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.
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.
About a year and a half ago, I wrote an article for another website about the parity, or lack thereof, in the NBA in comparison to the NFL, NHL, and MLB. My main point was that since 1980, only nine teams had won NBA Titles, less than a third of the franchises in the Association, which was fewer than any other sport. By comparison, there have been 19 different World Series Champions in baseball (and that number has not changed since I wrote that article, as the Boston Red Sox and San Francisco Giants have already won in that span), 16 different Stanley Cup Champions in hockey (and that number will not change this year, as the Los Angeles Kings won their second Cup in 2014, and the New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Anaheim Ducks, and Chicago Blackhawks have all won the Cup in the last 35 years), and 15 different Super Bowl Champions (but now it’s up to 16 after the Seattle Seahawks won their first Super Bowl in 2014). After I wrote that article, we got a sequel to the 2013 NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs, but with a very different result. In 2015, there is new blood in the NBA Finals, sort of.
As far as the television entertainment value is concerned, the 2015 NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors is a refreshing change of pace purely for the fact that our eyeballs will be watching different colored jerseys in June. It’s also refreshing because we will finally have a new champion that does not come from the Basketball Establishment, the nine franchises that have owned the last 35 years collectively. I’m a lifelong Boston Celtics fan, and I’m more than okay with the Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers, Dallas Mavericks, and Miami Heat all sitting this one out. In fact, of those teams, only the Moreyball Houston Rockets were the only ones to even make the Conference Finals. The Golden State Warriors have not won a championship or even been to The Finals since 1975. Rick Barry was their star player, Gerald Ford was President, and the world was still a few months away from Carlton Fisk’s legendary home run and the debut of Saturday Night Live. The Cleveland Cavaliers have never won a championship, and the city of Cleveland has not won a title in any of the four major sports since 1964, when the Cleveland Browns won the NFL Championship in the Pre-Super Bowl Era. The state of Ohio has not won a championship in a major professional sport since the Cincinnati Reds won the 1990 World Series. These are two title-starved fanbases.
Despite the new blood in the 2015 Finals, the DNA of the two teams that competed in 2013 and 2014 are clearly smeared all over this year’s championship series. The obvious example is LeBron James. Early in his career, LeBron made it to one NBA Finals in 2007 with the Cavs, but they did not belong in the same league as that San Antonio Spurs team. After ripping the still beating heart out of the city of Cleveland in the summer of 2010, LeBron went to the NBA Finals four straight years with the Miami Heat, after joining forces with Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, and Pat Riley. The level of competition in the Eastern Conference declined so greatly in that time due to the Celtics getting old (then getting very young), the Bulls and Pacers being cursed with devastating injuries, and teams like the Knicks, Nets, and Pistons being unable to get out of their own way in rebuilding attempts, Cleveland turned into the instant favorite to win the East despite missing the playoffs each of the four years LeBron was in South Beach when they re-signed him last summer.
Much the way the Cavaliers are a replica of the 2010-14 Heat, the Warriors emulate the San Antonio Spurs. Their game is predicated on depth, defense, and ball movement (they should look into getting that trademarked), and their head coach, Steve Kerr is a disciple of Gregg Popovich, having played for San Antonio in the early 2000s. Last summer, Kerr was the most coveted head coaching candidate despite having never coached before, and it’s clear why now. He ultimately chose the Warriors over the New York Knicks, and that looks like a no-brainer in hindsight as well. The Knicks, with Phil Jackson (an all time great coach, but a rookie executive who will turn 70 in September) running the team from the other side of the country where he lives with his fiance, who happens to be the owner of the Lakers, instead hired Derek Fisher, who like Kerr, has no coaching experience, but unlike Kerr, was playing in the Western Conference Finals for Oklahoma City this time last year and has not had the time to get proper perspective. New York was awful this year, but lost in the lottery, much the way Golden State did years ago in the first modern draft lottery when the Knicks came away with some guy named Patrick Ewing. This time, Golden State won the Steve Kerr lottery and are playing for their first NBA Title in 40 years, while New York is left with bad contracts and the dilemma of what to do with the 4th overall pick in the draft. Clearly, Kerr went to the Harrison Ford School of Choosing rather than the rival decision execution educational institution named for Julian Glover.
This Cleveland team has the same flaw every LeBron James team outside of the 2012 and 2013 Heat teams and the 2008 and 2012 USA Olympic teams has had: what is Plan B when LeBron is hurt/tired/effectively guarded? Sure, there’s Kyrie Irving, who can provide a ton of offense all by himself, but when playing against more balanced rosters that can distribute and contribute from three or four positions at any time, LeBron feels like he has to do everything himself. Kyrie Irving isn’t Dwayne Wade, and he isn’t Chris Bosh. Kevin Love was supposed to be in the picture as a third star, and they traded a budding superstar in Andrew Wiggins to get him, but Love got hurt in Game 4 of the first playoff round against the Celtics. With Love potentially leaving in free agency this summer, this has the potential to be one of those moves that really hurts in the long run. Much like when the Detroit Pistons took Darko Milicic with the 2nd pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, even if you win it all this year, with or without him, it’s hard to shake the feelings of what might have been had you not left someone like Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, or Dwayne Wade on the table. At least they have LeBron.
