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.
The 2016 Major League Baseball season was one for the ages, capped off with an unforgettable World Series played between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. It was a great year for baseball, I could not help but feel like my team, the Boston Red Sox, squandered a golden opportunity, when they were swept in the ALDS by the Tribe. The 2016 World Series, which featured a team built by Theo Epstein and a team managed by Terry Francona, and a half dozen other players between the two teams won earned World Series rings with Boston earlier in their careers, validated so many of my long held baseball beliefs, but was also a stark reminder that those people I believe in–particularly Francona, Epstein, Jon Lester, and Andrew Miller–are no longer with the Red Sox, and now, neither is David Ortiz. Where do the Red Sox go from here?
The David Ortiz Era is over in Boston, and what an era it was. Barring some kind of desire to play on always nagging feet again, and barring some kind of Instagram rumor being any more than that, we are more likely to see Dave Dombrowski or John Farrell go all Rick Pitino on the Red Sox press corps (Side note: having just re-watched that clip for the first time in a while, that press conference feels like a million years ago, but amazingly, Vince Carter is still playing in the NBA) than we are to see even one more Big Papi walk-off hit. The only David Ortiz highlights Red Sox fans should expect now are when the team retires his #34, when they induct him into the team Hall of Fame, and hopefully when the BBWAA votes him into the Baseball Hall of Fame (Although, I’m not sure when that will be. If it were up to me, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Jack Morris, and Tim Raines would already be in Cooperstown, and Manny Ramirez would be elected in this year on his first ballot.). It would have been nice for Ortiz, the greatest playoff performer in Red Sox history and of of the greatest of all time, to get one last deep postseason run, but it did not happen. The pitching could not keep up with their hitting, and Cleveland’s pitching was really, really good. Now it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation in Red Sox baseball.
For a decade, Red Sox Baseball was all about David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, and Jon Lester. Ortiz is now retired, Lester is now going to be at least equally remembered for being a Chicago Cub as he was for his two stellar World Series winning performances with Boston, and while Pedroia is still here, I feel like going forward, it’s about the kids. Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts, and Andrew Benintendi are the present and the future of the Red Sox, and I am fine with that. These kids are alright, and I am really glad Dombrowski did not have to deal away any of them to get Chris Sale.
I have a feeling the Red Sox’ pitching will be better in 2017 than it was in 2016. I could be wrong, as I thought they were going to be better in the first half of last season than they were, but the way David Price improved in the second half was encouraging, even if he turned back into Playoff David Price in the playoffs. I think Rick Porcello had a great year, but he did steal the Cy Young Award from Justin Verlander. I have to agree with Kate Upton on that one. He has yet to pitch for the Red Sox, but I have wanted for years for them to make a run at Chris Sale. The guy has a bit of a nutty streak in him, best exemplified by that jersey cutting incident with the White Sox last summer, and every picture of him pitching on Google Images looks like his elbow is about to explode, but the dude can pitch, and pitchers with that kind of edge to them have done very well in Boston, from Clemens, to Pedro Martinez, to Curt Schilling, to Josh Beckett (when he cared), to Jonathan Papelbon, to John Lackey, and if any of that attitude rubs off on Price (Porcello showed a little bit of attitude last season too, which I liked), then everybody wins.
I would also be remiss if I did not take the time to mention that Clay Buchholz is no longer a member of the Red Sox, and I am as overjoyed as one can be about something that should have happened three years ago. Clay Buchholz is my least favorite Red Sox player ever, and my least favorite Boston athlete who never (to my knowledge) murdered anybody. Yes, he had good stuff, but his flashed of brilliance were not worth the frustration of injuries and poor performances when Boston needed him. I got off on the wrong foot with him when he first pitched brilliantly after being called up from the minors in the summer of 2007, even throwing a no-hitter in his second career start, but then the Red Sox had to shut him down when he was too fatigued to pitch in the playoffs. I knew he was trouble back then, and when he took a summer vacation in 2013 because his child slept in an uncomfortable position on his shoulder, and then pitched like he did not want to be there in the World Series, I was done. No player has ever done less to earn two World Series rings in Boston. The Red Sox traded Buchholz to the Philadelphia Phillies for a minor league prospect named I Don’t Even Care. All that matters is I do not have to root for him anymore.
