Three months ago, the Cleveland Cavaliers made quick work of the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, needing only five games to do away with the top-seeded team in the conference.
But a lot has happened over the last three months to suggest 2017-18 may have a different outcome for the Celtics. Though all the sportsbooks at this site are still siding with LeBron and the Cavs, should you be backing the Celtics?
To answer that question, let’s use the help of a classic dessert food: ice cream (because who doesn’t like ice cream?). Last year, the Celtics were a solid double-scoop of vanilla in a nice waffle cone. Overlooked by some for being too plain, but still an extremely reliable choice.
Unfortunately, their cone was in a taste-test against a triple-scoop of peanut butter cup. One is good; the other is fantastic.
In the offseason, the Celtics made a big splash in free agency, landing All-Star forward Gordon Hayward. Realistically, all that did was throw some sprinkles on the double-scoop of vanilla. Everyone likes sprinkles and they seem like a great idea at first. They never harm your delicious treat, but do they really make it much better?
Hayward is a good player who will take some pressure off Isaiah Thomas – fourth-highest usage rate in NBA – at the offensive end. But he’s not a truly elite player who can take any given game over like LeBron James or Kevin Durant. So there’s no need to really take this any further …
Hold up, the Celtics did what?!
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) August 23, 2017
This is coming to Boston …?
Fans are understandably upset that Kyrie Irving requested a trade and left on strange terms, but he's forever a CLE legend due to this shot: pic.twitter.com/s2CUXIRQWh
— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) August 23, 2017
And this is going to Cleveland …?
— Danny Z. (@MormonGekko) July 18, 2017
So basically, the two teams just swapped one of their scoops and (depending who you ask) one took a bite out of the other’s cone. Assuming you’re asking us, Boston is the immediate winner of the trade, having acquired the best player in the deal. However, Cleveland netted a great haul in All-NBA second-team PG Isaiah Thomas, plus-defender Jae Crowder, prospect Ante Zizic, and the Nets’ unprotected 2018 first-round pick.
Putting future assets aside and focusing on this season, is the upgrade from IT to Kyrie enough to close the wide gap between the two teams?
The simple answer is no.
Even if Thomas regresses back towards his career averages this season, he’s still a talented guard who can put the ball in the basket efficiently. In spite of his incredibly high usage rate last year, IT was still seventh in player efficiency rating. In taking a sidekick role to LeBron James, the two-time All-Star will see more open looks and have much less pressure to score every trip down the floor.
The sneaky big addition here for Cleveland is Jae Crowder. The excellent wing defender is going to alleviate a lot of strain from James on the defensive end. No longer will LeBron have to guard the opposition’s best player, which is likely to result in a fresher, more aggressive LBJ on the offensive end. And if the last handful of Eastern Conference playoffs have proven anything, it’s this: when James wants to get to the basket, he can.
As we said earlier, the Celtics needed to add a truly elite player to even think of competing with the Cavaliers. Cleveland won seven of their nine meetings last year, including playoffs, and their average margin of victory was 19.7 points. So yes, Kyrie Irving may have elite talent in him, but is not enough to swing a game by 20 points.
Even the duo of Irving and Hayward will not be enough to erase the discrepancy. In order for Boston to actually seize the Eastern Conference from LeBron’s mighty grip, at least one of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum will need to play at an All-Star level. And even that may not be enough to take down a pissed-off LeBron.
The Celtics have spruced up their flavor of ice cream, but still fall one scoop short.