I should be excited for Teemu Selanne, the Finnish Flash. I should be excited for Dave Andreychuk, who scored 640 goals and should have gotten in years ago. I should be excited for Paul Kariya, who is the first Hall of Famer from the University of Maine. I should be excited for Mark Recchi, who won three Stanley Cups with three different teams, and who was the old man mentor on my favorite hockey team ever. I should be excited for Danielle Goyette, because I have cousins named Goyette and maybe they’re related, however distantly. Instead, I’m just annoyed that Jeremy Jacobs is going into the Hockey Hall of Fame, in the “builder” category, along with them.
Jeremy Jacobs is the worst owner of any of the Boston teams. Of the four current ownership groups in town, he is now also the only one in a Hall of Fame. Bruins hockey has always been defined by being good, by being tough, but also by not winning as much as fans want or expect. Since buying the team in 1975, Jacobs made a name for himself pinching pennies and valuing fiscal responsibility over on-ice success.
To be fair, when the NHL got a salary cap, the Bruins spent to it, rebuilt in that system, and won the Stanley Cup in 2011 and reached another Final in 2013. But also to be fair, for decades before the cap, Jacobs under-spent, took Ray Bourque and Cam Neely to salary arbitration, and was the among the driving forces in the NHL’s board of governors who locked out the players three times–even cancelling the 2004-05 season–to demand a salary cap.
The rigidity of the NHL salary cap also ended up being the Bruins’ undoing, and mismanaging it is the reason the B’s went from a President’s Trophy winning team in 2014 to out of the playoff picture the next two years. Jacobs put the well being of his fellow millionaire and billionaire owners ahead of the devoted fan base that went to his games and watched his team on TV. A seven year run after the rules changed in the favor of the owners should not undo the thirty years of frustration that led up to that era.
I was just thinking about Jacobs and the frustration he put Bruins fans through this weekend when I was working on my David Ortiz column. I thought a lot about life was like before Ortiz and Tom Brady, before winning in Boston was the norm. The lowest points came from the Celtics and Bruins, the teams with the more recent traditions of winning who had both hit low points in the mid and late 1990s. For the Celtics, Rick Pitino’s “not walking through that door” moment in 2000 was the perfect illustration of how far they had fallen. For the Bruins is was the rally in Boston in the summer of 2001 for Stanley Cup champion and fan favorite Ray Bourque… of the Colorado Avalanche. The rally was attended by thousands, paying respect for the Bruins’ former captain, but also serving as a giant middle finger to the Bruins organization by a disenfranchised region of passionate hockey fans.
In the spring of 2010, I watched the Bruins blow a 3-0 lead in a Game 7, and in doing so blew a 3-0 series lead to the Philadelphia Flyers in my friend Mark’s dorm room. For a long time, I was not convinced I would ever have a more joyful professional hockey watching experience than the night Ray Bourque raised the Cup with the Avs, and nights like that were why. The team, for all its endearing on-ice qualities, was run by a cheap old billionaire who was never going to change as long as fans kept going. There was no reason for the team to extend themselves. Hockey fans are loyal to a fault. There are few things better than watching a hockey game in the arena, and nothing better than playoff hockey anywhere. Even when things looked bleakest, Bruins fans knew deep down they could not quit forever.
Alvy Singer, Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall said “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” He attributed the quote to Groucho Marx and Sigmund Freud, but the sentiment is universal, or at the very least incredibly resonant within my own brain. If I were an NHL player, a Bruin or otherwise, after decades of lockouts and business as usual, I would never want to be in a Hall of Fame that would have someone like Jeremy Jacobs as an inductee. I know it’s hyperbolic, and the Hockey Hall of Fame is obviously a huge honor for any player, but there’s something particularly wrong about spending more time thinking about Jeremy Jacobs on the day of the Hall of Fame announcement than I have been about the great players who were also inducted today.
The Boston Red Sox formally closed the door on the David Ortiz Era this weekend by retiring. No Red Sox player will ever again wear #34. Maybe JetBlue overdid it by dedicating Gate 34 at Terminal C of Logan Airport for him, and maybe the City of Boston overdid it by also renaming part of Yawkey Way “David Ortiz Drive,” and maybe they rushed into things by waiting less than a year after Big Papi played his last game before retiring his number–they waited until induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame to honor Carlton Fisk, Jim Rice, Pedro Martinez in this way–but there is no one like David Ortiz in Red Sox history. The team’s and the city’s reaction was to be expected.
