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Don’t Sleep: The Boston Celtics Could Win The NBA Finals This Season

The Celtics look like title contenders, and they’re only going to get better, writes Moke Hamilton.

Moke Hamilton

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Just how good are the Boston Celtics?

It’s a question that even a casual NBA observer has to be wondering at this point.

Entering play on January 7, the Celtics not only have the top record in the Eastern Conference at 33-10, they trail the mighty Golden State Warriors for the best record in the NBA by just a half-game.

They lead the NBA in points allowed per game at 97.6 and in points allowed per 100 possessions (101.9) and specialize in causing opponents to miss shots—they’re not overly reliant on forcing turnovers.

In short, the Celtics are a true championship contender, and as they continue on toward what appears to be a collision course with the Cleveland Cavaliers, it’s become obvious that as time progresses, the Celtics are only becoming better.

* * * * * *

What makes us marvel at LeBron James more than almost anything else is his sheer durability. As has been written about in this space on more than one occasion, James’ intersection of pristine health and superhuman abilities has put him in position to challenge Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the NBA’s all-time scoring record. Few in the national media ever discuss the idea because Kareem’s record still seems far away, but that James appears to have a puncher’s chance of running him down is truly remarkable.

Unfortunately, none of us can tell the future, and we simply don’t know how long James can continue to play at the level he has.

Now in his 15th year, and remarkably after 1,100 games, James has been the most productive version of himself that we’ve ever seen. Despite losing Kyrie Irving and not having Isaiah Thomas, the Cleveland Cavaliers, behind James’ leadership, continue to play like the conference favorite that they should be.

James has played another 217 career playoff games, which includes at least 18 playoff games in each of the past seven years—each of which has resulted in a trip to the NBA Finals.

We have now officially reached the point where it’s fair to wonder how much longer James can play at this high of a level. Doubting him would be unwise, but pondering when his dominance will yield due to attrition—it’s completely fair.

And when that time comes, you can bet that Kyrie Irving and his Celtics will be right there to end the Eastern Conference’s collective watching of the throne.

Obviously, we don’t know if the minutes and the toll on James will become evident before the end of the season or during the playoffs, but what we do know is that, after 43 games, the Celtics have proven to have everything they need to compete at the highest level and beat anyone—the Golden State Warriors included.

With a brilliant head coach who both knows how to motivate and maximize his players, those that have played for Brad Stevens all seem to agree on one thing: the coach works just as hard to connect with his players on an emotional level as he does on the basketball court. Aside from simply knowing Xs and Os, one of Stevens’ advantages is understanding who his players are at their cores and figuring out how to best motivate them.

With Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the club has a rare combination of players who have young legs, excellent defensive instincts, floor-spacing ability and, most importantly, a team-first attitude.

The addition of Kyrie Irving, in the end, was the proverbial icing on the cake. In Irving, the Celtics got a true superstar player who is capable of taking over a game and galvanizing his teammates through his dedication to his craft and pursuit of winning without an individual agenda.

From there, of the other players that get regular rotation minutes from Stevens, not a single one doesn’t give maximum effort when they’re on the floor.

The Celtics are on their way to being the Eastern Conference’s best team, and how soon they are able to assume that title will be determined by James’ individual erosion and Danny Ainge’s ability to continue to find pieces to improve the team, brick by brick.

With respect to those two variables, the latter deserves more attention than its been given.

* * * * * *

As Paul Pierce sat before the media, it was the first time the truth had been shown a lie. He was no longer a Celtic, and the familiar wooden floors of Boston’s Garden were replaced by the new smell arena of Barclays Center.

Since being traded by Ainge, Pierce spent the final years of his career as a journeyman—a true injustice for an all-time great who deserved the honor of retiring with his franchise. In Brooklyn, Pierce gave the Nets all that he had left before spending his final years in D.C. and Los Angeles as a mentor to some of the league’s younger talents.

Yes, Ainge’s trade of Pierce was bad for the heartstrings, but, it was good for avoiding the lengthy rebuild that typically follows a team after its franchise player retires. And that’s The Truth.

Remarkably, the 2013 trade that sent Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn resulted in the Celtics ending up with Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. As has been well-documented, the Nets gave the Celtics their first round picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018, as well as the right to swap first round picks with them in 2017.

The 2018 pick was the major carrot that the Celtics sent to the Cavs in exchange for Irving. The 2017 pick, which became first overall, was traded to the Sixers and eventually became Jayson Tatum, while the 2016 pick was used to draft Brown.

