I did not write about the Isaiah Thomas/Kyrie Irving trade the night the story first broke because I felt too close to it as a fan of Isaiah Thomas. In two and a half seasons, he became the most universally popular Celtics player among casual Boston sports fans–more so than Paul Pierce–since Larry Bird. Personally, I wrote about Isaiah in his relatively brief tenure almost as much as I have about David Ortiz, Tom Brady, and Patrice Bergeron, three titans of the City of Champions era that Boston has been enjoying since February of 2002.
I did not write about the Isaiah Thomas/Kyrie Irving trade in the week that followed, as the teams first acknowledged the trade on their various social media profiles, but then the trade did not get finalized right away. The Cleveland Cavaliers were skeptical of the integrity of Isaiah Thomas’ injured hip (a concern that admittedly did not get talked about enough once the Celtics’ season ended) and asked for more assets to complete the trade. It was not a one-for-one swap of two star point guards to begin with: the Celtics also gave up Jae Crowder, Ante Žižić, and the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 1st round draft pick, the last unrealized asset from the Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett trade to the Nets in 2013. To complete the deal with Cleveland’s concerns about Thomas’ hip, the Celtics also had to add a 2020 2nd round pick from the Miami Heat.
I did not write about the Isaiah Thomas/Kyrie Irving trade after the trade was finalized, and after the Celtics held their introductory press conference with Irving and free agent signing Gordon Hayward. While I understood that it was a huge trade, and objectively a good trade that will help the Celtics in the long run, I was not sure I could bring anything else to the table that had not already been said in the week between when the trade reported and when it became official. That said, I do have quite a few thoughts on the matter, and I have been writing about the Celtics in this space since the days of Pierce, Garnett, Doc Rivers, and Rajon Rondo, and if I never write about it, then why am I writing about basketball at all?
Bill Simmons pointed out on various podcasts that trades like this hardly ever happen. Two conference rivals, the two Eastern Conference finalists from 2017 just swapped point guards. The last time contenders of this caliber traded players of this caliber within the same conference was in 1980 when the Phoenix Suns dealt Paul Westphal to the Seattle SuperSonics for Dennis Johnson. But with the looming threat of LeBron James’ free agency next summer, these were desperate times for Cleveland. And with the looming threat of having to sign a guy under six feet in his late 20s with an injury history to a maximum contract, Boston was acting from a point of desperation in its own right.
I wrote in the spring about my worry that Isaiah would get the Malcolm Butler treatment from the Celtics, and in September, Butler is (for now) still a member of the Patriots, and Isaiah has been dealt. My worry was the Boston Sports Media would use any success in the Eastern Conference Finals after Isaiah went down with his hip injury to take him for granted and put the ball in motion towards running him out of town. I was admittedly emotionally attached to Isaiah, but I really did think he could be one of the three stars on a championship team. I did not think the Celtics would be able to get anything in return comparable to Isaiah, considering the asking prices at the deadline for Paul George and Jimmy Butler, and later, given the returns Indiana and Chicago got for George and Butler when they traded them during the summer. Of course, I thought all of that before I knew Kyrie Irving would be available.
In Irving, the Celtics landed another dynamic point guard who can score at will, but while both are injury-prone, Kyrie is taller and younger. Some have argued that the Celtics were not able to land a player who has proven he can be the best player on a championship team, but the only players who fit that description are LeBon, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and Kawhi Leonard that are still in their prime (sorry, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki), but Kyrie is the next best thing. He performed well in the Finals against Golden State, and even though he already has a ring, seems eager and poised to win outside of LeBron’s shadow.
The Celtics turned over their roster a lot for a team that was just in the Eastern Conference Finals. For some context, the Celtics had six players from the very bad 2006-07 team (Pierce, Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, Brian Scalabrine, Leon Powe, and Tony Allen) that contributed to the 2007-08 championship team, while they now only have four players (Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Jaylen Brown) left from three months ago. For even more context, the Bruins currently have six players (Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci, Brad Marchand, Adam McQuaid, and Tuukka Rask) left form their 2011 Stanley Cup team, and they won the Bruins won the Cup six years ago! Danny Ainge knew the Celtics were still far off from where they wanted to be, and he made the moves he needed to make if they wanted to move forward. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward might not be enough to get past the Warriors, but they have certainly narrowed the gap between them and Cleveland, with Cleveland’s future in jeopardy beyond 2018.
