The Portland Trail Blazers traded Damian Lillard to the Milwaukee Bucks in a blockbuster move that pairs two of the NBA’s elite scorers, including 2021 Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, to becoming instant favorites to win the Eastern Conference and the most significant threat to the Celtics’ hopes of returning to the NBA Finals.
Nearly three months removed from Lillard’s initial trade request in early July, the Trail Blazers reportedly ended talks with the Miami Heat, the seven-time All-Star’s preferred destination, before agreeing to a three-team deal that involved the Phoenix Suns and landed Jrue Holiday, the Bucks’ 2029 unprotected first-round pick, picks swaps in 2028, 2030, and Deandre Ayton from the Suns, along with rookie Toumani Camara.
Phoenix acquired Jusuf Nurkic, Nassir Little, and Keon Johnson from Portland, and Grayson Allen from Milwaukee, depth pieces to help complement All-Stars Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, and Bradley Beal, the Suns’ new Big 3, but how will the revamped Celtics fare against the league’s new most intriguing duo?
While the Dame & Giannis pairing ascends the Bucks to favorites to win the Eastern Conference per most sports betting sites, the Celtics aren’t far behind and have a roster that — barring any critical injuries — is still talented enough to beat any team in the East. Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens’ offseason additions, most notably Kristaps Prozingis, enhance the Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown-led offense — which loses a key distributor in Marcus Smart, but its remaining core in Derrick White, Al Horford, and Malcolm Brogdon, along with the three starters mentioned above keep Boston in contention to win the conference.
The Bucks and Celtics both lost their defensive anchor in the backcourt. However, this is a facet of the game where Boston could have the upper hand in 2023-24. Robert Williams III, who enters training camp fully healthy, should revert to the All-Defensive center he was in 2022 this season while free-agent signings O’Shae Brissett, Svi Mykhailiuk, and Lamar Stevens add depth behind coach Joe Mazzulla‘s All-NBA wings.
Youth tips in Boston’s favor, as Antetokounmpo’s surrounding cast isn’t getting any younger. Brook Lopez is 35, Lillard is 33, coming from injury-riddled seasons, including a season-ending surgery to repair damaged nerves in his abdomen in 2022, and Khris Middleton, who underwent knee surgery in June, is 32. The defense has to be where the Celtics hang their hat on.
It’s also a reason to pursue Jrue Holiday from the Trail Blazers, who are reportedly planning to move the three-time All-Defensive First Team guard (2018, 2021, 2023). Even if it takes bringing in a third team to get it done, Boston should see what they can pull off, as landing Holiday in a deal would undoubtedly push the Celtics back to becoming the favorites they were 24 hours ago.
We’re talking about The Greek Freak & Dame Time — two All-Stars that finished top-5 in points per game last season, joining forces. They’re already projected to be the most devastating pick-and-roll tandem in the association. And, Antetokounmpo and Lillard are also bonafide closers.
If you’re the Celtics, a team plagued by poor late-game execution that lacked focus in pivotal moments throughout their deep playoff run last spring, this is the team you fear most, equipped with two offensive juggernauts that can finish off a game off an opposing team’s missteps. These are reasons why Vegas has the Bucks favored over the Celtics.
Fortunately for Boston, the front office also brought in two of the league’s most reputable assistant coaches, including Milwaukee’s former Charles Lee and Doc Rivers’ longtime assistant, 2008 Celtics champion Sam Cassell, to help Mazzulla in his sophomore season as head coach.
However, Giannis, the two-time MVP (2019, 2020) two years removed from winning his first championship, enters 2023-24 with the most talented teammate he’s ever run with. A seven-time All-Star in Lillard, revered as one of the league’s most feared competitors, especially when the stakes are at their highest, is on a quest to capture his first championship.
At the same time, Tatum and Brown are focused on building off their success in 2022, where the championship-less duo and the Celtics fell two wins shy of an NBA title.