After a long summer and an extended period of trying to avoid inconsistent and unpredictable preseason games, the regular season is finally tipping off. The Golden State Warriors host the Houston Rockets to get the Western Conference underway, but it’s the Eastern Conference where the value lies on opening night.
With just four players returning from the 2016-17 roster, the Boston Celtics face an uphill battle to start the new season. Up against the NBA’s assumed second-best team in the Cleveland Cavaliers on opening night isn’t ideal for a group lacking chemistry and cohesiveness.
Gordon Hayward arrives from Utah, but his history with Brad Stevens lends itself to a relatively seamless transition. It’s Kyrie Irving who will have the hardest time finding his feet tonight. His bitter breakup with LeBron James has created a rivalry, but incorporating himself into a new scheme will make it difficult for Irving to draw first blood.
First of all, he loves to bounce the ball – his 4.7 dribbles per touch is more than any 2016-17 Celtic. While holding the ball for so long, Irving played out of isolation in 21.4 percent of his offensive possessions, which is more than double the number of the guy he’s replacing. With Stevens demanding his team moves the ball, it could be a long learning process for Irving, starting tonight.
The Celtics ranked 27th in opposition second-chance points (13.9 ppg) and rebound percentage (75.3 percent) last season and will struggle again tonight with an already uninspiring frontcourt missing Marcus Morris due to injury.
Brad Stevens confirms that he will start Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford tonight against Cleveland.
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) October 17, 2017
At 6.8 rebounds per game last season, Al Horford is a decent rebounder, but not one that is going to get a team above the league average rebounding rate of 76.7 percent on a regular basis. Jayson Tatum, in the first game of his career, will be one guy Tyronn Lue looks to exploit. I expect to see a 250-pound King James – playing with a chip on his shoulder – switched onto the rookie and dominate him physically with and without the ball.
Off the bench, the lack of rebounding continues. Aron Baynes (4.4 rpg in 2016-17) is the only notable name, with Guerschon Yabusele and Daniel Theis rounding out the rotation.
Even when healthy, the Celtics’ frontcourt will be where opposing teams target. And while the Cavaliers have had plenty of roster turnover of their own, they are deeper across the board.
Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade have been around the league long enough to survive in the early days of a new scheme. Jae Crowder will relish the idea of being wanted and thrive on the open looks he will receive on the back of James. Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith provide Cleveland with scoring off the bench, while Tristan Thompson will further exploit the rebounding deficiencies of Boston’s second unit.
Playing at home where they won 75 percent of their games last season, the Cavaliers at -4 looks like the number to take. Small sample size alert, but over the last three years since LeBron’s return, Cleveland is 5-1 ATS in the first two games of the season but just 5-18-1 ATS in games three through 10. Maybe it’s "Playoff LeBron" showing up early to carry his newly formed squads in prime time.
With two new-look teams going head-to-head, betting against one of the greatest ever doesn’t seem right. LeBron can say the relationship with his former point guard is "fine," but his history of pettiness suggests he’s going at Irving tonight.