Tomase: The C's and Bucks will be the class of the East for years to come originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
The Celtics embarked on an unexpected run to the Finals that included a warning -- don't squander this opportunity, because the Eastern Conference will be loaded next year.
Forgive my ignorance, but I just don't see it.
Outside of the Bucks, tell me whom the Celtics should fear. The Heat may be tough as nails, but they're older than paint. The Sixers are hitching their wagon to James bleeping Harden. The dysfunctional Nets can't decide whether to commit to Kyrie Irving or shove him out to sea, and Kevin Durant turns 34 soon, too.
The Bulls and Raptors are nice 4-5 seeds. The Cavs and Hawks are play-in fodder. LaMelo Ball and the Hornets are super fun, but they can't defend and they're not there yet. The Knicks? Ha! They might actually want Kyrie.
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I don't see an East that's preparing to reload. I see a conference for the taking, with the Bucks and Celtics squinting down on everyone else.
For all the feverish talk of trading Marcus Smart or blowing up the roster to get Bradley Beal, the truth is the Celtics don't need to do much beyond the margins. Their No. 1 defense isn't going anywhere, and there's every reason to think they'll play it from opening night instead of New Year's Day now that they understand Ime Udoka's system.
The core of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Smart, and Robert Williams will average only 26 years old next year, making them one of the youngest foundational quartets in the league. The only players on the roster over 30 are Al Horford and Daniel Theis. Grant Williams is 23, Payton Pritchard 24, and Derek White 27. This is a roster that should keep improving simply with time.
And there are obvious areas of growth. Brown can tighten a handle that too often resembles a fawn on ice. Tatum will continue to grow as a facilitator, and you can bet he's determined not to wear down again if the Celtics make a deep run. Smart just completed his first season as a starting point guard, a move that transformed the team even if we didn't love our last looks at him vs. Golden State. Health will always be an issue with Robert Williams, but my god, if he's right, he could easily supplant Smart as Defensive Player of the Year.
Add a little shooting and ball-handling to the bench, and the Celtics should be right there. I'm no Chris Forsberg or Brian Robb, but who outside of Milwaukee can make that claim in the East?
The Heat have anywhere from $28-$37 million committed to each of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Kyle Lowry. They're trying to re-sign veteran glue guy P.J. Tucker and maybe Victor Oladipo, too. They face a dilemma with Sixth Man of the Year Tyler Herro, who faded in the playoffs, only plays sporadic defense, and is looking at a possible max extension this summer. They must decide whether sharpshooter Duncan Robinson is worth his $17 million salary after a down campaign.
The magic they work with unheralded nobodies like Max Strus and Gabe Vincent is a credit to Pat Riley's program, but Butler turns 33 in September, Lowry is already 36, and Tucker just hit 37. If ever they were going to beat the Celtics, this was the year.
It hardly seems worth anyone's time to discuss the Nets as serious contenders. If they keep Irving, they'll be making themselves a prisoner to his drama. If they let him walk, they can't replace him. They're locked into an aging roster and will probably lose a useful role player like Bruce Brown this summer.
If they could do it all again, they would've found a way to keep center Jarrett Allen in the Harden trade. Instead, they watched him become an All-Star and defensive menace in Cleveland. For all of Durant's greatness, he's entering his 15th season and couldn't beat the Celtics by himself in April. Oh, and did we mention Ben Simmons? Sheesh.
The Eastern Conference teams -- the Magic, Pistons, and Pacers -- with the most money to spend in a mediocre free agent class highlighted by Chicago's Zach LaVine all finished at the bottom of the conference and none won more than 25 games. One of them will probably end up throwing money at someone like Jalen Brunson or Jusuf Nurkic.
Beal could alter that picture if he opts out, but re-signing with Washington for five years and $247 million still makes more sense financially than hitting the open market for a max of four years and $183 million, especially when none of his preferred destinations, including Boston, have money to spend this summer.
So that leaves the Celtics and the Bucks. Milwaukee will benefit from the return of Khris Middleton, and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo isn't going anywhere. But the Celtics match up well with them, especially when Robert Williams is healthy. And with $140 million tied up in six players, plus a raise likely coming for local product Pat Connaughton, the Bucks don't have a lot of room to maneuver.
That's OK. If Milwaukee and Boston just run it back next season with virtually the same rosters, they'll easily be the class of the Eastern Conference. I like the Celtics' chances.