The Boston Celtics are the best team in the Eastern Conference and it begins with the play of point guard Kyrie Irving.
X-Boston Celtics 51-31 (3)
For teams in the NBA who are really serious about rebuilding, they need to sit back and see what the Boston Celtics are doing. After the Celtics won the NBA Championship in 2008, they were able to remain as a title contender until 2013 when their age began to show. And instead of hanging on to players that were over the hill, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge immediately pushed the rebuild button as his team began the process of starting over.
Ainge’s first order of business was to find a head coach who was on board with his rebuilding plan and he found his man in former Butler Bulldogs men’s head basketball coach Brad Stevens. Stevens had never coached at the profession level and his first season in Boston only saw the Celtics win 25 games. However the Celtics would quickly be ahead of schedule in regards to rebuilding as in year two of the Stevens regime, they would be playoff bound. Last season the Celtics would win 53 games en route to winning the Atlantic Division Title as well as having the best record in the Eastern Conference. Boston would reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2012, and although that they were swept there by the Cleveland Cavaliers, the C’s have served notice to the rest of the NBA that they are once again ready to be a title contender.
Heading into the summer, Ainge knew that he had a team that was a good enough to be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, but what could he do in order to give the Cavaliers a run for their money?
Courtesy of a lopsided trade with the Brooklyn Nets in 2013, the Celtics acquired multiple first-round draft picks. And after the Nets the finished with the worst record in the NBA last season, they earned the first overall selection in the draft. However the Celtics had the option to swap first-round picks with Nets which they did. But Ainge wasn’t done wheeling and dealing as he made a deal just prior to the NBA Draft with the Philadelphia 76ers as he moved down to the third overall slot, and in the process he was able to obtain more draft picks.
The Celtics would select Duke Blue Devils small forward Jayson Tatum who after averaging 16.8 points and 7.3 in his only collegiate campaign showed that he was ready to take his game to the next level. Tatum would add to that in the NBA’s Summer League as he was able to average 18.7 points and 9.7 rebounds for the Celtics as he gave them a glimpse of what to expect from him this season.
Ainge wasn’t done there as he pulled off a huge shocker when he was able to acquire All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving from the Cavs. Irving is just entering the prime of his career and he has been integral in Cleveland’s three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals. However Irving has gotten tired of being in the shadow of small forward LeBron James.
In acquiring Irving from Cleveland, the Celtics parted with a pair of draft picks which includes a first-round pick for next year that originally was the property of the Nets, as well as small forward Jae Crowder, and point guard Isaiah Thomas. The past few years had seen Thomas morph into being the heart and soul of the Celtics due to his scoring ability as well as his fearlessness which endeared him to the Boston fans. However a hip injury put Thomas’ future with the Celtics in doubt, and when Irving was put on the trading block after letting the Cavs front office know of his desire to no longer be a member of the organization, the trade went down.
What Irving gives the Celtics is a proven scorer who has shown that the bigger the stage, the more that he produces. For Irving’s six-year NBA career he has averaged 21.6 points per game. But Irving is not in that typical point guard mode as he is more of a shooting guard in a point guard’s body. However Irving should have no problem fitting into the offensive system that Stevens operates due to the fact that it comes down to ball movement, moving without the ball, and getting to the basket. Irving should have a big season for the Celtics as he looks to not only endear himself to the folks in Boston, but also show that he can succeed without LeBron.
Sandwiched in between drafting Tatum and obtaining Irving was the Celtics being able to sign free agent small forward Gordon Hayward. Hayward was one of the most coveted free agents over the summer after he averaged 21.9 points per game and helped the Utah Jazz reach the Western Conference Semifinals for the first time since 2010. All signs pointed to Hayward not re-signing with the Jazz, and it appeared to be a slam dunk decision for him to join the Celtics as Stevens was his college head coach.
Hayward made his decision official on July 4 when he and the Celtics came to terms on a four-year deal for $128 million. What Hayward gives the Celtics is a point forward who has what it takes to excel in Stevens’ system. Hayward can move well without the basketball, while can also score, while making the people around him better. And Hayward’s ability to handle the basketball can take some pressure off of Irving while also allowing him to concentrate more on being a scorer.
However things would become bad for Hayward and the Celtics on opening night when he fractured his ankle. More than likely Hayward is done for the season, but luckily the Celtics do have depth in the front court, while this injury occurred at the beginning of the season as this team will still have time to gel.