From a numbers standpoint, David Ortiz was not the best player in Red Sox history. For position players, Ted Williams, Wade Boggs, Carl Yastrzemski, and Carlton Fisk all had more career WAR by the Baseball Reference calculation (Ortiz is #231 all time, which is still impressive for a guy who was mostly a designated hitter and could not contribute in the field), and Williams and Yaz racked up all their Major League numbers with the Red Sox. But before David Ortiz, every great Red Sox player post-Babe Ruth was defined, fairly or unfairly, by not getting it done in October. Ted Williams was one of the greatest hitters ever, but only made the postseason once in his career. The signature moment of Carlton Fisk’s career was his walk-off home run off Fenway’s left field foul pole in the 1975 World Series… but that was in Game 6, and Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine won Game 7.
David Ortiz was one of many stars on the 2004 team, but it always seemed like he was in the batter’s box when it mattered most. Cast off by the Minnesota Twins, it’s almost as if David Ortiz’ MLB career did not really begin until he joined the Red Sox in 2003, one of the first of many moves that gave Theo Epstein the baseball genius reputation he enjoys today. Ortiz was the only member of the 2004 World Series Champions who was also on the team when they won it all in 2013, and he was the World Series MVP.
Ortiz had too many clutch moments for their to be a singular career defining moment. I keep going back and forth between his walk-off against the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS and his grand slam that turned the Fenway Park bullpen cop into a folk hero in the 2013 ALCS against the Detroit Tigers. Then again, there is also his “This is our f*cking city” moment after the Boston Marathon bombing. On and off the field, no player meant more to Boston than David Ortiz.
Ortiz’ accomplishments in Boston sports this century are matched only by Tom Brady. Like Ortiz, Brady turned the fortunes of a long-downtrodden franchise almost as soon as he arrived. Together, they transformed the Boston teams from ones devoid of titles to ones defined by them. The success of the Red Sox and Patriots was so infectious that even the post-Larry Bird Celtics and Jeremy Jacobs-owned Bruins followed suit.
Like Ortiz, Brady is as good as ever as he enters his 40s. He was already firmly in the Greatest Of All Time discussion before he won two of the last three Super Bowls. The comeback he orchestrated against the Falcons this February is one I still stop and think about in semi-disbelief that it really happened, and may be the best game he’s ever played. Both Ortiz and Brady proved themselves time and again after most had written them off. Obviously–purely based on the impact of an NFL quarterback compared to that of a MLB designated hitter–Brady is the more important player in the overall history of his sport, but given the historical importance of the Red Sox in Boston (their World Series drought predated the Patriots’ inaugural season by 42 years) makes the Ortiz vs. Brady discussion a debate.
As crazy as the David Ortiz farewell tour of 2016 that spilled into 2017 may have been, don’t be surprised if it’s even crazier if Brady ever retires. Then again, Brady’s end might come in another Super Bowl, which was the only thing missing from the end of the Ortiz Era. The 2016 World Series was the Series That Boston Built. It validated so much of what I have believed about baseball for years. If I wanted to build a title contender from scratch, I would want Theo Epstein running my front office. Even though his team lost, Terry Francona out-managed Joe Maddon, and Tito is the guy I would want managing my team. I would want Jon Lester starting the biggest game of the year, and Andrew Miller pitching the innings of highest leverage. The Red Sox had all of those guys on the payroll as recently as 2011. If that wasn’t enough, former Boston World Series champions John Lackey, David Ross, Mike Napoli, and Coco Crisp also played in the World Series.
David Ortiz went into his last postseason with a cast that was not good enough, and got swept in the ALDS Francona’s Cleveland Indians. The only thing missing from the Series That Boston Built was Boston, and by extension, David Ortiz. David Ortiz was Boston baseball. Boston celebrated him the way they did because he was the best we ever had when the games mattered most.
Since the Boston Celtics won the NBA Draft Lottery a few weeks ago, I had been watching a lot of Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz highlights on YouTube. When Ball refused to work out for the Celtics–and when his father insisted the UCLA point guard would play for the Los Angeles Lakers–I focused much more heavily on Fultz, who had far less video available because he played for a bad Washington team that did not make the NCAA Tournament. What I did see of Fultz, however, was exciting. The kid is a great athlete with a pretty-looking shot and the wingspan of a seven-footer.
