Assessing who's in line to take Cavaliers' spot as the East's rep in the NBA Finals
Is Boston really ready to become the class of the East? Will the Raptors ever break through?
The degree to which the Cleveland Cavaliers are vulnerable is up for debate. In the short term, much rests on the injured hip of new point guard Isaiah Thomas. In the long term, things get much murkier.
While the Cavaliers still clearly have the best roster in the Eastern Conference, no one knows when they will be whole or what they will look like a year from now. LeBron James is eligible for free agency next summer and has made no promises about finishing his career in Cleveland. Thomas could be on the market at the same time. The Cavs acquired the Brooklyn Nets' unprotected pick in the Kyrie Irving deal because -- in part -- they need someone to build around should they need to hit the reset button in 2018.
All this means the rest of the East can think about their path to the NBA Finals opening up at some point in the relatively near future. Let's take a look at who's got next (as long as Thomas doesn't reach the same level he did last season, and convince James to re-sign with his hometown team):
After adding Irving and Gordon Hayward, Boston is the fashionable pick to overtake Cleveland as the East's new powerhouse. The story of its turnaround the past few seasons is remarkable, and Danny Ainge's front office showed this past summer that it was not satisfied with merely making an appearance in the conference finals. This is an almost entirely new team, and it will be dealing with high expectations. By the end of the season, the Celtics hope to be a well-oiled machine that can do better than last year's team did in a potential rematch with the Cavs. If Cleveland is healthy, though, few would pick Boston to slow James down enough to win more than a couple of games.
The best part of the Celtics' situation is that they have plenty of room to grow. They want to compete now, of course, but they have invested in all sorts of young players -- Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Guerschon Yabusele and Semi Ojeleye are 23 or younger -- and they have more help coming. The Nets picks are all gone, but Boston still has three extra first-round picks at its disposal:
- The Los Angeles Lakers' 2018 pick if it falls between Nos. 2 and 5 OR the Sacramento Kings' 2019 first-round pick
- The Los Angeles Clippers' 2019 first-round pick (lottery protected)
- The Memphis Grizzlies' 2019 first-round pick (protected 1-8, then 1-6 in 2020, then unprotected)
Given that Irving and Hayward are still approaching their prime years and the 31-year-old Al Horford's game is likely to age well, you have to be bullish on the Celtics going forward. There are questions about how Irving will change his game and how the young guys will develop, but Boston is the safest bet in terms of challenging the Cavs now and sustaining success over the next five years. If another star becomes available on the trade market, how many teams can outbid Ainge?
Raptors management essentially gave this group a three-year window to take the next step when it re-signed Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka to three-year deals in the offseason. Given that they were able to do that and acquire C.J. Miles on a team-friendly contract, the summer should be seen as a success, if not a smashing one. The moderate amount of roster turnover (losing Patrick Patterson, P.J. Tucker and DeMarre Carroll; acquiring Miles, K.J. McDaniels and OG Anunoby) does not inspire confidence that the "culture reset" that president Masai Ujiri talked about last May will come to fruition right away.
Continuity, though, can be a good thing. Lowry and DeMar DeRozan's playoff struggles have been documented to death, but they have also built a solid foundation for the franchise. Toronto now needs Norman Powell, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam to take advantage of increased opportunities. If they increase their value, it not only would help the Raptors stay near the top of the East; it also would give Ujiri more flexibility as he tries to make deals before the deadline.
As currently constructed, it is clear that Toronto does not scare the Cavaliers at all. It remains in striking distance, though, and its abundance of young players represent short-term unpredictability and long-term hope. Maybe Powell will push the Raptors to move Ibaka to center and Jonas Valanciunas to the bench full-time. Maybe Wright and Poeltl will keep the Raptors' reserve unit among the league's best. Maybe Anunoby will become a game-changing defender. Maybe McDaniels will improve his 3-point shot and get back to blocking shots the way he did as a rookie with the Sixers. Maybe Bruno Caboclo will finally earn a spot in the rotation. Maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe. The point is that, even though Toronto does not have the highly touted college players Boston has drafted, its player development program will be just as important.
If Kelly Olynyk hadn't come up with a Game 7 performance for the ages, the Wizards probably would have reached the conference finals. They were doomed by their dismal bench, though, and they can't afford to have the same drop-off in pivotal playoff moments this coming season. With that in mind, the Tim Frazier signing is a big deal, and the sharpshooting Jodie Meeks could give them more value than Bojan Bogdanovic did, if he can stay on the floor. Some of the returning guys are just as significant: Ian Mahinmi must stay healthy, Kelly Oubre must be more disciplined and Tomas Satoransky must find a comfortable role in the rotation.
Washington has yet to finish better than fourth in the East in the John Wall era, but on paper it has the talent to challenge for the top spot. There was no excuse for this team falling to 20th in defensive rating last season, especially when coach Scott Brooks was supposed to be primarily concerned with fixing problems at that end. If the Wizards plan to be a part of the upper echelon in the regular season, they need to be a million times more consistent when it comes to getting stops.
Few would pick Washington in a potential series against Cleveland, but it's hard to be pessimistic about Washington's future because Wall is 27 and Bradley Beal is only 24. Theoretically, they should be able to recruit another star to play next to them and form a superteam at some point. The Wizards are not set up to have cap room to sign a major free agent, though, so any such acquisition likely would necessitate moving versatile forward Otto Porter. In the meantime, the versatile forward will be making the max, having re-signed in July.
Assuming no franchise-changing move is in the offing, it's worth monitoring what happens with Marcin Gortat between now and February. The center was surprised to still be on the team after last season's trade deadline, but dealing a center for fair value is a tricky proposition in today's NBA.
The Bucks had an extremely quiet summer, but there should still be good vibes around the team after making the Raptors sweat in the first round of the playoffs. Giannis Antetokounmpo was arguably the second-best player in the conference last season, and there is no reason to believe he has even come close to peaking. Milwaukee fans also can look forward to a full season of Khris Middleton and improvement from Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker. If they win 45-plus games and do more than they did in last year's postseason, that should be considered nice progress.
As much promise as they showed against Toronto, though, the Bucks were only an average team last season. While it is possible they make a huge leap this coming season, they are on this list because of what they could be in a few years, not how they match up with the Cavaliers now. There are a ton of question marks, from their style of defense to their new front office and the uncertainty surrounding Jabari Parker's health. The organization will need some luck as it tries to go from an up-and-comer to a consistent force.
Like the Bucks, much of the buzz around the 76ers is because of one transcendent player: Joel Embiid. Unlike the Bucks, the Sixers also have the past two No. 1 picks on their roster. Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz may wind up competing with each other for Rookie of the Year, and free-agent additions J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson will give them a chance to get playoff experience right away. The Process worked, but Philadelphia is at a stage where every minute will be more meaningful and there will be real disappointment if it does not win as often as expected. That is going to be a bit weird, but it is all a part of the, uh, process.
There will be challenges. Among them: balancing playmaking responsibilities, playing as a unit defensively and keeping everybody healthy. Even if everything goes right, it is difficult to imagine the Sixers earning home-court advantage in the playoffs or giving an elite team a scare. If you take the long view, though, you can argue that no team in the East -- Boston included -- has set itself up to become true championship contenders as has Philadelphia. The youth and injury risks associated with this roster are real, but the upside is incredible.
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