Along the way, Ainge managed to sign Al Horford and Gordon Hayward as free agents and managed to move out production players, including Jeff Green, in exchange for future draft picks.

As a result of the events that have unfolded since 2013, the Celtics have a superstar in his prime in Irving, two veteran pieces to complement him in Hayward and Horford, and two young players with incredibly high ceilings in Brown and Tatum.

Ainge also isn’t done.

With four first round pick credits for the 2018 and 2019 NBA Draft, even after pulling off the trade for Irving, Ainge has a treasure trove of future draft picks at his disposal. While the protections on the picks are complicated and may or may not cause them to vest as top picks, the credits themselves are tantamount to lottery tickets that are valuable currency.

In other words, players who are in the final or penultimate year of a contract that will end or could be ending will very likely emerge as targets for the Celtics over the next year or two. DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan sit front and center, while players like Paul George, Kenneth Faried, Tyson Chandler and Jonas Valanciunas have to be considered to at least be within grasp.

To this point the Celtics have scored wins over every other elite NBA team they’ve played—the Warriors, Cavs, Rockets, Spurs, Thunder, Raptors and Pistons among them.

They play hard, they play together and they play as it they’re true believers in themselves.

It’s about time we’ve all joined them in believing, just like LeBron has.

And as he attempts to make his eighth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals, we simply can’t deny that James is far from done.

… But neither are the Celtics. 

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NBA

2019 NBA Free Agency Tracker

The 2019 NBA Free Agent class could be one of the more exciting free agent classes in recent history. Throughout the process, Basketball Insiders will update where players ultimately land and what kind of deals they receive.

Basketball Insiders

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The 2019 NBA Free Agent class could be one of the more exciting free agent classes in recent history. Throughout the process, Basketball Insiders will update where players ultimately land and what kind of deals they receive.

2019 NBA Free Agency Tracker

Player Name  Old Team  New Team  Deal Amount
Kawhi Leonard  Toronto Raptors
Kevin Durant  Golden State Warriors
Kyrie Irving  Boston Celtics
Kemba Walker  Charlotte Hornets
Klay Thompson  Golden State Warriors
Jimmy Butler  Philadelphia 76ers
Tobias Harris  Philadelphia 76ers
Khris Middleton  Milwaukee Bucks
Nikola Vucevic  Orlando Magic
D’Angelo Russell  Brooklyn Nets
Malcolm Brogdon  Milwaukee Bucks
JJ Redick  Philadelphia 76ers
DeMarcus Cousins  Golden State Warriors
Al Horford  Boston Celtics
Bojan Bogdanovic  Indiana Pacers
Julius Randle  New Orleans Pelicans
Brook Lopez  Milwaukee Bucks
Paul Millsap  Denver Nuggets
Marc Gasol  Toronto Raptors
DeAndre Jordan  New York Knicks
Harrison Barnes  Sacramento Kings
Marcus Morris  Boston Celtics
Patrick Beverley  Los Angeles Clippers
Nikola Mirotic  Milwaukee Bucks
Thaddeus Young  Indiana Pacers
Terry Rozier  Boston Celtics
Trevor Ariza  Washington Wizards
Jonas Valanciunas  Memphis Grizzlies
Ricky Rubio  Utah Jazz
Kelly Oubre Jr.  Phoenix Suns
Terrence Ross  Orlando Magic
Rudy Gay  San Antonio Spurs
Wesley Matthews  Indiana Pacers
Jeremy Lamb  Charlotte Hornets

The deal values noted here are the reported values of the deals as they have been agreed to. Once the deals are final with the NBA, you can find the exact details on the Basketball Insiders Salary Pages.

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NBA Daily: Free Agency On Deck

The 2019 NBA Free Agency period is upon us, and there are already lots of things in motion. Steve Kyler takes a look at some of the notable situations to watch.

Steve Kyler

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With the 2019 NBA Draft and its whopping 23 transactions (some still awaiting the new cap year) in the rearview mirror, the 2019 NBA Free Agency period is now on deck.

The NBA moved up some of the normal dates on things related to free agency, such as when teams can schedule meetings and when teams can officially begin talking to players.

Teams can now have contact with agents on June 29th at 6:00 pm EST, specifically for the purpose of scheduling meetings for June 30th.

