Rivera: Leonard’s departure raises questions, opens door in East

Toronto Raptors' Kawhi Leonard raises his fist following a basket as Golden State Warriors' Steph Curry walks away during the second half of Game 6 of basketball’s NBA Finals, Thursday, June 13, 2019, in Oakland, Calif. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP) (AP)

What does it take to keep a modern-day NBA superstar happy? Or even content, for that matter. What does it take to keep a modern-day NBA superstar content? Let’s take a look at Kawhi Leonard’s case. A year ago, Leonard was traded from the always-in-the-hunt San Antonio Spurs to the underachieving Toronto Raptors. In just one season, Leonard carried those Raptors to the NBA Finals. They took down the big, bad Golden State Warriors (while making it look fairly easy) and won their first NBA championship. From the outside looking in, one might think Leonard couldn’t have had a better year with the Raptors. But it wasn’t enough to keep him in Toronto. 

Leonard announced his decision to abandon the Raptors for the Los Angeles Clippers Saturday morning. By joining the Clippers, Leonard gets the opportunity to play alongside fellow superstar (and buddy) Paul George. George was traded from Oklahoma City to the Clippers shortly before Leonard’s move became official. Apparently, Leonard played a huge role in orchestrating the trade. 

Now that they’ve catapulted themselves into the championship conversation, the Clippers have gained my interest. They have everything it takes to be a top-tier team. Doc Rivers has always been one of the best coaches in the NBA. One can argue that he hasn’t coached a team with this much firepower since the 2008 Celtics of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Rivers will find a way to get this team playing to its capabilities. 

Toronto, on the other hand, gains my sympathy. The Raptors couldn’t have put themselves in a better position to retain Leonard’s services. For whatever reason, things didn’t work out. 

Even with Brooklyn emerging as a potential powerhouse, the Eastern Conference is nowhere near as competitive as the West. With Leonard back in the mix the Raptors would’ve been the favorites to emerge out of the East. Now they’re back to the drawing board in hopes of salvaging something out of this offseason. 

How does this affect the Celtics? With Leonard out of the way, they have one less team to worry about. The departures of Al Horford and Kyrie Irving mean the Celtics, as they currently stand, will be a less talented group next season. I’ll take Irving and Horford over Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter 100 times out of 100. 

But who made drastic improvements in the Eastern Conference? 

The Raptors are scrambling to find the consolation prize after missing out on Leonard. Brooklyn has something cooking with Irving, Kevin Durant and DeAndre Jordan. But that all depends on how long it takes Durant to get back to full strength. If he’s out for the entirety of next season, the Celtics won’t have to worry much about Brooklyn. 

The Sixers have a solid “twin towers” duo with Horford and Joel Embiid. It’ll be tough for the Celtics to match up against that with their lack of depth at power forward and center. But Philadelphia lost three of its best shooters in JJ Redick (New Orleans), T.J. McConnell (Indiana) and Jimmy Butler (Miami). Milwaukee retains reigning league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. But the only additions the Bucks made to their promising roster were Robin Lopez and Wesley Matthews. Miami adds Butler to a solid mix with Dion Waiters and Justise Winslow. But the Heat could lose a few pieces in a potential trade with Oklahoma City for Russell Westbrook. The Pacers signed McConnell, Malcolm Brogdon and Jeremy Lamb. But Victor Oladipo’s their No. 1 and he’s still recovering from a knee injury. 

You get my point. 

Leonard’s decision to join the Clippers makes the Eastern Conference open for the taking. The Celtics dodged a bullet. How far they’ll go in 2019-2020 still depends on whether or not Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum take steps in the right direction. If they can get those two playing at their highest levels they shouldn’t have as much left to be desired as they had this past season.

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