Tagged: Andrew Wiggins

As Durant Goes, So Goes the NBA

 

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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.

What’s next for the NBA?

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.

New Colors, But A Familiar Game

About a year and a half ago, I wrote an article for another website about the parity, or lack thereof, in the NBA in comparison to the NFL, NHL, and MLB. My main point was that since 1980, only nine teams had won NBA Titles, less than a third of the franchises in the Association, which was fewer than any other sport. By comparison, there have been 19 different World Series Champions in baseball (and that number has not changed since I wrote that article, as the Boston Red Sox and San Francisco Giants have already won in that span), 16 different Stanley Cup Champions in hockey (and that number will not change this year, as the Los Angeles Kings won their second Cup in 2014, and the New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Anaheim Ducks, and Chicago Blackhawks have all won the Cup in the last 35 years), and 15 different Super Bowl Champions (but now it’s up to 16 after the Seattle Seahawks won their first Super Bowl in 2014). After I wrote that article, we got a sequel to the 2013 NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs, but with a very different result. In 2015, there is new blood in the NBA Finals, sort of.

As far as the television entertainment value is concerned, the 2015 NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors is a refreshing change of pace purely for the fact that our eyeballs will be watching different colored jerseys in June. It’s also refreshing because we will finally have a new champion that does not come from the Basketball Establishment, the nine franchises that have owned the last 35 years collectively. I’m a lifelong Boston Celtics fan, and I’m more than okay with the Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers, Dallas Mavericks, and Miami Heat all sitting this one out. In fact, of those teams, only the Moreyball Houston Rockets were the only ones to even make the Conference Finals. The Golden State Warriors have not won a championship or even been to The Finals since 1975. Rick Barry was their star player, Gerald Ford was President, and the world was still a few months away from Carlton Fisk’s legendary home run and the debut of Saturday Night Live. The Cleveland Cavaliers have never won a championship, and the city of Cleveland has not won a title in any of the four major sports since 1964, when the Cleveland Browns won the NFL Championship in the Pre-Super Bowl Era. The state of Ohio has not won a championship in a major professional sport since the Cincinnati Reds won the 1990 World Series. These are two title-starved fanbases.

Despite the new blood in the 2015 Finals, the DNA of the two teams that competed in 2013 and 2014 are clearly smeared all over this year’s championship series. The obvious example is LeBron James. Early in his career, LeBron made it to one NBA Finals in 2007 with the Cavs, but they did not belong in the same league as that San Antonio Spurs team. After ripping the still beating heart out of the city of Cleveland in the summer of 2010, LeBron went to the NBA Finals four straight years with the Miami Heat, after joining forces with Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, and Pat Riley. The level of competition in the Eastern Conference declined so greatly in that time due to the Celtics getting old (then getting very young), the Bulls and Pacers being cursed with devastating injuries, and teams like the Knicks, Nets, and Pistons being unable to get out of their own way in rebuilding attempts, Cleveland turned into the instant favorite to win the East despite missing the playoffs each of the four years LeBron was in South Beach when they re-signed him last summer.

Much the way the Cavaliers are a replica of the 2010-14 Heat, the Warriors emulate the San Antonio Spurs. Their game is predicated on depth, defense, and ball movement (they should look into getting that trademarked), and their head coach, Steve Kerr is a disciple of Gregg Popovich, having played for San Antonio in the early 2000s. Last summer, Kerr was the most coveted head coaching candidate despite having never coached before, and it’s clear why now. He ultimately chose the Warriors over the New York Knicks, and that looks like a no-brainer in hindsight as well. The Knicks, with Phil Jackson (an all time great coach, but a rookie executive who will turn 70 in September) running the team from the other side of the country where he lives with his fiance, who happens to be the owner of the Lakers, instead hired Derek Fisher, who like Kerr, has no coaching experience, but unlike Kerr, was playing in the Western Conference Finals for Oklahoma City this time last year and has not had the time to get proper perspective. New York was awful this year, but lost in the lottery, much the way Golden State did years ago in the first modern draft lottery when the Knicks came away with some guy named Patrick Ewing. This time, Golden State won the Steve Kerr lottery and are playing for their first NBA Title in 40 years, while New York is left with bad contracts and the dilemma of what to do with the 4th overall pick in the draft. Clearly, Kerr went to the Harrison Ford School of Choosing rather than the rival decision execution educational institution named for Julian Glover.

