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.
The Boston Red Sox formally closed the door on the David Ortiz Era this weekend by retiring. No Red Sox player will ever again wear #34. Maybe JetBlue overdid it by dedicating Gate 34 at Terminal C of Logan Airport for him, and maybe the City of Boston overdid it by also renaming part of Yawkey Way “David Ortiz Drive,” and maybe they rushed into things by waiting less than a year after Big Papi played his last game before retiring his number–they waited until induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame to honor Carlton Fisk, Jim Rice, Pedro Martinez in this way–but there is no one like David Ortiz in Red Sox history. The team’s and the city’s reaction was to be expected.
From a numbers standpoint, David Ortiz was not the best player in Red Sox history. For position players, Ted Williams, Wade Boggs, Carl Yastrzemski, and Carlton Fisk all had more career WAR by the Baseball Reference calculation (Ortiz is #231 all time, which is still impressive for a guy who was mostly a designated hitter and could not contribute in the field), and Williams and Yaz racked up all their Major League numbers with the Red Sox. But before David Ortiz, every great Red Sox player post-Babe Ruth was defined, fairly or unfairly, by not getting it done in October. Ted Williams was one of the greatest hitters ever, but only made the postseason once in his career. The signature moment of Carlton Fisk’s career was his walk-off home run off Fenway’s left field foul pole in the 1975 World Series… but that was in Game 6, and Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine won Game 7.
David Ortiz was one of many stars on the 2004 team, but it always seemed like he was in the batter’s box when it mattered most. Cast off by the Minnesota Twins, it’s almost as if David Ortiz’ MLB career did not really begin until he joined the Red Sox in 2003, one of the first of many moves that gave Theo Epstein the baseball genius reputation he enjoys today. Ortiz was the only member of the 2004 World Series Champions who was also on the team when they won it all in 2013, and he was the World Series MVP.
Ortiz had too many clutch moments for their to be a singular career defining moment. I keep going back and forth between his walk-off against the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS and his grand slam that turned the Fenway Park bullpen cop into a folk hero in the 2013 ALCS against the Detroit Tigers. Then again, there is also his “This is our f*cking city” moment after the Boston Marathon bombing. On and off the field, no player meant more to Boston than David Ortiz.
Ortiz’ accomplishments in Boston sports this century are matched only by Tom Brady. Like Ortiz, Brady turned the fortunes of a long-downtrodden franchise almost as soon as he arrived. Together, they transformed the Boston teams from ones devoid of titles to ones defined by them. The success of the Red Sox and Patriots was so infectious that even the post-Larry Bird Celtics and Jeremy Jacobs-owned Bruins followed suit.
Like Ortiz, Brady is as good as ever as he enters his 40s. He was already firmly in the Greatest Of All Time discussion before he won two of the last three Super Bowls. The comeback he orchestrated against the Falcons this February is one I still stop and think about in semi-disbelief that it really happened, and may be the best game he’s ever played. Both Ortiz and Brady proved themselves time and again after most had written them off. Obviously–purely based on the impact of an NFL quarterback compared to that of a MLB designated hitter–Brady is the more important player in the overall history of his sport, but given the historical importance of the Red Sox in Boston (their World Series drought predated the Patriots’ inaugural season by 42 years) makes the Ortiz vs. Brady discussion a debate.
As crazy as the David Ortiz farewell tour of 2016 that spilled into 2017 may have been, don’t be surprised if it’s even crazier if Brady ever retires. Then again, Brady’s end might come in another Super Bowl, which was the only thing missing from the end of the Ortiz Era. The 2016 World Series was the Series That Boston Built. It validated so much of what I have believed about baseball for years. If I wanted to build a title contender from scratch, I would want Theo Epstein running my front office. Even though his team lost, Terry Francona out-managed Joe Maddon, and Tito is the guy I would want managing my team. I would want Jon Lester starting the biggest game of the year, and Andrew Miller pitching the innings of highest leverage. The Red Sox had all of those guys on the payroll as recently as 2011. If that wasn’t enough, former Boston World Series champions John Lackey, David Ross, Mike Napoli, and Coco Crisp also played in the World Series.
David Ortiz went into his last postseason with a cast that was not good enough, and got swept in the ALDS Francona’s Cleveland Indians. The only thing missing from the Series That Boston Built was Boston, and by extension, David Ortiz. David Ortiz was Boston baseball. Boston celebrated him the way they did because he was the best we ever had when the games mattered most.