It’s really incredible how quickly Danny Ainge rebuilt the Celtics going out with a whimper against the New York Knicks in 2013. They only went into the lottery once with their own pick, made the two biggest free agent signings in franchise history, and got good returns in trades for Pierce, Garnett, Rondo, and Thomas. While the post-Kobe Lakers continue to toil in the lottery, Ainge reminded everyone that he is one of the best GMs in the game. A decade after bringing Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to Boston, the Celtics have reloaded once again. He made a move I could not have made (and that’s one of a hundred reasons I don’t run the Celtics), and improved the team’s championship odds, and expanded their championship window.
While I have my doubts about how quickly the Celtics will come together early in the season–I would not be surprised if they go through early struggles like the 2010-11 Miami Heat–the long-term future of the team is much brighter and clearer than it was even six months ago. From a local perspective, the NBA season got a lot more interesting.
Brad Stevens got his guy. Stevens and former Utah Jazz small forward and Ryan Gosling lookalike Gordon Hayward have unfinished business from their days together at Butler University, and they intend to finish that business in Boston. The Boston Celtics, in spite of their storied success, have not been a free agent destination for maximum players in their prime at any point in their history, but between acquiring Al Horford last summer and acquiring Hayward this summer, that knock on them no longer exists. It’s also worth noting that white small forwards from Indiana have historically done quite well in Boston, so the future looks bright for the Celtics.
That said, I cannot help but think what it would be like if they had been able to land Kevin Durant along with Horford last year. They went to The Hamptons, they got Tom Brady to sit in on the pitch meeting, but they could not offer what the Golden State Warriors could on the basketball side of things. The guys on the Warriors made financial sacrifices to Steph Curry could get his well deserved payday this summer, and they all wanted to stay in Golden State because they know nothing in their basketball careers will ever be better than what they have right now. The Celtics could not offer that. Durant joined the Warriors when the salary cap spiked, and now the rest of the NBA is paying the price.
In order to sign Hayward, the Celtics had to rescind their offer on Kelly Olynyk, who signed with the Miami Heat, and trade Avery Bradley to the Detroit Pistons for Marcus Morris. Both Olynyk and Bradley were guys the Celtics drafted and developed. Bradley was the last remaining Celtic to be teammates with Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce, and Olynyk went in four years from being the guy that traded up to get in the 2013 NBA Draft when they could have stood pat and taken Giannis Antetokounmpo with their original pick (though to be fair, half the NBA passed on Giannis, and no one knew he would be this good) to a guy who won a Game 7 against the Washington Wizards with the home crowd chanting his name. I understand the business of the NBA, and I realize teams have to make sacrifices to get big name players, but these guys will be missed.
I was a big fan of Bradley’s defense. He arrived in Boston the same summer Tony Allen left for Memphis, and while Allen was one of the NBA’s best defenders during his years with the Grizz, Bradley soon became a player of that caliber. Also, Bradley wore #0, which has been a number associated with fan favorites like Walter McCarty and Leon Powe as long as I’ve been following the Celtics, so he had that going for him.
I was personally hoping Bradley would be on the team when the Celtics make it back to the Finals, as he was drafted days after their last trip to the Finals in 2010, and because there are usually holdovers between great Celtics eras. John Havlicek and Don Nelson won titles with both Bill Russell and Dave Cowens, and Cowens was still on the team when Larry Bird arrived. There was supposed to be a youth movement to revitalize the Celtics as Bird, McHale, and Parish got older led by Len Bias and Reggie Lewis, and that tragically never happened. In theory, Bias and Lewis could have still been on the team when Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce arrived.
When the Celtics traded Rajon Rondo in 2014, Bradley became the longest tenured Celtic, and that was super weird to me because he’s six months younger than I am, and he was still in high school when the Celtics won the title in 2008. With Bradley gone, the longest tenured Celtic is Marcus Smart, who was drafted by the Celtics a solid year after I started this blog. Time is a cruel thing.
I didn’t get into writing about basketball to get headaches trying to make sense of the NBA salary cap, but that is where we are now. The trend had been that the salary cap usually goes up from one year to the next, but with new media deals kicking in, it went way up last year. It was expected to go up slightly or remain stagnant, but the Warriors carved through the West and the Cleveland Cavaliers carved through the East so efficiently, that there were much fewer playoff games, much fewer revenue opportunities this spring, than expected, and the cap actually went down. The Warriors and Cavs were so dominant that their dominance made it tangibly more difficult for the rest of the NBA to catch up to them.
