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.
This week, after losing the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and with neither of the two games at TD Garden being at all competitive, the Boston Celtics announced that their start point guard, Isaiah Thomas, was out for the season. Then, the Celtics won Game 3 in Cleveland, and without their best player. Naturally, the narrative of “are the Celtics better off without Isaiah?” swirled around the Boston Sports Media for days. It was maybe the dumbest take, but also quite possibly the most predictable take ever.
I get how we got here. This is Boston. There are two radio stations and two TV stations devoted to the local sports teams, and the Celtics are the only one of the four currently in the playoffs. In addition to being a primary talking point for hosts and callers alike on WEEI and The Sports Hub alike, you have writers at The Boston Globe and The Boston Herald, national outlets with Boston roots like Barstool Sports and The Ringer, and probably hundreds of aspiring and trying millennials like me all trying to be read and be heard. On some level, the “better off without” opinion had legs, not because it was valid, not because anyone really believed it, but because the infrastructure of the Boston Sports Media needed it to happen. There were too many hours in the day for no one to say it, so people couldn’t stop saying it.
This is also the market that produced Bill Simmons, author of The Ewing Theory, which attempts to explain the phenomenon where a team loses their superstar who has never won a title, and the complementary pieces surrounding that star step up in their absence, and the team outperforms expectations. It was a theory Simmons first developed with a friend when Patrick Ewing was in college, and they noticed his Georgetown teammates seemed to play better when he was on the bench in foul trouble, and the theory was tested at the professional level when Ewing got hurt in the 1999 NBA Playoffs, and without him, his New York Knicks reached the NBA Finals as the #8 seed in the Eastern Conference. The ultimate Ewing Theory case is that of Drew Bledsoe, whom Simmons mentioned as a possible Ewing Theory candidate in a 2001 column, months before the Patriots’ franchise quarterback was wrecked by Mo Lewis, replaced by a second year QB out of Michigan named Tom Brady, and so began the Pats’ transformation to downtrodden perennial punchline to the model franchise in North American professional sports.
Of course the very existence of the theory causes people to anticipate a case before anything actually happens. The most prominent example of that was also Boston-centric, when Rajon Rondo got hurt in 2013, and the Celtics rallied around the loss and made the playoffs anyway, and it inspired Simmons’ “Ewing Theory Revisited” column. But as fun as a theory like is to think about, the reality is always much more nuanced, a huge reason I have become disillusioned with the sports media culture I am simultaneously trying to break into. Not everything is a hot take, and trying to find the hot take in every story only lowers the common denominator, and brings everybody down. Yes, the Knicks advanced farther in a lower seed after Ewing got hurt, but the 1999 NBA season was strange, compressed, and shortened by a lockout. The Knicks were probably a better team than they were in the regular season, and could have made noise in the power vacuum that was the East after the dismantling of the Chicago Bulls, who had dominated the conference for the bulk of the 1990s. Also, there is no way the Knicks were better off in the Finals without Patrick Ewing, going up against a San Antonio Spurs team that had both Tim Duncan and David Robinson.
Obviously, the Celtics are not better off without Isaiah. The guy was awesome for them this season, was the biggest reason (aside from Toronto’s injuries and Cleveland’s indifference to regular season results) that the Celtics finished atop the East after 82 games, and there is no way they get past the Washington Wizards in the second round (let alone Chicago in the first) without him. The Celtics were on the road, forced to play a different lineup, and caught LeBron James on a rare off night. That’s all it was. One game where the depleted Celtics held LeBron to 11 points and still needed needed a last-second three by Avery Bradley to win. That should not and does not wipe away all the great work Isaiah Thomas did for the Celtics this year.
As idiotic as the narrative was this week, it does serve as a cynical preview for the way things will likely go in Boston with Isaiah Thomas going forward. It took one win on the road in a series the Celtics were never going to win for fans and media to turn on the most beloved player the Celtics have had since Larry Bird. What is going to happen when the Celtics draft another point guard? They have the top pick in the 2017 Draft, and the consensus top two prospects, Markelle Fultz of Washington and Lonzo Ball of UCLA, are both point guards? What happens if they sign Utah Jazz All-Star small forward Gordon Hayward to a max contract this summer? As great as Isaiah has been for the Celtics, next summer, he will be a free agent, and will the Celtics be willing to make a 29 year old point guard who is under six feet and is already showing wear and tear from the beating one takes as a short guy in a big guy’s league one of the highest paid players in the NBA? I have a feeling this will not end well.
It may be a different sport with very different roster sizes and pay structures, but I have a feeling the way the New England Patriots have handled cornerback and Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler this offseason as something of a precursor to what could happen with IT and the Celtics. Butler became an instant household name when he made The Interception of the Century in the end zone against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. Last offseason, the most important players on New England’s defense were Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, and Butler, and all were set to be free agents at some level this offseason, and the team needed to address that. Jones was traded to the Arizona Cardinals last spring, Collins was traded to the Cleveland Browns in the middle of the season. Hightower signed an extension with the Patriots after the Super Bowl, but Butler’s future remains murky. First it seemed like Butler, a restricted free agent, would get traded to the New Orleans Saints, but the trade never happened. To further complicate things, the Patriots paid big money to free agent corner Stephon Gilmore without ever playing a down for New England, while Butler had established himself as one of the NFL’s best with the Pats, playing a key role on a team that has won two of the last three Super Bowls, but the Patriots hold all the cards, and they may very well make Malcolm wait for the big payday many fans and media members alike feel like he has already earned.