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 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.
When lefty reliever Andrew Miller was traded by the New York Yankees to the Cleveland Indians last summer, it changed the trajectory of the 2016 Major League Baseball season. Not only did the deal, along with another high-profile trade that sent Aroldis Chapman to the Chicago Cubs, mark a stark contrast from the Yankees’ normal trade deadline approach, Miller and Chapman were the centerpieces of the two bullpens that reached the World Series.
The 2016 World Series ended up being one of the most watched and most talked about Fall Classics in my lifetime, and as a result, Miller became a household name beyond the hardcore baseball fan community and the cities where he has pitched like Cleveland, New York, Baltimore, and Boston. It was a true Series for the Ages, and Miller put together a brilliant postseason for the Tribe, including being named ALCS MVP. One of the biggest moments of the series was when Chicago catcher (and fellow bearded 2013 World Series Champion) David Ross homered off him in Game 7, but that hardly diminishes Miller’s standing as one of the elite relief pitchers in the game today.
One of the lessons I have taken away from me recent re-watch of Ken Burns’ Baseball is how often great pitchers slip up in these big moments, because you have to be really good to be on the mound in these ultimate high-leverage situations. Kirk Gibson’s pinch-hit home run in the 1988 World Series was an incredible feat not only because of how physically hobbled he was at the time, but also because it was Dennis Eckersley, the best reliever of his era, standing on the mound at the height of his powers for the Oakland A’s. Much of The Tenth Inning, in fact, is devoted to big moments in which Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer of all time, could not close the deal in both the 2001 World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks and the 2004 American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox.
What makes Miller so interesting is that unlike Eckersley or Rivera, Miller is not primarily a closer. In the 2016 postseason Cleveland manager Terry Francona elected to throw Miller out there in the highest leverage moments of the game, to shut down the opposing offense, regardless of what inning it was once the starter was out of the game. This unconventional bullpen approach, which flies in the face of decades (or maybe even a century, as I’m not entirely sure when the conventional system of bullpen structure first solidified, and much of “just the way things are done” in baseball dates back to the 19th century, and I didn’t have time to take a deep dive on bullpen usage history for what was supposed to be a quick tangent) of clearly defined relief roles. You have the “7th Inning Guy,” the “8th Inning Guy,” and the “9th Inning Guy,” and the guy pitching the 9th should be your best guy, your closer. Miller’s use in 2016 was a potential game-changer.
The rise of Andrew Miller since he became one of MLB’s best relievers starting in 2014 may very well be enough already to change some people’s minds about his entire career. For instance, in 2007, Miller was traded by the Detroit Tigers along with Dallas Trahern, Burke Badenhop, Frankie De La Cruz, Cameron Maybin, and Mike Rabelo to the Florida Marlins for Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera. For eleven years, this was widely regarded as one of the most one-sided trades in recent baseball history, and then-Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski has been widely lauded for pulling off the steal of Cabrera, who would go on to win two American League MVPs, earn the first offensive Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, and led Detroit to the World Series in 2012.
Cabrera has been one of the best hitters in the game for over a decade, and was still only 24 when the Marlins dealt him to Detroit. While the Tigers consistently contended in the decade that followed, the Marlins toiled in futility. There are obviously other factors involved. Miguel Cabrera was not the only great player on the Tigers during that stretch, and trading Cabrera was hardly the only baseball operations misstep by the Marlins in the years before, during, and since, but there was a clear winner and a clear loser in that trade. My worry now, is that decades from now, or probably sooner, people will go on Baseball Reference, see Cabrera’s page linked to Miller’s page by virtue of that trade, and think maybe that trade was not so bad for the Marlins because of the player Miller eventually turned into.
I can remember in the spring of 2014, when I was working a second shift data entry job, and regularly listening to Red Sox games on the radio the pass the night. This was how I followed the Red Sox in 2013 (all the until Koji Uehara recorded the final out of the World Series), 2014, and 2015, until I got moved to first shift. During one game, I remember, they had Alex Speier, a very knowledgeable baseball writer who at the time wrote for WEEI.com (he is now with The Boston Globe) in the broadcast booth to talk with Joe Castiglione and Dave O’Brien, and he talked about Miller and Burke Badenhop, who was new to the Red Sox that season and has one of my favorite names in all of baseball (I mean seriously, a ground ball pitcher with “bad” and “hop” in his name?). Speier talked about talking to Miller and Badenhop about the historic trade, about being forever connected to Cabrera, who had signed a record contract extension with the Tigers in the previous offseason. (Side note: after a little bit of research, this WEEI.com article by Katie Morrison that Speier contributed to from May of 2014 has a lot of the insights I remember and more.)
