How the End of Kyrie Irving's Season Impacts the Eastern Conference Playoff Picture
After missing a couple weeks following a minimally invasive knee surgery, the Boston Celtics announced on Thursday, April 5, that Kyrie Irving would undergo yet another surgery, and miss the remainder of the regular season and postseason. This second surgery is to remove screws from Irving’s knee, which were put in following a knee injury in the 2015 NBA Finals. This news is the worst possible news for Celtics fans that were hoping for a long playoff run this season. As of April 5, the Boston Celtics sit in the second seed of the Eastern Conference with a 53-25 record. While the loss of Kyrie will definitely hurt the Celtics in the short term, this will actually benefit the team in the long run, and here’s why:
The Boston Celtics started off their season with a loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, but not only did they lose the game, they lost one of their stars in Gordon Hayward, who broke his leg in the first quarter of the first game of the season. Without Hayward, Brad Stevens did a masterful job at managing around various other injuries while allowing Kyrie Irving and Al Horford to thrive. Despite the fact that the Celtics were able to surge without Hayward, there was still a feeling around the league that they did not have enough to overcome LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in order to make it to the Finals, and even in the unlikely event that they made the Finals, they were unlikely to beat the Golden State Warriors. Part of the reason that the Celtics were able to surge was that Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown emerged as potential stars and were playing at a very high level. The reason that Kyrie’s absence might end up being a blessing in disguise is that now Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are going to be thrown into the fire during the playoffs, and be forced to take on a leading role, which will better position them for the future and give them valuable experience with leading a playoff team. That experience will prove instrumental in the playoffs for years to come, especially as the team acquires more talent and those guys might end up having to take command of the second unit, because playing your starters for 48 minutes a game isn’t a great strategy, no matter what Tom Thibodeau thinks. I think we all knew that after Gordon Hayward got hurt that the Celtics were not going to win the Championship this year, but now I think it has become very clear that it won’t happen.
So, with the Celtics seemingly out of the running in terms of being able to be the team that comes out of the East, this opens up opportunities for a couple other teams to have a chance to challenge LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Eastern Conference Crown. Now, I should preface this by saying that I don’t believe that any team in the Eastern Conference truly can beat the Cavaliers four times in seven games right now. I was fooled into thinking that the Raptors had a chance earlier this year because they were playing so well, but then LeBron reminded us all that he is a part-owner of the Toronto Raptors, and that while the Dinosaurs were the rulers of the Earth at one point, they were wiped out by a meteor, and in the NBA, that most destructive force we have ever seen, goes by the name of LeBron James.
There are several other teams that could make a run and end up facing the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, and maybe a team could give the Cavaliers a run for their money and win a couple games. The Philadelphia 76ers are in the midst of a 12-game winning streak, and while they are currently without their superstar center, Joel Embiid, which makes the streak all the more impressive. They are an incredibly young team with a couple really nice players, but there are several questions that swirl around the Sixers and their playoff hopes. When will Embiid come back? Will Embiid be healthy enough to replicate his regular season success? And how will defenses adjust to Ben Simmons’ reluctance to shoot in games with higher stakes? I think that the Sixers are an incredibly young team, but they have too many question marks because of their youth to warrant me giving them a real shot at upsetting the Cavaliers, however, I do think that this team has the talent necessary to make the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Washington Wizards are tied for the seventh seed with the Milwaukee Bucks, but they are just now getting their superstar point guard, John Wall, back from injury. They could potentially get hot and rolling in the playoffs, especially if Bradley Beal gets hot. Unfortunately for the Wizards, while they do have a lot of talent, they always end up falling short in the postseason, and doing so in pretty embarrassing fashion. They have a history of providing opposing teams with a lot of bulletin board material, and then not being able to back up their trash talk. I do not think that the Wizards have a real shot at beating the Cavaliers, but a Eastern Conference Finals run is not out of the question. They do play the Cavaliers today, so this game will serve as a litmus test for their ability to compete with the top dogs out East.
As I mentioned before, I don’t think the Raptors are a real threat because they have a pretty glaring achilles heel, and that heel has a name, and his name is LeBron James. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry constantly come up short in big games against the Cavaliers, and have yet to prove that they can withstand a big game from James. They do have a lot of depth, which is great for regular season success, but in the playoffs, when coaches shorten their benches and tighten their rotations, depth doesn’t play too much of a factor. Barring catastrophic injury to LeBron, I don’t see the Raptors beating the Cavaliers more than one time in a playoff series.
A team that I think could have a good playoff run, and potentially push the Cavaliers, is the Indiana Pacers. Indiana has been a sneaky-good team this year, and are basically locked into the fifth seed in the East. They have been led by Victor Oladipo, who has little experience in the playoffs, but has put the team on his back in some big games throughout the season. There are a couple issues with the team and projecting postseason success, and the biggest issue is their lack of three-point shooting. The Pacers primarily shoot two-point shots, and they are good at it. While they are the eighth in the league in terms of 3p% (per Basketball Reference), they are 27th in terms of three-point attempts per game. On the other side, they are among the league leaders in two-point attempts and two-point percentage. That formula is quite literally the opposite of how the Cleveland Cavaliers play, as they are fifth in in three-point attempts and seventh in three-point percentage, and they are 28th in two-point attempts per game. The real difference between these two teams, aside form the obvious lack of starpower from Indiana, is defense. The Pacers are the sixth-best team in the NBA in terms of opponents three-point percentage, which is key against a Cavaliers team that relies heavily on the three. The Pacers are the 12th-best team in the NBA in defensive rating, while the Cavaliers are 28th. I think that if the Pacers are able to keep the Cavaliers cold from beyond the arc, then they could have a shot to win a couple games, and I think that they may have the best shot of upsetting the Cavaliers of any team in the East.
Now, any team that comes out of the East is almost a lock to get humiliated in the NBA Finals, as the top teams out West are just on a different level than the top teams in the East. I think that the only teams that have an actual chance at upsetting the Cavaliers are the Philadelphia 76ers and the Indiana Pacers, but when I say that they have a chance, I don’t mean that I think they have like a 50% chance, I mean like they have a 15-20% chance against the reigning Eastern Conference champions. If the season ended today, the Pacers and Sixers would face off in round one, so we won’t have to wait too long to find out which of these two teams is the better team in the postseason.
I do think that the real impact of the absense of Kyrie Irving will be felt next season, because when the next year starts, the Celtics will be looking at a full season from a healthy Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, which could be devastating to the East, especially if LeBron leaves. While the Irving injury does essentially eliminate the Celtics from Finals contention this year, it is ultimately better for them in the long term because their stars will return healthy next year, and the young studs named Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum will get valuable playoff experience.