The 2017 NBA offseason is the gift that keeps on giving. The Indiana Pacers trading Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder was not enough. The Los Angeles Clippers trading Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets was not enough. The Chicago Bulls trading Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves was not enough. Gordon Hayward signing with the Boston Celtics was not enough. The Cleveland Cavaliers trading Kyrie Irving to the Celtics for Isaiah Thomas was not enough.
The Los Angeles Lakers getting fined for tampering because Magic Johnson talked about Paul George on a talk show was not enough. Kevin Durant using a fake Twitter account to trash Russell Westbrook and Billy Donovan was not enough. Even this morning, the President of the United States uninviting Steph Curry to the White House when Curry said he did not want to attend, followed by LeBron James calling the POTUS a bum on Twitter (and in turn, causing “u bum” to trend) was not enough.
Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN (which is still weird to say after all his years at Yahoo Sports) reported last night that New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony had added Cleveland and Oklahoma City to the list of teams he wished to be traded, and this afternoon, Woj reported that the Knicks had traded Melo to the Thunder for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and a 2018 2nd round draft pick. A summer after losing Kevin Durant to free agency, they have a big three of Westbrook, George, and Anthony, and that is going to be very, very interesting.
Credit must be given to OKC GM Sam Presti, who has made his share of mistakes (most notably trading James Harden when he did, for what he got), and the loss of Durant was something that could have sunk the franchise into a decade of futility, but he acted instead of letting it happen and letting Westbrook leave. There is very little chance of George staying long-term, but the newly created trifecta could be enough to win now if things break the right way. These trades are bold moves for a small market franchise that has no chance of getting players of that caliber as free agents.
I don’t know if this is going to work. I thought the Timberwolves would be a playoff team last year, and I thought the Brooklyn Nets would contend when they traded for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, and Jason Kidd had never coached and NBA game before that season. What I do know is Westbrook and George got their teams to the playoffs last year as lone superstars, and that Melo best thrives when he does not have to be the #1 guy, like in the Olympics. With Russ and George already there, OKC is a better than average opportunity for the 33 year old Melo to become Olympic Melo once again. Does that put them ahead of the Spurs? Probably. The Rockets? Maybe. The defending champion Golden State Warriors? Probably not, but I would like to see them try.
I have been critical of Carmelo Anthony in the past, as many NBA fans have been over the years. I have never been a huge fan of his game, but the more I think about it, the issue I mostly had was the way teams play when Melo is their #1 option. He was The Guy in Denver, and again in New York (Linsanity notwithstanding), but for all the criticism of his selfish play, that criticism could not fairly extend beyond the basketball court. Melo is charitable, and one of the more socially aware NBA players in this new age of athlete activism. Just yesterday, he set up a donation page on The Players’ Tribune for hurricane relief for Puerto Rico. He may not have been the guy you want to build a championship team around like LeBron or Dwyane Wade were, but in a world with a lot of legitimately evil people catching breaks and moving up, Carmelo Anthony being in a better basketball situation than the comically dysfunctional Knicks is hardly the worst thing that can happen.
Last season, one of the biggest criticisms of the NBA was the inevitability of outcome. From the beginning of July, everyone knew the Warriors would meet the Cavaliers in the Finals for the third straight year. This year, the Warriors are not going anywhere, and the Cavs will be good so long as they have LeBron, but teams around them–the Thunder, the Rockets, and the Celtics, all got more interesting. Will interesting be good enough? We will find out soon enough.
I did not write about the Isaiah Thomas/Kyrie Irving trade the night the story first broke because I felt too close to it as a fan of Isaiah Thomas. In two and a half seasons, he became the most universally popular Celtics player among casual Boston sports fans–more so than Paul Pierce–since Larry Bird. Personally, I wrote about Isaiah in his relatively brief tenure almost as much as I have about David Ortiz, Tom Brady, and Patrice Bergeron, three titans of the City of Champions era that Boston has been enjoying since February of 2002.
