat around the bush. The Celtics can sign Jesus Christ and still not get past LeBron James. So the answer is no, the Celtics are still not getting past a healthy LeBron in May. But that does not mean that a new rivalry hasn’t been born. This isn’t a Russell Westbrook situation here, Kyrie’s team will win a fair amount against the Cavs. But a healthy and focused LeBron is not losing four times to any team not stationed in The Bay.
LeBron vs. Kyrie is the PG version of a Kobe vs. Shaq redux. There has not been any name-calling, no threats to eat the other’s ass but there has been a ton of subliminals. Kyrie wanted to be his own show despite being given the running mate every player dreams of playing alongside – Mamba Mentality 101. He is officially the man in Boston and he steps into a great situation.
The Celtics essentially lost Jae Crowder and upgraded from Isaiah Thomas. Kyrie will be the centerpiece of a big three that includes Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, which coupled with Brad Stevens should separate them from the Wizards as the clear-cut number two. They also have a chunk of young talent in the form of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Guershon Yabusele. Danny Ainge was able to upgrade while not sacrificing the one thing that kept the Wizards from passing them – depth.
That is a good enough cast to make the Cavs work to win the East next season. LeBron will have IT as his go-to guy if the defense collapses on him and Crowder can harass Hayward on the wing. If Horford or Marcus Morris can lock down Kevin Love from time to time then this inevitable Eastern Conference finals matchup could actually go seven.
What interests me the most about this rivalry is the layers to vengeance on both sides. You can argue IT has the biggest axe to grind of all the parties involved, especially in the short term. We always chide athletes for not being loyal to their teams, but the Celtics showed us exactly why you should only remain loyal to yourself. Ainge (rightfully) didn’t want to pay IT the max and looked for the best way to rid him of that potential problem.
On Kyrie’s side the mission is obvious – prove he never needed LeBron, just time and the right coach. The great thing about this is the story doesn’t end next season. If LeBron makes the expected jump to LA then we have the centerpiece to the revival of Lakers vs. Celtics. Every time these two meet we will all be looking to see how they play each other. If there is genuine animosity there is no telling where this could go.
Kyrie can remain a Celtic for life and battle LeBron until he retires. If his hate for LeBron is legit and deepens he is still free to sign elsewhere in 2020. Maybe pull a KD and head to Golden State just to piss off LeBron. The petty possibilities are endless as is the entertainment we can get from a fresh rivalry.
In a word, no. Not yet. If LeBron James does indeed head West following the coming season, the East will then belong to Boston. But so long as James remains with the Cavaliers, they will rule the East. A Kyrie Irving loss for Cleveland and gain for Boston on top of the Gordon Hayward addition just closes the gap – it doesn’t switch the advantage. Let us also remember another aspect here – James is coming off his fifth Finals loss and a key superstar teammate demanded a trade primarily due to the presence of James. Do people actually think James tweeting his appreciation of Irving doesn’t mean he’s going to go scorched earth on the Celtics in 2017-18?
There is no chance on this planet that Irving plays in the Finals while James sits at home and watches. Furthermore, Boston experienced underrated losses this offseason even though they have improved overall. Part of what gave them an edge was the defensive impact from Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder. And for all of the unfair criticism he has received since the trade, Isaiah Thomas was a bulldog for Boston. He played with heart. Those three are gone.
In spite of all the sizzling moves and unreal handles Irving displays, he lacks the tenacity of Thomas. Boston improved as a unit because of talent alone, but is it fair to suggest that they became softer? I would say so. Also don’t forget the loss of Kelly Olynyk, a solid behind-the-scenes type of performer who was productive without receiving much credit. They have a defensive identity and some role player duties to iron out.
It will take Boston time to find cohesion. Hayward left for the Celtics with hopes of maintaining the role he had in Utah as “the guy” only on a better team, did he not? Meanwhile, Irving’s ego is basically a sixth player in the starting five. Both will have to make adjustments and at times defer to make the other successful. I don’t anticipate Hayward being an unreasonable alpha who is upset with Irving’s isolation-based style, but it nevertheless will be something to monitor.
Hayward never played with an offensive player close to his skill set during his last few years with the Jazz. Irving is not a playmaker, and given some of the reports that came out of Cleveland last season combined with his desire to be traded from an annual Finals contender, it might be fair to suggest he’s not exactly an amazing teammate, either. Irving’s trade demand was such a “look at me” declaration that I’m surprised Tom Hanks wasn’t involved.
As Boston attempts to find this rhythm, James will be marching the Cavaliers on another path to the Finals. The Cavs will predictably struggle in certain moments of the regular season, prompting the unnecessary but inevitable questions concerning if James will finally fail to reach the Finals. The Celtics might even end up snatching the one-seed as they did last season. But when the pages have been read, what are you banking on? An Irving/Hayward duo leading the Celtics to the promise land, or one of the greatest players in sports history giving Cleveland one more Finals shot in possibly his last run with the team? Death, taxes, and LeBron representing the East in the NBA Finals. Boston’s time is coming, but it hasn’t arrived quite yet.