On June 30th after 6:00 pm, teams may begin meeting and talking with free agents to discuss terms and frameworks of new deals. Those deals cannot become official until Saturday, July 6th, which is the first day contracts and deals can be made.

It is expected that the final salary cap figures will be released on or about the 29th, in advance of free agency opening.

The prevailing thought in NBA circles is that the final 2019-2020 salary cap figures will come in a touch higher than the expected $109 million cap teams have been preparing for. That will have an impact on most of the slotted salary figures such as minimums, cap exceptions and maximum contract levels.

While more than 45 percent of the NBA is set to be a free agent this summer, here are some of the notable situations we’re watching:

The Lakers

The Los Angeles Lakers caught this first big fish last summer when LeBron James opted to join the Lakers. Less than a year later, the Lakers landed big fish number two in Anthony Davis, who will officially become a Laker on July 6th.

The Lakers have been fairly active trying to find ways to open more salary cap space, and as our own Eric Pincus chronicled for Bleacher Report, there is a path to a full maximum salary slot that doesn’t include dealing team favorite, Kyle Kuzma.

If the Lakers can find a taker for the contracts for Moritz Wagner, Isaac Bonga and Jemerrio Jones in which they take back no material salary, the Lakers can get to about $32 million in usable cap space. That is just $700,000 shy of the max salary slot needed for free agents like Philadelphia’s Jimmy Butler or Charlotte’s Kemba Walker, who many in Laker circles believe are the prime targets as the Lakers third star.

It’s unclear why the Lakers did not include the necessary pieces to ensure a full max slot. The truth of the matter is Wagner and Bonga are nice assets that should be easy enough to move into someone’s cap space. The lack of their inclusion may have more to do with wanting certainty on a big fish before giving away nice assets.

While the Lakers do have eyes for a third star and have been fairly aggressive in the back channel feeling out process with free agents, they are also preparing for Plan B scenarios in which their available space gets used on two second-tier players.

It is not at all uncommon for teams not to put their eggs in one basket, but it’s notable for the Lakers – who have drawn significant criticism for not thinking through all the options – to be working multiple options.

While Butler and Walker seem to be the primary players of interest, there has also been considerable talk about Clippers guard Patrick Beverly, Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic and Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez.

The Rockets Have Dreams

After a pretty damaging report surfaced at Yahoo Sports suggesting that the relationship between Houston Rockets’ guards Chris Paul and James Harden seems broken beyond repair, the Rockets have been doing damage control for the better part of the last week.

While the Rockets have gone to great lengths to quell that report, they have also been fairly aggressive in trying to open up cap space for a third star.

While the Rockets are hopeful they could move some cap money dangling the ending $14.05 million contract of Eric Gordon and the $16.3 million deal of big man Clint Capela, to get to any real, meaningful space, the Rockets would also have to move PJ Tucker.

Unfortunately for Houston, Paul is slated to earn $38.5 million and Harden is slated for $38.15 million. Even if the Rockets could dump all of their contracts for nothing in return, they could still get to roughly $23.3 million in space, which would be roughly $9.3 million shy of a full max slot for a player like Sixers guard Jimmy Butler.

The Celtics Have Money

The Boston Celtics took a couple blows this offseason with the news that All-Star guard Kyrie Irving is likely walking away to the Brooklyn Nets, and cornerstone big man Al Horford opted out of his final contract year and is now expected to command a four-year deal on the open market.

The Celtics have quietly moved enough things around – in the dumping of Aron Baynes to the Phoenix Suns – to get within striking distance of a maximum salary slot.

Assuming the Celtics pass or pull the Qualifying Offer for Terry Rozier, his $9.1 million cap hold would come off, putting the Celtics at just at $34 million in usable space.

The Celtics have kicked the tires on Houston big man Clint Capela and Thunder big man Steven Adams, but the player the Celtics seem to covet the most is Charlotte guard Kemba Walker.

Marc Stein of the New York Times tweeted as much today, which lines up with the ideal scenario painted by some in Boston circles after the draft.

There has been considerable fan interest in Brooklyn’s D’Angelo Russell as a replacement for Irving. However, it does not seem the Celtics are as high on the list for Russell as Celtics fans would like.

D’Angelo Russell Watch

As covered above, Brooklyn All-Star D’Angelo Russell seems to be in fairly decent demand. The problem for the Nets is that they cannot create the cap space necessary to sign Celtics guard Kyrie Irving and Warriors forward Kevin Durant and still hang on to Russell’s cap hold. They have the means to get two, and it seems, for now, Russell is third on the list.

