A year ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder were reeling from the loss of Kevin Durant. Russell Westbrook turned his feelings of anger and betrayal into an MVP season, and the Thunder won 48 games without KD. As great was Russ was in his revenge tour, the Thunder were only good enough for a first round exit at the hands of the Houston Rockets when the playoffs started, and the narrative quickly shifted, to “will Westbrook leave, too?” After trades for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony this summer, that is no longer a question.
This week, Westbrook signed a five year, $205 million contract extension to stay in Oklahoma City through 2023. There is still no guarantee the Thunder will be able to keep George or Anthony in the long run, but their presence in the short run proved to Westbrook that the franchise is committed to competing, and that was enough to keep him around. I have been critical of Thunder general manager Sam Presti in the past, but what he did this summer was very impressive, and is changing the way I think about his handling of James Harden and Kevin Durant.
One of the major critical sticking points of Presti’s tenure was trading James Harden to the Houston Rockets when they did. The Thunder were a young and exciting team coming off a trip to the 2012 NBA Finals. They lost to the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh Miami Heat, but showed themselves to be a team on the rise that could potentially dominate the rest of the decade. Then Presti traded Harden to the Rockets.
In Houston, Harden became a starter, a franchise player, and a perennial MVP candidate on par with KD and Russ. Meanwhile in OKC, the combination of bad injury luck, the rise of the Golden State Warriors, and the resurgence of the San Antonio Spurs kept the Thunder out of the Finals in the years that followed. Right before Durant’s free agency, the Thunder blew a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference Finals, paving the way for KD’s exit. Fans and media personalities alike were right to question if the Thunder had done enough to keep KD. They could have been more aggressive in improving the roster post-Harden Trade, and a small market like Oklahoma City needed to be the best possible basketball situation if they wanted to keep their stars. This time around, Presti threw caution to the wind, learning from his earlier mistakes.
One one hand, I want to categorize this summer as Presti learning from the mistakes made with Harden and Durant, but it might not be that simple. Perhaps–and I have no inside information to back this up–Presti didn’t extend himself too far with Durant because Durant was the one more likely to leave. Perhaps Presti knew that Durant and Westbrook, two incredible talents who are wired very differently as people, were not compatible, and keeping them together for the duration of their careers was not a sustainable venture.
Perhaps Presti knew Westbrook–the maniacal cyborg programmed to play every possession like his life depended on it–was programmed for loyalty as well. The Boston Celtics may have reminded us this summer when they traded Isaiah Thomas that loyalty in sports is merely a public relations tool designed to sell jerseys, and that we should not hold a lack of loyalty against players who leave in free agency because teams can just as easily flip a loyal star for a younger, shinier model, but maybe Westbrook is different. Why wouldn’t Westbrook be different? He is already a very different kind of player from anyone else in the NBA, so the idea that he wants to live and play in Oklahoma City for his entire career might not be all that far-fetched. This is a guy who waited until Durant’s birthday to sign the extension, so the themes of betrayal, loyalty, and revenge appear to be at the front of Westbrook’s thoughts on and off the court.
Perhaps Presti was not convinced enough of Durant staying that he was not about to go all in when he was there. Sure, it looked bad at first. Sure, Durant went to the conference rival Warriors, won a title in his first year, and they look poised to dominate the NBA for years to come, but perhaps Presti did not lose sleep over Durant because he had a better idea about Westbrook’s intentions.
Thinking back to the summer of 2015, when the Portland Trail Blazers lost LaMarcus Aldridge, I thought it was a can’t miss signing for the Spurs, and a bad loss for a Portland team that fell apart due to injury and never got it together. It was a lesser example of a situation similar to Durant leaving OKC–Aldridge was inferior to Durant, the Spurs team Aldridge joined was inferior to the Warriors team Durant joined, and the Blazers team Aldridge left accomplished less than the Thunder team Durant left–but the Blazers did not fall as far as anyone thought when they lost Aldridge. In fact, in rebuilding on the fly around Damian Lillard, the Blazers were better in 2016 than they were in 2015. It also helped that even though the Spurs were still a very good team, Aldridge has been mostly disappointing since leaving Portland. Presti deserves credit for building around Russ, regardless of what happened with Durant.