Boston would also lose some depth in their backcourt when they traded guard Avery Bradley to the Detroit Pistons. In exchange for sending Bradley to Detroit, the Pistons received power forward Marcus Morris who provides with interior scoring as well as some toughness that they lost when they traded Crowder.
Boston still has guard Marcus Smart who has proved to be a valuable bench player, while also providing toughness to the squad. In 2016, the Celtics drafted small forward Jaylen Brown third overall and he showed flashes of his potential. And with the Hayward injury, he will be a valuable player due to his athleticism.
The Celtics also have veteran center Al Horford who will never be a player that will consistently get 20 points and 10 rebounds, but he is a guy that could give Boston 15 points and 8 boards, while his decade long experience in the NBA, as well as winning a pair of national championships collegiately with the Florida Gators should pay dividends.
It will take the Celtics some time to gel, but they should improve as the season goes along as they’ll seek to fill the void of Hayward’s absence.
Y-Toronto Raptors 50-32 (4)
The Toronto Raptors currently find themselves in their best stretch in franchise history. The Raptors have made the NBA Playoffs in each of the last four years which included making the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in 2016. But after three straight Atlantic Division Titles, the Raptors finished second in the division last year due to a surge by the Boston Celtics. And as the Celtics appeared to have passed the Raptors in regards to being the team to beat in the Atlantic, will they have enough in their arsenal to keep up with them and the other top powers in the Eastern Conference?
Dwane Casey is set to begin his seventh season as the head coach of the Raptors and by far he has had the most successful tenure of any head coach in franchise history which is also a credit to team president Masai Ujiri who has put the right players in place in order for the team to have success.
The Raptors still possess one of the best backcourts in the Eastern Conference which consists of shooting guard DeMar DeRozan and point guard Kyle Lowry. The confidence level of DeRozan has continued to increase throughout his eight-year NBA career. Last year DeRozan averaged 27.3 points per game which was fifth in the NBA as he has become “the guy” in Toronto. DeRozan has never been known to be a perimeter shooter as he has only shot 28% from behind the three-point line for his professional career. But what DeRozan specializes in is getting buckets as he is one the quicker players in the NBA in regards to his first step which helps him to get to the basket.
It may not seem like it, but Lowry is set to begin his 12th NBA season and sixth with the Raptors. Lowry has become a steadying force for the Raptors at the point guard position which led to him agreeing to return to the club last summer after agreeing to a three-year deal for $100 million. But as good as Lowry and DeRozan have been for Toronto, who else will step up in order to make this a championship team?
Last season saw the Raptors acquire power forward Serge Ibaka from the Orlando Magic. What Ibaka gives the Raptors is a stretch four who can knock down perimeter shots which opens up the lane for both Lowry and DeRozan. Center Jonas Valenciunas has been a project for the Raptors and he has now turned into a player who can get 15 points as well as 10 rebounds per night. But will this frontcourt production be enough for Toronto to keep up with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Celtics in the Eastern Conference?
The schedule makers were not kind to the Raptors as they will begin a six-game road swing in late October. This stretch will see the Raptors face some of the top teams from the Western Conference which includes games against the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors. The Raptors are still one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference, however they are still not on the level of the Cavs.
New York Knicks 38-44
There was a time when the New York Knicks were one of the top teams in the NBA, but for their disgruntled fan base, that was a lifetime ago. Since 2005, the Knicks only have three playoff appearances, while each of the last three years has seen them lose at least 50 games. The Knicks have been the epitome of dysfunction which was further illustrated by the failed tenure of Phil Jackson as the team’s president. The Knicks have been nothing short of a circus with none of the key people within the organization on the same page, and it doesn’t appear to be that much better at Madison Square Garden heading into the new NBA season.
After Knicks owner James Dolan decided to part ways with Jackson in June, he decided to hire Steve Mills as the team’s president and Scott Perry as the general manager. Dolan decided to retain Jeff Hornacek as the Knicks head coach as he should finally have a chance to flex his basketball muscles.
Last year was Hornacek’s first year as the Knicks head coach and under him New York lost 51 games. A big reason for the Knicks struggles was that Jackson wanted Hornacek to operate under the umbrella of the triangle offense, while his system is more wide-open. But now with the Jackson debacle behind the Knicks, we should see a more wide-open brand of basketball being played at Madison Square Garden this season.