I did not write about the Isaiah Thomas/Kyrie Irving trade in the week that followed, as the teams first acknowledged the trade on their various social media profiles, but then the trade did not get finalized right away. The Cleveland Cavaliers were skeptical of the integrity of Isaiah Thomas’ injured hip (a concern that admittedly did not get talked about enough once the Celtics’ season ended) and asked for more assets to complete the trade. It was not a one-for-one swap of two star point guards to begin with: the Celtics also gave up Jae Crowder, Ante Žižić, and the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 1st round draft pick, the last unrealized asset from the Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett trade to the Nets in 2013. To complete the deal with Cleveland’s concerns about Thomas’ hip, the Celtics also had to add a 2020 2nd round pick from the Miami Heat.
I did not write about the Isaiah Thomas/Kyrie Irving trade after the trade was finalized, and after the Celtics held their introductory press conference with Irving and free agent signing Gordon Hayward. While I understood that it was a huge trade, and objectively a good trade that will help the Celtics in the long run, I was not sure I could bring anything else to the table that had not already been said in the week between when the trade reported and when it became official. That said, I do have quite a few thoughts on the matter, and I have been writing about the Celtics in this space since the days of Pierce, Garnett, Doc Rivers, and Rajon Rondo, and if I never write about it, then why am I writing about basketball at all?
Bill Simmons pointed out on various podcasts that trades like this hardly ever happen. Two conference rivals, the two Eastern Conference finalists from 2017 just swapped point guards. The last time contenders of this caliber traded players of this caliber within the same conference was in 1980 when the Phoenix Suns dealt Paul Westphal to the Seattle SuperSonics for Dennis Johnson. But with the looming threat of LeBron James’ free agency next summer, these were desperate times for Cleveland. And with the looming threat of having to sign a guy under six feet in his late 20s with an injury history to a maximum contract, Boston was acting from a point of desperation in its own right.
I wrote in the spring about my worry that Isaiah would get the Malcolm Butler treatment from the Celtics, and in September, Butler is (for now) still a member of the Patriots, and Isaiah has been dealt. My worry was the Boston Sports Media would use any success in the Eastern Conference Finals after Isaiah went down with his hip injury to take him for granted and put the ball in motion towards running him out of town. I was admittedly emotionally attached to Isaiah, but I really did think he could be one of the three stars on a championship team. I did not think the Celtics would be able to get anything in return comparable to Isaiah, considering the asking prices at the deadline for Paul George and Jimmy Butler, and later, given the returns Indiana and Chicago got for George and Butler when they traded them during the summer. Of course, I thought all of that before I knew Kyrie Irving would be available.
In Irving, the Celtics landed another dynamic point guard who can score at will, but while both are injury-prone, Kyrie is taller and younger. Some have argued that the Celtics were not able to land a player who has proven he can be the best player on a championship team, but the only players who fit that description are LeBon, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and Kawhi Leonard that are still in their prime (sorry, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki), but Kyrie is the next best thing. He performed well in the Finals against Golden State, and even though he already has a ring, seems eager and poised to win outside of LeBron’s shadow.
The Celtics turned over their roster a lot for a team that was just in the Eastern Conference Finals. For some context, the Celtics had six players from the very bad 2006-07 team (Pierce, Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, Brian Scalabrine, Leon Powe, and Tony Allen) that contributed to the 2007-08 championship team, while they now only have four players (Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Jaylen Brown) left from three months ago. For even more context, the Bruins currently have six players (Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci, Brad Marchand, Adam McQuaid, and Tuukka Rask) left form their 2011 Stanley Cup team, and they won the Bruins won the Cup six years ago! Danny Ainge knew the Celtics were still far off from where they wanted to be, and he made the moves he needed to make if they wanted to move forward. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward might not be enough to get past the Warriors, but they have certainly narrowed the gap between them and Cleveland, with Cleveland’s future in jeopardy beyond 2018.
