A new beast of the East? Not so fast

July, 9, 2010
7/09/10
1:00
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ESPN.com IllustrationMove over, KG, Paul, & Ray. There's a new Big Three in the East.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Before Boston traveled to Orlando for the start of the Eastern Conference finals in May, Celtics coach Doc Rivers heaped praise all over the Magic and noted that, while others anointed the Cleveland Cavaliers the preseason favorite of the Eastern Conference, he always believed the road to the NBA Finals went through Orlando, the defending conference champs.

Rivers wouldn't mind being afforded the same courtesy when the Celtics embark on the 2010-11 season.

When LeBron James announced his decision to sign with the Miami Heat on Thursday night, uniting the so-called "Team Trinity" of James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in South Beach, many people undoubtedly -- and understandably -- dubbed the Heat the new team to beat in the East.

But in Rivers' mind, that distinction can't be transferred in the offseason. The Heat are going to have to wrestle it away from the Celtics on the court.

"We'll find that out later," Rivers said Wednesday when asked if the free-agent moves in Miami could cause a power shift in the East. "We've got to play. Clearly they've improved their basketball team. I'm not going to go ahead and say there's a shift, as far as I'm concerned."

Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge echoed those sentiments Thursday.

"We are the Eastern Conference champs and we think we're going to be better," Ainge said before James' announcement. "I have a great deal of respect for [James, Wade and Bosh], they are all top-notch free agents. We know that whatever happens, the East is going to be a challenge; the East is going to be stronger."

Pride aside, the Celtics can't help but acknowledge that the path back to the NBA Finals got a bit more difficult with James joining his buddies in Miami. But, in a strange way, maybe the unification of free-agent talent this offseason actually benefits Boston. Instead of each contender in the East landing one superstar, thereby improving the talent of the East across the board, the Heat cornered the market by bringing them all to Miami.

Alas, those scorned by Team Trinity will likely compensate in the days to come by overpaying for second- (and third-) tier talent. Those sorts of moves might help teams improve slightly, but it's unlikely to push them much closer to an NBA title.

You can almost picture Ainge watching Thursday's "Decision" special on ESPN, cell phone pressed against one ear trying to negotiate another offseason deal, and hardly blinking as James announced his intention to move to Miami.

Long before James made his announcement, the Celtics had already re-signed Paul Pierce and Ray Allen after both briefly tested the waters of unrestricted free agency; secured a deal for big man Jermaine O'Neal; and convinced Rivers to come back for another run at a world title.

If Miami team president Pat Riley is enjoying the best offseason of any front office staff member, Ainge may be a close second so far.

Ainge's moves have done more than just keeping Boston's Big Three -- the core from last year's near-title team -- intact. With the addition of O'Neal, the Celtics addressed a key hole in their roster -- one left by Kendrick Perkins' right knee injury that will sideline him at the start of the 2010-11 season -- showing they will upgrade at the right price.

Sure, Miami has its own Big Three now, but how does the Heat plan to build around that trio? Is there a Rajon Rondo or Perkins to be found inside that organization? The Heat sacrificed one of its youngest and most talented players when it traded Michael Beasley -- the second overall pick in the 2008 draft -- to Minnesota in exchange for virtually nothing, just the extra cap room to sign James, Wade and Bosh.

So what impact will James' decision have on Boston? If the Heat can do what the Celtics did in 2007 when they united Pierce, Allen and Kevin Garnett, it would translate immediately to regular-season success and push the Heat toward the top of the East standings.

But it's not like the competition for a high seed got that much more daunting. You would expect Cleveland, this year's No. 1 seed in the East, would fall back to the pack without James. And Miami would only be jumping up from No. 5 if it does climb with its additions.

On the surface, Miami's moves simply add some intrigue to Boston's two visits to South Beach during the regular season. Only then, as Rivers suggested, will we find out if the Heat are worthy of being crowned champs.

For now, Ainge and Rivers simply shrugged their shoulders at the possibility of a new Eastern Conference superpower. Titles are not decided in July.

But James already knew that.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Jeff Green
PTS AST STL MIN
19.5 1.6 0.9 34.0
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsJ. Sullinger 8.3
AssistsE. Turner 3.4
StealsK. Olynyk 1.2
BlocksK. Olynyk 0.8