LeBron James. No non-Celtic has had more to do with the fate of the franchise in the last decade than that man.
James initially had to get past the Celtics to reach his championship goals. The teams led by Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen held him off in 2008 and 2010. Then James took his talents to South Beach, in part to beat the Celtics at their own super-team game.
Now things have come full circle and Boston needs to get through LeBron. In recent years, the rebuilding Celtics have measured their progress by how close they are to challenging James and the Cavs. The next chapter of this saga includes LeBron’s former running mate forcing his way out of town with the goal of dethroning the King.
Can Kyrie Irving and the Celtics accomplish that goal? If so, how long will it take?
When you hear Danny Ainge talk about timelines, he’s mostly talking about lining up the prime productive years of the most talented players on his roster. The decision to trade Isaiah Thomas (28) for Kyrie Irving (25) gave the Celtics a star point guard that would still be in his prime when Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are entering theirs. But he’s also talking a little about LeBron James.
At some point (in theory) James is going to slow down or move out West or both. Many believe that could happen as soon as next season.
That’s not to say that anyone in the team is content to sit back and wait till this all plays out. Brad Stevens will be preaching continual improvement and he’ll keep them focused on winning the games immediately in front of them. But naturally in the back of their minds, each guy on the roster is going to want to knock off LeBron and the Cavs and advance to the NBA Finals.
How realistic that goal is can and will be debated on this blog and around the league all year long. Several players have mentioned how all the new faces will take time to gel and mesh together. The hope is that by the end of the year, things will be operating smoothly and the talent will win out.
The NBA season is long and has plenty of twists and turns along the way. James is as sure a thing as there is in this league but his supporting cast isn’t always as reliable. LeBron’s uncertain future plans could loom as a growing distraction for the team and it will be interesting to see which way the front office leans at the trade deadline.
Still, most NBA people would correctly put the Cavaliers ahead of the Celtics in the immediately meaningless preseason rankings. What matters most is where the teams finish at the end of the year but that isn’t even the whole story.
The Celtics are positioned to compete for championships now and in the future. That is the simple beauty of the job the Celtics front office has done. The core of Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford has the talent to be a top 5 team in the whole league this year. The core of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart can grow in and contribute to a winning environment. The draft assets still sitting in the vault can either be used in trades or developed into more window-extending talent.
Sooner or later, the Celtics seem destined to be back in the Finals playing for more banners to hang in the rafters. First, however, they’ll have to get through LeBron James.