With the news that the Celtics have traded the #1 overall pick to the division rival Philadelphia 76ers, my pre-draft video attention will be shifted to Josh Jackson of Kansas, Jayson Tatum of Duke, and De’Aaron Fox of Kentucky. In exchange for the top pick, the Celtics get this year’s #3 pick from the Sixers and either the Lakers’ 2018 pick (if it falls between #2 and #5) or the Sacramento Kings’ 2019 pick (unprotected). While it is underwhelming right now to go from having the top pick, and dreaming of a guy who has been described as a “right handed James Harden,” a “taller, more defensively stout Damian Lillard,” and a “6’4″ Tracy McGrady” as the next great Celtic, it keeps Boston’s options open for years to come, rolling over the window to built through the draft. And again, Danny Ainge is operating from a point of power, and channeling his inner Bill Belichick.
By trading down and allowing the Sixers to draft Fultz, Philadelphia has a Baby Big Three in Fultz, 2016 #1 overall pick Ben Simmons, and 2014 #3 pick (who was the consensus top prospect but fell when he broke his leg days before the draft), and after years of tanking finally appear to be building a team, something Philly fans and NBA fans as a whole have waited far too long to see.
The Sixers were tanking way back when the Celtics were still tanking in 2014. The second round playoff between the Sixers and Celtics, featuring Doug Collins, Jrue Holiday, Andre Igoudala, Elton Brand, Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo may have been in 2012, but it feels like a million years ago, considering how different the two teams have become. After the Sixers traded Igoudala to the Denver Nuggets and acquired Andrew Bynum in the disastrous Dwight Howard Trade, and after Ray Allen signed with the Miami Heat and the Celtics were eliminated in the first round by the only good New York Knicks team of the last 15 years, both teams were headed for a rebuild in the summer of 2013. Collins retired and Holiday was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans, while the Celtics traded Rivers to the Los Angeles Clippers, and traded KG and Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets.
Both teams took the long view in hiring their next coach, with the Sixers hiring longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant Brett Brown, and the Celtics hiring Butler University coaching wunderkind Brad Stevens. Both teams spent the 2013-14 season vying for top position in the Draft Lottery, only for the Cleveland Cavaliers to land the #1 pick as well as the ultimate lottery by convincing LeBron James to come home. This is where the similarities between the Sixers’ rebuild and the Celtics’ rebuild end.
Philadelphia drafted Joel Embiid and Dario Saric in the 1st round of the 2014 Draft, but neither played in an NBA game until 2016. Former 76ers GM Sam Hinkie called it “The Process:” the method of drafting high-upside prospects, even if they will miss years due to injury or due to playing in Europe, and keeping the present-day 76ers team as bad as possible, staying in the lottery and increasing the chance of landing a franchise-changing superstar.
The Celtics, meanwhile, drafted Marcus Smart with the #6 pick in 2014, and continued to incrementally build their team. In 2015 and 2016, they made the playoffs, and in 2017, made the Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics had their own version of The Process, but it was built on Brooklyn tanking for them, free to compete within the conference at the same time.
While it makes me nervous, on one hand, to trade the top pick and a potential superstar to a team in the division, I’m not about to doubt Danny Ainge. He did, after all, trade my two favorite Celtics of all time to division rival Brooklyn, and that turned out pretty well. While Embiid, Simmons, and Fultz are loaded with tantalizing potential, they also haven’t done anything yet. Philly’s Baby Big Three have played a combined 31 NBA games, with Simmons (another #1 overall pick whose college team missed the tournament) missing the entire 2016-17 season with an injury. As a fan of the NBA, I want there to be more good teams and more great players, and I want the Sixers’ young core to compete, but at some point they have to play. Embiid and Simmons have been highly anticipated, but the Celtics are giving their young players valuable experience. Ben Simmons hasn’t played a game yet, and Embiid has 31 games played in the three seasons since getting drafted, but Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Jaylen Brown have won playoff rounds.
Going forward, the Celtics still have one more Brooklyn pick, and have the ability to tank vicariously through the Lakers, Kings, Clippers, and Memphis Grizzlies. Danny Ainge was willing to gamble and pass on Fultz, even if it means being mocked in the short-term. This is guy who pulled the trades for Allen and Garnett, sold off Pierce, Garnett, and Rivers when their values were still quite high, and turned the Boston into a franchise that is in as good position as anyone in the East to wait out LeBron’s prime. He didn’t turn stupid overnight. As much fun as rooting for Markelle Fultz might have been, I have trouble doubting Ainge’s plan right now.
