Tomase: Down goes LeBron? How Gordon Hayward, Paul George would make Celtics beasts of East

John Tomase
June 29, 2017 - 11:46 am
Paul George and Gordon Hayward

Brian Spurlock/USA Today Sports

Acquiring Paul George or Jimmy Butler at the trade deadline never made sense for Danny Ainge and the Celtics. What's one more good or even great player going to mean in the uphill battle for Eastern Conference supremacy? Not nearly enough, as the Cleveland Cavaliers taught us over four depressing games -- and one miraculous Avery Bradley bounce -- in May.

But for all the talk about how the Celtics should just amass draft picks and stay the course until the Golden State juggernaut completes its march to Springfield, a real opportunity has emerged.

In the next week, the Celtics can build the best team in the Eastern Conference. Take that, LeBron James.

Swingman Gordon Hayward is expected to conclude his free agent tour with a visit to Boston on Monday after stops in Miami (Saturday) and Utah (Sunday).

If the C's can convince the well-rounded All-Star to sign, they'll then be in a position to strike for Indiana All-Star Paul George, who might just be the player least intimidated by The King in the NBA.

The Finals proved that Cleveland isn't as unbeatable as we thought. The Conference Finals proved the Celtics simply lack the top-end talent to compete with stars like James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love.

But Hayward and George would change all of that.

The Celtics are a great regular season team because there's relatively little drop-off between players 3 through 10 on their roster. On any given night, Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Terry Rozier, Kelly Olynyk, Jae Crowder, and Gerald Green can be interchangeable.

That gets exposed in the playoffs, where top-end talent prevails. We've argued for Ainge consolidating the roster before, and now that opportunity has arrived.

Acquiring George won't be easy and it doesn't come without risks. For the C's to maintain as much of their nucleus as possible for next season, they really can't extend George for salary cap reasons until after the season. That opens the possibility of a one-and-done campaign, with George following LeBron to L.A. in free agency.

But if they're willing to gamble on the persuasive powers of Ainge and head coach Brad Stevens, this is the roster they could field next season:

Guards: Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart

Forwards: Paul George, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum

Centers: Al Horford, Ante Zizic

Bench: Four guys who are cheap

That's a lineup that can stand toe-to-toe with anything Cleveland puts out there, especially with the Cavs teetering on the precipice of implosion. George is a three-time All-Defensive performer with the size, length and quickness to defend players like James and Kevin Durant. He's also a borderline elite scorer who shot nearly 40 percent on 3-pointers last season. He does everything.

Hayward, meanwhile, is blossoming into a superstar. He just made his first All-Star team and is one of the most efficient scorers in the league at all three levels. He's also an above-average defender and solid rebounder coming off a season that saw him shoot .398 on 3's.

Imagine a Celtics offense with Thomas running pick-and-rolls with Horford, and Hayward and George spotting up as his open 3-point shooters. Imagine an end-of-game scenario that now features three players capable of creating their own shots. Imagine the two-way nightmare such a lineup would represent, with the bulldog Smart becoming a true complementary piece, and a pair of No. 3 overall picks the first guys off the bench.

Now look at Cleveland. The Cavs just fired their general manager. LeBron turns 33 in December. Kevin Love was exposed in the Finals. The bench is aging and not very good to begin with. James, Love, and Kyrie Irving were enough to beat a Celtics club without the injured Thomas or any secondary scorers of note.

But how will they handle three legit stars, a defensive stopper, one of the best passing big men in the league, and two promising youngsters bounding off the bench? Even at the cost of solid performers like Bradley, Crowder, Olynyk and Rozier, that's a trade you make every day without hesitation.

Ainge has bided his time for three years now, adding pieces smartly and amassing a trove of draft picks. The time to cash in has arrived, however, because by this time next week, the Celtics might be the new kings of the East.

(We'll worry about Golden State some other time).