Another reason why this season shouldn’t be as stressful for the Knicks is that the team finally came to grips and traded small forward Carmelo Anthony. When the Knicks acquired Anthony from the Denver Nuggets in 2011, he immediately became their first true franchise player that they had since the days of Patrick Ewing. However Anthony and Jackson were never on the same page, and with the star small forward turning 33-years of age this past May, he wanted to go a team that would give him an opportunity to win an NBA Championship.
Last month the Knicks would trade Anthony to the Oklahoma City Thunder and in process they handed the keys to their franchise to power forward Kristaps Porzingis.
In 2015, Porzingis was the fourth overall pick of the NBA Draft by the Knicks and it has not taken him that long to establish himself with the fans in the Big Apple. Last season Porzingis averaged 18.1 points and 7.2 rebounds, but with Anthony no longer in New York those numbers should increase. Coming into the NBA there were some scouts who compared Porzingis’ skill set to that of Dallas Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki. And the scoring ability of Porzingis as well as his prowess for passing will once again be a thing of beauty at Madison Square Garden.
In trading Anthony to the Thunder, the Knicks were able to acquire center Enes Kanter and small forward Doug McDermott. The last two seasons have seen Kanter used as a bench player in Oklahoma City, but he will be a starter in New York City. What Kanter gives the Knicks is a player that can score close to the basket, while also being able to consistently grab boards which was a category that New York flourished in last season as they averaged pulling 45.2 rebounds per game, and that was fifth in the NBA.
After McDermott was a three-time All-American for the Creighton Blue Jays, he has gone on to be a solid scorer coming off of the bench in the NBA. And with the scoring ability of Porzingis and Kanter, McDermott should get his fair share of open looks at the basket.
The Knicks were 19th in the NBA in assists last season and this will once again be a category that they’ll struggle in due to the struggles at the point guard position. The Knicks did sign veteran point guard Jarret Jack as this will be the ninth different NBA team that he’ll play for, but injuries have limited him over the past few years. The Knicks used a first-round pick on point guard Frank Ntilikina who was injured before he even signed a contract with contract with New York as that doesn’t bode well for him or the team.
This will be an interesting season for the Knicks as they will be good enough to take care of the also-rans in the NBA, but they will have their struggles versus the contenders.
Philadelphia 76ers 35-47
The Philadelphia 76ers are set to begin their 69th year as an NBA franchise. The 76ers have claimed three NBA Championships, while they’ve had some of the greatest players in league history such as Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, and Allen Iverson play for them. But the Sixers recent history has been marred by a philosophy which has revolved around “tanking”. Philadelphia has not made the playoffs since 2012, while they have only won 73 games over the last four years. The last four NBA Drafts have seen the Sixers picking no lower than third in the first round. However with the penchant to select injured players by former 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie, the turnaround in Philadelphia has taken longer than it should. But for the first time in a long time, there is some optimism in the City of Brotherly Love for this team.
Bryan Colangelo has one full season under his belt as the 76ers president/general manager. Colangelo knows how to build a roster as he was twice named as the NBA’s Executive of the Year during his tenure as the general manager of the Phoenix Suns, while he also helped to turn around the fortunes of the Toronto Raptors when he served as their general manager. Philadelphia went 28-54 as Colangelo set out to restore some order to the franchise last season. And as the Sixers learned how to compete, they showed that their days of being a pushover in the NBA could be coming to an end.
The brightest spot for the 76ers last season was the impact that center Joel Embiid had. Embiid was the third overall pick of the 2014 NBA Draft by Philadelphia, however injuries forced him to sit out his first two seasons in the NBA. Embiid became a force for the Sixers last season as he averaged 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks. But the injury bug once again did Embiid in as he was limited to just 31 games. However if Embiid is ever to remain healthy, he will be a force in the interior at both ends of the floor for Philadelphia.
2016 saw the 76ers use the first overall pick of the NBA Draft on small forward Ben Simmons. However Simmons would suffer a fractured foot last September which saw him miss the entire 2016-2017 NBA season. But Simmons is now healthy and ready to go which will be a huge plus for Philadelphia. Heading into the 2016 NBA Draft, Simmons was compared to Cavaliers small forward LeBron James due to his ability to pass and be an all-around player at the small forward position. At 6’10”, Simmons has the ability see over most of his opponents, while he has made the players around him better at each step of the way along his basketball journey.
Philadelphia would once again select first this year in draft, but it was after they made a deal with the Boston Celtics. Originally the Sixers were slotted to select third overall, but with the Celtics feeling that they could trade down and still get the player that they wanted, Philadelphia moved up to select point guard Markelle Fultz.