The 2016-17 NBA season went according to plan. The Cleveland Cavaliers met the Golden State Warriors in the Finals for the third straight year, again, and the Cavs proved they were the definitive second best team in the NBA by doing something no other team could: winning a single playoff game against this juggernaut. All that was foretold came true, we just had to wait 11 months to see it play out.
Ever since last July, the Warriors were destined to, if healthy, get back to the Finals, even stronger than their 73 win team that came up short, and ever since LeBron James’ homecoming, the Cavs have been the undisputed champs of the East. In my Finals prediction, I probably gave Cleveland too much of a chance, and I would be lying if I wasn’t pulling for the Cavs, but I’m also not one of those people who hates the Warriors or Kevin Durant for doing what they did.
Even if it robbed an entire season of any real drama, it was the smart thing to do, and any other team would have done the same if they had been so well prepared for the cap spike and Durant’s free agency. As a Boston Celtics fan, I would have preferred if KD had been swayed by the recruiting pitch from Danny Ainge, Brad Stevens, and Tom Brady, but I cannot argue with the fact that Steve Kerr, Steph Curry, and Jerry West were able to offer a better basketball product. Had he joined the Celtics, Durant would have given LeBron his stiffest conference competitor since his first stint with Cleveland, and the Celtics would have immediately become one of the three or four true title contenders, rather than the NBA’s third of fourth best team with no real chance at a title. Instead, by joining Golden State, Durant had a chance to not only be a true contender, but to flirt with historical greatness for years to come. Boston was a good basketball situation, but Golden State may be the greatest basketball situation assembled since the the 1960s.
In Durant, Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, the Warriors have four All=NBA caliber players, and all are under 30. This kind of concentration of talent is unprecedented in the 30 team era, let alone the post-ABA/NBA merger era. Even in the 1980s, when super teams like the Lakers, Celtics, Sixers, and Pistons reigned supreme, the talent was more evenly concentrated, and there were more than two super teams at a time. In 2016-17, the Celtics and San Antonio Spurs, the other two conference finalists, each only had one All-Star (Isaiah Thomas for Boston, and Kawhi Leonard for San Antonio). The arms race between Golden State and Cleveland has left all others powerless to defeat them, but the addition of Durant made Golden State far better than even Cleveland.
When the Warriors took a 3-0 series lead, I stopped being entertained by the game and turned into a cold, heartless sportswriter, eager to have the most cut and dry narrative to write about. At that point, the best possible outcomes were a sweep (where I could write about how irredeemably lopsided Durant made the NBA, and be free to watch the new season of Orange Is The New Black free of guilt) or have Cleveland top their 2016 Finals comeback (where I could parallel it with the 2004 Red Sox, and imagine J.R. Smith trash talking any reporter who would listen like Kevin Millar taunted Dan Shaughnessy with the “don’t let us win tonight” line), but since one was significantly less likely than the other, I’m ashamed to admit I was rooting for the sweep. I still finished OITNB in one weekend, and I still wrote the gist of what I would have written in a sweep, but Cleveland’s Game 4 win on Friday night did complicate things a little.
As impressive as Golden State was and will continue to be for the next few years, it would be nice to see at least a couple more teams in each conference compete going forward. A lot can happen this summer, and it is my hope that I don’t spend this Independence Day knowing who the 2018 NBA champion will be. In the meantime, the Warriors are the greatest team in the NBA, maybe the greatest ever, and the fact that they had to add another superstar to get over Cleveland is a testament to how good LeBron James really is. No star player has ever looked better losing the NBA Finals in five games than King James this year. I’m sure he will be back.
Like many trilogies, the third installment was not the best, and hardly the most exciting, but we can still admire the journey and the technical achievement that got us to this point.
This is my preview for the 2017 NBA Finals, the third straight between the Warriors and Cavaliers. For my preview of the 2015 NBA Finals, click here.
For my reaction to Kevin Durant signing with the Warriors and the 2016 NBA Finals, click here.
For my preview of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, click here.