This is a similar situation to Isaiah with the Celtics. Thomas has been the good soldier, and consistently Boston’s best player since he arrived here on a very affordable contract (he is still playing on the four-year, $27 million deal he signed with the Phoenix Suns in 2014), while the team went out and paid Al Horford, tried to pay Kevin Durant, and may very well pay Gordon Hayward, all while being very deep at the point guard and possibly using yet another lottery pick on yet another point guard at next month’s draft. Isaiah made the Celtics respectable after the Nee Big Three left town, and just as he is playing his best basketball, the Celtics may already be figuring out his succession plan.
Both Thomas and Butler had to scratch and claw to become the players they became. While Thomas was the last pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, Butler went undrafted coming out of West Alabama. But Bill Belichick saw something in him, coached him up to be ready for the most pivotal moment of the most important game of the season, and was confident enough in his own coaching and Butler’s development to let Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner walk in free agency, confident that the Patriots’ secondary would be just fine. As much of a success story as Butler has been, Bill Belichick is confident in his ability to find the next Malcolm Butler if things between the player and the team go south, and Danny Ainge, like Belichick, is someone always thinking steps ahead.
Bill Belichick and Danny Ainge could not, as two professional sports executives who have been in Boston over a decade, carry themselves any more differently. Belichick is the gruff, ratty sweatshirt clad football coach who seems to go out of his way to be as terse with the media as possible, while Ainge is the clean-cut former NBA guard and MLB third baseman who regularly gets interviewed on the radio during the season. Ainge plays nice, but at his core, he’s a cold, calculating genius not unlike Belichick. Even when he’s tweeting praises of Isaiah, I have a hard time believing he isn’t weighing options should Isaiah not be in the Celtics’ long-term plans. Ainge built a team whose season lasted longer than any team other than the two teams everyone knew would be in the Finals the minute Durant announced he was going to Golden State last July, he did not have to give anything up at the trade deadline either of the last two years to get that far, and he has the ability to add a potentially franchise-altering player at the top of the draft. Like Belichick with Butler, Danny Ainge holds all the cards.
This turn of events says more about the over-reactionary nature of Boston Sports Media than it does about the future about the Celtics, but as predictable as it all was, it sheds some light on the things to come.
This Eastern Conference Finals is merely a formality for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. It did not matter if it was the Boston Celtics or the Washington Wizards as the opponent. Either one was going to get annihilated, likely swept, by the Cavs, just as the Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors were in the first two rounds. In the Western Conference, the Golden State Warriors have been every bit as dominant, cutting through the Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz like a buzz saw. Everything that has happened in this NBA season has just been a buildup to the third installment of the Cavaliers/Golden State Warriors NBA Finals Trilogy. Both teams are toying with and carving up their respective conferences, and are playing the best basketball they ever have. No other opponents are worthy.
All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.
The last three season have been the Cavs and Warriors, but LeBron has dominated the East far longer than Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Co. have been the class of the West. I’m 27, and as long as I have been old enough to drink, the New England Patriots have made it at least as far as the AFC Championship game, and whichever team currently employs LeBron has made it to the NBA Finals. What’s amazing to me is how consistently great both LeBron and Tom Brady have been. As a lifelong Massachusetts resident, I’ve been in on Brady since I was in 6th grade and he took the starting job from Drew Bledsoe like Lou Gehrig did to Wally Pipp, but also because of where I grew up, I was predisposed to disliking LeBron.
The New Big Three era Celtics were the team LeBron had to measure himself against in the East, like the OG Big Three and Bad Boy Detroit Pistons were for Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. The last time LeBron failed to reach the Finals, the Cavs were upset by the Celtics in a second-round series, on the way to their eventual 2010 Finals loss in seven games to the forever-rival Los Angeles Lakers. Days after the Finals ended, Boston drafted Avery Bradley out of the University of Texas, now the longest tenured Celtic, and a couple weeks after that, LeBron infamously decided to take his talents to South Beach, joining forces with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Pat Riley, and the Miami Heat.
In the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, it was the last stand for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and the Celtics. They gave Miami’s Big Three everything they could handle, but came up short in Game 7. Had the Celtics prevailed, I have my doubts they could have kept pace with the young and hungry Oklahoma City Thunder, who at the time still had Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, but it was the moment LeBron first overcame adversity, pushed through and won it all. That summer, Ray Allen left Boston for Miami, the Celtics got bounced in the first round by the New York Knicks during the month after I started this blog, and Pierce and KG were traded for the gift that keeps on giving that is the Brooklyn Nets’ perennially high first round draft picks.
