All-Star players almost never get traded for each other in the NBA. Teams would rather hold onto their stars and build around them, or start over and trade that player for young players and picks. That is what made the Kyrie Irving-Isaiah Thomas trade so intriguing. With the health of the Thomas in question the trade has yet to be fully executed, but if and when it does the Eastern Conference will look drastically different. The three-time reigning champions in Northeast Ohio will have thoroughly shaken up their lineup and the Boston Celtics will have four new starters.
It is strange that two teams that had such success the previous season are so determined to re-shuffle their decks. That is the effect of the Golden State Warriors dominating last season the way they did. Teams that normally would have been comfortable standing pat are scrambling to construct a roster capable of toppling Goliath. While the Dubs have sent shockwaves throughout the league, this Kyrie Irving saga has sent ripples throughout the East. While Boston and Cleveland appeared to have been head and shoulders above the rest of the conference, they suddenly look slightly more vulnerable. Cleveland has a LeBron James-sized cloud hanging over them with his impending free agency looming in the summer of 2018. Despite the talent upgrades, Boston has to incorporate a ton of new pieces and are counting on several young players to be key contributors including (for now) forward Jayson Tatum.
What does this mean for the rest of the conference? The teams at the bottom are still going to be atrocious. Turmoil at the top does not change the fact that teams such as the Orlando Magic lack enough talent to consistently get victories. The teams that could benefit from the unrest are Washington, Milwaukee and Toronto. All three of these teams have All-Stars, but none would be favored in a series against either Cleveland or Boston. The one element in winning basketball that is essential and almost impossible to quantify is chemistry. With dissention amongst the ranks in Cleveland, and a learning curve of unfamiliarity in Boston, it is safe to say that all three of those teams have a leg up on the East’s top two teams in that department.
Washington has John Wall, who showed the world in the playoffs what basketball junkies have known for years: he really hates Dennis Schroder. He was a menace all postseason and punctuated it with his Game 6 performance against the Celtics. While he lost steam in Game 7, the former number one overall pick cemented himself among the league’s top guards.
Toronto has the All-Star duo of Demar Derozan and Kyle Lowry, both of whom are firmly in their primes. Toronto has been a punching bag for Cleveland the last two seasons, but they have been a problem for Boston the last couple years. If the Cavs were to somehow stumble, Toronto could find itself in the NBA Finals.
Milwaukee is the highest variance team of this group. They have a Greek superhero in Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the rest of the roster is a group of relative unknowns. Khris Middleton is the most known commodity of the bunch, but the Bucks went most of last season starting two rookies in Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker. If those two continue to progress and Jabari Parker returns strongly from his second torn ACL, the Bucks could be a matchup nightmare come playoff time. Conversely, if Brogdon and Thon take a step back and Parker struggles when he returns (as he did following his first tear) they could struggle to even be a legitimate playoff threat. It is hard to envision them not making the playoffs given how weak the East is and the fact that they still have this guy, but the Bucks need the ancillary pieces to play well to go from plucky upstart to having a chance to make the Eastern Conference Finals.