Going forward, the Thunder not only have a good team for 2017-18, they have a star player committed to the franchise who can be used to recruit more stars to OKC if George and Melo move on. The NBA is a star’s league, and it takes stars to get more stars. The Thunder have recovered better from losing Durant in a much better way than I thought they would or could.
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.
Since the Boston Celtics won the NBA Draft Lottery a few weeks ago, I had been watching a lot of Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz highlights on YouTube. When Ball refused to work out for the Celtics–and when his father insisted the UCLA point guard would play for the Los Angeles Lakers–I focused much more heavily on Fultz, who had far less video available because he played for a bad Washington team that did not make the NCAA Tournament. What I did see of Fultz, however, was exciting. The kid is a great athlete with a pretty-looking shot and the wingspan of a seven-footer.
With the news that the Celtics have traded the #1 overall pick to the division rival Philadelphia 76ers, my pre-draft video attention will be shifted to Josh Jackson of Kansas, Jayson Tatum of Duke, and De’Aaron Fox of Kentucky. In exchange for the top pick, the Celtics get this year’s #3 pick from the Sixers and either the Lakers’ 2018 pick (if it falls between #2 and #5) or the Sacramento Kings’ 2019 pick (unprotected). While it is underwhelming right now to go from having the top pick, and dreaming of a guy who has been described as a “right handed James Harden,” a “taller, more defensively stout Damian Lillard,” and a “6’4″ Tracy McGrady” as the next great Celtic, it keeps Boston’s options open for years to come, rolling over the window to built through the draft. And again, Danny Ainge is operating from a point of power, and channeling his inner Bill Belichick.
By trading down and allowing the Sixers to draft Fultz, Philadelphia has a Baby Big Three in Fultz, 2016 #1 overall pick Ben Simmons, and 2014 #3 pick (who was the consensus top prospect but fell when he broke his leg days before the draft), and after years of tanking finally appear to be building a team, something Philly fans and NBA fans as a whole have waited far too long to see.
The Sixers were tanking way back when the Celtics were still tanking in 2014. The second round playoff between the Sixers and Celtics, featuring Doug Collins, Jrue Holiday, Andre Igoudala, Elton Brand, Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo may have been in 2012, but it feels like a million years ago, considering how different the two teams have become. After the Sixers traded Igoudala to the Denver Nuggets and acquired Andrew Bynum in the disastrous Dwight Howard Trade, and after Ray Allen signed with the Miami Heat and the Celtics were eliminated in the first round by the only good New York Knicks team of the last 15 years, both teams were headed for a rebuild in the summer of 2013. Collins retired and Holiday was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans, while the Celtics traded Rivers to the Los Angeles Clippers, and traded KG and Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets.
Both teams took the long view in hiring their next coach, with the Sixers hiring longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant Brett Brown, and the Celtics hiring Butler University coaching wunderkind Brad Stevens. Both teams spent the 2013-14 season vying for top position in the Draft Lottery, only for the Cleveland Cavaliers to land the #1 pick as well as the ultimate lottery by convincing LeBron James to come home. This is where the similarities between the Sixers’ rebuild and the Celtics’ rebuild end.
Philadelphia drafted Joel Embiid and Dario Saric in the 1st round of the 2014 Draft, but neither played in an NBA game until 2016. Former 76ers GM Sam Hinkie called it “The Process:” the method of drafting high-upside prospects, even if they will miss years due to injury or due to playing in Europe, and keeping the present-day 76ers team as bad as possible, staying in the lottery and increasing the chance of landing a franchise-changing superstar.
The Celtics, meanwhile, drafted Marcus Smart with the #6 pick in 2014, and continued to incrementally build their team. In 2015 and 2016, they made the playoffs, and in 2017, made the Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics had their own version of The Process, but it was built on Brooklyn tanking for them, free to compete within the conference at the same time.