If the Nets can land both Irving and Durant, the belief is Russell will hit unrestricted free agency and open up bidding.

For weeks, Russell has been pegged as the favorite of the Indiana Pacers, but it seems more likely that the Pacers are going to pivot to Jazz free agent Ricky Rubio, with Russell appearing not to be as high on Indiana as they are on him.

The New York Knicks are said to have serious interest in Russell should they miss on Irving, which looks likely. Knicks leadership has said repeatedly they were not going to blow their cap flexibility on second tier guys. However, Knicks sources said recently that they do not view a 23-year old obtainable All-Star as second-tier.

There are several other teams supposedly in the hunt on Russell including the Orlando Magic, Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns. However, the Suns no longer have a max salary slot after their trades around the draft.

There is a dark horse suitor for Russell, and that’s the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Wolves don’t have cap space to sign Russell outright, but they do at least appear open to trying to take away some salary to land Russell if he indeed becomes unrestricted.

If the Wolves can find a home for Andrew Wiggins and his $27.5 million salary, the Wolves could get awfully close to a max salary slot for Russell.

As we do every year at this time, Basketball Insiders will be tracking the minute by minute activities around the 2019 NBA Free Agency period with our annual Free Agency Diary. The Diary is live now and will be updated throughout the day as rumors and deals start to leak out.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @TommyBeer, @jblancartenba, @SpinDavies, @JamesB_NBA, @MattJohnNBA, @DrewMaresca, @JordanHicksNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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NBA Daily: Storylines To Watch For In 2020

Just 10 days into the offseason, Matt John takes a look at what storylines have been created from all that’s happened so far.

Matt John

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If it wasn’t clear before, it is now – the NBA is a year-round sport. Even though the season lasts up to nine months, we never seem to get a break from professional basketball. Honestly though, that’s probably because we don’t want one.

The offseason gives us so much drama that it’s almost impossible to take our eyes off our phone. Woj and Shams “bombs” are like a shot of adrenaline, and we as the audience are basketball junkies anxiously waiting for our next score.

We’re not even two weeks past the NBA finals, and the drama has already started. And it started with a bang. Anthony Davis and LeBron can stake a claim as the league’s fiercest duo. The Jazz have solidified themselves as a Western Conference contender. New Orleans is now a league pass team. The sky is suddenly falling in Boston and Houston. All that New York had hoped for is blowing up in its face. So, just another Tuesday for Knicks fans.

We haven’t even entered the main course of the NBA offseason and we already have some storylines to keep our eyes on for next season. There are going to be plenty more once free agency starts, but let’s take a look at what to keep an eye on when it comes to next season.

Is Lonzo Ball good?

Now we’ve been asking ourselves this question since he came into the league. Lonzo is the most polarizing young player in the league. Some of it comes from the bias, both positive and negative, that he’s had to face in the last two years. Some of it comes from the limited sample sizes we’ve had to watch. Some of it has come from playing for one of the league’s most storied franchises.

There’s no doubt that what Lonzo does well, he does spectacularly. At 6-foot-6, he brings so many rare qualities to the court. He has excellent handles, boasts a court vision that not many others in the league has and can get after the rebound. He’s even shown that he can make life hell for anyone who tries to take him one-on-one.

But his holes are clear as day. His funky shooting form has not held up well since transitioning to the NBA. He hasn’t shown much of a scoring instinct. He can’t seem to stay on the floor. Still, he was the second overall pick for a reason.

Now here comes perhaps the real test for him. New Orleans could be the perfect team for him. Now that he’s no longer in LeBron’s shadow, Ball should have the ball in his hands more often than not. Alvin Gentry has a reputation for having his teams run the floor – the Pelicans tied for second in pace last season (103.3) – which should make Lonzo feel right at home. Jrue Holiday, one of the better all-around point guards in the league, should be the perfect complement to him as a playmaker, shooter and defender.

Oh, and you’ve probably already fantasized about how beautiful those Lonzo-to-Zion alley-oops are going to look four months from now.

There will be challenges up ahead, like how Lonzo is going to do now that he’ll be a more featured player for his team. New Orleans needs more three-point shooting, as it was ranked 24th in three-point percentage (34.3) and 21st in attempts on average (10.3). Lonzo’s a career 31.5 percent shooter from three, and even with the haul they got from the Lakers, not a whole lot of the new guys space the floor, which could hurt Lonzo’s ability to space the floor.