This Cleveland team has the same flaw every LeBron James team outside of the 2012 and 2013 Heat teams and the 2008 and 2012 USA Olympic teams has had: what is Plan B when LeBron is hurt/tired/effectively guarded? Sure, there’s Kyrie Irving, who can provide a ton of offense all by himself, but when playing against more balanced rosters that can distribute and contribute from three or four positions at any time, LeBron feels like he has to do everything himself. Kyrie Irving isn’t Dwayne Wade, and he isn’t Chris Bosh. Kevin Love was supposed to be in the picture as a third star, and they traded a budding superstar in Andrew Wiggins to get him, but Love got hurt in Game 4 of the first playoff round against the Celtics. With Love potentially leaving in free agency this summer, this has the potential to be one of those moves that really hurts in the long run. Much like when the Detroit Pistons took Darko Milicic with the 2nd pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, even if you win it all this year, with or without him, it’s hard to shake the feelings of what might have been had you not left someone like Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, or Dwayne Wade on the table. At least they have LeBron.

Last year’s NBA Finals started off competitive, but after LeBron cramped up in the first game, the Spurs took more and more control of the series, and the Heat limped their way through five games, physically and mentally drained from by the smart, unselfish dominance of the Spurs. Team basketball has been LeBron’s Kryptonite his whole career. I know that sounds harsh, but a big part of it is because he’s very rarely had a good team around him. He was drafted by Cleveland, a franchise with a very limited history of basketball success before his arrival in 2003. He didn’t grow up in a basketball culture like the Celtics or Spurs where there were other young stars that could be considered peers, so he was used to having to do everything himself. It wasn’t until his Miami stint when he had Wade and Bosh to play with that he ever had anything like “Big Three” to be a part of. In 2014, Wade and Bosh appeared to have lost a step, and once again it was LeBron vs. The World. That was good enough to get out of the flawed Eastern Conference, where their stiffest competition was an Indiana Pacers team on the verge of losing Lance Stephenson in free agency and struggling to find a consistent identity on the court, but reality hit when he ran into the Beautiful Game that is San Antonio Spurs basketball. The way to beat a team that has the best player on the planet, is by having five guys who can pass, who can play defense, and who can make each other better. San Antonio game LeBron more than he could handle in 2007, then it was the New Big Three Era Celtics and Stan Van Gundy’s Orlando Magic that gave him fits to the point where he left his native Ohio to join forces with two other All-Stars in the prime of his career. Even his first year in Miami, the Dallas Mavericks, a team of aging veterans, outworked the Heat on the floor while Rick Carlisle coached circles around Erik Spoelstra. In 2012 and 2013, LeBron was just that good. No team could beat him. The Spurs came the closest, but LeBron was the best whenever the Heat needed him to be those years. In 2014, it looked once again like LeBron didn’t have a team in Miami worthy of his greatness, and he went back home.

There are superstars who do it all themselves because they have to, and superstars who do it all themselves because they are selfish. It’s not always easy to see the difference. In hindsight, it’s fair to say that Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing never had teammates on the level of Scottie Pippin, James Worthy, Kevin McHale, or Robert Parish. Michael Jordan had Pippin, and Kobe Bryant had Shaq (and later Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum), but they still wanted to be the ones being the heroes in the end, and often that was the right call for the team. It’s unclear which camp LeBron truly belongs in, but I would like to see if he’s capable of becoming the third kind of superstar: the one who makes everyone around him better. This is the most intriguing kind of player to me, as an observer. Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Steve Nash, and Tim Duncan are the purest examples. They all played with more Hall of Famers than the selfish superstars because they made their teammates, who were good players, into Hall of Famers by winning as much as they did. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett made each other better when they joined forces in Boston, and now they’re working to make young players like John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Andrew Wiggins better with their new teams. Could LeBron join forces with another player and make themselves better? It’s hard to improve on what LeBron can do by himself, but it would be interesting to see if he ever had a teammate who could go toe-to-toe with him both athletically and intellectually.

