As reported on Wednesday, the Toronto Raptors have traded for Kawhi Leonard (and Danny Green), sending DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 protected first-round pick to Spurs. These are the facts. Otherwise, this is a trade completely full of unknowns. Will Kawhi, who had reportedly made it very clear he didn't want to go to Toronto, actually suit up for the Raptors? That would sound like a crazy question under other circumstances, that a star player smack in his prime would flat sit out a full year, but has anything about this Kawhi saga seemed anything other than crazy?
Also, even if he does play, there is no guarantee he will be fully healthy, or even that if he is healthy, that he'll be the same player he was after losing a year's worth of timing and rhythm by sitting out basically all of last season. But hey, it's the East, without LeBron James, where pretty much any team with at least one star player can reasonably be called a Finals contender.
So, where do the new-look Raptors fall in this new Eastern Conference hierarchy? Let's take a look.
1. Boston Celtics
There is no question that the Celtics are now the cream of the Eastern crop. Really, they're the only team that can honestly be talked about among the league's elite without the qualification that they "play in the East." As currently constructed, I would call Boston the second-best team in the league behind the Warriors. , there is a universe in which the Celtics can win the whole thing as soon as this coming season, even with the Warriors -- having added DeMarcus Cousins and themselves being in line to perhaps go down as the greatest team ever assembled -- at the height of their powers.
First, let's point out the obvious that the Celtics took the Cavs to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals last season WITHOUT Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. As we sit here talking about all these new players on new teams, in essence, the Celtics are adding two All-NBA talents to a team that was already one game from the Finals.
Think about this potential closing lineup: Irving, Jayson Tatum, Hayward, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford. You want defensive length to switch on Golden State's shooters? Check. You want isolation scoring when the system hits a wall? Check. Seriously, the Celtics, on paper, have five legitimate defenders to throw at Kevin Durant in a one-on-one situation: Tatum, Brown, Smart, Marcus Morris and Semi Ojeleye -- the latter three of which will be BENCH PLAYERS. As will Terry Rozier, who showed everyone last year that he is seriously capable of carrying a team all by himself in stretches.
These are their backups, people. As the great Allen Iverson might say: Not their starters, not their starters, not their starters ... We're talking about their backups! Oh, and they have one of the best coaches in the league in Brad Stevens. Do not underestimate that. If this guy can put last year's Celtics within one game of the Finals, he's going to have an after-time-out field day with this squad. Seriously, the Celtics are so good.
2. Toronto Raptors
For the purposes of this ranking, I'm going to assume that Kawhi is healthy and will be something close to the player he has been in the past. If that isn't the case, well, the Raptors basically just executed a salary dump involving two All-Stars, which honestly might be the most likely end game of all this anyway.
For now, the Raptors have Leonard, and again, assuming he's healthy and motivated, he's a far better player than DeRozan. With Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Danny Green and OG Anunoby, the Raptors have the makings of a really versatile, solid defensive team, and this is to say nothing of the offensive upgrade of a healthy Leonard over DeRozan, which is significant.
A potential lineup of Lowry, Leonard, Anunoby, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas, with Fred Van Vleet, Delon Wright, Paskal Siakam, Normal Powell, Danny Green and C.J. Miles off the bench, is a fringe title contender in any world in which the Golden State Warriors don't exist. If you go small at the end of games with Ibaka at the five, you can get super switchy with a lot of versatile lineups with two legitimate superstar stoppers in Leonard and Anunoby, the latter of which has already proved himself as capable as pretty much anyone in one-on-one matchups with the league's best scorers.
Looked at simply through the lens of LeBron leaving the conference and Kawhi joining your team, the Raptors are closer to the Finals right now than they have ever been in their franchise history. So that's good. If they somehow convince Kawhi to stay, that would be even better. And don't rule that out, by the way. Paul George said he wanted to go to the Lakers, too, and he reconsidered. Money tends to be a pretty powerful bargaining chip, and the Raptors can now offer Kawhi a lot more money than any other team can. Like, about $50 million more.
3. Philadelphia 76ers
I hate the Sixers losing Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova because what really made them go down the stretch last year was surrounding Ben Simmons with all that shooting. At the same time, I'm hardly going to significantly downgrade a team that has Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons because they lost Belinelli and Ilyasova, if that makes sense.
Bottom line, the Sixers have two of the five best players in the conference. My personal order would go Kawhi (if healthy), Giannis Antetokounmpo, Embiid, Irving and Simmons. The Sixers re-signed JJ Redick and still have Dario Saric and Robert Covington to space the floor. That starting lineup was murderous last year and it will be again this year. Also, Zhaire Smith. Dude is crazy athletic and a versatile, potentially elite defender. Defensively, the Sixers could be a top-five team again, as they were most of last year.