The Bradley trade was a financial move more than a basketball move. To make room to sign Hayward, the Celtics were going to have to move Bradley, or Jae Crowder, or Marcus Smart. While Bradley, when healthy, is the most consistent player of the three, he is also has the most NBA service time of the three, has one year left on his deal, and he is going to get a lot of money if Detroit lets him get to free agency next summer. I thought Crowder was the odd man out, as he plays the same position as Hayward, and was clearly upset when Celtics fans were cheering Hayward when the Jazz came to Boston last season.
Of course, the Celtics are in a much better position to deal with the reality of the salary cap than a lot of teams. They don’t have to worry about their best player leaving town because he (justifiably) hates the owner like the Cavaliers. They are not located in the loaded Western Conference, where nearly every other high-profile free agent signed, and where Jimmy Butler and Paul George landed in trades. They did not spend years building methodically through the draft only to make the playoffs one time, get swept by the Warriors, and lose their best player to free agency like the Jazz. As happy as I am that the Celtics landed Hayward, I cannot help but feel for Jazz fans in all this. I would have been okay with Hayward staying in Utah. I was really just hoping he wouldn’t end up in Miami like LeBron James and Chris Bosh did in 2010.
The Celtics can compete now with Hayward, Horford, and Isaiah Thomas, but the key to advancing beyond the Eastern Conference Finals in the future was not going to be Avery Bradley or Kelly Olynyk or Jae Crowder. 2016 #3 overall pick Jaylen Brown and 2017 #3 overall pick Jayson Tatum are the future, and if Tatum’s Summer League performance so far is any indication, the future is bright.
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.
The 2016-17 NBA season has been the Year of Kevin Durant, ever since all of basketball, from the front offices to to the players to the fans to social media, held its collective breath last July 4th weekend as he decided to sign with the Golden State Warriors. For a weekend, The Hamptons was the center of the sports universe, and everything since has been in reaction to KD joining forces with a team that won a record 73 games last year.
- Russell Westbrook is playing out of his mind this season because he’s mad at Durant.
- The Boston Celtics made their biggest free agent signing ever with Al Horford because they missed on Durant.
- What are the Washington Wizards supposed to do now that they had hoped to sign Kevin Durant, being the team from his hometown and all, but could not even get a meeting with him?
- How far have the Lakers really fallen now that they could not get a meeting with Durant, and they get meetings with everyone because they’re the Lakers?
- The Oklahoma City Thunder had three of the five best players in the NBA (Durant, Westbrook, and James Harden, with the other two top-five players being LeBron James and Steph Curry) at the beginnings of their careers, and now only have one. Are they now officially this generation’s version of the Shaq and Penny Orlando Magic that were super fun for a few years, but were gone before we could appreciate them and never won a title?
- Sure, the San Antonio Spurs will be good because they are always good, but in their first year without Tim Duncan, do they even have a chance against this Warriors team?
- Sure, the Houston Rockets will be interesting because they own the statistical darlings corner of the NBA and are the Oakland A’s of basketball, and the collaboration of GM Daryl Morey, newly hired head coach Mike D’Antoni, and star James Harden (who made the conversion from shooting guard to point guard this season and got even better) might even make them great, but can they hang with this Warriors team?
- Given the last two bullet points, are we destined (or doomed, depending on how you look at it) for a third straight Warriors/Cavs NBA Finals and the other 28 teams are merely bystanders in this inevitability?
That last bullet point was occupying my mind when I wrote about Durant-to-the-Warriors last July, and that still may very well be the end result of the Year of Durant, but the second tier contenders have been compelling this regular season (particularly Boston, Toronto, Washington, Houston, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Utah) and even teams that are not competing this year are made compelling by the bountiful crop of young talent in the Association from Kristaps Poszingis in New York, to Joel “The Process” Embiid in Philadelphia (whom the Sixers shut down for the rest of the season after appearing in just 31 games, but it was an unforgettable 31 games), Nikola Jokic in Denver, to Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns in Minnesota to Jabari Parker, Thon Maker, and Giannis “The Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee. The NBA is doing just fine, even if the end result feels inevitable. But just like everything else this season, when a post-trade deadline injury sent shock waves through the NBA, the injury in question was Kevin Durant.
