After months of anticipation, the Boston Celtics finally showed the advantage they’ll have thanks to their incredibly deep roster.
Their 105-87 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in the season opener on Tuesday didn’t reveal Boston’s ceiling – the full potential of their powers will have to be realised on another night.
But in a game they won comfortably despite playing nowhere near their best basketball, what was evident was the Celtics’ floor.
The two biggest additions to last season’s surprise playoff team that got within a game of the Finals, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, played ancillary roles instead of being the 1A and 1B on Tuesday.
Irving missed all eight of his first-half attempts and finished with just seven points on 2-of-14 shooting, while Hayward – playing his first regular-season game in a year since his gruesome ankle injury – had 10 points on 4-of-12 shooting.
Both contributed in other ways as Irving had seven assists and Hayward had four steals, but it was Boston’s depth that was the real star of the show.
The Celtics had five players in double figures – Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier – while none of their nine rotation players logged more than 30 minutes.
On the flip side, Philadelphia were top-heavy with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons leading the way in both points (23 and 19) and minutes (37 and 43).
Whereas the Sixers need their two horses to carry the load night in and night out, Boston have the luxury of spreading the burden around thanks to their mix of veteran All-Stars, young emerging talent and deep bench.
Off-games for Irving no longer spell doom, but instead cede the floor for Tatum or Brown or Rozier to be the main scoring threat that night.
Jayson Tatum was the best player on the floor last night and he did it on just 59 touches.— Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13) October 17, 2018
Simmons had 111, Kyrie 82 and Embiid 75.
Impactful almost every time he touched it.
For reference, Harrison Barnes averaged 59.2 touches last season which ranked outside the top 60.
It may take some time for Brad Stevens’ squad to perfectly fit all the pieces together, but the Celtics can still keep winning in the interim off the richness of their talent alone.
That quality puts the Celtics on a level above Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference, with the Sixers now 2-8 against Boston since the beginning of last season. Both of those wins also came in games Irving missed.
There’s plenty of bad blood and history between the two franchises, but the only ‘rivalry’ right now is a theoretical one.
“This is not a rivalry,” Embiid said. “I don’t know our record against them, but it’s pretty bad. They always kick our a**.”
Until the Sixers improve their roster by adding more top-end talent, the gulf between them and the Celtics isn’t shrinking anytime soon.
FRONT AND CENTRE
If the Golden State Warriors had one weakness coming into the season, it was at centre, the only position where they don’t feature an All-Star – at least until DeMarcus Cousins returns.
But Golden State’s biggest flaw didn’t look like much of an issue on opening night, when the Warriors beat the Russell Westbrook-less Oklahoma City Thunder 108-100.
Damian Jones and Kevon Looney didn’t just hold their own, they actually turned heads with how well the centre combo played.
Jones started and logged 27 minutes, while Looney came off the bench for 18 minutes. They combined for 22 points on 11-of-18 shooting, to go with 13 rebounds, four assists and five blocks.
Whether it was functioning as the roll man after setting a screen, or hitting the offensive glass, Jones and Looney were critical on a night the Warriors weren’t at their best.
Steve Kerr used 23 different lineups last night, including 11 playing under two minutes. Here are the lineups that played at least two minutes.— Michael Gallagher (@MikeSGallagher) October 17, 2018
Kevon Looney was a net rating hero with a +55.9 in 18 minutes (2nd was Curry at +18.3). pic.twitter.com/J3UgN5wJZQ
Looney in particular was ferocious defensively and on the boards, finishing with a team-best plus-23 plus-minus.
He and Jones helped Golden State out-rebound the Thunder by a 57-46 margin, which included 16 on the offensive end. The Warriors ranked 19th in the league in rebounding rate last season (49.7 per cent) and finishing possessions by securing the board has been a weak point for them over the years.
With David West, JaVale McGee and Zaza Pachulia no longer around, Jones and Looney will be counted on to provide quality minutes, especially if Cousins doesn’t look like himself returning from an Achilles tear.
So far, the young big men look up to the task.
The king is dead, long live the king!
Okay, no one has actually died, but as far as the Eastern Conference is concerned, LeBron James‘ migration to the West has left the throne vacated.
After eight consecutive years of stopping teams dead in their tracks in the playoffs, James’ reign has come to an end. But as one monarchy crumbles, another is ascending to take its place.
Even before LeBron made his decision to leave Cleveland, it was clear the Boston Celtics‘ time had come – pushing the Cavaliers to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward made that more than evident.
Now fully healthy, the Celtics’ collection of talent and depth is second only to the defending champions residing in the Bay. Between Irving, Hayward and Al Horford, Boston have three legitimate veteran All-Stars, while Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are rapidly rising through the stratosphere as budding stars in their own right.