While it makes me nervous, on one hand, to trade the top pick and a potential superstar to a team in the division, I’m not about to doubt Danny Ainge. He did, after all, trade my two favorite Celtics of all time to division rival Brooklyn, and that turned out pretty well. While Embiid, Simmons, and Fultz are loaded with tantalizing potential, they also haven’t done anything yet. Philly’s Baby Big Three have played a combined 31 NBA games, with Simmons (another #1 overall pick whose college team missed the tournament) missing the entire 2016-17 season with an injury. As a fan of the NBA, I want there to be more good teams and more great players, and I want the Sixers’ young core to compete, but at some point they have to play. Embiid and Simmons have been highly anticipated, but the Celtics are giving their young players valuable experience. Ben Simmons hasn’t played a game yet, and Embiid has 31 games played in the three seasons since getting drafted, but Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Jaylen Brown have won playoff rounds.
Going forward, the Celtics still have one more Brooklyn pick, and have the ability to tank vicariously through the Lakers, Kings, Clippers, and Memphis Grizzlies. Danny Ainge was willing to gamble and pass on Fultz, even if it means being mocked in the short-term. This is guy who pulled the trades for Allen and Garnett, sold off Pierce, Garnett, and Rivers when their values were still quite high, and turned the Boston into a franchise that is in as good position as anyone in the East to wait out LeBron’s prime. He didn’t turn stupid overnight. As much fun as rooting for Markelle Fultz might have been, I have trouble doubting Ainge’s plan right now.
The 2016-17 NBA season went according to plan. The Cleveland Cavaliers met the Golden State Warriors in the Finals for the third straight year, again, and the Cavs proved they were the definitive second best team in the NBA by doing something no other team could: winning a single playoff game against this juggernaut. All that was foretold came true, we just had to wait 11 months to see it play out.
Ever since last July, the Warriors were destined to, if healthy, get back to the Finals, even stronger than their 73 win team that came up short, and ever since LeBron James’ homecoming, the Cavs have been the undisputed champs of the East. In my Finals prediction, I probably gave Cleveland too much of a chance, and I would be lying if I wasn’t pulling for the Cavs, but I’m also not one of those people who hates the Warriors or Kevin Durant for doing what they did.
Even if it robbed an entire season of any real drama, it was the smart thing to do, and any other team would have done the same if they had been so well prepared for the cap spike and Durant’s free agency. As a Boston Celtics fan, I would have preferred if KD had been swayed by the recruiting pitch from Danny Ainge, Brad Stevens, and Tom Brady, but I cannot argue with the fact that Steve Kerr, Steph Curry, and Jerry West were able to offer a better basketball product. Had he joined the Celtics, Durant would have given LeBron his stiffest conference competitor since his first stint with Cleveland, and the Celtics would have immediately become one of the three or four true title contenders, rather than the NBA’s third of fourth best team with no real chance at a title. Instead, by joining Golden State, Durant had a chance to not only be a true contender, but to flirt with historical greatness for years to come. Boston was a good basketball situation, but Golden State may be the greatest basketball situation assembled since the the 1960s.
In Durant, Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, the Warriors have four All=NBA caliber players, and all are under 30. This kind of concentration of talent is unprecedented in the 30 team era, let alone the post-ABA/NBA merger era. Even in the 1980s, when super teams like the Lakers, Celtics, Sixers, and Pistons reigned supreme, the talent was more evenly concentrated, and there were more than two super teams at a time. In 2016-17, the Celtics and San Antonio Spurs, the other two conference finalists, each only had one All-Star (Isaiah Thomas for Boston, and Kawhi Leonard for San Antonio). The arms race between Golden State and Cleveland has left all others powerless to defeat them, but the addition of Durant made Golden State far better than even Cleveland.