A couple nights ago, playing against the Wizards in his hometown of Washington D.C. for the first time since he deliberately made it clear he did not want to play for his hometown, KD hurt his knee when he collided with teammate Zaza Pachulia. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, Durant could be out for the rest of the regular season, and perhaps longer than that. All of a sudden, things are not as certain as they seemed.
It’s impossible to write the Warriors off completely. They still have Steph Curry, they still have Klay Thompson, and they still have Draymond Green. They still have Steve Kerr as their coach. Those guys made The Finals each of the last two years without Durant, including coming back in a seven game series against Durant and the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals last spring. Even without Durant, their high-end talent in this high-end talent-driven league should make them better than most teams on any given night, but without him, their margin for error narrows significantly. Golden State also lacks the depth they enjoyed in previous seasons. In order to make room for Durant, the Warriors jettisoned Andrew Bogut (whose injury in the Finals was the straw that broke their collective back against Cleveland last spring), Harrison Barnes, and Festus Ezeli. The team they have is still very good, but the relative lack of depth was the risk they had to take by adding Durant to what could already be considered a super-team.
Durant’s injury also gives the Spurs and Rockets a better chance of crashing the party. I am not saying they are absolutely going to knock off the Warriors now, but this could make Golden State’s road that much more difficult. The Warriors currently sit at #1 in the Western Conference, with a 50-11 record. The Spurs are two and a half games behind them, at 47-13. If San Antonio could steal the #1 seed from Golden State, it would mean the Warriors potentially having to play the Rockets and the Spurs in order to get back to The Finals instead of the Rockets and Spurs having to play each other in the second round, as would happen if the standings remain the same. For Golden State, the possibility of Durant coming back and playing his first minutes in months in a second round playoff series against Houston, who could already pose as a touch match-up for them, is something that would scare me. The Warriors would much rather have San Antonio and Houston cancel each other out and only have to face one of them before their rubber match against LeBron and the Cavaliers.
I do not wish injury on anyone, and I am also not one to hold it against Kevin Durant for leaving OKC and joining the Warriors rather than beating them, but I have to admit this second half of the NBA regular season is more interesting than I expected, all because it is the Year of Kevin Durant.
The Boston Celtics are playing their best basketball since the days of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and (yes, even) Ray Allen. They currently sit second in the Eastern conference, tthree games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers, with Kevin Love out with an injury and LeBron James logging more minutes than he should at age 32, and Brad Stevens is going to coach the Eastern Conference All-Stars for the first time in his career. Perhaps most impressive about what they have done is that they are winning games with regularity in spite of their significant lack of health, with the longest tenured current Celtic Avery Bradley and 2016 free agent acquisition Al Horford both missing extended periods due to injury.
The success of the Celtics two and a half years removed from being in the draft lottery themselves (as opposed to living vicariously though the Brooklyn Nets’ miserable season) to being a top-five team in the NBA, despite Danny Ainge’s inability to find suitors in this decade’s version of the Allen and Garnett trades that the fan base so desperately wanted, is a testament to the coaching staff and the smaller moves Ainge has been able to make, but the biggest story for the Celtics has been the NBA’s smallest blossoming superstar.
Isaiah Thomas stands 5’9″, two inches shorter than I am, and my always unrealistic dream of playing on a school basketball team, let alone in the NBA ended around sixth grade when I realized I’d never be tall enough to make up for my inherent lack of skill. Despite a good college career (two time 1st Team All-Pac-10, two time Pac-10 Tournament MVP at Washington), Thomas was overlooked by NBA teams for his height, and he was taken with the 60th and final pick of the 2011 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings.
What is amazing about players taken in the 2nd round of the NBA Draft is that the ones that make it as stars, make it with a vengeance. Draymond Green fell to the second round, is now the NBA’s best defender, the most polarizing player on the NBA’s best team, and has developed this revisionist history around his draft status where several teams claim they were about to take him even though they all had a chance at him. Manu Ginobili being selected by the San Antonio Spurs with the 57th overall pick in 1999 and forging a Hall of Fame career out of obscurity in Argentina is an even greater component to the mystique and the greatness of Gregg Popovich and the Spurs than lucking into Tim Duncan at #1 in 1997.
