The Balance of Eastern Conference Power Without Gordon Hayward
After fracturing his tibia and dislocating his ankle on opening night, Boston Celtics wing Gordon Hayward was ruled out for the rest of the 2017-18 season. Hayward's injury has, and will continue to, send ripple effects throughout the entire Eastern Conference — but is it enough to shake up the structure of power at the very top?
Coming into the season, a revamped Boston with Kyrie Irving and Hayward was perceived to be the heir to LeBron James’s Eastern throne. And then one of the two new Celtic stars suffered a horrific injury on opening night. Brad Stevens is a quality coach who gets the most out of his players, but it is unclear how good this roster can be without Hayward. Irving is now the only Celtic with an elite penchant for creating shots and making plays, a responsibility he has not held since LeBron’s return to Cleveland. The duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown has been elite so far, but such production seems unsustainable for young players with heavy minutes. It is rare for players as young as Brown and Tatum to be relied upon as huge contributors on winning teams, especially in the playoffs. Al Horford and Marcus Smart are veterans with steadying presences for the Celtics, but can they step up enough to cover for the loss of Hayward? It is too soon to write Boston off, but the question marks are obvious for a team that needs to find itself by season’s end.
This brings us to the rest of the Eastern Conference. With Boston weakened, the chances of another team challenging LeBron and the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals have increased considerably. The Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors, and Milwaukee Bucks are now legitimate contenders for the Eastern Conference Finals. John Wall and the Wizards fell one game short of challenging Cleveland last season and will be hungry, and better-experienced, to prove themselves this year. Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to improve for the Bucks so his and Milwaukee’s ascension shows no signs of slowing (especially if Khris Middleton stays healthy and Jabari Parker can make his return). The Raptors brought back their core players this offseason and have proved so far that they are still one of the East's best. All these teams will be motivated to prove that they are not afterthoughts when discussing the cream of the NBA’s crop.
Oh, and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Over the summer, the Cavs made solid moves to add roster depth. The Kyrie Irving trade netted them Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn Nets 2018 draft pick. On top of that they added Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, and Dwyane Wade. For a team that dominated the Eastern Conference playoffs last year, these additions only solidify their place on the throne. Despite the talent of their upgraded cavalry, the most important piece will always be King James himself.
For the past seven years, LeBron has led the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals. Whether mostly due to the dominance of James or the inability of Eastern Conference teams to build a championship-caliber roster, the results have remained. However, this could be the last year we see LeBron in the East because he will become a free agent in the summer of 2018. Rumors have already circulated that he could potentially sign with the Lakers or another Western Conference team. This could potentially shift the entire balance of power in the NBA. If any of the other Eastern Conference teams have a strong showing in the postseason next year, they could be potential landing destinations for either a big free agent or a disgruntled star who wants to be traded and is looking for a new home. Making the Eastern Conference Finals and having the chance to upset the Cavaliers to go the Finals would be huge for the aforementioned teams who have not been considered real threats to win the title. With Isaiah Thomas potentially compromised by injury and the Cavaliers struggling early in the regular season, the idea of upsetting them remains a long shot but is, at the very least, possible.
Compared to the Western super teams, the East feels like the weaker conference. But when we reach the postseason, the competition could get serious. For the past three years the Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors have elevated themselves to a level that no other team could reach — but the chaos of this offseason, Hayward's injury, and LeBron's looming free agency could create the perfect storm for a team to break out in the East.