It’s really incredible how quickly Danny Ainge rebuilt the Celtics going out with a whimper against the New York Knicks in 2013. They only went into the lottery once with their own pick, made the two biggest free agent signings in franchise history, and got good returns in trades for Pierce, Garnett, Rondo, and Thomas. While the post-Kobe Lakers continue to toil in the lottery, Ainge reminded everyone that he is one of the best GMs in the game. A decade after bringing Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to Boston, the Celtics have reloaded once again. He made a move I could not have made (and that’s one of a hundred reasons I don’t run the Celtics), and improved the team’s championship odds, and expanded their championship window.
While I have my doubts about how quickly the Celtics will come together early in the season–I would not be surprised if they go through early struggles like the 2010-11 Miami Heat–the long-term future of the team is much brighter and clearer than it was even six months ago. From a local perspective, the NBA season got a lot more interesting.
Brad Stevens got his guy. Stevens and former Utah Jazz small forward and Ryan Gosling lookalike Gordon Hayward have unfinished business from their days together at Butler University, and they intend to finish that business in Boston. The Boston Celtics, in spite of their storied success, have not been a free agent destination for maximum players in their prime at any point in their history, but between acquiring Al Horford last summer and acquiring Hayward this summer, that knock on them no longer exists. It’s also worth noting that white small forwards from Indiana have historically done quite well in Boston, so the future looks bright for the Celtics.
That said, I cannot help but think what it would be like if they had been able to land Kevin Durant along with Horford last year. They went to The Hamptons, they got Tom Brady to sit in on the pitch meeting, but they could not offer what the Golden State Warriors could on the basketball side of things. The guys on the Warriors made financial sacrifices to Steph Curry could get his well deserved payday this summer, and they all wanted to stay in Golden State because they know nothing in their basketball careers will ever be better than what they have right now. The Celtics could not offer that. Durant joined the Warriors when the salary cap spiked, and now the rest of the NBA is paying the price.
In order to sign Hayward, the Celtics had to rescind their offer on Kelly Olynyk, who signed with the Miami Heat, and trade Avery Bradley to the Detroit Pistons for Marcus Morris. Both Olynyk and Bradley were guys the Celtics drafted and developed. Bradley was the last remaining Celtic to be teammates with Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce, and Olynyk went in four years from being the guy that traded up to get in the 2013 NBA Draft when they could have stood pat and taken Giannis Antetokounmpo with their original pick (though to be fair, half the NBA passed on Giannis, and no one knew he would be this good) to a guy who won a Game 7 against the Washington Wizards with the home crowd chanting his name. I understand the business of the NBA, and I realize teams have to make sacrifices to get big name players, but these guys will be missed.
I was a big fan of Bradley’s defense. He arrived in Boston the same summer Tony Allen left for Memphis, and while Allen was one of the NBA’s best defenders during his years with the Grizz, Bradley soon became a player of that caliber. Also, Bradley wore #0, which has been a number associated with fan favorites like Walter McCarty and Leon Powe as long as I’ve been following the Celtics, so he had that going for him.
I was personally hoping Bradley would be on the team when the Celtics make it back to the Finals, as he was drafted days after their last trip to the Finals in 2010, and because there are usually holdovers between great Celtics eras. John Havlicek and Don Nelson won titles with both Bill Russell and Dave Cowens, and Cowens was still on the team when Larry Bird arrived. There was supposed to be a youth movement to revitalize the Celtics as Bird, McHale, and Parish got older led by Len Bias and Reggie Lewis, and that tragically never happened. In theory, Bias and Lewis could have still been on the team when Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce arrived.
When the Celtics traded Rajon Rondo in 2014, Bradley became the longest tenured Celtic, and that was super weird to me because he’s six months younger than I am, and he was still in high school when the Celtics won the title in 2008. With Bradley gone, the longest tenured Celtic is Marcus Smart, who was drafted by the Celtics a solid year after I started this blog. Time is a cruel thing.
