The much-maligned Eastern Conference of the NBA got better Wednesday when the Toronto Raptors reportedly agreed to trade for San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard as part of a multiplayer deal.
Leonard, the 2014 NBA Finals MVP, makes the Raptors better if he’s healthy. However, the fact he wasn’t traded to any of the Boston Celtics’ top contenders, including the Philadelphia 76ers, was another example of why this offseason has been very positive for the C’s.
Here are a few reasons why that’s been the case:
LeBron James left the Eastern Conference
James is the best player in the league and the only reason why the Celtics came up just short of beating the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference finals. In fact, James’ teams have eliminated the C’s from the playoffs in five of the last seven seasons.
The Celtics are the clear favorite to win the East next season now that James is in the Western Conference after signing with the Los Angeles Lakers. The 76ers and, to a lesser extent, the Raptors are the only threats to Boston’s goal of reaching the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.
LeBron James still doesn’t have a second superstar in Los Angeles
The Houston Rockets got worse in free agency by losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah Moute, and the Lakers, even with James in the fold, still aren’t a legitimate NBA Finals contender. James doesn’t have a second superstar to take on the Warriors with — just a bunch of talented and inexperienced young guys such as Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma, in addition to past-their-prime veterans like Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson.
Leonard going to the Lakers would’ve made them a top contender and a real challenge for Boston in a potential NBA Finals matchup. But as currently constituted, the Lakers are not a huge threat for the Warriors or the C’s.
Sixers struck out on LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George
This was supposed to be the biggest summer in 76ers history. Philly had enough salary cap space for a max player and the assets to swing a blockbuster trade. The best-case scenario for the 76ers was to sign James and trade for Leonard or George, pairing them with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons to form an unstoppable foursome.
The Sixers weren’t able to sign James or George and couldn’t make a Leonard trade to their liking. Philadelphia instead used its cap space to trade for Wilson Chandler and re-sign J.J. Redick, among other small moves. The 76ers are the second-best team in the East behind the Celtics, but they didn’t hit the home run that could’ve made them a lot better than the team that was eliminated in five games in last season’s playoffs by a C’s squad without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
Celtics didn’t overpay to trade for Kawhi Leonard
The Celtics reportedly never offered their five best players — Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford — in trade talks involving Leonard. This was a smart move because Leonard is able to become an unrestricted free agent next summer and reportedly prefers to play in Los Angeles.
Giving up one of these players, in addition to valuable draft picks, and having Leonard leave as a free agent in 2019 would’ve been a disaster for Boston. The Celtics are the second-best team in the league right now and have a bright future with Irving, Tatum, Brown and Terry Rozier all 26 years old or younger.
No team has signed Marcus Smart to an offer sheet
The Celtics, at least not yet, haven’t had to match an expensive offer sheet to keep the versatile guard. Smart might have to sign his $6 million qualifying offer and become an unrestricted free agent next summer. That would be a win for the Celtics because Smart, a very valuable defensive piece for Boston, would be returning on the cheap in that scenario.
Raptors still aren’t good enough to beat the Celtics
The Raptors won 59 games last season and Leonard is an upgrade over DeMar DeRozan, but any team with Kyle Lowry as its second-best player is not good enough to beat the deeper and more talented Celtics and 76ers rosters. And let’s not forget how much the Raptors implode when the playoffs roll around.
When you consider Leonard reportedly “has no desire” to play in Toronto and the Raptors have a first-year head coach, as well as no 2019 first-round pick to trade at the deadline, there aren’t many reasons to believe 2018-19 will be any more successful for the Canadian franchise than its recent campaigns.
Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images