In Isaiah’s case, though, the Kings do not get the credit for finding a diamond in the rough of a superstar because they let him go before his full potential was realized–same goes for the Phoenix Suns–but the chip on his shoulder is just as big as Draymond’s. Thanks to another great trade by Danny Ainge (a three team trade with Phoenix and Detroit where the Celtics gave away Marcus Thornton, Tayshaun Prince, and a late 2016 1st round pick, and came away with Gigi Datome, Jonas Jerebko, and IT), Thomas arrived in Boston at the 2015 trade deadline.
The Boston teams are in the midst of an under-six-feet renaissance between Julian Edelman (5’10”), Dion Lewis (5’8″), Malcolm Butler (5’11”), Danny Amendola (5’11”), Dustin Pedroia (5’9″), Mookie Betts (5’9″), Andrew Benintendi (5’10”), Jackie Bradley Jr. (5’10”), Brad Marchand (5’9″), and Torey Krug (5’9″), but Isaiah Thomas is the ultimate example because of the emphasis on height in who plays basketball at the professional level. While the Red Sox and Patriots gain acclaim for taking a chance on shorter outfield prospects and surrounding Tom Brady with a bunch of quick and shifty little guys, the Celtics have turned into a borderline contender built around a little guy in a big guy’s sport. This is almost unprecedented.
My two favorite basketball players who never played for the Celtics are Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson. I have written plenty about Duncan over the years, given that he was an active player this time last year, and he and Pop have been the Brady and Belichick of basketball. I wanted to write my ode to AI in September when he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in September, but it was my last college semester, I was working full time, and my buddy Murf’s bachelor party was that same weekend. Life got in the way, but I am here now.
I attended my first Celtics game in 2001, weeks after Rick Pitino skipped town. The Philadelphia 76ers were in town in a year when they eventually reached the Finals and Iverson was the MVP. To this day, I believe he is the best athlete I have ever seen in person (Honorable mentions Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The interesting thing is that Malkin actually stands out more than Crosby in person because of his size.). By my memory, he systematically picked apart a Celtics team that had Pierce and Antoine Walker and was finally showing signs of a competitive pulse at the start of the Jim O’Brien Era almost entirely by himself. It was amazing.
Iverson was officially listed at 6’0″, but even as a kid, I never really believed that number. AI was fearless and played like he was six inches taller than his actual height, making him one of the most intimidating people in the history of the NBA. He played hard and lived hard, and his career ended much more abruptly than many of his contemporaries as a result, but in his heyday, there were few players more compelling for someone flipping through the channels and stopping on a neutral site basketball game.
AI never won a title, and was labeled as a selfish player. Some of that was fair, but also a lot of that was the lack of quality talent that surrounded him in his prime. Unlike other elite point guards of his era like John Stockton, Gary Payton, and Steve Nash, AI never had a Karl Malone, or a Shawn Kemp, or a Dirk Nowitzki, or even an Amar’e Stoudemire to give the ball to. AI had Keith Van Horn and a past-his-prime Dikembe Mutombo. Iverson tried to do everything on offense by himself because that really was the best option in most years. This is the thing that has me worried about IT in Boston, but also not really. Sure, Al Horford is not the elite offensive threat that Karl Malone is. Sure, Kelly Olynyk is the victim of early Dirk comparisons. Sure, Jaylen Brown is an unproven rookie with some trouble finishing at the rim. But the Celtics are still building. Isaiah already does not have to do it all himself, even if he is consistently lighting it up in the fourth quarter, but they are still getting better.
What I really like about Isaiah Thomas the more I have learned about him is his self-awareness. In listening to recent podcasts where his sat down with Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer and Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, he has it all in perspective. He was the last pick in the draft. He was 27 and on his third team by the time he became an All-Star, and he’s just now getting recognized as a legitimate superstar at 28. It’s like an actor or musician who did not achieve success or fame until after he or she learned how to be an adult. In the NBA, we are at the point where we are surprised when someone drafted as a teenager like Kevin Garnett or LeBron James turns into a well-adjusted human being. Isaiah spent his basketball career being doubted, being overlooked, and has proven people wrong at every turn, so now that he’s arrived, he’s not about to let it get to his head.
