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NBA: Eastern Uprising

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Big moves in the East have transformed the natural balance of the conference, but can the Celtics take advantage?

Boston Celtics v Cleveland Cavaliers - Game Two Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

In basketball, knowing when to take your shot can be just as important off the court as it is on the court. With big changes happening all over the Eastern Conference, for Danny Ainge and the Boston Celtics right now might be the time to put it all out on the floor and make a big play.

The last week has seen significant shifts in the landscape of the Eastern Conference. An injury to Kevin Love is making the Cavs look more vulnerable than they have since before the return of King James to Cleveland. Meanwhile, north of the border the free-falling Toronto Raptors picked up Serge Ibaka in a trade with Orlando, bolstering their frontline and re-legitimizing themselves as a genuine threat. Plus, the Washington Wizards have gone on an impressive run, stealing the third seed and staking a claim for a spot among the East’s elite.

All the while the Celtics have been playing some of their best basketball in years, putting together some convincing wins and making a name for themselves as true contenders. What’s more the team has been finding success while shorthanded and dealing with a fairly grueling schedule.

Obviously the East is a very different beast than it was at the beginning of the season, but what does this mean for the Celtics?

No Love for Cleveland

Ever since the magnanimous return of LeBron James to Cleveland, the Cavs have been the top dogs in the East. While they remain the reigning champions and still hold the No. 1 spot in the Eastern Conference, some—including LeBron himself—believe the Cavaliers’ regular-season performance has delivered below expectations.

James has publicly lamented the lack of depth on Cleveland’s roster already this season, and that was before injuries compromised the team further. Kevin Love is predicted to be out for at least 6 weeks after having knee surgery. This would mean Love would be able to return in time for the playoffs, but of course these timelines tend to be somewhat variable.

With Love out, Cleveland are down one of their ‘big three’. J.R. Smith also remains out of Cleveland’s rotations nursing a broken thumb, which is obviously affecting Cleveland’s shooting depth.

Losing Love and Smith during the regular season could cost Cleveland the top spot in the East, and the Celtics are in prime position to take over the top seed. Holding the No. 1 position would be more than just a confidence booster for Boston, as it could mean an easier path to the Conference Finals. Of course the Celtics’ most likely opposition in the Conference Finals would still be the Cavs, but getting to the top of the East remains the first hurdle. Besides, even with Love returning for a playoff push there may be issues reincorporating Love back into the Cavs’ system.

However, LeBron James is still LeBron James, and to get through the East you still have to go through him. While the recent spate of injuries could lead to the Cavs being overly reliant on LeBron in the coming months, this has never proven to be much of a problem in the past. For the Celtics and the rest of the Conference, the challenge remains essentially unchanged: beat LeBron, and the East is yours.

Toronto made a trade

Until the past month the team that seemed most likely to challenge King James and the Cavaliers was the Toronto Raptors. Yet since the Celtics beat the Raptors and took away the No. 2 spot, Toronto has been falling dramatically in the standings and generally just falling apart. They now sit a full 7 games back from Cleveland and have dropped down to the 5th spot in the standings, having lost 6 of their last 10 games.

This week the Raptors finally decided to do something about their recent struggles and made a trade for forward Serge Ibaka. They picked up the 27-year-old power forward for Terrence Ross and their own 1st round pick from this year, which is a pretty one-sided deal in the Raptors’ favor, and a move that almost undoubtedly makes them stronger.

Toronto have been lacking in frontcourt depth since losing Bismack Biyombo in free agency (strangely enough to Orlando), and arguably they weren’t really a great frontcourt team even with Biyombo. Ibaka brings speed, some offensive execution and relatively strong defense to the Raptors’ frontlines. It’s inarguably a good get for the team.

Yet the last few months have exposed issues with the Raptors’ system that go beyond their frontcourt. The deal certainly strengthens the team who up until recently seemed like the biggest threat to Cleveland’s dominance but it remains unclear whether it will be enough to get the Raptors back on track.

The Celtics, who were apparently in position to acquire Ibaka, chose not to pursue what was likely a ‘rental’ of Ibaka (who hits free agency at the end of the season) as Boston chose to pull the plug on the deal offered by the Magic. Whether Ibaka’s move to Toronto will prompt Danny to try and make a counter-move in order to keep the Raptors at bay remains to be seen. For now the Raptors will have to fight their way back through some strong competition, as any movement up the standings will prove challenging even with the addition of Ibaka.

What kind of Wizardry is this?

Boston Celtics v Washington Wizards Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

One of the teams Toronto would have to tear through to get back to the top of the Conference would be the Wizards, who have been on an amazing run recently. Washington have won 9 of their last 10 games, and they sit just 2.5 games back from the Celtics and 5 games back from the Cavs.

Ever since their ‘black magic’ night against the Celtics, Washington have been playing as an intimidating unit. John Wall and Bradley Beal have both been playing some excellent basketball that has gone somewhat underappreciated in a season filled with spectacular individual performances. After an amazing 10-game run in which their only loss was in an overtime thriller against the Cavaliers, the Wizards are making a case as a legitimate threat in the East.

However, the Wizards are still top-heavy as a team and are sorely lacking in bench depth. Further compounding the issue for Washington is an unenviable cap situation that leaves them with little overall flexibility. So while the Wizards have been on a great run recently, if they want to improve they’ll basically have to do it with what they’ve got, barring any major trades before the deadline.

It’s also important to note that the Celtics have also won 9 of their last 10 games and are sitting in a better position overall than the Wizards. But the last time these two teams met, Washington definitely had the Celtics’ number and proved to be a matchup nightmare. So with the Wizards hot on the heels of the Cs and looking to improve, Boston will have to pull out all the stops if they want to overcome Washington’s Wizardry and hold onto their position.

Options for Boston

Ultimately when you look at it, despite all the tumult, the makeup of the Eastern Conference hasn’t changed that much. The Cavs are still on top, Toronto remain a big threat and the Wizards might be better than everyone had expected. But now, perhaps more than ever, the Celtics sit in a perfect position to force some change.

While the Celtics have been having a solid season so far, there are plenty of issues that remain. Boston has weathered the storm of injuries this season fairly well, but the constant health issues have highlighted the importance of maintaining a strong overall unit.

Like Cleveland, Boston can be fairly top-heavy with much of the scoring coming from the starters, and sometimes almost exclusively from Isaiah Thomas. Meanwhile, like Toronto, Boston is still lacking in frontcourt depth, and like Washington, Boston relies heavily on a few key players to get most of the scoring done. So, while it might be easy to dismiss these other teams on account of their various issues, the Celtics still have some glaring issues to address of their own.

It’s no secret that the Celtics have plenty of valuable and tradeable assets, and if there’s a deal to be done now seems like an opportune time to do it. With the Cavs suffering from injuries, Toronto calling in reinforcements and the Wizards making some noise, the Celtics could seize the small window of opportunity to rise above the parapet and take control of the Eastern Conference.

There are several (entirely hypothetical) trade scenarios that could potentially move the needle for the Celtics. While wisdom has erred on the side of patience in the past, with the slight shift in the structure of the East recently there has never seemed to be a better time to strike.

Obviously the Celtics could always stand pat at the deadline. They’ve been playing great basketball this season, and with all the changes in the Conference they could feel that the unit they have now is ready to take advantage. But all of Ainge’s accruing of assets has seemingly been waiting for a time like this when the Conference seems wide open and the Celtics’ chances of beating the Cavs are better than they’ve ever been before. The Celtics are already in a strong position, but if the right move can be made and the right deal can be found then the landscape of the Eastern Conference could shift yet again, and the Celtics could find themselves coming out on top.