Chris Forsberg

East rivals are loading up, but can any team challenge Celtics?

Teams are making moves to take down the Celtics, but will it be enough?

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We’ve spent a lot of time in this space (and especially on our airwaves) slandering the Philadelphia 76ers. So let us say something that might come as a bit of a surprise: The Sixers look like the second-best team in the Eastern Conference.

Go ahead and sniff at the supermax signing of 34-year-old Paul George, but while there are undeniably health and stamina concerns with this Philadelphia team, they have a formidable three-star combo that even this writer must admit will make them a legitimate threat in the East.

Heck, we’d go so far as to slot the Sixers ahead of the Knicks, even after New York made the first big swing of the offseason by overpaying to add Mikal Bridges to their Villanova alumni squad.

So even as the Celtics work quietly to bring back their title roster, having now secured 12 of the 15 players from last year’s team including their entire top nine from last season, we’d quietly remind anyone outside of the New England area that Boston finished 14 games ahead of its nearest rival in the East last season.

Which is to say: The Celtics, if healthy for the start of the 2025 playoffs, should feel confident in their ability to chase back-to-back crowns regardless of how others are loading up.

The East will assuredly be better than what we saw this past season. The Knicks were a defensive juggernaut by season’s end and are pushing all-in with the addition of Bridges. The Bucks are super old but still have Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Pacers pushed the Celtics harder than any team in the East playoffs and will take another step forward. We can debate whether George was the ideal signing for the Sixers, but we can’t argue that it’s not a decided upgrade over what they had. (Can we get in one more jab about Tobias Harris disappearing for large portions of big games?)

But the important thing to remember here is that Boston is coming off one of the most dominant seasons in NBA history. The Celtics posted the fifth-best point differential in league history, slotting right behind the 2016-17 Warriors and the 1995-96 Bulls. Boston steamrolled its way through the postseason while posting a 16-3 mark over four rounds. The Celtics never saw a Game 6 in the playoffs.

The 2024-25 regular season might not be as dominant. With Kristaps Porzingis sidelined to start the year, Joe Mazzulla will have to get creative with personnel, particularly when Al Horford is resting as part of back-to-backs. Boston will have a target on its back throughout the season, getting every opponent’s best effort.

Champions routinely struggle to find the sort of regular-season motivation than maybe this team had while dominating the first 82 and securing the top seed in the East. Mazzulla will have to find ways to prod this group through the doldrums when the main talking point around this team will be fixed on, “Can this team repeat as champs?”

There will be other storylines. Does Jayson Tatum further launch himself into the MVP conversation? How does Jaylen Brown follow up the best season of his career, one in which he asserted himself among the elite two-way players in the game? Can Boston’s role players shoulder a greater load and limit the wear and tear on key pieces like Horford, Jrue Holiday, and Porzingis, when he returns from injury?

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Maybe the Knicks and Sixers thrive with their new additions. Maybe they are regular-season darlings. The Celtics simply ought to feel secure in their potential after what we saw over the duration of the 2023-24 season.

If we were power ranking the East on July 1, while acknowledging rosters will change a whole bunch more over the next couple weeks, we’d go:

  1. Boston
  2. Philadelphia
  3. New York
  4. Indiana
  5. Milwaukee
  6. Cleveland
  7. Miami
  8. Orlando
  9. Chicago
  10. Atlanta
  11. Toronto
  12. Charlotte
  13. Detroit
  14. Washington
  15. Brooklyn

We flirted with putting the Pacers higher but, regardless of how they pushed Boston in the East Finals, it is fair to wonder if they reach that point if New York or Milwaukee was closer to full health. Alas, health is never promised and Indiana deserves a ton of credit for the obvious strides its young core has made. They are right there in the mix.

But there’s no debate about the team at the top. The Celtics were 41-11 versus the East in the regular season, and 12-2 against the conference in the postseason. That’s an .800 winning percentage over the last calendar year.

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