The wait is almost over. All we went through this NBA season, from Russell Westbrook’s Triple Double Tear through the regular season, to the collaboration of James Harden and Mike D’Antoni, to Kawhi Leonard’s assertion in San Antonio in the first year post-Tim Duncan, to Brad Stevens’ overachieving Boston Celtics, to Doc Rivers’ underachieving (and likely soon to be dismantled) Los Angeles Clippers, was just a precursor to the third consecutive NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Warriors and Cavs blew through their conferences (in 12 and 13 games, respectively), there was a week between the last conference championship game and the first game of the Finals, giving basketball fans a Super Bowl-like layoff to think, and overthink, about the upcoming series. In that time, I keep going back and forth, over and over like this:
Golden State has more talent, and dominated the Western Conference with and without Kevin Durant. Westbrook felt burned by Durant leaving OKC and his stunning, anger-fueled 2016-17 season was one for the ages, but in spite of that, the Thunder were no match for the Houston Rockets, who were no match for the San Antonio Spurs, who, once Kawhi Leonard got hurt, did not belong on the same floor as the Golden State Warriors. This team is amazing, and they will dispose of Cleveland the same way they disposed of Portland, Utah, and San Antonio.
Yeah, but Cleveland has LeBron James, the best and most complete player in the NBA. Golden State may have more talent, but Cleveland has the league’s greatest singular talent. It’s hard to bet against LeBron right now.
Cleveland overcame a 1-3 series deficit last season against a record-breaking 73-win Warriors team last year, and in their third year together, LeBron and Kevin Love have figured out how to play better together than they ever have. Aside from a game and a half in the Conference Finals against the Celtics (if that), they have been in control the entire playoffs, and they already know they can win Game 7 in Oakland, in an NBA where road teams went 35 years without winning a Game 7 of the Finals.
Yeah, but the Warriors were well on their way to beating the Cavs in five games last year before Draymond Green’s suspension, and in the offseason they were able to replace Harrison Barnes with Kevin Durant. Kevin Durant.
Every time I talk myself into one team, I remember the team they are playing against. In 2017, these are the only two teams that matter, and now we get to see what they can do. Unlike previous years, both teams go into the series relatively healthy, and I expect this game to go seven games once again.
I am most interested in seeing how each team reacts when things do not go as planned. Aside from a brief moment against the Celtics, and the first half of the first game against the Spurs, neither team has faced any playoff adversity since the 2016 Finals. In a weird way, all the pressure is on the Warriors. It was Golden State, after all, who choked away a 3-1 lead last season. And it was Kevin Durant, after all, who as the biggest star on OKC, choked away a 3-1 series lead against Golden State in the Western Conference Finals, some six weeks before joining forces with them. The Warriors were the superior team, but too many little things went wrong. Steph Curry was banged up. Andre Igoudala was banged up. Draymond Green got suspended. Harrison Barnes had a crisis of confidence. Andrew Bogut got injured mid-series. Bogut was the fifth or sixth most important player for the Warriors, yet his injury was the last straw.
Durant’s first trip to the NBA Finals ended in defeat at the hands of LeBron James and the Miami Heat in 2012. It ended with LeBron finally getting over the hump in his third trip to the Finals. In 2012, it looked like Durant and the Thunder would be the NBA’s next great team, but between a polarizing trade, bad injury luck, the resurgence of the Spurs, and the rise of the Warriors, they never made it back. With Durant’s decision to sign with Golden State last summer, the KD and Russ Era Thunder became just another historical footnote like the Shaq and Penny Orlando Magic, the Payton and Kemp Seattle Supersonics, and the Olajuwon and Sampson Rockets, just another good young team that was never good enough, and broke up before their time. Joining the Warriors turned a juggernaut into a super-juggernaut, if there could be such a thing, but with immense talent comes immense pressure.
For the first time in his career, LeBron is not the focal point of scrutiny. He has won and lost in the NBA Finals in every way imaginable. His mostly unfair label as a choker was officially removed with Cleveland’s comeback win (and the city’s first title in any sport in over 50 years), leaving Miami’s 2011 Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks even more baffling than it was at the time. If the Cavs win this year, LeBron will have two Finals wins over Curry, and two Finals wins over Durant. If the Cavs lose, LeBron has still beaten all of Golden State’s stars in the Finals. If the Warriors win, it was because they were supposed to. They have put together three of the greatest regular seasons of all time together, and their enthusiasm for the three point shot will have changed basketball forever. If the Warriors lose, they are the Atlanta Braves of basketball. They may have been great, and they may have been iconic, but they should have more than one title when it’s all said and done, especially since they added Durant.
