- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The lead head-spinners of the offseason met Tuesday night in Cleveland to start the NBA season. It seemed only right.

The Boston Celtics traveled to play the Cavaliers — in what became a 102-99 Cleveland win — after the Eastern Conference’s two top teams swapped All-Star point guards Isaiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving in the offseason. Irving wanted out of Cleveland, as strange as that seems. Boston wanted a more manageable contract than the one Thomas was in line for. It also had concerns about the long-term health of his hip. Combined, those factors capped another manic NBA summer, one which sucked All-Star players out of the Eastern Conference and put the Washington Wizards in a prime spot after they retained their talent.

Don’t feel bad for turning to the final NBA team rosters that were distributed by the league Monday afternoon. Even those paying attention needed to do a double-take to recall who went where, bolstering a semi-super team in the Western Conference or stripping a former challenger in the Eastern Conference which decided to barrel toward the lottery instead of the playoffs (looking at you, Atlanta). For the Wizards, their goals remain unmoved by the movement.

“Basically kind of the same as last year: Try to get over 50 wins, get to the Eastern Conference finals, give ourselves a chance to make it to the finals,” John Wall said.

“That’s a legacy that we’re building here, and we’re trying to accomplish something like the championship team in ‘77-78,” Bradley Beal said. “We want our names up here one day. It’s important to us.”

A quick recap of crucial personnel changes:

— All-Star Paul George was traded from the Indiana Pacers to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

— All-Star Carmelo Anthony was traded from the New York Knicks to the Thunder.

— All-Star point guard Chris Paul was traded from the Los Angeles Clippers to the Houston Rockets, keeping him in the Western Conference.

— All-Star Jimmy Butler was traded from Chicago to the Minnesota Timberwolves, moving him out of the Eastern Conference.

— All-Star Paul Millsap signed with the Denver Nuggets instead of returning to the Atlanta Hawks, sending him out of the Eastern Conference.

Thomas and Irving switched teams after their clubs finished 1-2 in the regular season and played in the Eastern Conference Finals.

“It’s definitely some players shifted around this offseason,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “But, I’m not from the point of view that the East is not very good. We’ve got some really good teams in the East. The usual suspects, Cleveland and Boston. Toronto. Milwaukee’s really good.

“When I go into the season, I don’t focus on the 82-game schedule because it becomes overwhelming. There’s a lot of games, a lot of good teams. I just focus on day-to-day, game-to-game. But, I still think the East has a lot of good teams.”

He’s among the few to make that argument. Conspiracy theorists have suggested that the league changed the All-Star Game format — it will be a draft by two captains for the first time as opposed to East vs. West — in order to not have lopsided rosters at its celebratory weekend.

But, one part of what Brooks suggested is difficult to counter. That’s the talent at the top-end of the Eastern Conference, a place the Wizards expect to be a season after winning 49 games and taking the Southeast Division title for the first time in 38 years.

Cleveland still has LeBron James and Kevin Love, plus added Dwyane Wade, even if it has to wait on Thomas until January. Boston added Irving and, in a reversal of the offseason trend, brought in a Western Conference talent, Gordon Hayward, who suffered a gruesome ankle injury in the opener. It also has a crop of intriguing first- and second-year players to go along with skilled veteran Al Horford.

Toronto, Milwaukee and Miami are in the next tier. Each appears dangerous. Each appears flawed. The Bucks, in particular, were undermined by bad health last season. Resolving that should make them one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.

Otherwise, the conference is filled with rosters just waiting to be beat. A .500 record was all that was required to reach the back end of the Eastern Conference playoffs last season. A losing record may do it this season.

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