In spite of his greatness, I was one of those people who constantly picked apart LeBron’s game. As recently as the days leading up to the 2015 Finals, the first since his return to Cleveland, and the first duel with Golden State, I wrote that LeBron was team basketball was his Kryptonite, largely in reaction to the way the Heat got methodically picked apart by the San Antonio Spurs, the Patriots of basketball, in the 2014 Finals. Since then, since overcoming a 3-1 series deficit in the 2016 Finals against a Warriors team that won a record-setting 73 games in the regular season and coped with defeat by adding Kevin Durant, the most talented, highly-coveted free agent since LeBron himself in 2010, and setting in motion the arms race between Golden State and Cleveland that is the 2016-17 season, since LeBron put a team on his back and overcame a rival in a way I have never seen him before, I have come around on him.
The 2016 Finals fundamentally changed the way I view LeBron as a player. Now, any anger, any feelings about how overrated and over-hyped he was. Not bitter. Not jaded. Just impressed. I often like to compare the San Antonio Spurs to the New England Patriots, and vice-versa. The parallels are uncanny, from the five titles, consistent sustained success built around an all-time great player and an all-time great coach connected to a military academy (Bill Belichick’s father was a longtime assistant football coach and scout for the Naval Academy, and Gregg Popovich is a graduate of the Air Force Academy) who are descended from immigrants from the former Yugoslavia (Belichick is Croatian, and Popovich is Serbian). The more I think about it, and the more his career continues to evolve, though, I am starting to think that Tom Brady is more the LeBron of football than the Tim Duncan. It’s not a knock on Duncan as much as it’s an illustration of how far LeBron has come.
LeBron is 32 years old, and has been playing big NBA minutes since he was 18. Tom Brady will be 40 by the time he plays his next game. Both have been remarkably durable, with only one major injury (the knee injury that wiped out all but a quarter of the first game of Brady’s 2008 NFL season) between them. The fact that both are playing the best of their respective sport at their respective age is nothing short of incredible.
LeBron James is so good at basketball at the age of 32 that a young team on the rise like the Celtics made the conscious decision at the trade deadline not to go all-in on this season, or the next couple seasons. Danny Ainge saw his roster, knew his team was good, but nowhere near good enough to get past the Cavaliers. Why give up high draft picks and/or important role players like Avery Bradley, Jaylen Brown, or Jae Crowder when adding Jimmy Butler of the Bulls or Paul Georgeof the Pacers, the two biggest names rumored to be available at the deadline, would still make them a long shot to get past Cleveland? The reward was not worth the risk because there was no stopping LeBron right now. Ainge saw the other pseudo-contenders in the East during LeBron’s run of dominance, the Bulls with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, the Pacers with George and Roy Hibbert, the Raptors with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and he saw them flame out flying too close to the sun, thinking they had a better chance at beating Miami or Cleveland than they did, and he was not about to panic and let the Celtics become another one of those cautionary tales.
Regardless of the current scoreboard, the best is yet to come for the Brad Stevens Era of Celtics basketball. Thanks to the steal of the century that was trading Pierce and Garnett to Brooklyn, the Celtics have the luxury of building their team for some level of playoff success, now one of the four remaining teams, yet still very far away from true contention in an extremely top-heavy NBA, while also adding lottery talent courtesy of a truly dreadful Brooklyn basketball club.
The night before the start of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics earned #1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. Patience at the trade deadline paid off. Even if Markelle Fultz from Washington, or Lonzo Ball from UCLA, or Josh Jackson from Kansas, or whoever they end up taking does not turn into a measurably better player than Butler or George, he will be a more affordable player than Butler or George for the first few years. The assets have appreciated, the guys on the current roster are gaining valuable playoff experience, and LeBron will not be able to sustain this level of basketball greatness forever (I’m assuming?). The Celtics could keep the pick and take Fultz, trade down and get a team that is overly enamored by one player (like the Lakers may be with Ball) and get them to overpay, or a hundred other combinations of scenarios, but right now Trader Danny is holding the best cards and the best leverage he has had in a decade.
A decade ago this summer, the Celtics had bad lottery luck, landing the #5 pick in the Greg Oden/Kevin Durant draft (and even though Portland took Oden with the first pick, it has been well documented how high Ainge was on KD then and now), a decade removed from when they had two shots at the Tim Duncan lottery and came away with Chauncey Billups and Ron Mercer. After 1997, the Celtics waded back and forth between mediocrity and futility for ten years, and by 2007, Ainge pushed his chips to the center of the table, cashing his young assets in to turn them into Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. A decade ago, Danny Ainge built the best Celtics team of my lifetime, and six years later, he flipped the aging core of that team to set a faster, smarter rebuild in motion.
The last four years have not been without their frustrations, but the great coaching of Brad Stevens combined with Ainge’s shrewd roster composition, keeping as many options open as possible in a constantly evolving NBA with a seemingly unstoppable force at the top of the Eastern Conference for the entire 2010s to this point, has put the Celtics in the best position to be the East’s next great team, infrastructure-wise. All they need is their superstar. It’s a pretty big only thing to need, but it’s better than most teams can boast.