The more I think about it, the more I think anything can happen, and anything will happen. I would be most surprised if either team swept the other, but then again, both teams have done quite a bit of sweeping. No matter what happens, it should be epic. We waited for this series since the moment the 2016 Finals ended. After the season we went through, it better be epic.
While this year’s NBA Finals is a clash of titans, the third installment in an immensely successful summer blockbuster franchise, the 2017 Stanley Cup Final is set up like Rocky. Coming out of the Eastern Conference is the Pittsburgh Penguins, the defending champions captained by the NHL’s biggest star. Coming out of the Western Conference is the Nashville Predators, the second wild card team (A.K.A. the #8 seed in a playoff format the gives me such a headache I find myself looking for my glasses only to find out I’m already wearing them while staring at the standings on NHL.com trying to make sense of it during the season) and a late-90s expansion team that had never been past the second round of the playoffs prior to this spring. While I will be surely be pulling for the Preds in this series, regardless of outcome, these teams bring out the best hockey has to offer.
The Penguins are hockey royalty at this point. Sure, there were some lean years in the time after the departures of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr and before the arrivals of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but they are going for their fifth Stanley Cup win and are in their seventh trip to the Final in a 26 year span. With a win in the upcoming series, the Crosby/Malkin Era Penguins will have more Cups than their Lemieux/Jagr Era predecessors, and young goaltender Matt Murray will be well on his way to becoming this generation’s Ken Dryden.
While the Penguins are the well-established franchise looking to become the first to win back-to-back Stanley Cups since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings, the Predators have spent the last 20 years trying to prove they belong in this league. David Poile built this Nashville franchise patiently and methodically, and to borrow a take from Greg Wyshynski, embraced the role of being “Nashville’s Team” and not just a team in Nashville. That patience and that commitment to representing the community in a non-traditional hockey market such has Nashville has endeared the Preds to their fans and transformed Nashville into a sneaky-great hockey city. After this playoff run, Nashville is sneaky no more.
For years hockey fans and media members, primarily in Canadian and Original Six markets have bemoaned NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s strategy in the 1990s of moving teams from the north to the south, and popping up expansion franchises in mostly non-traditional hockey markets. The Quebec Nordiques were moved to Denver and became the Colorado Avalanche, and won the Stanley Cup in their first season in their new city. The Minnesota North Stars became the Dallas Stars, and won the Stanley Cup a few years later. The Hartford Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes within their first decade in Raleigh. The Florida Panthers and San Jose Sharks made appearances in the Stanley Cup Final, and the Anaheim Ducks and Tampa Bay Lightning won the Cup. While they have not had much playoff success to speak of, the Arizona Coyotes can justify their existence because last year’s #1 overall draft pick, Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, is a Scottsdale, Arizona native, and got into the sport from going to Yotes games. In each of these victories, both actual and moral, I can see Bettman wanting to scream “I told you so!” to all that thought putting hockey in the south was a terrible idea. Before this playoffs, Nashville was a great hockey city with great hockey fans, but now the rest of the hockey world is finally starting to notice.
The Predators’ incredible playoff run began in earnest by shocking hockey fans across North America when they swept the formidable Chicago Blackhawks and inspired my favorite Reddit post of all time from a dismayed Hawks fan, but it really began with a franchise-altering trade last summer. The Preds sent All-Star defenseman and team captain Shea Weber to the Montreal Canadiens for a younger All-Star defenseman in P.K. Subban. It was a phenomenal trade for Nashville. Weber is a very good player, but Subban is better, younger, and on a better contract. The trade could have been justified for Montreal if replacing Subban with Weber led to greater success in the short term, but one year later, the Habs were eliminated in the first round by the New York Rangers, and the Preds are already deeper in the playoffs than they have ever been.
Subban is one of the most exciting and charismatic players in the NHL, and as a Boston Bruins fan, I was thrilled to have him off the Canadiens. He is so likable. Even when he was in Montreal, I had such a hard time hating him the more I learned about him. Adding P.K. to a Predators team that was already trending in the right direction made them one of the NHL’s most intriguing teams this season. Even through their struggles, I thought they were better than their seeding, and I was not totally shocked by the way they disposed of Chicago.