I didn’t get into writing about basketball to get headaches trying to make sense of the NBA salary cap, but that is where we are now. The trend had been that the salary cap usually goes up from one year to the next, but with new media deals kicking in, it went way up last year. It was expected to go up slightly or remain stagnant, but the Warriors carved through the West and the Cleveland Cavaliers carved through the East so efficiently, that there were much fewer playoff games, much fewer revenue opportunities this spring, than expected, and the cap actually went down. The Warriors and Cavs were so dominant that their dominance made it tangibly more difficult for the rest of the NBA to catch up to them.
The Bradley trade was a financial move more than a basketball move. To make room to sign Hayward, the Celtics were going to have to move Bradley, or Jae Crowder, or Marcus Smart. While Bradley, when healthy, is the most consistent player of the three, he is also has the most NBA service time of the three, has one year left on his deal, and he is going to get a lot of money if Detroit lets him get to free agency next summer. I thought Crowder was the odd man out, as he plays the same position as Hayward, and was clearly upset when Celtics fans were cheering Hayward when the Jazz came to Boston last season.
Of course, the Celtics are in a much better position to deal with the reality of the salary cap than a lot of teams. They don’t have to worry about their best player leaving town because he (justifiably) hates the owner like the Cavaliers. They are not located in the loaded Western Conference, where nearly every other high-profile free agent signed, and where Jimmy Butler and Paul George landed in trades. They did not spend years building methodically through the draft only to make the playoffs one time, get swept by the Warriors, and lose their best player to free agency like the Jazz. As happy as I am that the Celtics landed Hayward, I cannot help but feel for Jazz fans in all this. I would have been okay with Hayward staying in Utah. I was really just hoping he wouldn’t end up in Miami like LeBron James and Chris Bosh did in 2010.
The Celtics can compete now with Hayward, Horford, and Isaiah Thomas, but the key to advancing beyond the Eastern Conference Finals in the future was not going to be Avery Bradley or Kelly Olynyk or Jae Crowder. 2016 #3 overall pick Jaylen Brown and 2017 #3 overall pick Jayson Tatum are the future, and if Tatum’s Summer League performance so far is any indication, the future is bright.
Since the Boston Celtics won the NBA Draft Lottery a few weeks ago, I had been watching a lot of Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz highlights on YouTube. When Ball refused to work out for the Celtics–and when his father insisted the UCLA point guard would play for the Los Angeles Lakers–I focused much more heavily on Fultz, who had far less video available because he played for a bad Washington team that did not make the NCAA Tournament. What I did see of Fultz, however, was exciting. The kid is a great athlete with a pretty-looking shot and the wingspan of a seven-footer.
With the news that the Celtics have traded the #1 overall pick to the division rival Philadelphia 76ers, my pre-draft video attention will be shifted to Josh Jackson of Kansas, Jayson Tatum of Duke, and De’Aaron Fox of Kentucky. In exchange for the top pick, the Celtics get this year’s #3 pick from the Sixers and either the Lakers’ 2018 pick (if it falls between #2 and #5) or the Sacramento Kings’ 2019 pick (unprotected). While it is underwhelming right now to go from having the top pick, and dreaming of a guy who has been described as a “right handed James Harden,” a “taller, more defensively stout Damian Lillard,” and a “6’4″ Tracy McGrady” as the next great Celtic, it keeps Boston’s options open for years to come, rolling over the window to built through the draft. And again, Danny Ainge is operating from a point of power, and channeling his inner Bill Belichick.
By trading down and allowing the Sixers to draft Fultz, Philadelphia has a Baby Big Three in Fultz, 2016 #1 overall pick Ben Simmons, and 2014 #3 pick (who was the consensus top prospect but fell when he broke his leg days before the draft), and after years of tanking finally appear to be building a team, something Philly fans and NBA fans as a whole have waited far too long to see.