Even if none of the games against Cleveland are competitive, it cannot take away the way the Celtics overcame adversity against the Bulls, with Isaiah Thomas lighting it up as he grieved the loss of his sister, and is will not take away they held home court against a dynamic Wizards team that gave them everything they could handle. No matter what happens in Game 3 and Game 4 in Cleveland, the Celtics are in a great spot going forward. This is starting to get exciting.
Good football teams lose their coaching talent as the seasons go on. It’s a part of life. But the New England Patriots are able to hold things together remarkably well despite winning two of the last three Super Bowls. And even when they do lose their assistants to greener pastures of head coaching jobs elsewhere, the infrastructure with Bill Belichick at the top of the football operation must be trusted until further notice.
Before the Super Bowl was even played and regardless of the big game’s outcome Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was going to be the next head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, and even though the hire was not officially announced, everybody knew it. Kyle is Mike Shanahan’s son, he is 39 years old, and he has been one of the rising coaching stars on the offensive side of the ball. In his various stops, he has gotten quarterbacks of varying talent levels to realize their potential. Working under his dad in Washington, Robert Griffin III was the rookie of the year ahead of Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson, in Cleveland, former Tom Brady backup Brian Hoyer looked like a competent NFL starter before getting hurt, and in Atlanta, Pro Bowl QB Matt Ryan won the MVP and did not trail in the Super Bowl until the moment the game ended. Given his reputation, it is fair to assume that San Francisco’s next starting QB whether they stick with Colin Kaepernick, or they trade for Jimmy Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins, or they make a less exciting stopgap signing like Matt Schaub or Brian Hoyer, or start from scratch with a kid from the draft, that QB will enjoy an uptick in production from this past year.
Regardless of the second guessing of Shanahan’s overly aggressive play calling in the second half that gave the Patriots enough clock to work with to make their historic comeback, there is a lot of hope surrounding the downtrodden 49ers and also a lot of uncertainty for the Falcons because of Shanahan. Before Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons were a good offense and Matt Ryan was a good quarterback, but with him they were a great offense with an MVP quarterback. When the Patriots experienced a period of significant turnover after their Super Bowl XXXIX win over the Philadelphia Eagles, when offensive coordinator Charlie Weis took the head coaching job at Notre Dame and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel left New England to be the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, Belichick promoted from within, making Eric Mangini the defensive coordinator and assuming the offensive coordinator duties himself, even though he is best known as a defensive mastermind, before eventually handing over the keys to Brady’s offense to Josh McDaniels when McDaniels was ready for the responsibility. Years later, when Dean Pees left the Patriots, Belichick assumed defensive coordinator duties until he felt Matt Patricia was ready for it.
Most coaches are not Bill Belichick, however, and Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, a defensive coach, did not go this way. Instead the Falcons hired former Washington and USC head coach Steve Sarkisian to run their offense in 2017. Sarkisian was most recently the offensive coordinator at the University of Alabama for one game, replacing Lane Kiffin for the National Championship Game against Clemson, which Alabama lost. Sark may not be the best college head coach ever, but he does have a good reputation as an offensive play caller. The problem for Atlanta is that they are bringing in a new voice with a new philosophy when they thing they were doing was working perfectly fine. It is hard to come back from losing the Super Bowl. Most teams struggle in the following year, and the 2016 Carolina Panthers are a perfect example, and changing more than you have to certainly cannot help.
The Patriots could have just as easily been the team that lost the Super Bowl instead of the Falcons, and the last two years both offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have gotten head coaching interviews. McDaniels, in fact, was in direct competition with Shanahan for the Niners job. McDaniels, who first joined the Patriots as a personnel assistant in 2001, left to become head coach of the Denver Broncos in 2009, got fired, worked for the St. Louis Rams for a season before getting his old job back in New England when offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien left to take the head coaching job at Penn State in 2012, has been careful in his pursuit for his second head coaching job to say the least. Many coaches get a second chance if they fail as a head coach once, but if you fail twice, the odds of a third head coaching job are very slim.
Two years ago, Chip Kelly was still believed to be a football genius, but a bad third season in Philadelphia followed by the awful football situation he inherited in San Francisco leaves his future as an NFL head coach very much in doubt. McDaniels wants both a good quarterback situation and a good ownership situation, as those are the two factors the best determine head coaching success. If the Colts job opened up, Andrew Luck is a very good quarterback, but Jim Irsay is not a great owner to work for. Bill Belichick even failed on the first try in Cleveland, and when he was given a second chance with the New York Jets, he famously resigned as “HC of the NYJ” after a day when the more appealing offer came from the New England Patriots. McDaniels has the luxury of waiting, as he is still only 40, and being Tom Brady’s offensive coordinator and working for Bill Belichick is by no means a bad gig.
The Patriots did lose a key member of the coaching staff, as tight ends coach Brian Daboll was hired by Nick Saban to replace Sarkisian as offensive coordinator at Alabama, of all things. Daboll, like McDaniels, left New England before, but they were the only two prominent assistants to come back for a second stint, unlike Weis, Crennel, Pees, O’Brien, or Rob Ryan. With McDaniels staying put in New England, Bama was Daboll’s best opportunity to be an offensive coordinator again, and it’s a winning program. The more head coaching jobs McDaniels turns down, the more likely it seems that he sees himself as Belichick’s eventual successor as HC of NE.
