The Boston Celtics have to be considered the team to beat in the Eastern Conference, considering how they fell just one game short of reaching the 2018 NBA Finals without their two best players.
All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving required knee surgery and missed the entire postseason, while small forward Gordon Hayward fractured his tibia in the season opener and had to miss virtually all of 2017-18.
For Boston, winning the Eastern Conference may not be good enough. Irving and Hayward will return to the team that was one victory away from defeating LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers.
Irving isn't thinking about just winning the East. Rather, he thinks the Celtics have the potential to really challenge the Golden State Warriors, who cruised to their third NBA Championship in four years.
"Can we beat Golden State in a seven-game series? Yes," Irving said to Jackie MacMullan. "Because of who we have, and what we're establishing here, not just for this season, but for hopefully for the next few years, something that's pretty special."
Irving also talked about how key his experience in playing the Warriors during the 2015, 2016 and 2017 NBA Finals as a member of the Cavaliers is, adding that he knows "what it takes" to beat them.
The Celtics certainly have the roster depth to keep the Warriors on their toes. Boston managed to win road games vs. Golden State in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, and they did manage to split the season series in 2017-18.
With a healthy Irving and Hayward in the mix and a couple of rising stars in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the Celtics are built to win over the next several years. Marcus Morris, Marcus Smart, Al Horford and Terry Rozier also provide much-needed roster depth under head coach Brad Stevens.
Even though James left to join the Los Angeles Lakers, the Celtics will still be challenged big time in the East. The Toronto Raptors traded for All-Star Kawhi Leonard, while the Philadelphia 76ers figure to be even better than the 52-win team last season, especially if Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz have truly fixed their shooting mechanics.
But if the Celtics manage to win the East, nobody should doubt their ability to go up against the Warriors, who seem overdue for a challenge after two consecutive NBA Championships.