The Golden State Warriors are built around one of these unselfish superstars. Stephen Curry is one of my favorite players in the game right now, and I’m glad to see he’s finally reaching the level I thought he could. When the Warriors picked him in 2009, he looked more like someone who should be going to his 8th grade graduation than someone getting selected in the NBA Draft, which may have been why Hasheem Thabeet, Ricky Rubio, and Jonny Flynn were drafted ahead of him (seriously, the Minnesota Timberwolves had the 5th and 6th picks in that draft, they used them both on point guards, and neither one was Steph Curry) despite being the leading scorer in college basketball that year, but he might be the best player to come out of that draft (I’ve joked about the busts, but that was also the draft where Blake Griffin went 1st and James Harden went 3rd, so it wasn’t all bad) when it’s all said and done. He’s the best shooter in the NBA, and his running of the Golden State offense makes Klay Thompson, Andrew Bogut, Draymond Green, and Harrison Barnes better players than they would be by themselves. Steve Nash would be proud. The NBA wasn’t quite ready for this kind of team when he was in his prime and turned the Phoenix Suns into this kind of team, but the season Curry has had is validation of Nash’s style.

Golden State is a joy to watch, and LeBron James is amazing to watch by himself. He’s now in The Finals for the fifth straight year, and the same question lingers: can he be better by himself than the best team in the NBA? If he can, then Cleveland will have won something for the first time since the Johnson Administration. If not, it is a victory for team basketball, a victory for the legacy of Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, a victory for up-tempo jump shooting philosophies, and a victory for a passionate and dedicated group of basketball fans who have not had much to cheer about in a long time.It should be fun, and it should be different from what we’ve seen the last few years, but not as different as you’d think.

One Giant Leap in the Right Direction

You’re not supposed to trade your two best players to title contenders and get better. That shouldn’t work in any sport, but it did for the 2014-15 Boston Celtics. They sent Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks, and Jeff Green to the Memphis Grizzlies, and then made a run at the postseason. They did not advance beyond their first round opponent. LeBron James’ and Kyrie Irving’s reboot of The Cleveland Show is too talented to let that happen, but there is a lot to be excited about for the future of a team that already has 17 championship banners in the rafters of TD Garden, by far the most by one team in one city in basketball. They got swept, but it does not feel nearly as bad as when the C’s lost to the New York Knicks in 2013, which was the inspiration for the first real sports post I made on this blog nearly two years ago, the last time we saw Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Doc Rivers as Celtics, and certainly not as devastating as the so-close-yet-so-far ending to the 2010 NBA Finals against the Lakers. They had no chance this year. That’s how it’s supposed to be. Cleveland is so good that losing to anyone other than the San Antonio Spurs or the Golden State Warriors (and even then, it would still mean they were in the NBA Finals) would be considered a choke job for the ages. It’s okay that the Celtics not a real contender yet, because the franchise still has so much upside. Let’s take a moment now to appreciate how far they’ve come in such a short period of time.

In December, Danny Ainge traded Rondo, the last remaining player from the 2008 championship team and the 2010 team that made it to a seventh game at Staples Center before bowing out to the Los Angeles Lakers, to the Dallas Mavericks for Jameer Nelson, Brandan Wright, and Jae Crowder what will inevitably be a late 1st round draft pick (because Dallas always makes the playoffs!), and by the trade deadline, all that remained on in Boston’s possession was Crowder and the pick. Doc Rivers is now coaching the Los Angeles Clippers. Paul Pierce is lighting it up in the playoffs for the Washington Wizards. Kevin Garnett went home to the Minnesota Timberwolves to presumably be the Whiplash-esque mentor to 20 year old budding superstar Andrew Wiggins. Glen “Big Baby” Davis is playing meaningful minutes for Doc in LA on what might be the worst bench of any playoff team. Kendrick Perkins is riding the pine in Cleveland (unless he’s going after Jae Crowder). Ray Allen is out of basketball. Brian Scalabrine and Leon Powe are back with the C’s, but in front office or broadcasting capacities. It was a fun ride, but all rides end eventually.