When McDaniels first came back to the Patriots, I wanted nothing to do with him as a candidate to be the Pats’ next head coach. His terrible two seasons in Denver that included the (even then) head-scratching decision to draft Tim Tebow in the 1st round was still fresh in my memory, and I thought he was just another Belichick assistant who was doomed to be a bad head coach. But as the years go by, and it becomes more and more apparent that the operation Bill Belichick has built is superior to every other in the game of football (I mean, seriously, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a model of consistency and continuity and have had the same number of head coaches since Watergate as the 49ers had in Barack Obama’s second term, and even they are nothing more than the Generals to New England’s Globetrotters, going 0-3 in AFC Championship Games against Belichick and Brady with none of those games being particularly competitive.), and the list of coaches I would rather have than Josh McDaniels to come in and try to tinker with it dwindles every year. At this point, I would have to think about Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, and that’s about it. I would rather have McDaniels than just about anyone else.
For now, the Patriots are going about their business, doing their jobs, but Brady will be 40 next season, and Belichick is probably closer to his last game as a head coach than his first, so as effective Belichick and Brady still are, a little continuity on the coaching staff certainly goes a long way.
It finally happened, and in the most predictably Boston Bruins way possible. The Bruins fired head coach Claude Julien this Tuesday, in his tenth year in Boston, during the Patriots’ Super Bowl championship parade. Of course they were going to try and bury the fact that they were firing the coach who led them to their only Stanley Cup championship in the last 40 years on a day when the region was celebrating the greatest comeback in NFL history and a fifth Super Bowl victory that cemented Bill Belichick and Tom Brady as the greatest coach and quarterback in history. Besides illustrating the Bruins’ antiquated public relations strategy that has not at all adapted for the age of social media, it also shows that from a hockey operations standpoint, that they still have no idea what they are doing. Sad.
The thing is, I was not against firing Claude Julien. I thought it was going to happen a year and a half ago when they fired Peter Chiarelli. Claude is a very good coach, but coaching turnover in hockey is higher that the other sports. For some perspective, last week, the St. Louis Blues fired Ken Hitchcock. Having been the head coach in St. Louis since 2011, Hitch was one of the longer tenured head coaches in the NHL, but Claude had been on the hot seat in Boston for years before Hitch even got to St. Louis. Winning the Stanley Cup in 2011 certainly helped Julien, but it felt like the Bruins might have fired him had they lost Game 7 to Tampa in the Conference Final that season.
Even going deep in the playoffs does not buy you much time in the NHL. Michel Therrien took the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008, and got fired midway through the next season, only for Pittsburgh to get back to the Cup Final in 2009 and win it that time. Last season, when the Penguins again fired their coach midseason and won the Cup, it reminded people that teams typically get their act together a little bit when that kind of urgency is placed upon them, but I was not in favor of firing Claude for the sake of firing Claude. It’s one thing to fire your coach and win the Cup when you have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. That will not be happening with Zdeno Chara turning 40 next month when he turned into a statue on the ice sometime in the last 18 months. Getting rid of Julien turns the page on an era in Bruins history, a successful era that I have eulogized multiple times at this point when I thought he was going to get canned, but it does not change how flawed the roster is, and I am not convinced the people in charge have a plan to fix it.
Team president Cam Neely and general manager Don Sweeney now have one less person to blame besides themselves for the mess the Bruins are in right now. After missing the playoffs in the spring of 2015, Neely pinned the team’s failings on then-GM Peter Chiarelli, and Chiarelli deserved his share of blame for sure, but it never totally made sense why they kept Claude around when they promoted Sweeney to GM, except for the purpose of self preservation on the part of Neely and Sweeney. Why did they not fire Claude in the spring of 2016, when they missed the playoffs for a second straight year in an eerily similar manner? The only reason I can think of as a cynical Bruins fan is that they still did not have a plan, and they decided to put off firing Claude longer to distract from that fact. It’s behavior like that from the team that has bred institutional cynicism from Bruins fans that inspires signs like this alternative fact laden one I saw on Reddit this week from Thursday’s game against the San Jose Sharks:
I am not sure if this sign, starring White House Press Secretary and Melissa McCarthy character Sean Spicer, says more about the state of America or the state of the Boston Bruins, but either way, I do not feel good about where we are or where we might be going.
Regardless of how they go here, the Bruins are now in the Bruce Cassidy Era, and so far are 2-0, including today’s win over the Vancouver Canucks, and would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. Maybe replacing Julien with Cassidy, who was the head coach for the Providence Bruins of the AHL before joining Julien’s NHL staff this season, and previously served as head coach of the pre-Ovechkin Washington Capitals, will provide enough of a spark for the Bruins to get into the playoffs this year, but I do not expect them to do anything once they are there. Changing the coach will not change the fact that Zdeno Chara is a million years old, that Tuukka Rask has played more than he should because the backup goaltending situation is not as good as it traditionally has been (Remember when the Bruins had the tandem of Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask in net for three straight years? That was awesome.), that Patrice Bergeron is not getting any younger, and that Brad Marchand’s goal scoring prime is being wasted on an inferior team that has blown a chance at the playoffs in two straight seasons.