When the Warriors took a 3-0 series lead, I stopped being entertained by the game and turned into a cold, heartless sportswriter, eager to have the most cut and dry narrative to write about. At that point, the best possible outcomes were a sweep (where I could write about how irredeemably lopsided Durant made the NBA, and be free to watch the new season of Orange Is The New Black free of guilt) or have Cleveland top their 2016 Finals comeback (where I could parallel it with the 2004 Red Sox, and imagine J.R. Smith trash talking any reporter who would listen like Kevin Millar taunted Dan Shaughnessy with the “don’t let us win tonight” line), but since one was significantly less likely than the other, I’m ashamed to admit I was rooting for the sweep. I still finished OITNB in one weekend, and I still wrote the gist of what I would have written in a sweep, but Cleveland’s Game 4 win on Friday night did complicate things a little.
As impressive as Golden State was and will continue to be for the next few years, it would be nice to see at least a couple more teams in each conference compete going forward. A lot can happen this summer, and it is my hope that I don’t spend this Independence Day knowing who the 2018 NBA champion will be. In the meantime, the Warriors are the greatest team in the NBA, maybe the greatest ever, and the fact that they had to add another superstar to get over Cleveland is a testament to how good LeBron James really is. No star player has ever looked better losing the NBA Finals in five games than King James this year. I’m sure he will be back.
Like many trilogies, the third installment was not the best, and hardly the most exciting, but we can still admire the journey and the technical achievement that got us to this point.
This is my preview for the 2017 NBA Finals, the third straight between the Warriors and Cavaliers. For my preview of the 2015 NBA Finals, click here.
For my reaction to Kevin Durant signing with the Warriors and the 2016 NBA Finals, click here.
For my preview of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, click here.
The wait is almost over. All we went through this NBA season, from Russell Westbrook’s Triple Double Tear through the regular season, to the collaboration of James Harden and Mike D’Antoni, to Kawhi Leonard’s assertion in San Antonio in the first year post-Tim Duncan, to Brad Stevens’ overachieving Boston Celtics, to Doc Rivers’ underachieving (and likely soon to be dismantled) Los Angeles Clippers, was just a precursor to the third consecutive NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Warriors and Cavs blew through their conferences (in 12 and 13 games, respectively), there was a week between the last conference championship game and the first game of the Finals, giving basketball fans a Super Bowl-like layoff to think, and overthink, about the upcoming series. In that time, I keep going back and forth, over and over like this:
Golden State has more talent, and dominated the Western Conference with and without Kevin Durant. Westbrook felt burned by Durant leaving OKC and his stunning, anger-fueled 2016-17 season was one for the ages, but in spite of that, the Thunder were no match for the Houston Rockets, who were no match for the San Antonio Spurs, who, once Kawhi Leonard got hurt, did not belong on the same floor as the Golden State Warriors. This team is amazing, and they will dispose of Cleveland the same way they disposed of Portland, Utah, and San Antonio.
Yeah, but Cleveland has LeBron James, the best and most complete player in the NBA. Golden State may have more talent, but Cleveland has the league’s greatest singular talent. It’s hard to bet against LeBron right now.
Cleveland overcame a 1-3 series deficit last season against a record-breaking 73-win Warriors team last year, and in their third year together, LeBron and Kevin Love have figured out how to play better together than they ever have. Aside from a game and a half in the Conference Finals against the Celtics (if that), they have been in control the entire playoffs, and they already know they can win Game 7 in Oakland, in an NBA where road teams went 35 years without winning a Game 7 of the Finals.
Yeah, but the Warriors were well on their way to beating the Cavs in five games last year before Draymond Green’s suspension, and in the offseason they were able to replace Harrison Barnes with Kevin Durant. Kevin Durant.
Every time I talk myself into one team, I remember the team they are playing against. In 2017, these are the only two teams that matter, and now we get to see what they can do. Unlike previous years, both teams go into the series relatively healthy, and I expect this game to go seven games once again.