On one hand, Nashville is not Rocky Balboa to Pittsburgh’s Apollo Creed because they have more than a puncher’s chance once the puck drops on the series tonight. They are a deep defensive team even beyond Subban, and they are getting great goaltending from Pekka Rinne, who seems to have turned the clocks back a couple years during this playoff run. While the Preds have suffered their share of injuries, most notably Ryan Johansen and team captain Mike Fisher (A.K.A. Mr. Carrie Underwood), the Pens have been without their best defenseman, Kris Letang, for the duration of the tournament. The injury induced mismatches could make for a very interesting series with Pittsburgh’s great forwards going against Nashville’s great defensemen.
On the other hand, Nashville is Rocky Balboa because Rocky did not need to win the first fight with Creed to build a seven movie franchise out of it. Rocky didn’t win the first time. All he had to do was go the distance to make a name for himself. The Preds are a young team, and their window to compete is wide open. They have already exceeded the expectations anyone had for them two months ago. While the Stanley Cup is about actual victories and not moral ones, the Preds have already won on some level. If nothing else, they have proven that they belong in the Stanley Cup Final, and their fans belong in the NHL.
This week, after losing the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and with neither of the two games at TD Garden being at all competitive, the Boston Celtics announced that their start point guard, Isaiah Thomas, was out for the season. Then, the Celtics won Game 3 in Cleveland, and without their best player. Naturally, the narrative of “are the Celtics better off without Isaiah?” swirled around the Boston Sports Media for days. It was maybe the dumbest take, but also quite possibly the most predictable take ever.
I get how we got here. This is Boston. There are two radio stations and two TV stations devoted to the local sports teams, and the Celtics are the only one of the four currently in the playoffs. In addition to being a primary talking point for hosts and callers alike on WEEI and The Sports Hub alike, you have writers at The Boston Globe and The Boston Herald, national outlets with Boston roots like Barstool Sports and The Ringer, and probably hundreds of aspiring and trying millennials like me all trying to be read and be heard. On some level, the “better off without” opinion had legs, not because it was valid, not because anyone really believed it, but because the infrastructure of the Boston Sports Media needed it to happen. There were too many hours in the day for no one to say it, so people couldn’t stop saying it.
This is also the market that produced Bill Simmons, author of The Ewing Theory, which attempts to explain the phenomenon where a team loses their superstar who has never won a title, and the complementary pieces surrounding that star step up in their absence, and the team outperforms expectations. It was a theory Simmons first developed with a friend when Patrick Ewing was in college, and they noticed his Georgetown teammates seemed to play better when he was on the bench in foul trouble, and the theory was tested at the professional level when Ewing got hurt in the 1999 NBA Playoffs, and without him, his New York Knicks reached the NBA Finals as the #8 seed in the Eastern Conference. The ultimate Ewing Theory case is that of Drew Bledsoe, whom Simmons mentioned as a possible Ewing Theory candidate in a 2001 column, months before the Patriots’ franchise quarterback was wrecked by Mo Lewis, replaced by a second year QB out of Michigan named Tom Brady, and so began the Pats’ transformation to downtrodden perennial punchline to the model franchise in North American professional sports.
Of course the very existence of the theory causes people to anticipate a case before anything actually happens. The most prominent example of that was also Boston-centric, when Rajon Rondo got hurt in 2013, and the Celtics rallied around the loss and made the playoffs anyway, and it inspired Simmons’ “Ewing Theory Revisited” column. But as fun as a theory like is to think about, the reality is always much more nuanced, a huge reason I have become disillusioned with the sports media culture I am simultaneously trying to break into. Not everything is a hot take, and trying to find the hot take in every story only lowers the common denominator, and brings everybody down. Yes, the Knicks advanced farther in a lower seed after Ewing got hurt, but the 1999 NBA season was strange, compressed, and shortened by a lockout. The Knicks were probably a better team than they were in the regular season, and could have made noise in the power vacuum that was the East after the dismantling of the Chicago Bulls, who had dominated the conference for the bulk of the 1990s. Also, there is no way the Knicks were better off in the Finals without Patrick Ewing, going up against a San Antonio Spurs team that had both Tim Duncan and David Robinson.
Obviously, the Celtics are not better off without Isaiah. The guy was awesome for them this season, was the biggest reason (aside from Toronto’s injuries and Cleveland’s indifference to regular season results) that the Celtics finished atop the East after 82 games, and there is no way they get past the Washington Wizards in the second round (let alone Chicago in the first) without him. The Celtics were on the road, forced to play a different lineup, and caught LeBron James on a rare off night. That’s all it was. One game where the depleted Celtics held LeBron to 11 points and still needed needed a last-second three by Avery Bradley to win. That should not and does not wipe away all the great work Isaiah Thomas did for the Celtics this year.