For whatever reason, this exchange in a game I cannot remember for a particularly bad Red Sox team three years ago stuck with me. Miller and Badenhop both turned into fine Major Leaguers, but even if they did their best pitching after the Marlins, there are ways the trade could be justified.
A good cross-sport comparison I like to make to the Miguel Cabrera Trade is the trade that sent Kevin Garnett from the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Boston Celtics (sorry for all the Boston-centric references, it’s what I know best). The Celtics gave up a bundle of players for a superstar, and turned into a title contender overnight. The Wolves have yet to make the playoffs since trading KG, and that trade got Kevin McHale fired as Minnesota’s GM in time. While McHale could feel vindicated by the solid NBA careers Gerald Green and Al Jefferson had (the latter was so promising that some in the Boston media including legendary Celtics power forward/head coach/homer broadcaster Tommy Heinsohn adamantly did not want Big Al to get moved in a trade for Garnett), they were not enough to fill the void left by KG in Minnesota. Like the Marlins in 2008 after Cabrera got dealt, the Timberwolves of that same era were also not helped by other roster building missteps bigger than the one one-sided trade, most notably having back-to-back picks in the top ten of the 2009 NBA Draft, and used them on Jonny Flynn and Ricky Rubio, both point guards, but neither was Steph Curry, who was taken at #9 by the Golden State Warriors in that same draft.
In spite of the success of the Celtics and the futility of the Wolves in the years that followed, I cannot help but thinking how close it could have come to being different. What if, in the summer of 2007, when the Celtics had already traded for Ray Allen and everybody on the roster not named Paul Pierce was on the table to package in a trade for the third star, what if Danny Ainge had slipped Rajon Rondo and/or Tony Allen instead of Sebastian Telfair in a moment of desperation to get McHale to bite on the Garnett trade? Would the roster have been good enough surrounding the New Big Three to really contend with the Cavs, Magic, and Pistons of the late 2000s?
Similarly, what if Dombrowski threw Justin Verlander into the bundle of players because he was so desperate to reacquire Cabrera, whom Dombrowski first signed as an amateur free agent while GM of the Marlins in 1999? While one great pitcher would not necessarily have turned the Marlins’ fortunes around, it certainly would have made the trade a lot less one-sided. Dombrowski would certainly not have the same reputation he currently had of being a genius trader (which I’m a bit skeptical of as a Red Sox fan, with the Drew Pomeranz trade and such).
Without venturing too much further in the Miguel Cabrera Trade What-If Rabbit Hole, here’s one more: what if this October, in an American League Wild Card Game or later series-clinching game between the Tigers and Indians, Andrew Miller, in the highest of high-leverage moments of the season, gets out of the inning (and to raise the stakes just a little bit more, let’s say he’s in a bases-loaded jam) by striking out Miguel Cabrera on three pitches? Can you imagine the think pieces coming out “In defense of the Miguel Cabrera Trade”? I certainly can, and it hasn’t even happened yet. That is why I am writing this to get out in front of it.
Ultimately, I don’t think there is anything Andrew Miller can do to validate that trade from the Marlins’ perspective, and not just because he did not put it all together until years after leaving Florida. Miller always had good stuff. His big frame and high velocity made him an attractive prospect, selected sixth overall by the Tigers in the 2006 MLB Amateur Draft. During his time with the Red Sox, he was featured in the excellent documentary Knuckleball! as the hard throwing lefty who takes Tim Wakefield’s spot in the starting rotation in 2011 while Wake is in pursuit of his 200th career win. With all the love and respect in the world to Wakefield and R.A. Dickey, the two stars of that doc, Miller’s validation and vindication from his role on the 2011 Red Sox is a much lower bar to clear, and it’s fair to say the 2016 postseason did that for him.
While Miller’s reinvention from mediocre and frustrating starter to elite and dominant reliever has been a fascinating transition, but when a new generation browses Baseball Reference years from now and thinks the Cabrera Trade was a fair trade, we must be vigilant and ready to set the record straight. Or maybe Miller will somehow reach a new level of bullpen greatness so profound that he is more famous in fifty years than Cabrera, but I have my doubts. Either way, time will tell.