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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