As currently constructed, Philly could reasonably be called the second-best team in the East assuming a year of growth. If Markelle Fultz somehow rises from the dead and looks anything close to the player we all expected him to be when he was taken No. 1 overall in 2017, and if Ben Simmons comes back with anything resembling a jump shot that you at least have to respect, you could make an argument that the Sixers could, perhaps, give Boston a scare in a seven-game series.
The reports out there suggesting the Sixers were unwilling to part with Fultz in a potential deal to bring in Leonard are baffling to me. If that was really on the table, the Sixers should have made that move. Kawhi, Simmons and Embiid is a stone-cold championship threat, and you take your chances on re-signing the guy next year. But I suppose that's another story.
4. Washington Wizards
Barring injury, there is absolutely no excuse for the Wizards to not earn a top-four seed in this conference. They have John Wall. They have Bradley Beal. They have Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre. Don't completely sleep on Dwight Howard, either. The guy has made himself about as welcome in a locker room as a MRSA staph infection, but he averaged just under 17 points and 13 boards last year. There's still something there as a pick-and-roll and lob partner with Wall, and he's still a defensive presence.
Washignton slipped to the No. 8 seed last season but was right there in its first-round series vs Toronto. There was a stretch when Wall was injured that they really figured out how to operate more inclusively, and if Wall can add a little bit of that to his game without losing his ability to do what he does individually, like the Raptors and Sixers, there is a reasonable claim to be made that Washington has the talent to be a fringe Finals contender behind Boston.
5. Milwaukee Bucks
I agree with the long-term move of not re-signing Jabari Parker, but in the short term, they lost a 20-point-per-game scorer when they aren't exactly crawling with talent outside Giannis. But again, it's the East, where Giannis alone is enough to make you an outside threat, at least, against any team other than Boston.
Khris Middleton showed a lot of casual NBA fans how good he is in Milwaukee's first-round, seven-game loss to Boston in last year's playoffs, and Eric Bledsoe has it in him to be an All-Star-caliber player in stretches. The Bucks have good defensive length on paper and their first-round pick, Donte DiVincenzo out of Villanova, is super intriguing. I talked to a scout at the Las Vegas Summer League, in fact, who thinks DiVincenzo could be a sleeper top-three Rookie of the Year finisher in this pretty star-studded class.
6. Indiana Pacers
In the West, the Pacers would be battling for their playoff lives, similar to the Bucks. In the East, they're a fringe conference finals threat. Victor Oladipo is a star. That was not a one-year-wonder situation. Tyreke Evans is a nice signing. Aaron Holiday, like DiVincenzo in Milwaukee, is a breakout-rookie candidate. He's really solid.
There's some fear here that the Pacers might be in a little bit of a 2013 Phoenix Suns situation. Remember when that team was supposed to be trash and then ended up winning 48 games? Nobody expected the Pacers to be anything last season after they lost Paul George. Everyone thought they got swindled in that deal. Then Oladipo, and to a lesser extent Domantas Sabonis, broke out, the Pacers played really hard every night, and the next thing you knew they were fighting for a top-four seed.
A major regression is not out of the question. Teams will take them more seriously than perhaps they did to start last season. But how far can they really fall in the East? I know I keep saying that, but it's true. If you have a star player, which the Pacers do possess, you should at least be a playoff team in the East. Well, maybe excluding the Hornets, should they hold onto Kemba Walker.
7. Miami Heat
The team that most consistently plays above its collective talent level, the Heat should be back in the playoffs again. Who knows what they do with Hassan Whiteside come playoff time (if they don't find a way to trade him before then), but in the regular season, when scouting isn't quite as focused on mercilessly exploiting a particular player's weakness, he can still be an impactful guy.
I ran into Erik Spoelstra at summer league and he is high on Bam Adebayo, as almost everyone is at this point. Spoelstra said they can't get Adebayo out of the gym. A guy with that kind of physicality and under-appreciated skill who works that hard? He feels like a candidate to take one of the bigger second-year leaps.
8. Detroit Pistons
I'll say Detroit squeezes into the playoffs. Again, they have All-Star talent in Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, and in the East, if you cannot even keep yourself out of the lottery with two All-Stars and another potential 18-to-20-point guy in Reggie Jackson, you have issues. Dwane Casey was the Coach of the Year for a reason. He'll find ways for Drummond and Griffin to better co-exist. Hopefully he can squeeze the best out of Jackson and Stanley Johnson, and I think Luke Kennard has a chance to be a solid player this year.
I'm tempted to put the Cavs in this spot, but deep down I think they are going to eventually deal Kevin Love and enter into full-on rebuild mode, which would be the smart play. Why finish 8th in the conference when you can bottom out, start clearing your books, and add a few lottery picks along the way? Don't be foolish, Cleveland.