This week, Thomas broke a 45 year old Celtics franchise record set by the great John Havlicek of 40 consecutive games scoring 20 points or more, with game 41 being Boston’s last-minute loss to the Chicago Bulls the other night. IT is making his way into the history books in the NBA’s most storied franchise, but this story is still in its early stages.
With the salary cap in the NBA jumping from $70 million to $94.1 million this summer, there was a real chance for the landscape of the league to dramatically change, and it did, but not in the way fans were hoping, unless they live in the Bay Area. After Kevin Durant’s Independence Day weekend in The Hamptons, in which Oklahoma City still thought they had a chance at keeping KD, and power brokers from Gregg Popovich to Pat Riley to Steve Ballmer to Steve Kerr and Jerry West to Danny Ainge and even Tom Brady got in on the action to try and lure him to their respective team and city, and ultimately Kevin Durant decided to take his talents to the record-breaking 73 regular season win Golden State Warriors.
To me, this doesn’t feel like when LeBron James made The Decision in 2010, to take his talents to South Beach, to join forces with Dwyne Wade and Chris Bosh, and to rip the collective heart out of a city that had not won a championship in any sport since the Johnson Administration. With Durant’s departure from OKC, he was leaving a better basketball situation than LeBron left in Cleveland, and chose a basketball situation that has even higher expectations, but also a better chance for success than Miami in year one was. In 2010, it was Wade and Pat Riley recruiting LeBron and Bosh to play for their team, circumventing the crap shoot that is building through the draft by putting together three of the top five picks from the 2003 NBA Draft as fully formed, fully developed NBA stars seven years later.
(It’s worth noting that this wasn’t the first time Riley was able to stockpile lottery picks from the same draft class. The 2006 Miami Heat team that beat Dallas in the NBA Finals was the only team to have the top three picks from the same draft: #1 pick Shaquille O’Neal, #2 pick Alonzo Mourning, and #3 pick Christian Laettner from the 1992 Draft, and none of them had been drafted by the Heat. In hockey, former Boston Bruins and current Edmonton Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli has now traded away the #1 and #2 picks from the 2010 NHL Draft, Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin, both good players, and both dealt for pennies on the dollar, making Chiarelli two thirds of the way to completing the illusive “Reverse Pat Riley.”)
I have mixed feelings when it comes to the plight of the Oklahoma City Thunder and their fans. It has to be devastating to lose such a dynamic talent without getting anything in return. As a Celtics fan, the tease of KD when he was a star at Texas in a year that the C’s were in the lottery was tantalizing, and the devastation when the Celtics fell to #5 in the draft order was real. The Portland Trail Blazers even took Greg Oden from Ohio State with the first pick so either of the top two picks could have made KD a Celtic. Again the possibility of Durant coming to Boston had me and other Celtics fans excited for a couple days, especially after the Greatest Quarterback of All Time and the Greatest Designated Hitter of All Time joined the recruiting effort, but again it wasn’t to be. If Kevin Durant could toy with my emotions all these years without ever playing for my team or against my team in a playoff series, the pain Thunder fans has to be exponentially worse. That being said, the Thunder had to see this coming.
Thunder GM Sam Presti did an excellent job picking in the lottery when was in there three straight years. First, he took Durant in 2007, then Russell Westbrook in 2008, and James Harden in 2009. That is about as good as it gets for building a young and athletic foundation for a franchise (though they may have been bested by Minnesota in the last couple years. Time will tell). They made the NBA Finals in 2012, and were not as ready for the moment as the aforementioned LeBron/Wade/Bosh Miami team that had finally figured it out. Even still, the future looked bright for Oklahoma City, and then they panicked. Before the start of the 2012-13 season, Presti traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets for an assortment of assets. In the years that followed, Harden blossomed into an All-Star, a franchise player, and a piece of tabloid fodder, but nonetheless a perennial MVP candidate along with his fellow former OKC lottery picks. NBA teams can go decades without landing even one player like this and the Thunder had stumbled upon three, right out of college and learning to be professionals together.
