After trading for Jrue Holiday, the Celtics are the best bet to win the Eastern Conference

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Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks co-favorites to win NBA title after Jrue Holiday and Damian Lillard moves

On Sunday, October 1, the Boston Celtics traded Robert Williams, Malcolm Brogdon, a 2024 first-round pick (from the Golden State Warriors) and a 2029 first-round pick to the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for Jrue Holiday. This move was made possible by the Milwaukee Bucks sending Holiday to the Blazers in a deal for Damian Lillard. And the interesting thing about it is that DraftKings Sportsbook now has Boston at +400 to win the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy, which makes the Celtics and the Bucks co-favorites.

 

Prior to acquiring Holiday, Boston was listed at +500 to win the NBA title. Now, the Celtics are listed at +400 to win it all. And Boston is just +180 to win the Eastern Conference. So, the oddsmakers clearly liked the Celtics getting the two-time All-Star and three-time All-NBA First Team defender. And I personally believe that the Eastern Conference now runs through TD Garden. 

Earlier in the offseason, the Celtics traded Marcus Smart, one of the league’s best perimeter defenders, in a three-team deal that brought back Washington Wizards big man Kristaps Porzingis. At the time, people were worried about the Celtics losing a player with Smart’s tenacity on the defensive end. But Holiday will be the perfect replacement for Smart, as he’s one of the best guard defenders in basketball. He also brings some of Smart’s defensive versatility, as he can guard anything from point guards to some of the league’s smaller forwards. Holiday ranked in the 99th percentile in perimeter isolation defense and ball screen navigation last season, according to BBall-Index. He’s one of the league’s premier point-of-attack defenders, and he’s remarkable at defending the pick and roll.

While Holiday’s defense is incredible, where he really separates himself from Smart is on the offensive end. Holiday averaged 19.3 points, 7.4 assists, 5.1 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game for Milwaukee last year. He did that on 47.9%/38.4%/85.9% shooting splits and posted the second-highest Offensive Estimated Plus Minus of his career, at +3.2. That put him in the 93rd percentile in basketball. Meanwhile, Smart’s Offensive EPM was just +0.0. I believe EPM is the best catch-all metric available to the public (via Dunks and Threes). But FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR, which won’t be available beginning this season, is another good one. And Holiday cleared Smart easily there. Last year, Holiday’s Offensive RAPTOR was +3.6, while Smart’s was just +1.3. Holiday also had a much better Defensive RAPTOR than Smart last season, which is just the cherry on top.

I know that Holiday wasn’t traded directly for Smart, but those advanced stats show that Boston made a clear upgrade in the backcourt. Losing Brogdon and Williams shouldn’t be taken lightly, but the Celtics have guard depth to make up for the loss of last year’s Sixth Man of the Year. Holiday will play at least 30 minutes per night and Derrick White should do the same. Boston also has Payton Pritchard ready to play something like 15 minutes per game. Pritchard has his defensive limitations, but he’s a good offensive player. He should be able to help the Celtics in spurts. But overall, a three-man backcourt of Holiday, White and Pritchard is better than one with Smart, White and Brogdon.

Holiday simply offers the Celtics a lot more upside offensively. Boston won’t need him to play on the ball all that often, as the team will put the ball in the hands of Jayson Tatum as often as possible. But Holiday can run the offensive effectively when asked. He’s a perfectly adequate pick-and-roll ball handler. But he’s also an underrated driver of the basketball; Holiday is one of the best finishers in the league at the guard position. With that in mind, the additions of Holiday and Porzingis, one of the best stretch bigs in the NBA, should make Boston a lot tougher to guard this season. And I don’t think the Celtics sacrificed that much defensively.

Of course, Williams is one of the better rim protectors in the NBA, so he wasn’t some small throw-in here. But Williams played only 23.5 minutes per game last year, and he also played just 35 games overall in the regular season. The 25-year-old has a pretty extensive injury history, which made it hard for Boston to trust playing him big minutes — and things didn’t exactly change in the postseason. The reality is that the Celtics can get away with playing Al Horford and Porzingis most of their available center minutes. And somebody else should emerge as a small part of the big man rotation. Perhaps it’ll be Wenyen Gabriel, who signed with Boston after the Holiday deal. Gabriel had a good showing at the FIBA World Cup and did some decent mop-up work for the Los Angeles Lakers last year. At the very least, he plays hard and has a high motor. 

In shipping out Brogdon, Smart and Williams and replacing them with Holiday and Porzingis, the Celtics are also leaning heavier into head coach Joe Mazzulla’s three-heavy offense. Boston is high on what Porzingis will be able to do as a floor spacer at the center position, as he is coming off a season in which he averaged 23.2 points per game and shot 38.5% from deep (on 5.5 attempts per game). With Horford and Porzingis, Boston will always have a stretch big on the floor, which should open up driving lanes for Holiday, Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Holiday was also a better spot-up option than Smart was last year, as the former Bucks guard shot 45.4% on catch-and-shoot threes last season. Meanwhile, Smart has done great work to improve his outside shooting over the years, but he shot just 34.4% on catch-and-shoot threes last year.

All in all, the Celtics added two very good offensive players to a team that was already second in the league in offensive rating last season. And I think those players will do a lot of damage for Boston in the playoffs. The Celtics got a little too trigger happy from deep in the playoffs last year, and it felt like they were missing another on-ball option that can attack the basket. Holiday can provide that with his ability to get two feet in the paint regularly. And I also think there will be more space for him, Tatum and Brown to work with because of Porzingis’ presence as a shooter.

Boston is also going to feel great about the way it matches up with a team like Milwaukee. I know nobody in the league can really shut Giannis Antetokounmpo and Lillard down, but Boston at least has guys that can bother both. The Celtics will throw Tatum and Brown at Antetokounmpo, and both guys have the length and athleticism required to at least make him feel their presence when he drives to the basket. Behind them, Horford and Porzingis are two bigs that understand timing and verticality at the rim. As for Lillard, Boston will throw White and Holiday at the star guard. Those are two of the best perimeter defenders in the entire league. So, while Lillard will surely have some success scoring against them, those two will at least contest everything and potentially even tire him out by the end of games.

It’s just amazing what can happen in a few days in the NBA. Earlier last week, Milwaukee made the big move to acquire Lillard, and the assumption was that combining him with Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez would put the Bucks in a league of their own atop of the Eastern Conference. But that move allowed the Celtics to swoop in and add a borderline elite two-way guard to their lineup, which already played both ends of the floor at a high level. So, in acquiring Lillard, Milwaukee inadvertently made a conference rival stronger. And assuming both teams stay healthy, I think the Celtics ended up being the big winner of the week — and potentially even the offseason. Boston might need to add a depth big at some point, but this team is loaded with talent and extremely balanced. Thanks to President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens, the sky is the limit for the C’s. Boston is my pick to win the Eastern Conference and a worthy bet to win the title. 

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