If the Celtics are in need of any extra motivation to go after a return to the NBA Finals this coming season, all they need is to look to their rivals in Cleveland for a little material.
How would these look up on the C's bulletin board?
Yes, that's right — the Cleveland Cavaliers, a proud franchise with 39 seasons, 17 playoff appearances, and a grand total of one NBA Finals visit to their name, have already printed their tickets for the 2010 Finals. Literally. You can see the tickets for yourselves: Quicken Loans Arena is all set to host Home Playoff Games N, O, P and Q, or in other words, Cleveland's four home games in the Finals.
Apparently they've already locked up home-court advantage, too. So they've got that going for them, which is nice.
It just might be a little bit premature. In their lone Finals appearance in franchise history, the Cavs were swept — LeBron James' one-man team was squashed in four games by Tim Duncan's Spurs in 2007. Since then, Cleveland has fallen short in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2008 and Eastern Conference finals in 2009.
The good news for Cleveland is that these Cavs are not a one-man team anymore. The bad news is that they're still a long way from Finals locks.
Obviously, the big news of the Cavs' offseason was the team's blockbuster trade to bring in Shaquille O'Neal, giving LeBron a true center as a teammate for the first time in his career. We're about to see what happens when two of the great talents of their generation team up in search of an NBA title.
But the Cavs did more than just bring in an aging superstar. They also quietly added a pair of solid former Toronto Raptors — Anthony Parker, a veteran guard who will add depth to the Cavs' backcourt, and Jamario Moon, a young forward with tons of upside. They also poached Leon Powe away from the Celtics, and if and when Powe is healthy, he'll be a tremendous asset off the bench to spell LeBron or Anderson Varejao.
The Cavs are loaded. Assuming Powe is able to play and Delonte West can set aside his off-the-court issues, this Cleveland team is legitimately 11 deep — they have standout starters and superb backups at every position. But in the steadily improving Eastern Conference, they're certainly not the only ones.
The fact remains: It's the Celtics, and not Cleveland, that pack the overall best starting five in the NBA. The Cavs have no one that can defend like Kevin Garnett, and no one with the pure shooting ability of Ray Allen. That's one mighty good team in Cleveland, but it still leaves a bit to be desired.
Who's the real top dog in the East this season? That's still to be decided. It's going to be a close race, that's for sure. And if this one is fought tooth and nail into the middle of April, the last thing the Cavs want to do is light a fire under Garnett, Allen and Paul Pierce.
The Celtics are a veteran team with a closing window. They know that if they want to win another championship, they had better do it now. And the Celtics, particularly Garnett, are fiery competitors who stop at nothing (except the occasional knee injury) to win.
In the end, one of these two teams will likely be selling tickets in June. But only one can prevail, and it's mighty early to anoint either one of them.
The Cavs can keep their eyes on the box office; the C's will focus theirs on the bulletin board. They probably didn't need any extra motivation, but they've got it now.