I might not feel as down on the Bruins as I do if the other three teams in Boston were not regarded as “smart teams” in their respective leagues. The Patriots are the smartest team in the NFL, as evidenced by their five Super Bowl wins in an era when that is not supposed to happen, and the Red Sox and Celtics were early to embrace the analytics movements in baseball and basketball. The Bruins? They are trying to win a style of hockey that no longer exists, or they are trying to change with the times, depending on the day and who you ask, but in trying to remain competitive, they are not rebuilding, and I am not convinced they know how even if they are trying to.
I was prepared to write about the New England Patriots’ disappointing seventh trip to the Super Bowl in the Belichick and Brady Era. I was prepared to apologize to Patriots fans for the blog post I wrote about Matt Ryan a few weeks ago, when the not yet crowned MVP was going to face off against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game, and I used this opportunity to take some less than subtle jabs against Boston College football, New England’s most prominent college football program that nobody cares about unless they went there. I was prepared to write about how the Atlanta Falcons not only deserved to win because they played against the Patriots the way the Patriots normally play against everyone else, not making mistakes and making their opponent pay for any mistake they might make, but also because it was the will of the country, as comedians and fans all across social media framed this games as “Trump’s America vs. Black America.” The angle in which I was mentally approaching writing about Super Bowl LI changed more dramatically and more times than any other game I have ever written about including the Bruins thrilling Game 7 comeback against the Maple Leafs in 2013. The second half of this game threw superstition out the window, and it took a few days to fully process what happened.
I watched the game with my dad and my brother, and by the middle of the third quarter, the hope was that they could just make the score respectable, as it was 28-3 with the Patriots slowly driving down the field. This part of the game was not even tense anymore. That’s how far out of it the Patriots seemed to be. We instead turned to the 2017 season, talking about key free agents: Dont’a Hightower, Martellus Bennett, Logan Ryan, and Malcolm Butler topping that list. We talked about the possibility of trading backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, to load up on draft picks for Brady’s final years and focus on coaching up Jacoby Brissett.
I floated out the idea that Bill Simmons mentioned in a column a couple weeks ago about the possibility of Belichick trading Rob Gronkowski before Gronk’s body breaks down for good, and about the Belichick dream scenario of sending Gronk and Jimmy G both to the Cleveland Browns for the 2017 #1, #2, and a boatload of 3rd and 4th round picks. My dad had not heard that theory before, and said throughout the rest of the game and (spoiler alert) trophy presentation that he really hopes they keep Gronk. As someone who has spent money on exactly one athlete’s jersey for himself, and that athlete is Rob Gronkowski, I agreed, but am also well aware of Belichick’s history or trading or cutting star players a year too early rather than a year too late from Drew Bledsoe to Lawyer Milloy to Willie McGinest to Mike Vrablel to Richard Seymour to Randy Moss to Logan Mankins to Vince Wilfork. That strategy, while painful in the short term for sentimental fans like us, is undeniably a key part of why the Patriots have been so consistently competitive this century, so you take the good with the bad.
Next thing we knew, the Patriots were right back in it. Hightower had a key strip sack, the Patriots made up for a missed extra point and a botched onside kick by scoring two more touchdowns and making two straight two-point conversions. The Falcons defense was gassed, and their offense was cold, with the exception of Julio Jones, who was inexplicably only targeted four times in the games, catching it all four times, each time more impressive than the one before. Atlanta’s aggressive offensive strategy, allowing Ryan to get sacked for big losses without eating away enough at the play clock or the game clock certainly played into their demise, but when the narrative becomes solely that the Falcons choked, the level at which the Patriots executed gets lost.
On Hightower’s strip sack, for instance, he was able to get to Ryan because Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman blew his blocking assignment. On any given play in a football game there are 22 players with an assignment, and success or failure is determined not only by the obvious variables like the quality of the quarterback’s throw or the hand and footwork of the intended receiver, but also the defensive coverage assignments and offensive blocking assignments. In the second half down by a lot, the Patriots were still playing like they thought they could win, and Hightower, who is older than me by a month and has two BCS National Championship rings with Alabama and two Super Bowl rings with New England to show off as he heads into free agency, executed on every play waiting for someone on Atlanta to slip up, and capitalized when Freeman did.
It really was a tale of two halves, because in the first half, the Falcons were the ones taking advantage when the Patriots slipped up. The first quarter ended scoreless, but New England’s offense seemed to be moving the ball better than Atlanta’s, and were marching toward what looked like the first score of the game early in the second quarter when LeGarrette Blount fumbled the football, and the Falcons recovered, and quickly marched the other way to score. It was Atlanta that recorded a pick-six on Brady, and went up 21-3 at the half. The Falcons had adopted the DNA of the Patriots, which made sense considering the presence of longtime Belichick underlings Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli in their front office. This was a new kind of Super Bowl experience for a Patriots fan who has seen his team play in the Super Bowl eight times since first grade. I had seen thrilling victories and devastating defeats, but never a blowout. I was not born yet when the Pats got destroyed by the iconic 1985 Chicago Bears team in Super Bowl XX, and every Patriots Super Bowl since had been at least competitive at the half, regardless of the eventual outcome. I honestly had not even considered the possibility of getting blown out by Atlanta, but could not help but respect the way they were doing it, as I would have been rooting for the Falcons in the Super Bowl against any other AFC team this year.