As idiotic as the narrative was this week, it does serve as a cynical preview for the way things will likely go in Boston with Isaiah Thomas going forward. It took one win on the road in a series the Celtics were never going to win for fans and media to turn on the most beloved player the Celtics have had since Larry Bird. What is going to happen when the Celtics draft another point guard? They have the top pick in the 2017 Draft, and the consensus top two prospects, Markelle Fultz of Washington and Lonzo Ball of UCLA, are both point guards? What happens if they sign Utah Jazz All-Star small forward Gordon Hayward to a max contract this summer? As great as Isaiah has been for the Celtics, next summer, he will be a free agent, and will the Celtics be willing to make a 29 year old point guard who is under six feet and is already showing wear and tear from the beating one takes as a short guy in a big guy’s league one of the highest paid players in the NBA? I have a feeling this will not end well.
It may be a different sport with very different roster sizes and pay structures, but I have a feeling the way the New England Patriots have handled cornerback and Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler this offseason as something of a precursor to what could happen with IT and the Celtics. Butler became an instant household name when he made The Interception of the Century in the end zone against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. Last offseason, the most important players on New England’s defense were Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, and Butler, and all were set to be free agents at some level this offseason, and the team needed to address that. Jones was traded to the Arizona Cardinals last spring, Collins was traded to the Cleveland Browns in the middle of the season. Hightower signed an extension with the Patriots after the Super Bowl, but Butler’s future remains murky. First it seemed like Butler, a restricted free agent, would get traded to the New Orleans Saints, but the trade never happened. To further complicate things, the Patriots paid big money to free agent corner Stephon Gilmore without ever playing a down for New England, while Butler had established himself as one of the NFL’s best with the Pats, playing a key role on a team that has won two of the last three Super Bowls, but the Patriots hold all the cards, and they may very well make Malcolm wait for the big payday many fans and media members alike feel like he has already earned.
This is a similar situation to Isaiah with the Celtics. Thomas has been the good soldier, and consistently Boston’s best player since he arrived here on a very affordable contract (he is still playing on the four-year, $27 million deal he signed with the Phoenix Suns in 2014), while the team went out and paid Al Horford, tried to pay Kevin Durant, and may very well pay Gordon Hayward, all while being very deep at the point guard and possibly using yet another lottery pick on yet another point guard at next month’s draft. Isaiah made the Celtics respectable after the Nee Big Three left town, and just as he is playing his best basketball, the Celtics may already be figuring out his succession plan.
Both Thomas and Butler had to scratch and claw to become the players they became. While Thomas was the last pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, Butler went undrafted coming out of West Alabama. But Bill Belichick saw something in him, coached him up to be ready for the most pivotal moment of the most important game of the season, and was confident enough in his own coaching and Butler’s development to let Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner walk in free agency, confident that the Patriots’ secondary would be just fine. As much of a success story as Butler has been, Bill Belichick is confident in his ability to find the next Malcolm Butler if things between the player and the team go south, and Danny Ainge, like Belichick, is someone always thinking steps ahead.
Bill Belichick and Danny Ainge could not, as two professional sports executives who have been in Boston over a decade, carry themselves any more differently. Belichick is the gruff, ratty sweatshirt clad football coach who seems to go out of his way to be as terse with the media as possible, while Ainge is the clean-cut former NBA guard and MLB third baseman who regularly gets interviewed on the radio during the season. Ainge plays nice, but at his core, he’s a cold, calculating genius not unlike Belichick. Even when he’s tweeting praises of Isaiah, I have a hard time believing he isn’t weighing options should Isaiah not be in the Celtics’ long-term plans. Ainge built a team whose season lasted longer than any team other than the two teams everyone knew would be in the Finals the minute Durant announced he was going to Golden State last July, he did not have to give anything up at the trade deadline either of the last two years to get that far, and he has the ability to add a potentially franchise-altering player at the top of the draft. Like Belichick with Butler, Danny Ainge holds all the cards.
This turn of events says more about the over-reactionary nature of Boston Sports Media than it does about the future about the Celtics, but as predictable as it all was, it sheds some light on the things to come.