A beefed up Eastern Conference got another cut of ribeye tossed on top Thursday when the already frisky Cleveland Cavaliers traded for All-Star point guard Donovan Mitchell.
So what does it mean for the Boston Celtics?
The quest to retain the conference title got a bit more daunting. The East is overflowing with star-led teams. Any squad that lets its foot off the gas even temporarily is going to be challenged to simply stay out of the play-in tournament.
An ESPN survey last week suggested the Celtics had the best offseason in the NBA. Cleveland submitted a late entry by being the surprise landing spot for Mitchell. Suddenly, the Cavaliers have the offensive centerpiece they sorely lacked last season. An upstart team that spent much of the early part of the 2021-22 season frolicking near the top of the East now has someone who can help them stay there -- especially while a young talent like Evan Mobley continues to blossom.
The Bucks brought back their core and will have a healthy Khris Middleton. The Nets might still be a mess but the potential of a Kevin Durant-Kyrie Irving-Ben Simmons trio and a healthier supporting cast is still undeniable. James Harden will have more continuity in Philadelphia, where Joel Embiid was the MVP runner up last season. The Heat are forever in the mix despite a quiet offseason by their standards. The Hawks were in the East finals two years ago and added Dejounte Murray to the mix.
Not all those teams can count on a top-six spot. Seeding is going to be important. And the play-in tournament could deliver a prickly opponent. The Celtics are no stranger to that after surging to the No. 2 seed then landing the Nets in Round 1.
The Celtics didn’t run from anyone last season -- coach Ime Udoka famously suggesting Boston isn’t a track team -- and their faith in themselves delivered the team to the championship stage. But the grind of three playoff rounds -- even that sweep of the Nets was no cakewalk -- left the team on fumes for much of the Finals.
The Celtics will again have to balance the desire for premium seeding with a need to rest some of their players along the way. A talent-filled East means fewer nights off, especially for the team with a target on its back after last season’s success.
It means the Celtics just have to be a bit crisper. They can’t stumble out of the gates. They can’t wait until January to make their surge. They have to play with a new level of consistency.
The Celtics will need to lean on their chemistry and cohesion while others find their way. But there is still another level for this team to ascend to, particularly if the superstar tandem of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown continue to expand their games.
Boston must assert itself early. From opening night against the Sixers and straight through an East-heavy start to the season. The Celtics will see the leveled-up Cavaliers twice in the first three weeks of the season and we’ll get some measuring-stick glances.
One thing is certain: Nothing is going to come easy this season in the East.