East wide open for Celtics as Kawhi heads west

East wide open for Celtics as Kawhi heads west

The Celtics’ chances at reaching the Eastern Conference finals improved greatly early Saturday morning when Kawhi Leonard took his talents to Southern California.

Even better news for Boston fans: He didn’t sign with the rival Lakers.

Boston finally benefitted from the NBA’s bring-your-buddy-to-work summer. As superstar free agents relocate across the league, and bring the superstar friend of their choosing with them to their new home, the Celtics were left crossing their fingers that Leonard would join the pair-up club instead of trying to keep the Larry O.B. in Toronto or, gulp, form a superteam with LeBron.

He chose the Clippers, but only after they mortgaged their future to pluck Paul George out of Oklahoma City. It was essentially the same script we saw from the Lakers, if only on a bit more of a delay, when LeBron James strongarmed the Lakers into paying a ransom to get Anthony Davis to Los Angeles.

The idea of Kawhi in purple and gold had the league sweating bullets about a superteam with a trio of top-10 players. Instead, the NBA suddenly feels like the "Anchorman" battle scene, with title contenders emerging from every direction with a variety of new looks and weapons.

If Leonard returned to Toronto, the Celtics might have been the fourth-best team in their own division (though, with Kevin Durant sidelined with the Achilles injury, it was probably more like third). But with Leonard heading to L.A., it feels like the East is up for grabs.

Yes, Milwaukee is still the prohibitive favorite as long as Giannis Antetokounmpo is healthy, but especially because the Bucks were able to bring back Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez (though they did lose Malcolm Brogdon). Philadelphia needs to find some depth but the addition of Al Horford gives the 76ers star duo (Ben Simmons/Joel Embiid) a veteran guide who might be key in getting them over the second-round hump.

Indiana made some intriguing additions (and a healthy Victor Oladipo will help on its own) and we’ll see if Miami has something up its sleeves to get more talent around Jimmy Butler. Yes, Kyrie Irving helps the Nets’ immediate chances but time will tell if he can elevate that young core while Durant is rehabbing.

If nothing else, every team in the East should feel like it has a chance, which wasn’t exactly the case with Leonard up north.

The Celtics are no slam dunk to contend and a lot of things still have to break right. Kemba Walker has to show he’s ready for the bright lights of a bigger stage (which seems likely) but the C's success will ultimately hinge on whether Gordon Hayward finds his All-Star form another season removed from his ankle injury and whether Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown make pronounced leaps.

Even beyond that, Boston will likely have to reevaluate its roster as the season moves along. Can they get by with Enes Kanter and the Kids in the frontcourt? Is there still too much wing depth and will another move be needed to produce a better-balanced roster?

The Celtics are at least in the mix. And Danny Ainge still has some shiny assets to make a play for any impact player who might come available and inject Boston even further into the contender pool.

Celtics fans can revel in Leonard’s departure and maybe even celebrate how old friend Doc Rivers has a chance now to dash the title hopes of the team that shares the Staples Center with the Clippers. 

The entire NBA feels a bit more open this morning. The Warriors are licking their wounds. Toronto will have to recalibrate on the fly while they build a Kawhi statue. Unlike most recent seasons, it seems like there are two heaping handfuls of teams that rightfully believe they can make the Finals.

And the Celtics, even in an offseason in which their superstar tandem departed for so-called greener pastures, can include themselves in that mix with Kawhi out west.

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Nicolas Batum on Celtics center Vincent Poirier: "It's a good pick-up for Boston for sure"

Nicolas Batum on Celtics center Vincent Poirier: "It's a good pick-up for Boston for sure"

Team USA didn't finish the FIBA World Cup as expected, but there were plenty of positives to take away from the tournament if you're a Celtics fan. 

Not only did Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart contribute to Team USA and certainly took some lessons from playing under Gregg Popovich, but Daniel Theis (Germany) and newly signed Vincent Poirier (France) got invaluable experience they can carry into the 2019-20 NBA season. 

Poirier signed with the Celtics during free agency on a two-year contract and should have plenty of opportunities to earn playing time in a Celtics' frontcourt that hopes to replace Al Horford and Aron Baynes. 

Poirier's French teammate Nicolas Batum, who played with Walker in Charlotte over the last four years, dealt out some praise of the rookie center after France beat Australia for the FIBA bronze medal. 

"This guy, I think, just started basketball 5 years ago, so he's had a special career," Batum told John Schumann. "His energy was great. We can't count on Rudy (Gobert) every game... He was huge. He wasn't scared by Bogut & Baynes... He was amazing tonight."

France knocked the U.S. out of the knockout round by besting them in the quarterfinals. Poirier didn't play in that game, but has played a big role for France behind All-Star big man Rudy Gobert. 

"It's clear that he's a center that can block shots and control the paint," Batum said. "He's a terrific roller, can really catch a lob, and obviously has a lot of energy. It's a good pick-up for Boston, for sure."

The Celtics responded to Horford's departure and trading Baynes to Phoneix by signing Poirier and Enes Kanter to join Theis and Robert Williams at the center spot. Boston will probably have to solve their hole at that position by committee, but if Poirier can play consistent defense, rebound and protect the paint as Batum describes, he could earn himself backup minutes behind Kanter. 

Either way, it should be an interesting training camp to say the least for this new-look Celtics team. 

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One lesson each Celtics player can take away from World Cup

File photos

One lesson each Celtics player can take away from World Cup

Team Shamrock’s FIBA adventures ended with a whimper Saturday as — under the cloak of East Coast darkness — three of the four Celtics on Team USA logged DNPs (eight points for Jaylen Brown) while the Americans claimed seventh place with an 87-74 win over Poland. Combine that with the fact that Daniel Theis got limited reps with Germany’s early exit and Daniel Poirier hasn’t played big minutes while backing up Rudy Gobert for France and the World Cup experience wasn’t quite as robust as it could have been for the six Celtics players involved.

Still, there were positives to pluck and experiences gained by everyone involved, not the least of which is that a third of Boston’s roster will show up to camp on Oct. 1 in game-ready shape. Still, regardless of Team USA’s medal-less finish and the limited reps for Theis and Poirier, there’s at least one item or lesson that every player can bring with them into the new season.