The Sixers were tanking way back when the Celtics were still tanking in 2014. The second round playoff between the Sixers and Celtics, featuring Doug Collins, Jrue Holiday, Andre Igoudala, Elton Brand, Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo may have been in 2012, but it feels like a million years ago, considering how different the two teams have become. After the Sixers traded Igoudala to the Denver Nuggets and acquired Andrew Bynum in the disastrous Dwight Howard Trade, and after Ray Allen signed with the Miami Heat and the Celtics were eliminated in the first round by the only good New York Knicks team of the last 15 years, both teams were headed for a rebuild in the summer of 2013. Collins retired and Holiday was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans, while the Celtics traded Rivers to the Los Angeles Clippers, and traded KG and Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets.
Both teams took the long view in hiring their next coach, with the Sixers hiring longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant Brett Brown, and the Celtics hiring Butler University coaching wunderkind Brad Stevens. Both teams spent the 2013-14 season vying for top position in the Draft Lottery, only for the Cleveland Cavaliers to land the #1 pick as well as the ultimate lottery by convincing LeBron James to come home. This is where the similarities between the Sixers’ rebuild and the Celtics’ rebuild end.
Philadelphia drafted Joel Embiid and Dario Saric in the 1st round of the 2014 Draft, but neither played in an NBA game until 2016. Former 76ers GM Sam Hinkie called it “The Process:” the method of drafting high-upside prospects, even if they will miss years due to injury or due to playing in Europe, and keeping the present-day 76ers team as bad as possible, staying in the lottery and increasing the chance of landing a franchise-changing superstar.
The Celtics, meanwhile, drafted Marcus Smart with the #6 pick in 2014, and continued to incrementally build their team. In 2015 and 2016, they made the playoffs, and in 2017, made the Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics had their own version of The Process, but it was built on Brooklyn tanking for them, free to compete within the conference at the same time.
While it makes me nervous, on one hand, to trade the top pick and a potential superstar to a team in the division, I’m not about to doubt Danny Ainge. He did, after all, trade my two favorite Celtics of all time to division rival Brooklyn, and that turned out pretty well. While Embiid, Simmons, and Fultz are loaded with tantalizing potential, they also haven’t done anything yet. Philly’s Baby Big Three have played a combined 31 NBA games, with Simmons (another #1 overall pick whose college team missed the tournament) missing the entire 2016-17 season with an injury. As a fan of the NBA, I want there to be more good teams and more great players, and I want the Sixers’ young core to compete, but at some point they have to play. Embiid and Simmons have been highly anticipated, but the Celtics are giving their young players valuable experience. Ben Simmons hasn’t played a game yet, and Embiid has 31 games played in the three seasons since getting drafted, but Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Jaylen Brown have won playoff rounds.
Going forward, the Celtics still have one more Brooklyn pick, and have the ability to tank vicariously through the Lakers, Kings, Clippers, and Memphis Grizzlies. Danny Ainge was willing to gamble and pass on Fultz, even if it means being mocked in the short-term. This is guy who pulled the trades for Allen and Garnett, sold off Pierce, Garnett, and Rivers when their values were still quite high, and turned the Boston into a franchise that is in as good position as anyone in the East to wait out LeBron’s prime. He didn’t turn stupid overnight. As much fun as rooting for Markelle Fultz might have been, I have trouble doubting Ainge’s plan right now.
The 2016-17 NBA season went according to plan. The Cleveland Cavaliers met the Golden State Warriors in the Finals for the third straight year, again, and the Cavs proved they were the definitive second best team in the NBA by doing something no other team could: winning a single playoff game against this juggernaut. All that was foretold came true, we just had to wait 11 months to see it play out.
Ever since last July, the Warriors were destined to, if healthy, get back to the Finals, even stronger than their 73 win team that came up short, and ever since LeBron James’ homecoming, the Cavs have been the undisputed champs of the East. In my Finals prediction, I probably gave Cleveland too much of a chance, and I would be lying if I wasn’t pulling for the Cavs, but I’m also not one of those people who hates the Warriors or Kevin Durant for doing what they did.