Trading Rondo closed the book on that era of Celtics basketball. His trade to Dallas was supposed to make the Celtics sink further (they had a losing record with him as their starting point guard and captain), improve their standing for the 2015 NBA Draft, and help take the Mavs to the next level. It did none of those things. As it turned out, Crowder was a great fit for the Celtics, and responded really well to Brad Stevens’ coaching. He’s one of those hard working kids from Marquette, who in hindsight was underutilized by Dallas. Rondo, on the other hand, was a terrible fit for Dallas. On a team that plays best when the ball is moving constantly, like Rick Carlisle had the Mavericks doing before Rondo arrived, Rondo is a point guard who wants control, and who wants to be dribbling the ball for the majority of the possession. In an era where the smart teams place emphasis on three pointers and foul shots, Rondo is a bad three point shooter who does not drive to the hoop nearly enough out of fear of having to go to the foul line. He was a bad fit for Rick Carlisle’s offense, and he hasn’t played defense with any kind of consistency since 2012.

When the Celtics traded Jeff Green to Memphis, they got aging veteran Tayshaun Prince in return. The Celtics were able to get more out of Prince than Memphis was, and flipped him at the trade deadline to the Detroit Pistons for Jonas Jerebko and Luigi Datome.This is the second time the Celtics have traded away Jeff Green. The first time was after they drafted him with the #5 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, and sent him to Seattle (back when Seattle had a team) as one of the pieces that ultimately brought back Ray Allen and Big Baby. History shows us that good things happen when the Celtics trade Jeff Green.

The Celtics are not a contender, and it is not a great place to be in the NBA, if you’re always making the playoffs but never getting anywhere. They have the GM. They have the coach. They have the draft picks. They have the role players. They just need a superstar or two. I didn’t like the taking season. It was mentally exhausting to root for your hometown team to lose to improve draft standing. The Celtics failed to win 30 games in the 2013-14 season, but only landed the #6 pick. The C’s aren’t good at taking. Winning franchises shouldn’t be. Players have too much pride, coaches are too competitive, and even after all the losses, you’re still unlikely to get the ping pong balls to fall in your favor. They could’t get Tim Duncan that way in 1997. They couldn’t get Kevin Durant that way in 2007, and they couldn’t get Andrew Wiggins that way in 2014.

I don;t think the Celtics will be in #8 seed purgatory (or #7 seed purgatory, for that matter. Being the 8th best team would have given them a more competitive opponent in the form of the Atlanta Hawks.) for long, though. The difference between the #11 pick and the #16 pick or whatever, isn’t that great, so making the playoffs doesn’t hurt them in the draft as much as some people think. Getting swept by Cleveland was also a great learning opportunity for Brad Stevens, who coached two Butler University teams to the NCAA National Championship Game, but is younger than Tim Duncan and got his first taste of the NBA playoffs this spring. It’s part of the learning experience for Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder, as they had to guard playoff mode Kyrie Irving and LeBron James.

This is a young team. Marcus Smart is 21. Kelly Olynyk is 24. Jae Crowder is 24. Jared Sullinger is 23. Tyler Zeller is 25. Isaiah Thomas (acquired from the Phoenix Suns at the trade deadline) is 26. Evan Turner is 26. James Young is 19. Even Avery Bradley, who is the longest tenured member of the Celtics, will not turn 25 until November, and was still in high school the last time the Celtics won a title. Maybe LeMarcus Aldridge signs with Boston this summer. Maybe one of the many free agent rim protectors lands here. Maybe they package up some of this talent to get a fully formed superstar. There are still a lot of possibilities, but the step forward the Celtics took this season is encouraging. I would take that over what is going on in Philadelphia or Sacramento every day of the week.

Homecoming King

When LeBron James infamously “took his talents to South Beach” in the summer of 2010, it was the biggest sports story of the year (in a year with Tiger Woods’ sex scandal and the Giants’ first World Series victory since moving to San Francisco more that half a century earlier, no less) for all the wrong reasons. When LeBron James decided to back the the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team that drafted him and played in his home state of Ohio, in the summer of 2014, it was the biggest sports story of the year for all the right reasons. James is still the best player on the planet, as he was four years ago, but now he has two championship rings, two more MVP awards, and has grown up immensely since ripping Cleveland’s collective heart out on ESPN the way he did. This changes everything.

When LeBron did The Decision, it set a bad precedent for the NBA. Small markets like Cleveland had a short windows to win championships because star players would just leave when they hit free agency. If LeBron, a native of Akron, Ohio, wouldn’t stay in Cleveland, who would? During LeBron’s four years in Miami, the Cavs never made the playoffs, and earned the #1 overall pick three times. LeBron is now returning home, but there is more talent on the roster now than when he left it. He can be the veteran leadership the Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins need, but those guys are good enough that he won’t have to do it all on his own. It’s about time things started to look up for Cleveland.

