Assessing The Celtics (Realistic?) Chances of Surpassing the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference

Roughly two weeks have passed since the 2017/18 NBA season kicked off on July 1st, and the NBA has seen a flurry of interesting moves. In just twelve days, it’s fair to break the entire NBA’s offseason down into seven-tiers:

1 — Contenders STAYED Contenders: Warriors, Cavaliers, Spurs*.

2 — Teams that added a top fifteen NBA talent in efforts of becoming contenders RIGHT NOW: Celtics, Rockets, Timberwolves, Thunder.

3 — Playoff teams that have yet to make a move in hopes of either Tanking or seriously Contending: Raptors, Wizards, Bucks, Heat, Trailblazers, Spurs*.

4 — Good Teams in a Weird Position: Jazz, Clippers, Grizzlies, Hornets, Mavericks.

5 — Hopefully They Won’t Suck (But probably will): Kings, Pistons, Pelicans, Nuggets.

6 — Teams That Will Definitely Suck (But are headed in the right direction): Sixers, Lakers, Suns, Nets, Hawks.

7 — Teams That Will Definitely Suck, aren’t headed in the right direction, and deserve to suck for however long it takes for them to realize they should consider new Front-Office personalities: Pacers, Bulls, Knicks, Magic.

Spurs*: No one really knows what the Spurs are.. on paper they seem to get worse every year, yet their record never seems to dip.. I felt like whichever category I put them in, they would turn around and be the other category, so I’m are doubling down with both — Hah, fool me now, Pop!

One of the most interesting storylines has to be, given the humungous-power shift to the West, what should be the expected effect on the outcome in the Eastern Conference? Looking at my seven-tier system above, the Eastern Conference boasts two potential-title contenders; The Cavaliers (Stayed Contenders), and The Celtics (Acquired a Top Talent/Contenders).

After the Cavs and the Celtics, the Raptors, Wizards, Bucks, Heat, Hornets, and Pistons will be the most likely playoff teams, all of which you could argue wouldn’t even make the western conference playoffs. The Raptors retained Kyle Lowry, but lost Patrick Patterson, a key-minutes man, and are currently twenty-million dollars into the Luxury Tax. The Wizards, are facing either losing or paying max-contract money to Otto Porter Jr. which would put them roughly twenty-five million dollars into the Luxury Tax.

Short of an incredible/(incredibly unexpected) Dwight Howard resurgence, the only other team that might be ready to compete in a series against the Cavs and Celtics would be the Bucks, boasting the NBA’s best young Unicorn along with a pleather of other young weapons, it’s yet to be seen where the team will be come next years playoffs. Judging their heated-Toronto series last year, and good-health fortune, they could end up amounting to some sort of upset potential.

Until we know for sure, it’s The Cleveland Cavaliers and The Boston Celtics.

Let’s take a moment to survey each teams current roster/cap situation moving into the 2017/18 season;

The Cleveland Cavaliers:

Starters: Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, LeBron James, Tristian Thompson, Kevin Love.

Bench: Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver, Channing Frye, Richard Jefferson, Jose Calderon, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Kay Felder, Walter Tavares.

(Cap Holds): $5,885,528 — James Jones, Dahntay Jones, Deron Williams, Derrick Williams.

(Current Standing Roster Cap Hit): $140,057,834

(Current Practical Cap Space): $-40,964,834

**(Luxury Tax Bill): $68,761,216

The Boston Celtics:

(Potential) Starters: Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Morris, Al Horford.

Bench: Jaylen Brown, Jason Tatum, Jae Crowder, Terry Rozier, Aron Baynes, Ante Zizic, Jordan Mickey, Demetrius Jackson, Daniel Theis.

(Cap Holds): $16,022,369 — Jonas Jerebko, James Young, Guerschon Yabusele, Gerald Green.

(Exceptions): Mid-Level: $4,328,000 (Aron Baynes).

(Current Standing Roster Cap Hit): $101,477,569

(Current Practical Cap Space): $-2,384,569

(Luxury Tax Space): $17,778,431

If you don’t get what half of this means, thats OK.

Basically, The Cavaliers have sunk millions of dollars into attempting to build an empire around LeBron James that could compete with The Warriors for titles. The Celtics, on the other hand, have slowly and efficiently added talent both through Free Agency as well as the Draft. Since 2014, the Celtics have attained the likes of Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Jason Tatum, Al Horford, and Gordon Hayward through these two means of adding players, all while avoiding dipping into the Luxury Tax.

Currently, The Cavaliers have allocated $54,399,472 of this years cap space to the help, otherwise known as Tristian Thompson, J.R. Smith, Iman, Shumpert, Channing Frye, and Kyle Korver.

This is a core that got absolutely annihilated by the Warriors in the finals this past Spring. Everyone wants to talk about how great the stars were in the finals, and how unfair KD made the entire series. Personally, what I found to be unfair was how badly Golden States help beat down Cleveland’s help.