In one season collegiately for the Washington Huskies, Fultz averaged 23.2 points, 5.9 assists, and 5.7 rebounds to become a third-team All-American. And now as the first overall pick of the draft, Fultz is ready to live up to the hype.
In 2015, Philadelphia selected center Jahlil Okafor third overall. And although that Okafor has tremendous upside to score in the low post, he has fallen out of favor in Philadelphia as it would not surprise me to see him traded at some point this season.
Very quietly shooting guard J.J. Redick has become one of the better three-point shooters in NBA history. The Sixers shocked many observers during the off-season when they gave him a one-year for $23 million as his game is one-dimensional. However Redick can provide the young Sixers with a veteran presence who knows what it takes to get to the playoffs as it all about changing the culture in Philly.
The schedule makers were not kind to the 76ers as four of their first five games this season will be versus teams who reached the playoffs last season. Philadelphia should be an improved team, but there success primarily hinges on their key young players remaining healthy.
Brooklyn Nets 22-60
The spend today and not worry about tomorrow philosophy that the Brooklyn Nets have employed for the last five years has finally caught up to them in a very bad way. Several “win-now” trades by the Nets saw them part with multiple first-round picks which could have been vital for them, but instead those draft picks are being used to build other teams. In 2013, the Nets sent multiple first-round picks to the Boston Celtics for small forward Paul Pierce, power forward Kevin Garnett, and shooting guard Jason Terry. None of these players suited up for the Nets for two seasons, while Garnett and Pierce are now retired. The Nets have helped the Celtics to become a title contender as Boston has consistently been picking early on in the NBA Draft courtesy of Brooklyn. And to make matters worse, the Celtics who own the Nets first-round pick for 2018 have already traded that pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a deal that saw Boston acquire point guard Kyrie Irving. The Nets are coming off of consecutive seasons in which they lost at least 60 games and for the folks who follow the squad that calls New York City’s most popular borough home, don’t expect things to get that much better heading into the new NBA season.
Kenny Aktinson is set to begin his second season as the Nets head coach and he has a tall task in front of him in regards to making this team compete in the Eastern Conference. This off-season saw the Nets make a very questionable trade with the Los Angeles Lakers. The Nets sent center Brook Lopez, along with the 27th overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft to the Lakers for center Timofey Mozgov and point guard D’Angelo Russell. Lopez was coming off of one of his best seasons with the Nets, and he leaves Brooklyn as the franchise’s all-time leader in points with 10,444. In trading Lopez, the Nets parted with a quality big man for a point guard in Russell who comes to Brooklyn with question about his maturity. In two seasons with the Lakers, Russell never showed that he could be a leader for the team, and when Magic Johnson became the franchise’s president of basketball operations earlier this year, it made the young point guard expendable. And whereas that the Lakers gave up on Russell, will a fresh start with a new team be able to motivate him?
In looking at the Nets roster there is not that much optimism heading into a new NBA season as this team could once again finish with the worst record in the league and not even have a top draft pick to show for it.
Little did the NBA know that when small forward LeBron James came onto the scene in 2003 that he would become one of the most polarizing figures that the league has ever seen. James was the first overall pick of the 2003 NBA Draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers and he was seen as being a savior for a struggling franchise. Before James played one minute in the NBA, he was already a household name due to his exploits in high school. And as James came to the NBA straight out of high school, it didn’t take him that long to show that he belonged in the professional ranks.
As a rookie, James averaged 20.9 points and he was named as the NBA’s Rookie of the Year. By the 2005-2006 NBA season, James averaged 31.4 points per game and he helped the Cavaliers win 50 games for the first time since 1993. And by 2007, James did the unthinkable which was to get Cleveland to the NBA Finals.
In seven years with Cavaliers, James had put the City of Cleveland back onto the sports map while becoming one of the top players in the NBA. But as good as James was, he could not help the Cavaliers win an NBA Championship, and when he had the ability to opt out of his contract with the Cavs in 2010, he would leave to join the Miami Heat.
With the Heat, James would win a pair of NBA Championships, while Miami made the NBA Finals in each of his four years there. However once the Heat lost the NBA Finals to the San Antonio Spurs in 2014, James would again opt out of his contract to become a free agent; this time to return to the Cavaliers.
