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Oct 12, 2017
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In a dilapidated Eastern Conference after an exodus of stars heading West, the path to an eighth straight NBA Finals trip seems a lot clearer for Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James.

The latest NBA general managers’ survey serves Cleveland fans well, with 86% of the GMs choosing the Cavs as the East’s top team—which comes as a shock.

Out West, where many teams have retooled their rosters and nabbed All-Stars in an arms race, the reigning champion Golden State Warriors enjoy a 97% of votes from the GMs. But in a barren East wasteland, with a stacked lineup, the Cavs should be a unanimous choice yet they’re not.

Last season, all but one of the 30 NBA GM’s chose LeBron’s Cavs as the East champs. This year, the confidence in Cleveland is, shall we say, slightly shookt.

The Cavs lost four votes for this coming season. One voted for the Washington Wizards. (Which begs the question, is their GM Ernie Grunfeld the same dissenter last season? That’s a mystery for a different story.)

The other three voters went with Cleveland’s East finals foe last season in the Boston Celtics.

Sure, the number’s minimal. But for two other GMs outside of Boston to go with the Celtics in ending LeBron’s seven year reign in the East speaks volumes in declaring there’s a legitimate threat to the throne.

Kabahan na Cleveland?

Perhaps. Celtics coach Brad Stevens has always found ways to maximize his talent, turning a squad with Isaiah Thomas as the only real scoring threat last year into a top-10 offense to complement the stingy, switch-at-everything defensive versatility he has always employed.

But one of the main struggles Boston had last year, as shown by the Cavs evisceration of the Celtics in East finals, is that with Thomas out with the hip injury, they have no consistent firepower to match LeBron and company. They can defend with the best of them, but their ability to outscore more talented opponents has always been a big question mark with Stevens’ Celtics team.

That should not be a problem now, with three All-Stars in the team for the first time since the days of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen in Celtic Green.

Team president Danny Ainge finally made good use of his stockpile of assets in bringing in Gordon Hayward through free agency and LeBron’s former Cleveland running mate Kyrie Irving in a stunning offseason trade. This Celtics squad will not be lacking in firepower.

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Irving provides the Celtics with nearly identical numbers as Thomas last year, as second fiddle to James. As the man in Boston, he’s bound to improve on what was a breakout season in his final stint in Cleveland.

Hayward gives Boston another 20-point scorer that no one in last season’s lineup could consistently provide, while Al Horford finds more talent at his disposal to showcase his underrated playmaking skills.

The Celtics also hope to mitigate the loss of Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley, two of their best defenders that made their switching defense hum, with development of a slimmer Marcus Smart and a more experienced Jaylen Brown.

Much hope also rides on third overall pick Jayson Tatum, another versatile, athletic wing who fits right in to Stevens’ ‘positionless’ basketball scheme. He’s getting comparisons even to a Celtic great in Pierce, with his knack for clutch moments and almost the same step-back to the right jumper for a signature move.

The Celtics have even given a glimpse of what could be its starting lineup in the present and future, playing Irving, Horford, Hayward, Brown and Tatum in their final preseason outing, creating a much talented version of the Milwaukee Bucks long lineup, wreaking havoc on passing lanes, switching on every pick, while giving the defense plenty of problems with the plethora of off-ball action and offensive options.

But the biggest question with Boston’s new roster, with only Horford, Brown, Smart and Terry Rozier as the holdovers from last season, is how it addressed its biggest weakness—rebounding. The addition of Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes gives the team some heft and interior toughness but both have not been known as impact players on the boards.

Depth is also a dilemma, particularly on the backcourt and the bigs. The bench is filled with a bunch of new names like NBA D-League Rookie of the Year Abdel Nader and French prospect Guerschon Yabusele.

Compared to a stacked Cavs bench full of vets like Kyle Korver, Iman Shumpert, JR Smith, Tristan Thompson, the Celtics reserves pale in experience and recall. Talent-wise, the Cavs remain the deeper and stronger roster, even though questions on Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose’s durability and defense could make way for a rough season in Cleveland. Thomas is also not expected back until January, with a lot of time to integrate himself to the Cavs system come playoff time.

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Dethroning the Cavs in the East is easier said than done. A lot of talented teams have tried and failed for three straight seasons.

Even as LeBron faces his biggest Eastern Conference challenger yet in the past eight years, there’s still that feeling that the young Celtics squad is still lacking. Then again, that Cleveland backcourt isn’t the most defensively adept or the most durable in the league. Trust that this Boston squad will be fired up to grab the opportunity to repeat their feat in 2010—kick LeBron out of Cleveland.

If they can’t beat the Cavs in the East this year, there’s always next season anyway, when LeBron’s already in LA.

 

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