Now that Lonzo no longer has the pressure to contribute to a winner right away, time is now on his side. Progress may come quickly or it may come slow, but as long as he avoids the injury bug, we can finally see what the guy is made out of this season.

Can Donovan Mitchell be relied on in the playoffs?

Spida has been exceeding expectations from the moment he entered the league. It’s not every day you see a late lottery pick be the leader of a pseudo-contender in the first two years of his pro career.

You can’t honestly complain about what he’s been able to do for Utah since the team has had to endure through losing Gordon Hayward. What can you do is point out his flaws, and he’s got a few.

Mitchell can definitely put the ball in the bucket, as he’s averaged 22 points in his brief career so far. However, he doesn’t exactly have the best shooting percentages, as he’s put up splits of 43/35/80 over his last two years. Those numbers only get worse in the playoffs. While his scoring average is slightly better at 23.4 points a game, his shooting falls off a cliff, shooting 39/23/89 splits.

Utah has shown that it can’t afford to have its young franchise cornerstone struggle on the game’s biggest stage, as they’ve been eliminated two consecutive times in gentleman’s sweeps at the hands of the Rockets. Not that it’s entirely on his shoulders, but if Donovan struggles, so do the Jazz.

Jazz fans will point out without a second’s hesitation that his low efficiency is because the team does not have another scoring threat to take the pressure off of him. Definitely a valid point. Utah has not had a secondary scoring threat to ease the burden put on Mitchell. No help in that department would make life hard for anyone in the league. That won’t be a problem anymore Utah now that they made their summer splash with Mike Conley.

Conley should be exactly what the doctor ordered. An experienced vet who’s scoring and playmaking abilities should do wonders both for Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. Technically, he has no All-Star appearances to his name – and probably won’t now that his prime will most likely end in the West – but anyone who’s watched him knows how much this should improve the Jazz.

Now that Conley has arrived, we’re finally going to see how Donovan will do now that he won’t have to take the entire scoring burden by himself. The Jazz still have some issues to take care of such as their now desperate need for a stretch-four, but with Conley on board, we’ll at least see what Mitchell’s true ceiling is now.

What is Danny Ainge going to do with his newfound cap space?

Once upon a time, the Boston Celtics had the most promising future in the NBA. Now, what’s happened to them is indescribable.

Losing Kyrie Irving was always in the back of Celtics fans’ mind that by the time reports started circulating that he wasn’t coming back, they were okay with it. Al Horford’s departure was the real gut punch. There was never any drama that came with Horford, and he did all he could for Boston. Seeing him gone is going to hurt both on and off the court.

Silver lining: Horford and Irving’s departures, along with the recent Aron Baynes trade to Phoenix, opens up a lot of cap room for Boston. In fact, if the Celtics renounce Terry Rozier’s cap hold – $9+ million – they will have enough room to add a player with a max contract.

How Danny Ainge uses it is something people should watch out for. The Celtics now have a gaping hole at center with both Horford and Baynes gone, so odds are they may use it on a center. Combine buzz said that the Celtics were looking at Clint Capela, which could still be in play this summer if Houston really wants cap relief.

They could also look to take Steven Adams off the Thunder’s hands or pay up for Nikola Vucevic. Knowing Ainge, it’s very possible what he does is mess with other teams who have guys they can’t afford to lose but don’t want to pay top dollar for.

Brooklyn did this for two years when they gave rich offer sheets to Tyler Johnson, Allen Crabbe and Otto Porter so that their teams would have to pay up for them. Ainge doesn’t have a history of doing that, but he does have a history of ripping off other teams.

For example, take the Milwaukee Bucks. Malcolm Brogdon will be on the open market this summer, and the Bucks cannot afford to lose him. Should Ainge give him a max contract, the Bucks would have no choice but to match it since they want to stay a contender with Giannis. There are plenty of scenarios like this. He could do this with Khris Middleton. He could do this with Vucevic. He could do this to anyone who is valuable to get paid a lot, but not enough that he would deserve a max.

The Celtics are going through pretty much their worst nightmare right now, but losing their star players is more of a setback than a doomsday scenario. If there’s one man who has shown that he can rebuild as quickly as possible, it’s Danny Ainge. They’re not going to get a star this summer, but counting out the Celtics is ill-advised because, like always, they usually have something up their sleeve.

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