Going into 2017, the Red Sox are, on paper, the team to beat in the American League thanks to the addition of Sale. I have my concerns about how sustainable their operation is, though. The 2016 World Series validated how good the people who made 2004, 2007, and 2013 happen were, but with each passing season, fewer of those people are working in Boston. Dave Dombrowski has no emotional connection to that era, and he has not been operating the way Theo Epstein and Ben Cherington were, for better or for worse. The biggest knock on Cherington, who was the initial replacement for Epstein, and a longtime assistant GM to Theo, was that he did not pull the trigger on trades of prospects. With the departure of Mike Hazen (who last year served as general manager under Dombrowski as president) to become general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Red Sox are drifting towards a new philosophy from what helped them win in a bigger way than they have since Dan Duquette was still in charge of the baseball operation.
Dombrowski has shown a fearlessness in dealing prospects from the Red Sox farm system for Craig Kimbrel, Drew Pomeranz (and even after the San Diego Padres were penalized for improper medical disclosure before the Pomeranz trade, the fact that Dombrowski did not try to renegotiate the deal to get Pomeranz for a lesser prospect than Anderson Espinoza remains a head-scratcher to me), and Chris Sale, which is on one hand refreshing, but at the same time worrying because when he was the GM of the Detroit Tigers, he strip-mined their farm system for an octogenarian owner who demanded the Tigers win now. The Tigers were among the best teams in baseball for a good stretch, even reaching the World Series in 2006 and 2012, but they never won it, and when it was clear they would have to rebuild, Dombrowski was out of a job, and here he is in Boston. The fact that he is operating the same way here as he did in Detroit makes me wonder if he learned from what went wrong there, and while he did have his share of trade success (Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer, and David Price, to name three), it’s not the most sustainable way to win consistently. I hope this is what Dombrowski is doing to put his stamp on the team, to make the roster his roster and not Ben Cherington’s roster anymore, but that every offseason is not what the 2015 and 2016 offseasons, with the farm system eventually getting depleted. That is a long-term concern, but it will not be a major talking point in 2017 if the young guys continue to hit.
In spite of their flaws, in spite of the underachievement by the players that were expected to be really good, the Boston Red Sox are a fun team to watch and a fun team to root for in 2016. For the first time since 2013, the Red Sox are still in the pennant race in the middle of August, and that’s a refreshing change of pace for a die hard fan of America’s Regional Pastime. As shaky as the pitching has been this year, the offense has carried the Red Sox more often than it hasn’t, and while David Ortiz is still amazing, and still an enormous part of what the Red Sox do offensively, this summer the torch has been passed to a new great hitter, and you wouldn’t know by looking at him.
Markus Lynn “Mookie” Betts, the Red Sox outfielder who will turn 24 in October, is doing everything he can to crash the season-long party that has been David Ortiz’ farewell tour in the best ways possible for the sake of the team. The Red Sox have an exciting core in the Four Bs (I’m still workshopping the nickname. I’m not married to it. It doesn’t roll off the tongue the way The Core Four does. Why do the Yankees always get to have nice things? I’m open to suggestions): Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and recently called up Andrew Benintendi. While all four received varying levels of hype, Betts has been the most consistent since getting called up to the Majors in 2014, and his ability to hit for power like this has shocked the baseball world to the point where Dave Cameron (not to be confused with David Cameron, the recently resigned British prime minister) of Fangraphs wrote this week about how Betts has defied the comparisons people like him have wanted to compare him to in his professional baseball career.