The bench has starter-calibre players in Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes, and with wunderkind Brad Stevens at the helm, the questions over fit and chemistry aren’t expected to linger as the season goes on.
Boston are in the catbird seat to supersede LeBron in both the present and future, but they’re not the only show in the East.
The best player in the conference still resides elsewhere, with that honour now belonging to Kawhi Leonard.
Disgruntled in San Antonio last season, Leonard has a fresh beginning with a contender – albeit one he didn’t chose – to prove he’s still a top-five player in the league when healthy.
The upgrade from DeMar DeRozan to Leonard makes the Raptors a contender for this season, but beyond that is anyone’s guess as his stay north of the border may be nothing more than temporary if he still has wandering eyes in free agency next summer.
The other team that completes the top tier of the East is the Philadelphia 76ers, who are hoping the continued development of phenoms Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons can make up for the ground they lost in the offseason as their two main competitors got better.
Philadelphia had oodles of cap space to work with, yet couldn’t land a star as James picked the glitz and glam of Hollywood, while Paul George didn’t budge from his spot in Oklahoma City.
The 76ers are banking on last year’s number one overall pick, Markelle Fultz, to join the party after he sat out nearly his entire rookie season with a mysterious injury and what appeared to be a confidence issue. If he looks like the prospect he was coming out of college, Philadelphia could have a ‘big three’ of their own brewing, but that’s a big ‘if’ considering Fultz’s slow start to his career.
Behind Boston, Toronto and Philadelphia are a host of teams that are playoff-worthy, yet uninspiring in the context of contending for a title.
The Washington Wizards improved on paper with the signing of Dwight Howard, but adding his personality to that contentious locker room may be the equivalent of throwing a stick of dynamite into a group of powder kegs.
In Indiana, the Pacers may have the best squad outside the top three, with role-player-turned-star Victor Oladipo leading a cast that has the potential to play spoilers and surprise once again.
Leonard may be the best player in the conference at the moment, but his hold on the title is tenuous with Giannis Antetokounmpo breathing down his neck. The Milwaukee Bucks star is garnering MVP hype for a reason as he heads into his sixth season after improving his numbers year after year. And with Mike Budenholzer now guiding the young Bucks, better coaching may finally unlock Milwaukee’s potential.
The Miami Heat, meanwhile, remain nothing more than plucky challengers, barring a trade for Jimmy Butler which may or may not happen.
After that, the conference drops off to the .500 level teams and the franchises who are still in tank mode.
The East can’t hold a candle to its counterpart in terms of competitiveness and drama, but what it does have it going for it is the sense of a new beginning at the top.
Predictions are never an exact science and more often than not, they tend to be wrong.
But when it comes to the NBA, forecasting the team that will hold up the Larry O’Brien trophy next June has been a breeze the past two seasons.
The Golden State Warriors enter the new season as the prohibitive favourites after going back-to-back and winning their third title in four years, and that run doesn’t feel like it’s going to end just yet.
When it comes to the league’s individual awards, however, the range of outcomes is unpredictable.
And yet, we tried to peg exactly where all the hardware will go when the dust settles anyways. Check out our predictions for the new season below.
EASTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPIONS
Even if LeBron James was still around in the East, Boston would be the favourites based on the talent and depth they possess now that Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are healthy.
The Sixers and Raptors will be threats, but this Celtics squad is shaping up to be potentially special.
WESTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPIONS
Golden State Warriors
Finding a way to mesh with DeMarcus Cousins will give them enough of a reason to not get too bored in the regular season, but taking the playoffs seriously has never been their issue.
If Houston had the same team as last season, they could give the Warriors a run for their money again, but the Rockets may take a step back, making the road even easier for the defending champions.
Golden State Warriors
Don’t sleep on Boston’s ability to match up with Golden State and give them some of the same problems Houston did in the Western Conference Finals. The Warriors should win again, but we could get a six or seven-game epic.
If the Lakers are a top-three team in the West, this could easily go to LeBron, but otherwise the Greek Freak will have the stats and narrative working in his favour.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Utah could boast not only the best defence in the league, but one of the best in recent memory, which would give Gobert – the person most singularly responsible – a strong chance to repeat.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
He’s going to have the ball in his hands a lot and put up some nice all-around numbers for a Dallas team that should be much better than last year.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
Playing next to LeBron will put a massive spotlight on Ingram, who will continue to evolve his game and have more opportunities to succeed as the Robin to James’ Batman.
SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR
The last time a player won this award in back-to-back years was 1999, so it’s unlikely Lou Williams break the streak. Evans has a chance to put up similar numbers as Williams for a playoff team.
COACH OF THE YEAR
If his team notches 60-something wins, he’ll be the clear front-runner for the award.