Last year’s NBA Finals started off competitive, but after LeBron cramped up in the first game, the Spurs took more and more control of the series, and the Heat limped their way through five games, physically and mentally drained from by the smart, unselfish dominance of the Spurs. Team basketball has been LeBron’s Kryptonite his whole career. I know that sounds harsh, but a big part of it is because he’s very rarely had a good team around him. He was drafted by Cleveland, a franchise with a very limited history of basketball success before his arrival in 2003. He didn’t grow up in a basketball culture like the Celtics or Spurs where there were other young stars that could be considered peers, so he was used to having to do everything himself. It wasn’t until his Miami stint when he had Wade and Bosh to play with that he ever had anything like “Big Three” to be a part of. In 2014, Wade and Bosh appeared to have lost a step, and once again it was LeBron vs. The World. That was good enough to get out of the flawed Eastern Conference, where their stiffest competition was an Indiana Pacers team on the verge of losing Lance Stephenson in free agency and struggling to find a consistent identity on the court, but reality hit when he ran into the Beautiful Game that is San Antonio Spurs basketball. The way to beat a team that has the best player on the planet, is by having five guys who can pass, who can play defense, and who can make each other better. San Antonio game LeBron more than he could handle in 2007, then it was the New Big Three Era Celtics and Stan Van Gundy’s Orlando Magic that gave him fits to the point where he left his native Ohio to join forces with two other All-Stars in the prime of his career. Even his first year in Miami, the Dallas Mavericks, a team of aging veterans, outworked the Heat on the floor while Rick Carlisle coached circles around Erik Spoelstra. In 2012 and 2013, LeBron was just that good. No team could beat him. The Spurs came the closest, but LeBron was the best whenever the Heat needed him to be those years. In 2014, it looked once again like LeBron didn’t have a team in Miami worthy of his greatness, and he went back home.
There are superstars who do it all themselves because they have to, and superstars who do it all themselves because they are selfish. It’s not always easy to see the difference. In hindsight, it’s fair to say that Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing never had teammates on the level of Scottie Pippin, James Worthy, Kevin McHale, or Robert Parish. Michael Jordan had Pippin, and Kobe Bryant had Shaq (and later Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum), but they still wanted to be the ones being the heroes in the end, and often that was the right call for the team. It’s unclear which camp LeBron truly belongs in, but I would like to see if he’s capable of becoming the third kind of superstar: the one who makes everyone around him better. This is the most intriguing kind of player to me, as an observer. Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Steve Nash, and Tim Duncan are the purest examples. They all played with more Hall of Famers than the selfish superstars because they made their teammates, who were good players, into Hall of Famers by winning as much as they did. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett made each other better when they joined forces in Boston, and now they’re working to make young players like John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Andrew Wiggins better with their new teams. Could LeBron join forces with another player and make themselves better? It’s hard to improve on what LeBron can do by himself, but it would be interesting to see if he ever had a teammate who could go toe-to-toe with him both athletically and intellectually.
The Golden State Warriors are built around one of these unselfish superstars. Stephen Curry is one of my favorite players in the game right now, and I’m glad to see he’s finally reaching the level I thought he could. When the Warriors picked him in 2009, he looked more like someone who should be going to his 8th grade graduation than someone getting selected in the NBA Draft, which may have been why Hasheem Thabeet, Ricky Rubio, and Jonny Flynn were drafted ahead of him (seriously, the Minnesota Timberwolves had the 5th and 6th picks in that draft, they used them both on point guards, and neither one was Steph Curry) despite being the leading scorer in college basketball that year, but he might be the best player to come out of that draft (I’ve joked about the busts, but that was also the draft where Blake Griffin went 1st and James Harden went 3rd, so it wasn’t all bad) when it’s all said and done. He’s the best shooter in the NBA, and his running of the Golden State offense makes Klay Thompson, Andrew Bogut, Draymond Green, and Harrison Barnes better players than they would be by themselves. Steve Nash would be proud. The NBA wasn’t quite ready for this kind of team when he was in his prime and turned the Phoenix Suns into this kind of team, but the season Curry has had is validation of Nash’s style.
Golden State is a joy to watch, and LeBron James is amazing to watch by himself. He’s now in The Finals for the fifth straight year, and the same question lingers: can he be better by himself than the best team in the NBA? If he can, then Cleveland will have won something for the first time since the Johnson Administration. If not, it is a victory for team basketball, a victory for the legacy of Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, a victory for up-tempo jump shooting philosophies, and a victory for a passionate and dedicated group of basketball fans who have not had much to cheer about in a long time.It should be fun, and it should be different from what we’ve seen the last few years, but not as different as you’d think.