After trading possessions to start the third quarter, the Falcons scored another TD, making it 28-3, and I Facebook messaged my friend “At least Gaga was good” as if Lady Gaga’s halftime performance would be the only redeeming thing about this Super Bowl. It would be a solid hour before Hightower’s strip sack, and a little longer before it really felt like the Patriots were actually back in it, but that whole time, the Patriots were still executing like they had a chance to win, which is a credit to the players and the coaching staff. Peyton Manning would not have orchestrated a comeback like this, and I can say that with confidence because of the way he folded in 2014 in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks. Moments like this are what have always separated Tom Brady from his peers, and put him alone with Joe Montana in the GOAT discussion.
By the time the game made it to overtime, there was no way the Patriots would lose. Special teams captain called “heads” for the coin toss, as he always does, but unless Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan (who has since been hired as the new head coach of the San Francisco 49ers) finally figured out to just feed the ball to Julio Jones like he’s LeBron in crunch time, which he did not do all game, the Patriots would have stopped a cold, suddenly not ready for the moment offense and gotten the ball back and scored. Even if the Falcons managed to stop the Pats on 4th and Goal, they would have had to take the ball out from the one, and the Pats defense would have gotten the ball back and only needed a field goal to win.
For years, I have been saying that I would love to see a Super Bowl go into overtime, just not in a year when the Patriots are in it for stress management purposes. But when it got to the point that my team was in the first ever overtime Super Bowl, all the stress was gone. They had all the momentum, and they were the team that had been there before. Instead it became a question of who would be the one to make the Super Bowl ending score. It was almost Martellus Bennett, who got interfered with near the goal line on one play and was targeted with a end zone throw that could have been Atlanta’s version of the Malcolm Butler interception at the end of Super Bowl XLIX. Instead it was James White, who did not have a rushing touchdown in the regular season, and who was inactive for the Super Bowl against Seattle two years ago who punched it in, breaking the plane of the end zone just enough to end the game, putting the Patriots ahead in a game they never led.
This game also proved the validity of some of the other football philosophies Bill Belichick & Co. have employed for years. The Falcons had greater elite, high-end talent, while the Patriots place a greater value on depth. While both teams have elite QBs, Matt Ryan has more elite weapons at his disposal in Jones, Freeman, Taylor Gabriel and Mohamed Sanu. Brady has Rob Gronkowski, the greatest player in the history of the tight end position, but did not have him most of the season, including the playoffs, and the Patriots went undefeated without him because Brady makes guys like Julian Edelman (whose insane late-game catch was indefensibly not mentioned until now), Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, and Martellus Bennett. Patriots players are notoriously frustrating to use in fantasy football because you never know, for example, which running back will be getting the bulk of the carries. If LeGarrette Blount struggles early (as he did), then Dion Lewis or James White could have a big game, and game to game, that is tough to predict. The same is true on defense, where Belichick traded Chandler Jones to the Cardinals in the offseason and Jamie Collins to the Browns during the season, and got better. Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia would rather have a deep rotation of guys who can play than a small handful of elite players, who could just as easily get hurt or get tired (the way Atlanta’s defense had to play twice as many snaps as their offense did in the Super Bowl) and not be there for them when they are needed most. It’s frustrating to watch your team consistently trade down at the draft, going for quantity over quality, but it is hard to argue with that method when they are in seven of the last 16 Super Bowls.
Ultimately, coming back from 28-3, and winning the first OT Super Bowl was the perfect way to end the nonsense of the last two years with Deflategate. The thing I am most excited about is that the Patriots were accused of a stupid thing that should not have been a big deal at all, and they reacted by winning two of the last three Super Bowls, the commissioner tried to bury them like he did the New Orleans Saints by fining the team, taking away draft picks, and suspending the greatest player of this generation for twice as many games as he suspended a guy who knocked his fiance unconscious on camera, and the team responded by winning everything anyway. There is nothing better than that. Nothing.
My readers may have noticed over the years that even though the NFL is a juggernaut of a league, and even though my favorite team in said league is the most consistently competitive, I write about the Patriots less than I do the Red Sox, Bruins, or Celtics. This is partly due to my disillusionment with the NFL. Since Roger Goodell took over a decade ago, football, which was my favorite sport as a kid and the mechanism with which I impressed a bunch of strangers in my college dorm suite as a freshman at UMass Dartmouth with my knowledge of every NFL roster in 2008, has fallen out of favor with me due to their disregard for player safety and livelihood, and bad priorities when it comes to real world issues like domestic violence.
