Boy, has the NBA changed. Over the past two seasons, almost every star player in the league has migrated from one conference to the other either by trade or through free agency. Kawhi is among the latest to join the list and is among the few who has moved from West to East. Toronto is about as opposite as it gets to Los Angeles – expect for probably Minnesota. Known for hating the cold, he will spend at least the next 12 months in the Canada. Does this make the Raptors the favorites to win the East? Are the Spurs now a top 4 seed in the West? Are the Warriors or Celtics even worried about this trade? After many pints and a few whiskey neat’s, I started to ask myself the big questions.
Who’s the favorite in the East?
Assuming is a dangerous game, though it does become a fun one when considering this iteration of the Raptors. Assuming, that Kawhi is both healthy and motivated, it’s not inconceivable to think that Toronto can make it out of the East. He completely overshadows DeMar DeRozan. He’s a very good 3 – point shooter, a much better facilitator, and is a more efficient player than the All-Star shooting guard. The two and incomparable on the defensive end of the floor. DeRozan at best is a below average defensive player. Kawhi is easily the best perimeter defender in the game after Scottie Pippen. Add Danny Green to the equation. He’s has the requisite skillset that the Raptors are in dire need of – shooting. He’s the perfect 3-and-D wing player in the modern game and even though he’s lost much of his already little athleticism; Green is can be an effective player in short bursts. Combine all of this with the vibrant youth of VanVleet, Anunoby, and Siakam – all of whom have another season of NBA experience under their belts. Kyle Lowry is still an All-Star caliber player and who can be the deciding factor in the playoffs. The Raptors do pose a legitimate threat in the East. That is if all their pieces seamlessly fit together – the biggest of whom reportedly was unpleased at the prospect of playing in the land dubbed “We The North”.
With Kyrie Irving and Hayward both recovering from injuries, the Celtics are prepared to bolster an already potent Celtics side. A prospective starting five or closing five would consist of Irving, Brown, Taytum, Hayward, and Horford. This is fucking absurd to say the least. They’ve resigned Marcus Smart who is a pit-bull and is capable of making the unlikeliest of plays. They are among the deepest teams in the NBA and are fully capable of throwing out a whole host of lineups. Their only concern being Brad Stevens’ ability to manage the egos of all the players – a task that seems easier on paper than it is in reality. The Celtics are still the team to beat in the East until proven otherwise as they were a fourth quarter away from making the finals in the past season. Unless Kawhi has a 180 on his attitude or if Ben Simmons becomes a Ray Allen-esque sharp shooter, the Celtics are the overwhelming favorites to make it out of the East.
Who’s the best player in the East?
Giannis is the obvious guy. With LeBron gone to the Lakers and injured Kawhi with the Raptors, why wouldn’t the 6-11 superstar be the best in the East? At 23 years of age, he averaged 27 points on 53% from the field, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks. Those are MVP numbers were it not for the fact that the Bucks squeezed their way into the playoffs by taking the seventh seed in the East. Those are the kind of numbers that LeBron James or Oscar Robertson would post. He could be even better this season with the arrival of Mike Budenholzer. He would implement a more modern offense that emphasizes on spacing; given the acquisitions of Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova (both big men have learnt to add the 3-point shot to their arsenals). That combined with Giannis’ improving shooting and decision making makes him an MVP candidate and amongst the best players in the East.
A healthy and engaged Kawhi who is not feuding with his teammates, coach, and organization is a top 3 player in the league. With LeBron James out of the conference, Kawhi is the perfect player to take the throne. He’s shown he can be part of a winning team during his years in San Antonio. He’s been a Finals MVP before and a bona fide MVP candidate. He is a staggeringly efficient and effective player on the offensive end of the floor. Kawhi is a lockdown defender with the lateral agility and wingspan to guard multiple position. If he can but the drama behind him, he can be the most complete player in the conference. Like LeBron, Leonard is more than capable to take a team singlehandedly to the Finals – if he is able to put the drama behind him and recover from his quad injury.
Victor Oladipo, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Kyrie Irving all deserve some love and consideration as well. The above mentioned players all play for a team that is likely to be a top 4 seed in the East. But they all have some flaws: be it injury concerns, lack of shooting, and still lacking an overall complete game. Giannis and a healthy Kawhi are right now, a tier above these guys.
What to make of the San Antonio Spurs?
They were a playoff team last season when they got nothing but 9 games out of Kawhi. They made the playoffs by winning 47 games with LeMarcus Aldridge at the helm. They now add an All-Star and All NBA caliber player in DeRozan. For all his flaws, he is an exceptionally hardworking player who adds a new element to his game each summer. This is the perfect trait for a player who will now grace the colors of the Spurs. They duo of Aldridge and DeRozan along with some interest young players are likely to make the playoffs for the umpteenth time in Spurs history. They are not a title contender, but they are a team that can win a playoff series. Popovich has two decades worth of experience to show that he can build a playoff team with an All-Star and some role-players. That said, Aldridge and DeRozan have glaring flaws. They both play historic offensive games and are not known for their defense. They have a mathematical disadvantage when their two best players are shooting long 2s when their opponents are jacking up 3s. The departures of Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard means that the Spurs have lost 2 of their best shooters. But their replacements in Marco Belinelli and DeRozan aren’t inadequate. They aren’t worse, but aren’t whole lot better either.
Which Western Conference team benefits the most from the Kawhi Trade?
The Lakers are an obvious shout. While Toronto is about as opposite as it gets from L.A, it is well known that Kawhi hates the cold. I mean he really fucking hates the cold. Toronto hosted the All-Star weekend a couple of years ago and welcomed the NBA world for the coldest weekend the city had seen in decades. Word has now come out that the spent the entire weekend locked in the comforting heat of his hotel room. He is said to have only stepped out if absolutely necessary. He’s been a West Coast guy his whole life. Growing up in California and playing in San Antonio is heaven compared to the wintery abode of Canada. After spending a winter in Toronto, he’ll come sprinting back to California should his frozen knees allow for him to do so. Also, Lakers can still snag him in the summer of 2019. For the coming season, LeBron has always been the kryptonite for DeRozan. With the All-Star guard now in the West, the Spurs will become barbeque chicken for the future Hall-Of-Famer.
The Warriors always win from the Kawhi trade. He has troubled them in the playoffs. None of their rivals were able to trade for Kawhi and significantly improve their roster. They are still the best team in the West and in the NBA – not that they were sweating about Kawhi landing with the Lakers.
So… who’s the best team not named the Golden State Warriors?
There’s so many teams to choose from. Toronto are certainly if everything, and I mean everything, fit seamlessly. Raptor fans have roped themselves into believing that they’re title contenders for years. Why not keep that feeling for another year with Kawhi at the helm?
Houston were the second best team last season and were up 3-2 against the Warriors a couple of months ago in the Western Conference Finals. Assuming that the Rockets are able to resolve the Clint Capela restricted free-agency situation and with Carmelo Anthony imminently joining them; they’re still a versatile and potent team. Losing Luc Mbah a Moute and Ariza hurts them as they are the perfect compliments for Chris Paul and James Harden given Houston’s iso-ball offense. They can still execute a playing style that is effective and can make them competitive, but Melo’s mid-range jumpers are bound to give Daryl Morey nightmares.
At the end of the day, it’s got to be the Celtics. They’ve got the perfect set of players to counter Golden State. Athletic and versatile wings. They are likely to give the Warriors a better push than the Cavs have done in the last two finals.