While Presti deserves credit for drafting as well as he did, the Thunder have had shortcomings in other areas of their basketball operation. They have never run a particularly creative offense, relying heavily on the individual athletic prowess of Durant and Westbrook to win games. To be fair, that helped them win a lot of games, but in an incredibly tough Western Conference, good has not been good enough most of the time. The one two punch of KD and Russ presents a tough mismatch for most teams, but it has been effectively neutralized in big games by the incomparable ball movement of the San Antonio Spurs and the great passing combined with the historically great three point shooting of the Golden State Warriors. After a disappointing 2014-15 season when reigning MVP Durant was injured most of the season and Westbrook had his share of injuries, OKC missed the playoffs and decided to part ways with head coach Scott Brooks. This would have been a great opportunity to replace Brooks with a proven and creative NBA coach like offensive mastermind Alvin Gentry (who led the Phoenix Suns to the Western Conference Finals in 2010 and was an assistant on Steve Kerr’s staff in Golden State that year) or defensive innovator Tom Thibodeau (who basically invented the modern NBA defense and was suddenly available after the Chicago Bulls stupidly decided to move on from him, but instead they decided to go with a very successful college coach in Billy Donovan. Now Gentry is coaching Anthony Davis in New Orleans, and Thibodeau has Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins to coach in Minnesota while Donovan had to adapt to the NBA after nearly two decades at the University of Florida on the fly while also trying to win in the short term and keep Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook confident and content in Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma City is at a disadvantage compared to some other NBA cities. They cannot offer the lifestyle opportunities that New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco or Chicago or Miami can, but they could take a page out of San Antonio’s book. San Antonio is in a similar situation. They’re not a huge city and the Spurs are the only major professional sports team in town (the same is true of OKC, Salt Lake City, Orlando, Sacramento, Portland, and Memphis, some of the most rabid NBA fanbases) so they won’t get a Hall of Fame quarterback as part of the recruiting pitch, but they can control what is in there control, and have the smartest, most cutting edge basketball operations department they can create, and give any player who might be interested the assurance that they will be put in the best position to win.
The biggest reason I feel differently about Durant’s departure from Oklahoma City than I do about LeBron’s Decision to leave Cleveland is because Oklahoma City is lucky to even have an NBA team. KD was not drafted by the Oklahoma City Thunder. He was drafted by the Seattle Supersonics. Remember them? They were this NBA team in Seattle with really good uniforms, who won a Title in the 1970s led by Dennis Johnson, and had an exciting team in the 1990s with Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton that lost to Jordan’s Bulls in the Finals. Also, they were in a real professional sports city that still has baseball and football. Seattle fans got to see Durant’s rookie season, in which he was already really good, and then the owners moved the team to Oklahoma. Sure, Durant is taking his talents to Golden State, but unlike the last NBA city he left, the whole team isn’t coming with him this time. “Oklahoma City Thunder” sounds like a minor league baseball team anyway.
Beyond the people of Oklahoma City, the regular season will suffer the most from Kevin Durant playing for the Warriors. In any given year, we are lucky if there are six or seven teams in the NBA who have a real chance at winning the championship. Last year, there were four (Golden State, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and Cleveland), and now, barring multiple catastrophic injuries to Golden State’s starters, that number is down to two. If, say Durant and Steph Curry can’t go for the playoffs for the Dubs, then maybe the Spurs or the Clippers could win the West, but otherwise we’re looking at Cleveland vs. Golden State Round 3 next June.
I was hoping that Durant would sign with the Celtics (obviously), but for reasons bigger than just my local fandom. There is no rival for LeBron in the Eastern Conference. LeBron’s team, whether it was Miami or Cleveland, has made the Finals every year since 2011. Every NBA Finals since I’ve been old enough to drink has had LeBron in it. Adding Durant to the Celtics (or Miami, although Boston has the stronger supporting cast especially with Wade leaving for Chicago this week), there would instantly be another contender in the East. The Celtics added Atlanta Hawks veteran big man Al Horford as a maximum contract free agent, whom Oklahoma City was interested in bringing in to play with Durant (Horford also won two National Championships at Florida playing for Billy Donovan), a great young coach in Brad Stevens, a good albeit undersized scorer in Isaiah Thomas, and lots of good, defensively stout role players like Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson, and Avery Bradley (who was selected for 1st Team All Defense for the first time in 2015). The Celtics had never landed a big name free agent in their prime, but after Horford agreed to join the Celtics, I talked myself into believing Durant could be the second. They had a good basketball situation to sell to KD, but nothing can compete with the chance to play with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and Draymond Green and get to play for a coach like Steve Kerr, who is quickly becoming the genius Phil Jackson/Gregg Popovich superstar coach hybrid for the new generation.
