If Kept Intact, Houston and Boston Will Be Back
Both Houston and Boston quickly became vicious opponents in their respective conferences, made it all the way to the Conference Finals and forced a game seven in their leagues. Although they each lost, while Irving and Paul were sidelined with an injury, both Boston and Houston could be back just as easily next season and could be hunting for an NBA Finals appearance.
The Young, Rising Celtics
The second Kyrie was dealt away to the Celtics, a new era in Boston was born. Hopes for a 60-win season, an Eastern Conference Finals appearance and even an NBA Finals end-goal all felt in reach now more than ever, considering the lack of competition at the start of the season and the inevitable depreciation of LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
Those immediate hopes dwindled away after losing its two best players in Gordon Hayward, during the first game of the season, and Irving toward the end of the year.
What most failed to consider during the entire season was the supporting cast of Kyrie anchored the team and, despite the adversity, the young Celtics group chose to mature ahead of their time and make the best run at a Finals since their 2010 Big Three took on Kobe and the Lakers.
Rookie Jayson Tatum became the team’s best two-way player and might even leap over Hayward at the starting 3-spot next year. Jaylen Brown took a big step forward from last year and scored efficiently when called upon. Al Horford acted like a Gandalf-figure for the young bucks. Oh, and Terry Rozier (aka "Scary Terry) made it known that he can be a starter someday. Players like Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes chipped in with what they could, making some big time plays defensively.
They beat Milwaukee in a close seven, whom critics thought Boston would lose to. They rolled over the hottest team at the time in Philadelphia through just five games. And, they managed to take a LeBron team to an elimination game, which was his first time in an Eastern Conference Final game seven since the 2013 series against the Pacers.
Celtics fans rejoice; even without a NBA Finals appearance, this season is just the beginning for a dominant dynasty to come.
ISO Ball Planted in Texas
Head coach Mike D'Antoni trusted the boring, and often gruesome to watch, offensive scheme of Houston throughout the season with no intention of changing it. Even after the team missed an NBA record-high 27 3-pointers in a row to lose them game seven against Golden State, D’Antoni didn’t blink twice on his offense. It’s not rocket science, Houston’s either on and looking incredible, or off and looking awful.
But Houston hasn’t competed this closely with Golden State since James Harden’s landing in Texas, which could be also credited to CP3’s leadership and efficiency down the stretch. Clint Capela fits tremendously well in this system, where he’s asked to rebound on both ends, get easy buckets down low and defend the other team’s best player. Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker fit the x-factor player role, respectively, both playing with a lot of effort and poise.
They finished the regular season with the league’s best record, elevated Harden’s game to a new level that will likely earn him an MVP honoree and exposed holes in the seemingly flawless Golden State Warriors. But, as they reiterated throughout this regular season, anything less than an NBA title is unacceptable for Houston, which will make them fight extra hard this upcoming offseason to elevate their game for next year.
Houston, there is not a problem. They'll be back next year.
Boston Celtics Scenarios Moving Forward
An immediate decision General Manager Danny Ainge will have to make is whether or not to resign Marcus Smart, who has been vocal about getting more money. He’s the Celtics top defender, who averaged nearly two steals a game in the postseason, but Ainge will have to gauge how much he’s really willing to spend on an off-the-bench talent like Smart. If they compromise anywhere between $13-18 million a year, then it could be worth it, but anything more would be a stretch.
I think Ainge and Smart ultimately part ways, and Celtics fans don’t like it. Boston has a fabulous backcourt with the likes of Jaylen Brown and Kyrie Irving. They could even drop Jayson Tatum to the 2, if need be, and play with Gordon Hayward and Al Horford taking the load down low.
In a perfect scenario, Ainge keeps the team intact and tries to resign Aron Baynes for chump change. But everyone knows that Ainge loves to improve his squad, and the only way he knows how to do it is by the NBA draft. Boston picks 27th this year and Ainge has already started shopping, as multiple sources have reported Wednesday. Names like Rozier and Brown have come among the mix.
Best situation, if Boston wishes to trade, is to deal Rozier, Morris and possibly their 2018 first round draft pick to Memphis and hope they bite. Then, at No. 4, draft Mo Bamba or pick a depreciating, yet valuable, Luka Doncic.
Worst case scenario, the Celtics deal Brown to Dallas for the No. 5 pick. No draft choice, no matter how low, is worth Brown, who played lights out this entire season. Similar to Tatum, Brown should be among the untouchables for Boston, unless it comes with a hefty, hefty return.
Oh, and just for the fun of it, a trade involving Kyrie would have to come at an exchange with a superstar. I’m talking Kyrie for Kawhi Leonard, plus more from San Antonio, or Kyrie for Russell Westbrook, which won’t happen. Ainge isn’t shopping Irving at all, and it would be shocking to see Irving in any other uniform other than the Celtics next year.
Houston Lands LeBron? Here’s How:
Before talking LeBron James to Houston, the Rockets need to solidify the likes of Paul and Capela for next season. The organization will hope that it can sign Paul for less than he would probably want. That’s not going to happen, however, because CP3 is the president of the Players' Union and will want money. This might cost Houston Capela, who will likely get calls from other GM’s around the league that will offer him serious money.
Houston has more problems than Boston when it comes to free agency, as shown below by the players that will become free agents after this season:
- Chris Paul (UFA)
- Joe Johnson (UFA)
- Gerald Green (UFA)
- Trevor Ariza (UFA)
- Luc Mbah a Moute (UFA)
- Tarik Black (UFA)
- Clint Capela (RFA)
- Aaron Jackson (TO)
- Markel Brown (RFA)
CP3 and Capela are must-keep players for Houston, but guys like Gerald Green, Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute might be worth some extra years, if they can negotiate less money. I say beyond CP3 and Capela, keep Ariza, sign Green for less and let Mbah a Moute walk.
Now here’s a Bron to Houston narrative:
Let’s say LeBron and the Cavs get beat soundly against Golden State in the Finals and LBJ is tired of being in Ohio. If Houston GM Daryl Morey can knock on LeBron’s door, sit down CP3 and the King and ask the two to take equal or less money to make this possible, I think LeBron takes it. How likely is it for James and Paul to take significant pay cuts? Not likely at all.
Bottom line is Morey will focus more on keeping the Rockets nucleus together than trying to get a superstar in the postseason not named LeBron James. Houston has it good—really good—and they can be back in the Western Conference Finals with another year at it.