Even before LeBron went to Miami, Cleveland was a sports punchline in this country. They have not won a championship in any sport since the Browns were NFL Champions (before the Super Bowl Era) in 1964. The Indians last won the World Series in 1947, and the Cavaliers have never won it all. Bill Simmons popularized the phrase “God hates Cleveland” in his columns, and not even the futility of the Chicago Cubs or the Buffalo Bills could top the city of Cleveland. The only time the Cavs got close was in 2007 when a much younger LeBron James took a Cavs team that had no business being there to the NBA Finals, only to get swept by the San Antonio Spurs, the most dominant and most complete team of the current NBA era.

A big part of why LeBron left wasn’t just because the weather was warmer and the taxes were lower in Florida, but in Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, James would have the opportunity to play with consistent All-Stat caliber players for the first time in his career. Basketball stars may have the most impact on a team’s success than individual players in any other sport (including quarterbacks in football, but with the possible exception of hockey goalies in certain cases), but even the biggest stars can’t do it alone. It’s still a team game. Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippin, and later Dennis Rodman. Magic Johnson had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. Larry Bird had Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Nate “Tiny” Archibald, Dennis Johnson, and Bill Walton as Hall of Fame teammates on championship squads. Tim Duncan had David Robinson, currently has Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, and Patty Mills and 2014 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard could very well be in the early stages of Hall of Fame careers as well. LeBron had no one like that in Cleveland for his first seven NBA seasons. The Cavs were one of the most poorly run organizations in basketball who got bailed out by their superstar every year to save face, and I’m still shocked that ex-Cavaliers GM Danny Ferry ever got another front office job (sorry, Atlanta Hawks fans).

Now, LeBron is coming back to make things right. He’s showing the kids of northeast Ohio that it’s not just a place to leave and never come back. He’s finishing what he started where it all began. Nothing like this has ever happened before in basketball, and I’ve been struggling to to find a comparable situation in the other sports. I superstar leaves in free agency, but goes back to the same small market where he started out while he’s still in his prime? The never happens. I’m also thrilled that he’s leaving Miami as much as I’m thrilled he’s returning to Cleveland. For four years the Heat acted like they were this innovative basketball powerhouse with a proud history because of their current success. That team could have happened anywhere, but Dwayne Wade was already in Miami, and he got James and Bosh to join him. Also, their fans were really lame. What kind of hard core fan base leaves early in an NBA Finals game when the team is down by five points, only to have Ray Allen drain a three to force overtime in front of a half-empty arena. Cleveland may not be a basketball town the way Boston or New York or Los Angeles or San Antonio is, but they’re still great fans. They keep showing up for the Browns every year. That takes dedication. LeBron is one of the ten best players in NBA history on anyone’s list, and the Cleveland  fans will appreciate him more than Miami ever could.

More than anything else, the Re-Decision has fundamentally changed the way I view LeBron James. I can’t think of an athlete as established as LeBron having public opinion sway this much this late in their career for the better. Usually when there is a change of opinion this dynamic, it’s something like Lance Armstrong’s doping downfall or O.J. Simpson’s murder trial or Pete Rose’s gambling revelations, but this time LeBron changed the narrative on us, and it’s a good thing. The King is coming home, and we are all witness.

Celtics Get Smart and Get Young

After nearly a year of speculation, the Boston Celtics held onto their picks at #6 and #17 and drafted two adjectives: Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State University and James Young of the University of Kentucky. The Celtics do not have a championship roster yet, but they have more talent than they did last week, and it’s a step in the right direction.

Marcus Smart is a sophomore point guard who could have been the #1 pick in last year’s Draft (though probably not because the Cleveland Cavaliers had the top pick, already had a #1 pick point guard in Kyrie Irving, and botched the pick with Anthony Bennett), but decided to go back to school for another year. The 2014 NBA Draft was much deeper than 2013 was, and Smart was overshadowed by talented freshman prospects like Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins (picked #1 by Cleveland) and Joel Embiid (picked #3 by the Philadelphia 76ers), Duke’s Jabari Parker (picked #2 by the Milwaukee Bucks) Arizona’s Aaron Gordon (picked #4 by the Orlando Magic) and Kentucky’s Julius Randle (picked #7 by the Los Angeles Lakers), but the Celtics did not see a second year of college basketball as a red flag the way other teams do. Nate Silver had an interesting article about drafting sophomores and how the Celtics are smart to do so. Just two years ago, the Celtics drafted a sophomore power forward from Ohio State with injury concerns named Jared Sullinger, and now he’s one of their better players.