While the NBA will not be the most competitive league from top to bottom next season, it will be strangely compelling to see how things unfold for this super-team in Golden State. It’s amazing how quickly this long-suffering franchise, that waited 40 years between titles after Rick Barry’s Warrior team fell apart against Phoenix in 1976 to when Curry and Co. overran LeBron and the Cavs the first time around, turned and replaced LeBron as the NBA’s greatest villain. All eyes will be on the Warriors this year, and most of those eyes will be rooting for failure. This is a team that went 73-9 in the 2015-16 regular season, overcame a 1-3 series deficit against OKC in the Western Conference Finals only to blow a 3-1 series lead against Cleveland in the NBA Finals. They had a chance to be greater than the 1996 Bulls or the 1986 Celtics or any other team in the “greatest team ever” argument, but instead they’re the 18-1 Patriots of basketball.
Really good Historically great, but the way it ended will always undercut the achievement. In defeat, the lineup that had been so dominant for two years looked suddenly exposed. LeBron put in a superhuman performance, but for the first time since Mark Jackson was coaching them and the possibility of trading Klay Thompson for Kevin Love seemed like a great idea for Golden State, the Warriors looked human.
First it was Curry’s nagging injuries after a season of abuse by bigger, more physical point guards, neutralizing the effect of the NBA’s first ever unanimous MVP (by the way, the only other players in any sport to be the unanimous MVP are Tom Brady and Wayne Gretzky. Ever heard of them?) and the most unconventional most dominant player basketball has ever seen. Then it was Draymond Green’s suspension. The Dubs were up three games to one on a Cleveland team that was fundamentally flawed, being run by an aging (although it really is amazing how good LeBron James still is considering how long he has been in the NBA, the load he has had to shoulder with relatively weak supporting casts compared to those of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or Michael Jordan and the fact that he has NEVER MISSED A FREAKING PLAYOFF GAME despite taking his teams to the Finals SEVEN TIMES including the last six years) superstar, who mortgaged their future two summers ago by trading #1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins to Minnesota for the mostly disappointing Kevin Love, but the suspension of Green for Game 5 gave Cleveland life and gave Cleveland momentum. Then it was the injury to Andrew Bogut, out for the last two games of the Finals, though he should be healthy enough to play for Team Australia in the Olympics this summer. If Bogut was the only thing to go wrong for the Warriors last month, they would be back-to-back champs, they would be the undisputed Greatest Team of All Time, and Bogut himself might still be a Warrior and not a Dallas Maverick, but sometimes the injury to a role player can reveal exactly how fragile the ecosystem of a basketball team really is. Was Kendrick Perkins the most important player on the New Big Three Era Celtics? Of course not, but when he got hurt in the 2010 Finals, it was all over for the Celtics, and the following year when Danny Ainge traded him to the Thunder, the Miami Heat were finally able to beat the Celtics. The Warriors were exposed. LeBron figured them out, and willed Cleveland to a long awaited Title. I’ve never been a huge LeBron fan, and I’ve always said I’d rather see the Browns or (more likely) the Indians be the ones to end Cleveland’s title drought, but I came away from the 2016 Finals impressed. This guy has lived up to as much hype as anyone who was compared to Michael Jordan while still in high school possibly could.
While the Pats took a while to redeem their lost championship, and in the year that followed became the first team since the 1980s to go 11-5 or better and miss the playoffs after Brady hurt his knee, the Warriors are going all in for 2016-17. The spike in the salary cap allowed for them to replace Harrison Barnes with Kevin Durant, and now a team that had three of the league’s best 15 players has four of them. Instead of playing it safe, they put the target on their backs and made the next season all about pursuing immortality all over again. Will they win 74 games this time? Will they get to 75 or 76? Will they sweep the playoffs? Will Steph Curry be okay with the Warriors bringing another MVP winner in his prime? Can Steve Kerr get his four superstars to play together and for each other? Can the Spurs or Clippers possibly keep pace? Can this team win 80 games in the regular season? What happens if they shatter their own win record and struggle in the Finals or against San Antonio? If they win it all will Durant leave? If they do anything short of winning it all, which would be a colossal disappointment, will Durant leave? This season is so inevitable that to quote the great Kevin Garnett, “ANYTHING’S POSSIBLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” We will see.