And just like it was when James was drafted by the Cavaliers in 2003, he once again gave the franchise credibility. In James’ first three years during his second stint in Cleveland, the Cavaliers have made the NBA Finals in each season with him leading the franchise to its first NBA Title in 2016. However the well is beginning to run dry for James in Cleveland.
This past season saw James publicly express that he wanted the Cavaliers to re-sign general manager David Griffin. Griffin had orchestrated several key trades that helped the Cavs win an NBA Title, and more importantly he was a person that James liked for his ability to get the players to Cleveland that he (James) wanted there. But when Griffin’s contract expired at the conclusion of the past NBA season, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert chose not to retain him after he was seeking more money. And when Griffin was shown the door, it did not sit well with James. After losing to the Golden State in the NBA Finals, the Cavs have been dormant in regards to attempting to improve their roster. Trades to acquire the likes of small forward Paul George from the Indiana Pacers and swingman Jimmy Butler from the Chicago Bulls fell through once Griffin was let go as the Cavaliers were operating without a general manager, while other contenders like the Warriors and Boston Celtics were getting better.
Last week a bombshell was dropped when point guard Kyrie Irving let it be known that he wants the Cavaliers to trade him. Irving has spent all six years of his NBA career with the Cavaliers. Like James, Irving was the first overall pick of the NBA Draft in the year in which he was selected, but unlike James he was unable to elevate the Cavs in the fashion that James has. In three years without James, Irving was never able to help the Cavaliers to the playoffs, however he became a household once he played alongside James. But as vital as Irving has been in the last three years for the Cavaliers, he no longer wants to be in the shadow of James.
When the Cavs made Irving the first overall pick in 2010, he was expected to be first piece to turning things around. And when Irving signed a contract extension with the Cavaliers in 2014, he was sold on being the franchise player. But days after Irving re-signed, James decided to rejoin the Cavs which meant that Irving would be taking a backseat to him. As good as James is, other star players typically have to alter their game in order to accommodate him. Irving has somewhat done that, but he’s tired of it. With the growing frustration of James towards the Cavaliers front office, all signs point to him leaving Cleveland once again next summer when he can opt out to become a free agent. However Irving is attempting to beat James at his own game and jump ship while it is still afloat which would put a damper on the Cavaliers making it four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals. However no one should shed a tear for Akron’s favorite son in James.
When James left Cleveland in 2010, he took a ton of criticism, but he also was praised by some people. The City of Cleveland has never been an attractive landing spot for NBA free agents and as much as James tried to get the top players to team up with him there, he simply could not make it happen. That would change once James joined the Heat as Miami is full of nightlife and partying which is something that most NBA free agents look at. James was also lured to Miami being that he would team up with shooting guard Dwyane Wade and power forward Chris Bosh. Heat team president Pat Riley also has a championship pedigree as he had already won a combined five NBA Championships as a head coach with the Los Angeles Lakers and Heat.
Riley built a championship team around James which led to a pair of NBA Championships. But Riley who has an old school approach to things and he would not let James get his way in regards to preferential treatment. James was also frustrated by taking less money and not always seeing Riley get the players that he wanted to Miami. And this led James to returning to Cleveland in 2014.
However James was more than happy to return to the Cavaliers in spite of the fact that Gilbert wrote a very disparaging letter about him that stayed on the team’s website for four years. And it only came down once James decided to return to Cleveland. It was a strategic move by James to return to Cleveland since they had received the first overall pick in the NBA Draft three times during his four-year stretch in Miami. But if that wasn’t the case, James would have never returned to Cleveland as all of his talk about wanting to come home and win one for Ohio would not have ever come to fruition.
When James doesn’t get his way, he takes it upon himself and exit stage right in order to chase down another championship opportunity. However James must realize that team owners in the NBA are billionaires and they made their fortunes by not backing down to people no matter what star appeal that they possess.
So now the countdown for another sideshow with James has begun as teams around the NBA have already begun the process of piecing their rosters together in order to lure him on board. James will be 33-years of age by the time that he becomes a free agent and he will have plenty of mileage on his legs, but teams will still be willing to break the bank in order to chase the championship dream.
James has changed the game as the NBA has never seen a player of his caliber that chases rings only to have egg on face at each stop along his journey. James knew what Gilbert was about and he still decided to rub elbows with him once more. And now James will be stuck in Cleveland for another year while his sidekick in Irving more than likely won’t be there.
You win some and you lose some, and in the case of James his attempts to cherry pick his team in Cleveland may have officially come to an end.