Boston Celtics

Standig | How much stronger have Celtics become?

Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward (20) in the second half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017, in Denver. The Nuggets won 103-93. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
AP Photo/David Zalubowski

LAS VEGAS — Which Eastern Conference team has the best chance to knock off LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers? With coveted free agent Gordon Hayward joining a roster that reached the East Finals last season, the obvious answer is the Boston Celtics.

That’s certainly the public perception. Yet conversations with various league sources during the Las Vegas Summer League suggest many aren’t convinced the Celtics made enough strides to catch a motivated Cleveland — or pull away from the next rung of teams, including the Washington Wizards.

The Wizards didn’t have a splashy offseason, but they kept together the core of a 49-win team while tweaking a brutal bench unit. The Toronto Raptors, who tied the Cavaliers for second in the East, shuffled some pieces yet return their statistical leaders.

Meanwhile, the Celtics shed more than half of the roster that finished atop the East regular-season standings last season, four games ahead of the fourth-place Wizards. Starters Avery Bradley and Amir Johnson are gone along with playoff hero Kelly Olynyk and key reserve Jonas Jerebko. Bradley, Olynyk and Johnson ranked among Boston’s top scorers, rebounders and 3-point threats.

“The addition of Hayward is nice, but the subtraction of some of those other players takes away some of that depth that makes Boston so good,” USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt told FanRag Sports and the “Locked on Wizards” podcast.

Zillgitt’s on-the-record comments essentially serve as proxy for others making similar statements to FanRag Sports. “If you want to look and just say Cleveland is the best team, then after that I think there are still open spots for Boston, Washington and Toronto right now. I think Milwaukee is a wild card.”

Among Boston’s projected 10 reserves next season, only one is over 27. Three players including Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the respective No. 3 overall picks in the past two drafts, enter the season below legal drinking age. That’s common in the modern NBA, but it’s unusual for a title contender.

“There’s got to be a lot of learning each other on the fly,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said following one of Boston’s summer league games. “Probably not doing ourselves any favors from the standpoint the season starts earlier this year. So training camp is going to be expedited and we’re going to have to be on it.”

Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens talks with guard Avery Bradley during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets in New York, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016. The Celtics defeated the Nets 111-92. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)

AP Photo/Rich Schultz

Traded to Detroit as part of salary maneuver to fit Hayward’s max salary under the cap, Bradley finished second in scoring, rebounding and steals while shooting 39 percent on 3-point attempts.

Yet his biggest asset comes on the other end of the court. He took on the opponent’s top guard while Boston hid the diminutive Isaiah Thomas whenever possible. Wizards All-Star guard John Wall recently singled out Bradley as one of the toughest defenders he faces.

“I’m not sure how they replace Bradley,” one source said. “That’s going to be tougher for Boston than many think.”

Marcus Smart inherits the defensive stopper role, but he lacks Bradley’s agility and shooting touch. Marcus Morris, twin brother of Washington’s Markieff, and center Aron Baynes join the frontcourt, but Boston remains vulnerable on the boards.

Brown and Tatum are part of Boston’s stacked future along with a bushel of draft picks and other assets at general manager Danny Ainge’s disposal. Despite the addition of Hayward, one of the league’s top scoring threats, Ainge appears content taking the long view. At some point LeBron James weakens, in theory.

When that time comes, perhaps over the next two seasons, nobody appears better situated than the Celtics. But we’re talking about the upcoming season. Future assets, until used, don’t help the present.

There’s another current scenario in play: Thomas’ contract situation. The 5-foot-9 Thomas is under contract for $6.3 million in 2017-18. Coming off an All-NBA season, Boston’s leading scorer is poised for a massive raise, perhaps even a max contract. However, that might not come until he enters free agency next season while nearing 30.

“Losing Bradley exposes Thomas defensively,” one source said. “He also helped keep Thomas focused. If that contract extension doesn’t come, does he end up sabotaging the offense by looking to get his numbers?”

If any team takes down Cleveland, most reasonable NBA thinkers project Boston. That’s partly because of deals Ainge might pull off. That thinking also existed last season. Ainge held pat. Until he parts with picks, don’t assume it. Tatum and Brown might turn into All-Stars. Just don’t assume they will this season. The Celtics might be a level better than the Wizards and Raptors. Just don’t assume it.

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