Even if it robbed an entire season of any real drama, it was the smart thing to do, and any other team would have done the same if they had been so well prepared for the cap spike and Durant’s free agency. As a Boston Celtics fan, I would have preferred if KD had been swayed by the recruiting pitch from Danny Ainge, Brad Stevens, and Tom Brady, but I cannot argue with the fact that Steve Kerr, Steph Curry, and Jerry West were able to offer a better basketball product. Had he joined the Celtics, Durant would have given LeBron his stiffest conference competitor since his first stint with Cleveland, and the Celtics would have immediately become one of the three or four true title contenders, rather than the NBA’s third of fourth best team with no real chance at a title. Instead, by joining Golden State, Durant had a chance to not only be a true contender, but to flirt with historical greatness for years to come. Boston was a good basketball situation, but Golden State may be the greatest basketball situation assembled since the the 1960s.
In Durant, Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, the Warriors have four All=NBA caliber players, and all are under 30. This kind of concentration of talent is unprecedented in the 30 team era, let alone the post-ABA/NBA merger era. Even in the 1980s, when super teams like the Lakers, Celtics, Sixers, and Pistons reigned supreme, the talent was more evenly concentrated, and there were more than two super teams at a time. In 2016-17, the Celtics and San Antonio Spurs, the other two conference finalists, each only had one All-Star (Isaiah Thomas for Boston, and Kawhi Leonard for San Antonio). The arms race between Golden State and Cleveland has left all others powerless to defeat them, but the addition of Durant made Golden State far better than even Cleveland.
When the Warriors took a 3-0 series lead, I stopped being entertained by the game and turned into a cold, heartless sportswriter, eager to have the most cut and dry narrative to write about. At that point, the best possible outcomes were a sweep (where I could write about how irredeemably lopsided Durant made the NBA, and be free to watch the new season of Orange Is The New Black free of guilt) or have Cleveland top their 2016 Finals comeback (where I could parallel it with the 2004 Red Sox, and imagine J.R. Smith trash talking any reporter who would listen like Kevin Millar taunted Dan Shaughnessy with the “don’t let us win tonight” line), but since one was significantly less likely than the other, I’m ashamed to admit I was rooting for the sweep. I still finished OITNB in one weekend, and I still wrote the gist of what I would have written in a sweep, but Cleveland’s Game 4 win on Friday night did complicate things a little.
As impressive as Golden State was and will continue to be for the next few years, it would be nice to see at least a couple more teams in each conference compete going forward. A lot can happen this summer, and it is my hope that I don’t spend this Independence Day knowing who the 2018 NBA champion will be. In the meantime, the Warriors are the greatest team in the NBA, maybe the greatest ever, and the fact that they had to add another superstar to get over Cleveland is a testament to how good LeBron James really is. No star player has ever looked better losing the NBA Finals in five games than King James this year. I’m sure he will be back.
Like many trilogies, the third installment was not the best, and hardly the most exciting, but we can still admire the journey and the technical achievement that got us to this point.
This is my preview for the 2017 NBA Finals, the third straight between the Warriors and Cavaliers. For my preview of the 2015 NBA Finals, click here.
For my reaction to Kevin Durant signing with the Warriors and the 2016 NBA Finals, click here.
For my preview of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, click here.
The wait is almost over. All we went through this NBA season, from Russell Westbrook’s Triple Double Tear through the regular season, to the collaboration of James Harden and Mike D’Antoni, to Kawhi Leonard’s assertion in San Antonio in the first year post-Tim Duncan, to Brad Stevens’ overachieving Boston Celtics, to Doc Rivers’ underachieving (and likely soon to be dismantled) Los Angeles Clippers, was just a precursor to the third consecutive NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Warriors and Cavs blew through their conferences (in 12 and 13 games, respectively), there was a week between the last conference championship game and the first game of the Finals, giving basketball fans a Super Bowl-like layoff to think, and overthink, about the upcoming series. In that time, I keep going back and forth, over and over like this:
Golden State has more talent, and dominated the Western Conference with and without Kevin Durant. Westbrook felt burned by Durant leaving OKC and his stunning, anger-fueled 2016-17 season was one for the ages, but in spite of that, the Thunder were no match for the Houston Rockets, who were no match for the San Antonio Spurs, who, once Kawhi Leonard got hurt, did not belong on the same floor as the Golden State Warriors. This team is amazing, and they will dispose of Cleveland the same way they disposed of Portland, Utah, and San Antonio.