Smart makes the questions about Rajon Rondo’s future in Boston all the more glaring. The team is saying they could play together, but I think at some point they’ll have to make a decision one way or the other. The Celtics could do some interesting things with their collection of quick, athletic guards they now have which could create some interesting mismatches with bigger slower teams. I don’t know if we’ll ever see Smart, Young, Rondo, Avery Bradley, and Phil Pressey all out on the floor at the same time, but it would be really entertaining for a few minutes here and there.

In James Young, the Celtics drafted a young player with plenty of upside. He will not turn 19 until August, but he turned a lot of heads in his one season of college basketball, where he helped the Kentucky Wildcats reach the NCAA Championship Game. He’s athletic, a good shooter, and he’s still growing into his body. The Celtics had him ranked as the 11th best player in the Draft, but he was still on the board at #17, so they think it was a steal. The other interesting thing about James Young is that his star teammate Julius Randle was picked by the Lakers at #7. If the Celtics and Lakers ever meet in the Finals again with Young and Randle, that will certainly be an angle that ESPN will talk about until we’re all sick of it. I don’t think we’re all that far off from the next exciting chapter in the Celtics vs. Lakers rivalry being written, and Smart and Young could play a big part in it.

The team is young and getting younger. This is why the Celtics hired Brad Stevens. Drafting college players and trying to determine how good they will be in the NBA is random and nearly impossible to predict unless it’s LeBron, Shaq, or Tim Duncan, but with a former college coach in Stevens, guys like Smart, Young, Phil Pressey, Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk have a better chance of being better players in the NBA. When Stevens was the head coach at Butler University, he was the master of getting the most out of his roster, and made it to two NCAA championship games with inferior recruits than the teams that ultimately won. Smart and Young are better than any of the players Stevens coached at Butler, and I would not be surprised if the C’s make a run at the playoffs with the roster as it’s currently constituted.  The Eastern Conference is flat enough that anything is possible… especially if LeBron lands in the West.

While I was listening to the NBA Draft and analysis of the Celtics’ picks on 98.5 The Sports Hub at work the other night, Celtics play-by-play announcer Sean Grande brought up some interesting points. The anticipation among Celtics fans was that this rebuild would be quick. Danny Ainge was able to turn the fortunes of the organization overnight in 2007 when he pulled off the trades for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. With rumors trending all over the Internet about Kevin Love getting dealt to Boston, we as fans thought that the summer of 2014 would be more like the summer of 2007, when it’s really more like 2005 or 2006. They’re heading in the right direction, but their assets are not stockpiled quite high enough to light those kinds of fireworks…at least not on Draft Night like the Ray Allen Trade was. Al Jefferson had twice as much NBA experience under his belt as Jared Sullinger when he was the cornerstone of the Kevin Garnett Trade. They not only collected assets, but they took time to develop them before flipping them to form the New Big Three. The Celtics have not created a championship team, but they’ve increased their options.

The picture is slightly more clear than it was before the Draft, but there are still many, many directions this could go. For all I know, the Celtics could pull off a blockbuster trade tomorrow and the team will look completely different, but one thing is for sure about the 2014-15 Celtics season: there will be more to talk about than tanking the season for next year’s equivalent of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Joel Embiid.

2014 NBA Draft Preview

This is the most interesting NBA Draft I can remember. It has the right combination of depth of talent, unknown commodities, and intriguing teams at the top of the draft, and that was before Joel Embiid broke his foot. There are a thousand different things that could happen on Thursday, and it has the potential to be a landmark day for the Boston Celtics. Here are some of the storylines to follow:

University of Kansas center Joel Embiid was a lock to get picked #1 by the Cleveland Cavaliers, but now his injury has teams second guessing their draft strategy. Now, teams like the Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers (the NBA’s two most successful franchises who have only missed the playoffs in the same year twice hold the #6 and #7 picks, respectively), who did not think Embiid would be available to them are back in play to land the talented Cameroonian big man. The foot injury is concerning for sure. Bill Walton’s career was derailed when he broke that same bone in his foot. Same thing with Yao Ming. On the other hand, Michael Jordan broke that bone and was fine. Jordan was at least six inches shorter than Walton, Yao, or Embiid, but Embiid is younger than any of those guys, so who knows?