As I digress, the Celtics on the other hand have allocated $10 MILLION LESS than the $54 MILLION of Cap space to fill out the entire roster, sub Gordon Hayward and Al Horford. In other words, if the Celtics were ever willing to dive into the Luxury Tax, they could add another max-contract guy at the trade deadline, say, either Blake Griffin or Anthony Davis when the Clippers or Pelicans inevitably decide to nuke the whole operation, and then be in a similarly dire-cap situation to what the Cavaliers are currently experiencing.

However, assuming that I’m only dreaming, and this move never comes to fruition, the Celtics are still in prime position to, if nothing else, compete with the Cavaliers for a chance to represent the Eastern Conference.

Seeing as the Cavs really haven’t changed the dynamic of their roster, it’s relatively safe to assume that their style of play won’t alter that much from last years playoffs. They’re a team centered around their stars one-on-one abilities, mixed with LeBron’s ability to create for the rest of their rather unintelligently devised roster.

Last year, we saw the Cavaliers overwhelm the Celtics, which made a lot of sense. The Celtics were a young, overachieving roster lead by a 5 foot 7 inch, physically and emotionally spent point guard, with a lack of outside shooting, rebounding, rim protection, and overall ability to create baskets. They weren’t built to compete with this Cavaliers team, purely off match-ups alone.

These match-ups were so out of whack in favor of the Cavaliers that they were able to get away with atrocious transition and rotation defense, accepting the invitation of Celtics players taking wide-open three-pointers. With the confidence that they would miss more than they would make, and that when they did miss, the Cavs had the three most likely players to come down the rebound, the Cavaliers tormented the Celtics with their dominance of the paint on defense, and their star-power on offense.

When looking past the vast difference in scoring-creation ability, and paint-presence, the series really wasn’t that one-sided at all. Masked by their starters dominance, the Cavaliers bench got killed by the Celtics bench for a better part of the series. It seemed as if the Celtics were a team building from the bottom up, and that the base had been complete, and that all was needed was the top. Thus, the Celtics were realistically two-creative scorers, and two defensive/rebounding enforcers away from being able to truly knock off this LeBron led Cavaliers team.

So far, they’ve added one creative-scoring option in Gordon Hayward, and two potential enforcers in Aron Baynes and Ante Zizic.

The Celtics also added to their base with Jason Tatum as their third overall pick in the draft. Tatum should be able to help in the creative-scoring department right away, and while he currently lacks the ability to defend elite NBA offensive talent, his role is expected to be of a bench-scorer, that likely won’t share much court-time with Isaiah Thomas, and isn’t expected to guard anyone note-worthy. This should be applicable in the Cavaliers series, as he will likely be able to mirror someone like Richard Jefferson, or Iman Shumpert’s minutes.

All in all, while the Celtics have managed to make huge strides surpassing the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference, it is unlikely that they will do so THIS YEAR.

WITH THAT BEING SAID, the Celtics are ready to compete with the Cavaliers, even if they do end up coming up a bit short in the end. The bottom line is that the Cavaliers still have the best player in the series, and still, the best player in the world, so, while the Celtics have narrowed the gap in talent between themselves and the Cavaliers, they’re still likely one major piece away from being able to knock off the man who hasn’t not represented the Eastern Conference since the turn of this past decade.

Expect a close series between these two teams if they do meet again. The Celtics will make a higher percentage of their open shots this season, while they’re also likely to increase their ability to pull down rebounds, forcing the Cavaliers into actually playing some defense, which, since having raised a banner two seasons ago, they haven’t shown the ability to do.

I don’t personally believe that the amount of versatility, scoring, and rebounding currently added to this roster is enough to surpass a team led by LeBron James with two other legitimate NBA All-Stars, but one thing is for sure — The Celtics stock is rising everyday, as they’ve continued to add necessary pieces without sacrificing their treasure-chest of future assets, all while being able to remain in a flexible financial position.

Furthermore, the Celtics are hinging their future largely on the belief that Isaiah Thomas will both remain playing at an All-Star level, but will experience a slight drop in numbers due to the addition of Hayward. This effect, mixed with the extremely competitive market for point guards, could potentially result in the Celtics being able to retain IT for under the max, as it’s expected that the Celtics will be hesitant to dish out $40 million annually to him, closing off their future-financial flexibility in the process.

Assuming the Celtics are able to pay IT something along the lines of what Kyle Lowry just got paid by the Raptors(3 yr $100m), the Celtics could be in prime position, if they are then willing to dip into the Luxury tax, with a true chance to compete looming, to become the next dominant force in the east.

Don’t be surprised, when and if LeBron James decides to leave the Cavaliers if they fail to hoist another banner in Cleveland next year, that the Sea parts for Danny Ainge’s Celtics.