Mookie Betts has 28 home runs already this year (he hit 18 home runs in 2015, his first full Major League season), and has had two multi-home run games just this week, hitting three home runs against the Arizona Diamondbacks and becoming only the second Red Sox player to have multiple three home run games in a single season (the other was some guy named Ted Williams), and then a two home run game against the division rival Baltimore Orioles in which Mookie drove in all five runs for Boston in their crucial 5-3 win at Camden Yards. He’s not just hitting for power, but he’s hitting for power in big moments. That’s ripped straight from the David Ortiz playbook, but that’s where the Papi/Mookie comparisons stop. Ortiz is a left-handed hitter, while Betts is a right-handed hitter. Ortiz was a low-risk free agent signing after the Minnesota Twins wrote him off, while Betts was drafted by the Red Sox in 2011, and developed in their farm system ahead of schedule. Ortiz was crushing baseballs and giving fans hope for reversing the Curse of the Bambino when I was still in middle school, while Betts is younger than I am. Most of all, Ortiz is a bulky, lumbering 6’3″ beast of a man who gets opposing fans and pitchers alike shaking at their knees by his mere presence in the batter’s box, while Betts is a slight 5’9″, looks like Steph Curry to Papi’s LeBron, and is still getting underestimated by much of the competition. Other than that, they’re exactly the same.
It really amazing how much power Betts is packing into such a small body, and it’s refreshing to see a guy who can hit like that who can also move the way he does, both in the field and running the bases. Usually the Red Sox have guys who are one or the other. Guys like David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Ted Williams if you want to go back that far, they were all great hitters for average as well as power, but you also hold your breath whenever the ball is hit their way. Guys like Johnny Damon and Jacoby Ellsbury were all speed, but were never much in the way of power hitters. Betts is the best of both worlds, and he’s younger than me, shorter than me, faster than me (not that anyone cares), is making exponentially less money than Jacoby Ellsbury is right now with New York, and he’s still wearing a linebacker’s number as if he just got called up to Boston last week (One thing I always find mildly interesting is unconventional number/player combinations. I like it when an established, every day player still wears a high number like a recent call-up like Betts is wearing #50, or when Manny Ramirez chose #99 when he was with the Dodgers. Xander Bogaerts wore #72 in the 2013 World Series, but changed it to #2 the next year after Ellsbury signed with the Yankees, for instance. I also really like Sandy Leon this year. Partly because he’s been crushing everything that crosses the plate lately, and partly because he’s a catcher who has bounced between Boston and Pawtucket the last two years, but has a single digit jersey. How did he pull that off? Who in the Red Sox organization does he have dirt on?)!
This may be David Ortiz’ year, and he’s earned the right to be celebrated the way he has, but Mookie Betts has shown us this year that the Red Sox’ offense will be in good hands even after Big Papi retires, and it’s going to be a lot of fun along the way. If the Red Sox make the playoffs, Mookie Betts has a chance to win the American League MVP, especially since Mike Trout’s Angels are out of the picture (On a side note, it’s amazing how fast the baseball writers who vote on awards took Trout for granted. Guys like Peyton Manning and LeBron James both had to win three or four MVPs in their respective sports before people got sick of voting for them, and Trout only won once and before getting passed up in favor of Josh Donaldson last year. Trout should be really be mad at the Angels’ front office for not putting a better team around him. Donaldson won because the helped the Blue Jays end a 22 year postseason drought. Mike Trout only turned 25 a couple weeks ago and he’s already in danger of being the best player to have his prime squandered by an incompetent baseball operations department since Ted Williams, who only made the postseason once in his career, when the Red Sox lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games in the 1946 World Series, but even then, Ted played in an era when only one team in the American League made the playoffs every year. Trout’s Angels have five times as many chances! Sorry about that. Moving on.), but even if he doesn’t win, Mookie Betts is the most exciting thing to happen to the Red Sox since their fans got used to the idea of winning the World Series before they die. This isn’t the best Red Sox team we’ve ever seen, but it sure is a good time.