The Celtics are expected to retain their elite status in the Eastern Conference for the foreseeable future
The Celtics embarked on an unexpected run to the Finals that included a warning – don’t waste this opportunity as the Eastern Conference will be busy next year.
Pardon my ignorance, but I don’t see it.
Besides the Bucks, tell me who the Celtics should fear. Heat may be tough as nails, but it’s older than paint. The Sixers hitch their wagon to James beeping Harden. The dysfunctional Nets can’t decide whether to commit to Kyrie Irving or push him out to sea, and Kevin Durant will soon be 34 too.
The Bulls and Raptors are nice 4-5 seeds. The Cavs and Hawks are game fodder. LaMelo Ball and the Hornets are super fun, but they can’t defend and they’re not there yet. The Knicks? Ha! They could actually want to Kyrie.
Celtics Talk: What clues has Brad Stevens given about the Boston Celtics’ offseason plans? | Listen and subscribe | Watch on YouTube
I don’t see East getting ready to reload. I see a conference to take, with the Bucks and Celtics squinting on everyone.
Despite all the feverish talk about trading Marcus Smart or blowing up the roster to get Bradley Beal, the truth is the Celtics don’t need to do much beyond the margins. Their No. 1 defense is going nowhere, and there’s every reason to think they’ll play on opening night instead of New Year’s Day now that they understand Ime Udoka’s system.
The core of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Smart and Robert Williams will average just 26 next year, making them one of the youngest founding quartets in the league. The only players over 30 on the list are Al Horford and Daniel Theis. Grant Williams is 23, Payton Pritchard 24 and Derek White 27. It’s a list that should just keep getting better with time.
Celtics roster reset: contract breakdown, pending free agents
And there are obvious growth areas. Brown can stretch a handle that too often looks like a fawn on ice. Tatum will continue to grow as an enabler, and you can bet he’s determined not to burn out again if the Celtics make a deep run. Smart just completed his first season as a starting point guard, a move that transformed the team even though we didn’t like our final looks at him against Golden State. Health will always be an issue with Robert Williams, but my god, if he’s right, he could easily supplant Smart as Defensive Player of the Year.
Add some shooting and ball handling off the bench, and the Celtics should be there. I’m no Chris Forsberg or Brian Robb, but who outside of Milwaukee can make that claim in the East?
The Heat have between $28 million and $37 million committed to each of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Kyle Lowry. They are trying to re-sign glue veteran PJ Tucker and possibly Victor Oladipo as well. They face a dilemma with sixth man of the year Tyler Herro, who passed out in the playoffs, only plays sporadic defense and is considering a possible maximum extension this summer. They must decide if sniper Duncan Robinson is worth his $17 million salary after a dwindling campaign.
The magic they work with strangers like Max Strus and Gabe Vincent is a credit to Pat Riley’s program, but Butler turns 33 in September, Lowry is already 36, and Tucker just turned 37. If they ever beat the Celtics, it was the year.
It hardly seems worth talking about the Nets as serious competitors. If they keep Irving, they’ll become prisoners of his drama. If they let him walk, they can’t replace him. They’re locked into an aging roster and will likely lose a useful actor like Bruce Brown this summer.
If they could do it all over again, they would have found a way to keep center Jarrett Allen in the Harden trade. Instead, they saw him grow into an All-Star and defensive threat in Cleveland. For all Durant’s greatness, he’s entering his 15th season and couldn’t beat the Celtics on his own in April. Oh, and did we mention Ben Simmons? Hush.
The Eastern Conference teams — the Magic, Pistons and Pacers — with the most money to spend in a mediocre free agent class highlighted by Chicago’s Zach LaVine all finished bottom of the league. conference and neither has won more than 25 games. One of them will probably end up throwing money at someone like Jalen Brunson or Jusuf Nurkic.
Beal could alter that image if he steps down, but re-signing with Washington for five years and $247 million still makes more sense financially than hitting the open market for up to four years and $183 million, especially when none of his favorite destinations, including Boston, have the money to spend this summer.
That leaves the Celtics and the Bucks. Milwaukee will benefit from the return of Khris Middleton, and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t going anywhere. But the Celtics get along well with them, especially when Robert Williams is healthy. And with $140 million tied to six players, plus a likely raise for local product Pat Connaughton, the Bucks don’t have much wiggle room.
Its good. If Milwaukee and Boston return next season with virtually the same rosters, they’ll easily be Eastern Conference class. I like the Celtics’ chances.
Check out the latest episode of the Celtics Talk podcast on the NBC Sports Boston Podcast Network or watch it on YouTube below.