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Adam Kaufman

Celtics’ Chances to Compete in Eastern Conference Haven’t Evaporated…Yet

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In the wake of a 25-win season and no roster improvement outside of draft picks and assumed health, no, the Celtics are certainly not ready to contend in the Eastern Conference. However, they aren’t as far off as you might think.

With LeBron James’ latest decision to head home to Northeast Ohio to return to his roots and raise his kids – OH, and play with a ton of young talent in Kyrie Irving, Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, and a slimmer Anthony Bennett – that created more parity in the conference than the East has seen since before the King took his talents to South Beach four years ago.

In recent seasons, the East has been viewed as the Heat’s to lose with only the Pacers as a viable challenger. It was a forgone conclusion Miami and Indiana would meet in the conference finals each of the last two years.

Despite Cleveland’s quick support from the odds-makers in Las Vegas, there’s no longer a prolific favorite. Should the Cavaliers swing a trade for disgruntled Timberwolves star Kevin Love, the landscape would change and likely for several seasons to come once he extended. But until that happens or Wiggins develops into a stud in a couple of years, the East is wide open for the taking for a half-dozen squads.

The Cavs may be favored, but they don’t have that Big 3 star power the Heat possessed in James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade. Miami obviously lost James, though it did retain Bosh on a max contract, will undoubtedly re-sign Wade, and has added Luol Deng to the mix. Deng essentially traded places with James after spending 40 games in Cleveland last season following nine-plus years in Chicago. The small forward is a downgrade from one of the game’s all-time best, but retaining Mario Chalmers and adding pieces like Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts will help Pat Riley’s group remain competitive.

Speaking of Deng’s old team, it would be a mistake to sleep on the Bulls. Chicago finished as a four-seed last season with Derrick Rose appearing in only 10 games. The star guard has been limited to 49 games over the last three years on account of injuries but, if healthy, the combination of Rose, reigning defensive player of the year Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and the recently-added Pau Gasol make Tom Thibodeau’s team a legitimate threat to win the East. The Bulls may have become the new Heat had Carmelo Anthony left money on the table for a better opportunity to win than he’ll enjoy with the Knicks for probably the next few seasons.

The Pacers are competent but also a question mark after a Jekyll and Hyde season that saw them finish first and advance to the league semifinals despite months of internal ire and on-the-court disorganization. Paul George, David West, and Roy Hibbert still represent a tremendous trio, though Hibbert has reportedly been shopped after his playoff inconsistencies and talented knucklehead Lance Stephenson remains unsigned. Without the young, versatile guard, Indiana would still be a postseason team, though not nearly as highly respected. C.J. Miles looks like a value add.

When it comes to respect, how about the team that shocked the Bulls and, for a time, surprised those Pacers in the conference semis? The Wizards lost Trevor Ariza to the Rockets but replaced him with veteran and long-time Celtics captain Paul Pierce. He joins one of the best backcourt tandems in the game in John Wall and Bradley Beal, along with the well-paid Marcin Gortat and a hopefully healthy Nene. It’s easy to laugh at Washington when thinking back to its supreme struggles since 2008 prior to last season but, be sure, things have changed in the nation’s capital.

Not to be overlooked is last year’s three-seed, our friends in Canada. The Raptors re-signed Kyle Lowry and still have the wildly talented DeMar DeRozan, plus big man Jonas Valanciunas.

The Nets, while often dysfunctional last season, could be in the conversation even without Pierce should Deron Williams and Brook Lopez be healthy and if Joe Johnson continues to be effective. Andray Blatche is still a solid presence off the bench, Jarrett Jack may be motivated to find the fountain of youth, and new coach Lionel Hollins will be an instant upgrade on the sidelines over Jason Kidd.

That brings us back to the Celtics. Is Boston poised to knock off any of those aforementioned teams with a nucleus of Rajon Rondo, Jared Sullinger, Avery Bradley, and Kelly Olynyk? Of course not. But until the C’s lose that loving feeling and Minnesota moves its elite young power forward to the Cavs, out west to the Warriors, or to another mystery team, Danny Ainge is potentially one big move away from giving his team a realistic chance to compete in a watered down, more diverse conference.

If Love ultimately moves elsewhere, fans can and should brace themselves for their captain’s departure and a lengthy rebuild. Frankly, if Love does land in Cleveland, there’s no better course of action since the East would be Cleveland’s to lose for the next five-to-seven years, at least.

As we all know by now, conversations involving top-tier free agents don’t take place in Boston. At this point, Ainge is left to reconstruct his roster through trades and by way of the draft, where he has a slew of picks over the next handful of years. Rebuilding through the draft is a long, risky proposition. Doing so through trade will always be Ainge’s goal, which is why he’s continued to stockpile assets since that blockbuster deal with Brooklyn last summer.

Fortunately, Ainge’s treasure chest is big enough to bring in a third star to perhaps vault to the top of the conference if he can add Love. Unfortunately (and obviously), making a move for Love is still a long-shot and will prove impossible if names like Wiggins or Klay Thompson are permitted in trade talks.

The bottom line for the Celtics is this: Until we’re forced to rule out Love, there’s no sense in counting out the Celtics in an Eastern Conference that is not nearly as top-heavy as it once was. To think, we may owe that thanks to LeBron James.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman

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