Even without foot and back (which kept him out of the NCAA Tournament in March) concerns, Embiid was a high risk with a potentially high reward. Every draft selection has risk, but it seems that big men have the greatest chance of going bust. Remember Greg Oden? What would the NBA landscape look like today if the Portland Trail Blazers had taken Kevin Durant at #1 instead? Just because Embiid has the ceiling to be the next Hakeem Olajuwon or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, doesn’t mean he’ll get there. For the Celtics and the Lakers, that’s still a risk worth taking. If he reaches his potential, he could be the next great big man in the NBA, and those guys are hard to find. Dwight Howard and Roy Hibbert have yet to prove that they can carry a team to a championship, and while Tim Duncan just won his fifth career NBA Title with San Antonio last week, and he’s one of the all time greats, he’s also 38 years old and it’s safe to say he has more years behind him than ahead of him. One thing I really like about Embiid (and Andrew Wiggins, not that there’s any chance of him being available at #6) is that he played for the Kansas Jayhawks. The greatest Celtic I ever had the pleasure of watching, Paul Pierce, was also a Kansas Jayhawk. I would love to see the next great Celtic come out of Kansas, if it’s not one of the many kids with New England roots that keep making it into the Draft.

With Embiid falling in the draft, the Milwaukee Bucks, will likely take either Jabari Parker from Duke or Embiid’s Kansas teammate Andrew Wiggins at #2, whichever one doesn’t get picked by Cleveland. Before Embiid’s injury, it looked like Milwaukee was locked in on Parker and the Philadelphia 76ers would take Wiggins with the #3 pick. This puts the Philly in a tough spot. The Sixers made perhaps the most blatant attempt to tank the 2013-14 season and improve their draft standing, and they were rewarded for their efforts with the #3 pick. Going into the 2013-14 college basketball season, Wiggins was the most talked about prospect and he appeared to be falling into Philly’s lap. Embiid wasn’t as appealing to the Sixers because they used a lottery pick last year on a big man in (and Everett, MA native) Nerlens Noel. Wiggins was supposed to be the piece they could add to Noel and (Hamilton, MA native) Michael Carter-Williams and make a real effort to compete this year. Without Wiggins, the might be back in the lottery again next year. This has draft pick implications for the Celtics, too. Because of a previous trade, the C’s could get Philly’s 2015 1st round draft pick, but only if the Sixers make the playoffs. It’s going to feel weird, but Celtics are going to be rooting for their longtime division rivals to make the playoffs to add another pick to their stockpile.

Depending on who is still available when the #6 pick comes around will have a lot to do with what the Celtics decide to do. They might keep the pick and come home with Embiid, or Arizona’s Aaron Gordon or Indiana’s (and Haverhill, MA’s) Noah Vonleh, or Kentucky’s Julius Randle. They might trade that pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves along with some combination of draft picks (the Celtics have this year’s #17 pick from the Brooklyn Nets as well as Brooklyn’s 1st round picks in 2016 and 2018, all thanks to Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce) and players on their roster (Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger seem the most likely since they’re young, still have high upside, and are both power forwards) in exchange for All-Star power forward Kevin Love. If they Celtics land Love, they could also try make a trade for Omer Asik, but if they can’t get Love, Rajon Rondo might get traded out of town and the rebuild through the draft will continue. Danny Ainge has plenty of options, and we will have a much clearer idea of what the Celtics will look like going forward this time next week. Who knows? Maybe if the C’s look like a contender again, free agent former captain Paul Pierce might make a return to Boston.

The speculation will continue until the night of the Draft. For all I know, a big name might be coming to Boston that nobody has mentioned yet. Nobody was talking about the possibility of Ray Allen coming to the Celtics until he was traded there on the night of the Draft in 2007. Once the Celtics had Allen along with Paul Pierce, it was easier to convince Kevin Garnett to go Boston. All I know is that something big will happen, it’s just a matter of time before we know what that is.