I am most interested in seeing how each team reacts when things do not go as planned. Aside from a brief moment against the Celtics, and the first half of the first game against the Spurs, neither team has faced any playoff adversity since the 2016 Finals. In a weird way, all the pressure is on the Warriors. It was Golden State, after all, who choked away a 3-1 lead last season. And it was Kevin Durant, after all, who as the biggest star on OKC, choked away a 3-1 series lead against Golden State in the Western Conference Finals, some six weeks before joining forces with them. The Warriors were the superior team, but too many little things went wrong. Steph Curry was banged up. Andre Igoudala was banged up. Draymond Green got suspended. Harrison Barnes had a crisis of confidence. Andrew Bogut got injured mid-series. Bogut was the fifth or sixth most important player for the Warriors, yet his injury was the last straw.
Durant’s first trip to the NBA Finals ended in defeat at the hands of LeBron James and the Miami Heat in 2012. It ended with LeBron finally getting over the hump in his third trip to the Finals. In 2012, it looked like Durant and the Thunder would be the NBA’s next great team, but between a polarizing trade, bad injury luck, the resurgence of the Spurs, and the rise of the Warriors, they never made it back. With Durant’s decision to sign with Golden State last summer, the KD and Russ Era Thunder became just another historical footnote like the Shaq and Penny Orlando Magic, the Payton and Kemp Seattle Supersonics, and the Olajuwon and Sampson Rockets, just another good young team that was never good enough, and broke up before their time. Joining the Warriors turned a juggernaut into a super-juggernaut, if there could be such a thing, but with immense talent comes immense pressure.
For the first time in his career, LeBron is not the focal point of scrutiny. He has won and lost in the NBA Finals in every way imaginable. His mostly unfair label as a choker was officially removed with Cleveland’s comeback win (and the city’s first title in any sport in over 50 years), leaving Miami’s 2011 Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks even more baffling than it was at the time. If the Cavs win this year, LeBron will have two Finals wins over Curry, and two Finals wins over Durant. If the Cavs lose, LeBron has still beaten all of Golden State’s stars in the Finals. If the Warriors win, it was because they were supposed to. They have put together three of the greatest regular seasons of all time together, and their enthusiasm for the three point shot will have changed basketball forever. If the Warriors lose, they are the Atlanta Braves of basketball. They may have been great, and they may have been iconic, but they should have more than one title when it’s all said and done, especially since they added Durant.
The more I think about it, the more I think anything can happen, and anything will happen. I would be most surprised if either team swept the other, but then again, both teams have done quite a bit of sweeping. No matter what happens, it should be epic. We waited for this series since the moment the 2016 Finals ended. After the season we went through, it better be epic.
This was a crazy week in Boston sports, perhaps the craziest since the one when the Bruins lost to Chicago in the Stanley Cup Final, Aaron Hernandez was arrested for murder, and the Celtics traded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets, or possibly the weekend in October of that same year that had David Ortiz’ ALCS grand slam against the Detroit Tigers and the “Unicorns! Show ponies! Where’s the beef?!” game against the New Orleans Saints. I am just now getting around to writing about what happened this weekend, but for my article on the Patriots comeback in Super Bowl LI, click here, and for my reaction to the Bruins firing longtime head coach Claude Julien and the current direction of the team, click here.
Like the Bruins, the Celtics had big news this week that was overshadowed by the Patriots’ fifth Super Bowl win, but unlike the Bruins, the Celtics were not trying to bury it. Earlier in the afternoon on Super Bowl Sunday, Paul Pierce played his last game at TD Garden. That’s just how the schedule worked out, as the Los Angeles Clippers only make one trip to Boston the whole season. It was the only time the former team captain and former head coach Doc Rivers would be in front of the Celtics’ crowd in the 2016-17 season, and the 39 year old Pierce has announced that this is his last NBA season.
While Pierce played his last game as a Celtic in 2013, shortly after I launched this blog, and is now in his third team since leaving Boston, he will always be remembered as a Celtic. Fifteen years, ten All-Star appearances, two trips to the NBA Finals, a title, and a Finals MVP is not a bad legacy. Paul Pierce is not the greatest player of his era, and certainly not the greatest Celtic ever, but he will always be my favorite, as I was too young to enjoy the Larry Bird and Kevin McHale teams, let alone Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, or Dave Cowens.