Yeah, but Cleveland has LeBron James, the best and most complete player in the NBA. Golden State may have more talent, but Cleveland has the league’s greatest singular talent. It’s hard to bet against LeBron right now.
Cleveland overcame a 1-3 series deficit last season against a record-breaking 73-win Warriors team last year, and in their third year together, LeBron and Kevin Love have figured out how to play better together than they ever have. Aside from a game and a half in the Conference Finals against the Celtics (if that), they have been in control the entire playoffs, and they already know they can win Game 7 in Oakland, in an NBA where road teams went 35 years without winning a Game 7 of the Finals.
Yeah, but the Warriors were well on their way to beating the Cavs in five games last year before Draymond Green’s suspension, and in the offseason they were able to replace Harrison Barnes with Kevin Durant. Kevin Durant.
Every time I talk myself into one team, I remember the team they are playing against. In 2017, these are the only two teams that matter, and now we get to see what they can do. Unlike previous years, both teams go into the series relatively healthy, and I expect this game to go seven games once again.
I am most interested in seeing how each team reacts when things do not go as planned. Aside from a brief moment against the Celtics, and the first half of the first game against the Spurs, neither team has faced any playoff adversity since the 2016 Finals. In a weird way, all the pressure is on the Warriors. It was Golden State, after all, who choked away a 3-1 lead last season. And it was Kevin Durant, after all, who as the biggest star on OKC, choked away a 3-1 series lead against Golden State in the Western Conference Finals, some six weeks before joining forces with them. The Warriors were the superior team, but too many little things went wrong. Steph Curry was banged up. Andre Igoudala was banged up. Draymond Green got suspended. Harrison Barnes had a crisis of confidence. Andrew Bogut got injured mid-series. Bogut was the fifth or sixth most important player for the Warriors, yet his injury was the last straw.
Durant’s first trip to the NBA Finals ended in defeat at the hands of LeBron James and the Miami Heat in 2012. It ended with LeBron finally getting over the hump in his third trip to the Finals. In 2012, it looked like Durant and the Thunder would be the NBA’s next great team, but between a polarizing trade, bad injury luck, the resurgence of the Spurs, and the rise of the Warriors, they never made it back. With Durant’s decision to sign with Golden State last summer, the KD and Russ Era Thunder became just another historical footnote like the Shaq and Penny Orlando Magic, the Payton and Kemp Seattle Supersonics, and the Olajuwon and Sampson Rockets, just another good young team that was never good enough, and broke up before their time. Joining the Warriors turned a juggernaut into a super-juggernaut, if there could be such a thing, but with immense talent comes immense pressure.
For the first time in his career, LeBron is not the focal point of scrutiny. He has won and lost in the NBA Finals in every way imaginable. His mostly unfair label as a choker was officially removed with Cleveland’s comeback win (and the city’s first title in any sport in over 50 years), leaving Miami’s 2011 Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks even more baffling than it was at the time. If the Cavs win this year, LeBron will have two Finals wins over Curry, and two Finals wins over Durant. If the Cavs lose, LeBron has still beaten all of Golden State’s stars in the Finals. If the Warriors win, it was because they were supposed to. They have put together three of the greatest regular seasons of all time together, and their enthusiasm for the three point shot will have changed basketball forever. If the Warriors lose, they are the Atlanta Braves of basketball. They may have been great, and they may have been iconic, but they should have more than one title when it’s all said and done, especially since they added Durant.
The more I think about it, the more I think anything can happen, and anything will happen. I would be most surprised if either team swept the other, but then again, both teams have done quite a bit of sweeping. No matter what happens, it should be epic. We waited for this series since the moment the 2016 Finals ended. After the season we went through, it better be epic.
This 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.