Adam Kaufman

Landscape Has Changed in NBA’s Eastern Conference, and it’s Bad News for Celtics

Kevin Love 3.jpg

It’s all but official: Kevin Love will be leaving years of playoff absences and terrible Minnesota winters in the overpowering Western Conference for presumed future Eastern Conference supremacy alongside LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland.

Positive thoughts to Andrew Wiggins. Looks like he has something in common now with Shabazz Napier.

The Cavaliers – yes, the same Cavs franchise that has advanced to just one Finals appearance and has yet to win a championship in its 45 seasons dating back to 1970-71 – are a projected powerhouse.

That, folks, is terrible news for the Celtics.

Just more than two months ago, Love’s “random” weekend vacation in Boston and “chance meeting” with Rajon Rondo at Fenway Park led millions to believe there was a real chance of Danny Ainge completing a second overnight rebuild in the span of a decade. Laughably, hours upon hours on talk radio were lost debating the city’s newest Big Three, featuring well-paid Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony.

In the wake of a disappointing draft lottery position, it was nice to be excited about something following a 25-win season.

But here we are, several weeks later, and reality has set in. Ainge – though he was acting in his own best interests – helped the Cavs facilitate the move to clear cap space and lure James home, and his return in large part resulted in the creation of a devastating new, young triumvirate.

With Love set to reside in Northeast Ohio for at least the next six years and a youthful nucleus of players under 30, plus a still building bench (Ray Allen, anyone?), Cleveland is staring down a five-to-seven year window of ruling the East.

Many will point to the Bulls, who have Derrick Rose, reigning defensive player of the year Joakim Noah, newly-inked vet Pao Gasol, Taj Gibson, and others, but Chicago’s success ultimately depends on the health of Rose. Serious knee injuries have limited the former MVP to just 10 games over the last two seasons. Fortunately for him and the Bulls, he’s drawn rave reviews from Team USA’s basketball camp, but a full, competitive regular season is still a long way away.

The deeper down the East you go, as previously outlined last month, the more flaws you’ll find.

The Pacers fell out of contention – and may have had their playoff hopes entirely dashed – with the gruesome leg injury suffered by Paul George in Las Vegas and Lance Stephenson’s departure to Charlotte. Even an upgrade at small forward (perhaps Jeff Green?) wouldn’t lead to another stop atop the conference in 2014-15.

The Heat lost James and signed Luol Deng. Chris Bosh is overpaid and Dwyane Wade failed to prove last postseason that he can dominate consistently, even after missing nearly a third of the regular season to rest.

The Wizards are intriguing and will be all the more so in another couple of years but, for now, they’re still missing a piece or two.

Granted it is only early-August but, on paper, the Cavs, Bulls, Heat, Wizards, Raptors, Nets, and Hornets are expected playoff teams next season in a deeper East. That’s seven teams with one spot remaining. Could it go to the Pacers? The Hawks? A surprise team?

What about the Celtics?

With Rondo, Green, Jared Sullinger, Brandon Bass, Avery Bradley, and others, it’s possible. All the while, that would depend greatly on health. But even if the C’s snuck in as a seven or eight seed, the fun would end there.

If Ainge wants to set his team up best for the long-term – meaning after the Cavaliers’ run has expired, or at least everyone has aged a few more years – he’d be advised to continue to build through the draft (Marcus Smart and James Young appear to be good starts) and collect assets in exchange for pieces of value and helpful role players on expiring contracts. That includes trading Rondo, who’s unlikely to be interested in re-signing in Boston for anything less than a max contract (which he doesn’t deserve) when he hits free agency next summer.

Think about it: If the C’s captain won’t wish to stick around the only city he’s ever known for a lengthy rebuild, why would someone from another team over one of the typically more coveted warm-weather cities, or Chicago, or New York?

Unless there’s a mystery player of Love’s status available to pair with Rondo to speed up the rebuild and convince the point guard to stay, Ainge has no choice but to plan to contend closer to 2020 than, say, 2017. It’s not what fans want to hear or what Garden-goers want to witness, but it’s the top option and those inside the Celtics offices likely know it as well. It’s now a matter of putting that plan in motion between this summer and next season’s trade deadline.

There’s very little to love about that.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman

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