Maybe an even greater aspect of his legacy, depending on how the next couple of drafts go, is what the Celtics got in return from the Nets when they traded him and KG in the summer of 2013. Brooklyn thought they were building a contender with Pierce, Garnett, Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez, and Deron Williams, but it never got off the ground. The Celtics have already gotten the draft picks that became James Young and Jaylen Brown out of the deal (and Brown has shown true flashes of brilliance at times in his rookie season this year), as well as the ability to swap picks with Brooklyn in 2017 (the Nets are running away the the NBA’s worst record and have yet to record double digit wins) and Brooklyn’s pick in 2018. Pierce only played one season with the Nets, while Garnett was traded to Minnesota in the middle of his second Brooklyn season, and has since retired. Without a doubt, the Celtics won that trade, but just how great a haul that was is still to be determined.
While Pierce did not have a say in getting traded to the Nets (Garnett had a no-trade clause in his contract, while Pierce did not), Doc Rivers was ultimately traded from the Celtics to the Clippers because he did not want to endure another rebuild in Boston. Doc would rather work for a garbage human being of an owner like Donald Sterling (which he did until Sterling was banned from the NBA by Adam Silver in 2014) than have to toil through losing seasons and coach up young talent for a storied organization like the Boston Celtics. On one hand, I do not blame Doc, and the Celtics found a replacement in Brad Stevens who is probably a better coach anyway, and gave Stevens the benefit of adapting to the NBA game without the pressure of needing to win now like fellow college coaches Billy Donovan in Oklahoma City and Fred Hoiberg in Chicago had to, but at the same time, the way Doc left Boston made it harder to root for him in Los Angeles.
Rivers took over the Clippers in the summer of 2013, the same summer that Dwight Howard spurned the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency, leaving them without a superstar in his prime for the first time since the early 90s after the retirements of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, and the San Antonio Spurs had just lost to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals in such devastating fashion, it was uncertain at that time (before, of course, they came back in 2014 with a vengeance) that they could ever recover. There was a sudden power vacuum in the Western Conference, and the Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder appeared poised to take over. Rivers was eager to coach a roster that had Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan, and he, like many people, thought they could be another Big Three for him to coach. Alas, the Golden State Warriors crashed the party in the West, and the Clippers under Rivers still have not advanced past the second round of the playoffs.
Meanwhile, Brad Stevens has the Celtics in a good place. Beyond LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, any of the playoff teams in the East can beat any other team, but the Celtics currently sit second in the conference and fifth in the NBA. Isaiah Thomas has blossomed into an All-Star and someone who might get some MVP attention (though I will be shocked if anyone other than Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, or James Harden wins it this years), and Jae Crowder has turned into a good NBA role player and a much more valuable trade asset than Rajon Rondo, the guy who was traded to acquire Crowder. The Celtics are headed in the right direction, which I cannot say with certainty about the other team that plays at TD Garden, but it is still nice to remember Doc and Pierce for the way the made this franchise respectable again when I was a teenager. The 2008 Celtics will always have a special place in my heart as the first, and so far only championship basketball team that was also my team.
At 39, Pierce is hardly the player he once was, and has been playing significantly diminished minutes this season, but near the end of the game, Celtics fans were chanting, demanding he go back in. Doc Rivers obliged, and Pierce sank a three in the end, though the Celtics still won. TD Garden erupted in cheers. Paul Pierce, The Truth, had his final moment in front of the Garden crowd. It may not have been the right uniform; anything other than Celtics green just did not look right on him, but the fans never stopped loving this guy. After all they had been through together, the ups, the downs, the victories, and the devastating defeats, Paul Pierce was the guy making the big shot at the end. His next great moment in Boston will be when the Celtics inevitably retire his #34 to the Garden rafters, something that was destined to happen as soon as they reached the Finals in 2008. It was a fun ride, and I was glad to see it happen, even if it got overshadowed by the Super Bowl.