It is also partly due to my inherent superstition. As an aspiring sports writer, I want to be objective. I want to be able to be critical, to see the bigger picture, with regard to the team and the rest of the league. It’s much easier to be critical of the Bruins or the Celtics because in the years I have been following them, they have never had the best player in the league, let alone all time, nor the best coach in the league, let alone of all time. Ever since this run began for the New England Patriots in 2002–with the Tuck Rule, and the Steelers booking their flight to New Orleans for the Super Bowl before they played the AFC Championship Game, and Ty Law’s momentum-swinging pick-six, and Tom Brady’s drive down the field to set up one more game-winning kick for Adam Vinatieri (seriously, I watch the America’s Game documentary on the Super Bowl XXXVI team at least once a year and it never gets old)–the Patriots have been the standard bearers of the NFL, and Brady and Bill Belichick have been consistently making their case for greatest QB and greatest coach of all time, and as someone with a rooting interest in that happening, I do not want that to end.
Now it’s 2017, and before the start of next season, Brady will turn 40, and Belichick will turn 65. Any rational, reasonable Patriots fan has to think there are fewer of these days ahead of them than behind them, or if this run does continue, it would eventually be with someone like Jacoby Brissett at quarterback and someone like Matt Patricia as head coach. If this year is then end, it’s been an incredible run.
The numbers are staggering. With their upcoming game next week against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Brady and Belichick have been to 11 AFC Championship Games in 16 seasons, including each of the last six. Brady and Belichick have more 10 win seasons together than the Detroit Lions have in their 80 plus year history. Bill Belichick has not had a losing season since Bill Clinton was president.
The Pats’ divisional round game against the Houston Texans was not pretty, but they still won by a larger margin than the historically high spread Vegas set for this playoff game. In some respects, the game was only tight, and only had Patriots fans worried because of the standard of excellence we have set for the team. This Houston team is littered with ex-Patriots from Bill O’Brien to Romeo Crennel to Mike Vrabel to Larry Izzo to Vince Wilfork, but with a quarterback as not-ready-for-primetime as Brock Osweiler, none of that institutional knowledge could make a difference. Sure, they fared better than they did in the regular season, when they were shut out 27-0 without even having to deal with New England’s first or second choice QB, but even with Brady throwing as many interceptions in that game as he did the whole season, and Dion Lewis putting the ball on the ground twice (Houston recovered one, New England kept the other), it was still a two-score game at the end. Even when they are bad, they are better than most, and that is special.
Next week, the Patriots will have their hands full with a better Steelers team, but the Steelers seem to find new and creative ways to generate bulletin board material for Belichick. In 2002, it was the confidence and the audacity to book a flight to New Orleans before even playing the game, but now they’re broadcasting their true feelings about the NFL’s scheduling policy, albeit inadvertently, on Facebook Live, complete with Mike Tomlin simultaneously warning the players to not do anything stupid on social media. The Steelers, like the Patriots, are one of the NFL’s model franchises, and have been since the 1970s. When the San Francisco 49ers hire their next coach, they will have had more head coaches in four years than the Steelers have had since Watergate. But things like this, broadcasting their own trivial locker room talk to the world through Antonio Brown’s phone, is what keeps them a notch below the Patriots in the Belichick Era.
My biggest takeaway from the Divisional Round Weekend is just how scary good Aaron Rodgers is right now. I already knew that, but the end of yesterday’s game in Dallas reinforced that. This is a quarterback who has not been afforded the luxury of playing for a coach of Bill Belichick’s caliber. Mike McCarthy is a solid NFL coach, but had the Green Bay Packers not run the table, as Rodgers declared they would after starting the season 4-6, the Packers may very well be waiting for the Patriots’ season to end to introduce Josh McDaniels as their new head coach. Rodgers is the most talented person to play the QB position ever, and has not had the kind of running game Elway, Aikman, or Peyton Manning had in their best years, nor the superstar receivers of any other superstar QB. He is doing it all himself and making the players and coaches around him better in a way I have never seen, and oh, by the way, he regularly completes Hail Mary passes.
All of that I knew going into the Packers’ Divisional Round match up against the Dallas Cowboys, but then after rookie QB Dak Prescott rallied back to tie the game for Dallas, Rodgers had just enough time to get Green Bay into field goal range, with an incredible throw downfield to Jared Cook, who made a great dance move to keep his toes in bounds. Just like that, the Packers were kicking a field goal and getting ready to face the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome next week in the NFC Championship Game.
Some may say Brady has nothing left to prove to anyone. He won more games than Peyton Manning in 30 fewer games, he played in more Super Bowls than any other QB and won as many as Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw. But the NFL dragged his name through the mud over air pressure in a football and suspended him for as many games as they suspended Greg Hardy for something that should have put him in prison. And already, despite only playing in one Super Bowl, talk of Aaron Rodgers being the greatest ever is picking up steam. The thing that makes Tom Brady great is that at age 39, when he should not have to prove anything to anyone in the game of football, he is burning to prove the haters wrong just as intensely as he was when he was picked 199th overall. Brady is at his best when he is overlooked, and that is what makes him the best.