To complete the most inconceivable off-season in basketball history, the combattants of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals pulled off a star-swap of seismic proportions.
On the hinges of a full-blown feud between LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, The Cleveland Cavaliers shipped Irving to Beantown for Isiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and two draft picks.
The deal originally included one draft pick, a highly valuable unprotected 2018 first rounder by way of the lowly Brooklyn Nets – virtually a guaranteed lottery pick. Concerns regarding Isiah Thomas’ off-season hip surgery led to Boston extraditing an extra second rounder. Combine this with arguably the best contract in the NBA in Crowder, a young, malleable 7-footer in Zizic, and an all-star dwarf averaging 29 per contest in Thomas, and Cleveland’s abandoning of its disgruntled superstar stings less.
Of course, the loss of Kyrie Irving hurts. At 25, the flat-Earth believer, defensive specter and this generation’s most creative finisher around the rim has blossomed into an NBA superstar. Disagree? Refer to his dismantling of all-NBA defender Avery Bradley and the Golden State Warriors defense this past post-season. There is no denying the value of Irving, however the return Cleveland received represents minute wiggle room with regards to next summer’s Lebron-to-LA-mageddon. While the assets moved appear to tip the scale of this trade in Cleveland’s favour, both teams landed a respectable package. While analyzing this deal to oblivion would be enjoyable, we’re looking forward to the repercussions of this deal on the forthcoming season. Below you will find power rankings for the Eastern Conference post-Kyrie deal. To keep things concise, only projected playoff teams will be dissected.
- Chicago Bulls
- Brooklyn Nets
- Atlanta Hawks
- Orlando Magic
- Indiana Pacers
- New York Knicks
- Detroit Pistons
- Philadelphia 76ers
That’s right, Rally Towel officially trusts the process. The bottom of the Eastern conference playoff bracket shouldn’t require an above-.500 record, meaning Philly’s young, exciting core has the perfect opportunity to sneak into the postseason.
- Charlotte Hornets
The Dwight Howard fit seems… puzzling, but the remainder of Charlotte’s core from last season remains intact. Led by one of the league’s underrated stars in Kemba Walker, a return to the playoffs is likely.
- Miami Heat
Last season’s edition of a tale of two teams, Miami’s second-half run during last season showed promise, translatable to a playoff appearance this season. By the way, I bought 30,000 shares on Waiters island four years ago, and I’d like to cash them in for a highrise condo.
- Milwaukee Bucks
Here’s where things get interesting. Any of the remaining five teams could shuffle the order of the conference’s top-5. The Bucks do possess a future MVP on their roster (Albeit the Pelicans do as well) in Giannis Antetokounmpo, however a combination of lacklustre shooting and one-dimensional rotation pieces – John Henson can only protect the rim, Greg Monroe can only bully other bigs in the post, and Matthew Dellavedova can only harass opposing point guards – does not bode well for a team with home-court advantage aspirations
- Toronto Raptors
Toronto takes the 4-seed here, almost entirely in thanks to GM Massai Ujiri. The Raptors came into the off-season financially crippled, pennies away from luxury tax purgatory. Ujiri managed to fleece together a retool that also saw the return of All-star guard Kyle Lowry and complimentary big Serge Ibaka. There are question marks as to whether a bench comprised almost entirely of young, relatively unproven players will match the output of previous squads. Pair this with the loss of crucial rotation guys in Patrick Patterson and PJ Tucker, and Toronto has its own concerns – The difference between Toronto and Milwaukee? Toronto’s all-star guard combo of Lowry and an ever-improving Demar DeRozan remains a top NBA backcourt, whereas Milwaukee has still not established a clear #2 behind Antetokounmpo. Jabari Parker has yet to remain healthy, and Malcolm Brogdon is still too early in his development to be seen as a true secondary option.
- Washington Wizards
Many forget that the Wizards boasted the most efficient 5-man lineup in basketball last season (You read that correctly). The Wall-Beal-Porter-Oubre-Gortat unit was nearly untouchable when it was on the floor. The bench appears thinner than year’s previous, especially with the loss of Euro heat-check specialist (Did I just invent a new position?) Bojan Bogdanovic. This team is still led by John Wall, an all-NBA talent with athletic parallels to league MVP Russell Westbrook.
- Boston Celtics
That’s right. Boston relinquishes last season’s #1 seed. The C’s remain a top contender for the Eastern conference crown, however the casualties of this offseason leave holes on the roster to be filled by unproven commodities, including four starting spots that must be replaced. Head coach Brad Stevens’ has many issues to face with a roster that sports only FOUR returning players; Should Marcus Morris start in the frontcourt next to Al Horford? Is Brown, Smart or Rozier the best option at shooting guard to replace Avery Bradley? The rotation will likely include draft-and-stash imports Guerschon Yabusele, Daniel Theis and Abdel Nader, all of which have never played a game in the NBA. Kyrie Irving will have full reigns to implement his generational shot making abilities, while not being forced to answer to LeBron. Don’t forget that Irving will be surrounded by quality shooting and one of the best pick-and-roll bigs in the league in Al Horford. If Kyrie can develop a pull-up three point shot coming off screens, we’re looking at Steph Curry-level deadliness. At 25, Irving will have time to grow into this lead role, with his career trajectory directly correlating with Boston’s young core. Seamlessly fill in the aforementioned question marks, and that 2-seed can easily become a 1-seed for Boston.
- Cleveland Cavaliers
Albeit this was not the easiest choice, having the ultimate plug-and-play teammate in LeBron James makes for a smooth transition for the new-look Cavs. How will Isiah Thomas adjust from predominantly being the lead guard to spending time off-ball with LeBron? Last season Thomas shot 46% on spot-up three pointers, which is a good sign. When he does get lead guard duties, he’ll have to modify his pick-and-roll game to match Tristan Thompson’s rim runs as opposed to a pick-and-pop with previous running mate Al Horford. In all, Cleveland did not see any major subtractions from last years Finals-calibre roster, barring Irving. The Cavs may not have beaten Golden State’s four-headed monster last season, however they still remain the proverbial creme of the crop in a constantly weakening Eastern conference.