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.
The Boston Celtics are playing their best basketball since the days of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and (yes, even) Ray Allen. They currently sit second in the Eastern conference, tthree games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers, with Kevin Love out with an injury and LeBron James logging more minutes than he should at age 32, and Brad Stevens is going to coach the Eastern Conference All-Stars for the first time in his career. Perhaps most impressive about what they have done is that they are winning games with regularity in spite of their significant lack of health, with the longest tenured current Celtic Avery Bradley and 2016 free agent acquisition Al Horford both missing extended periods due to injury.
The success of the Celtics two and a half years removed from being in the draft lottery themselves (as opposed to living vicariously though the Brooklyn Nets’ miserable season) to being a top-five team in the NBA, despite Danny Ainge’s inability to find suitors in this decade’s version of the Allen and Garnett trades that the fan base so desperately wanted, is a testament to the coaching staff and the smaller moves Ainge has been able to make, but the biggest story for the Celtics has been the NBA’s smallest blossoming superstar.
Isaiah Thomas stands 5’9″, two inches shorter than I am, and my always unrealistic dream of playing on a school basketball team, let alone in the NBA ended around sixth grade when I realized I’d never be tall enough to make up for my inherent lack of skill. Despite a good college career (two time 1st Team All-Pac-10, two time Pac-10 Tournament MVP at Washington), Thomas was overlooked by NBA teams for his height, and he was taken with the 60th and final pick of the 2011 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings.
What is amazing about players taken in the 2nd round of the NBA Draft is that the ones that make it as stars, make it with a vengeance. Draymond Green fell to the second round, is now the NBA’s best defender, the most polarizing player on the NBA’s best team, and has developed this revisionist history around his draft status where several teams claim they were about to take him even though they all had a chance at him. Manu Ginobili being selected by the San Antonio Spurs with the 57th overall pick in 1999 and forging a Hall of Fame career out of obscurity in Argentina is an even greater component to the mystique and the greatness of Gregg Popovich and the Spurs than lucking into Tim Duncan at #1 in 1997.
In Isaiah’s case, though, the Kings do not get the credit for finding a diamond in the rough of a superstar because they let him go before his full potential was realized–same goes for the Phoenix Suns–but the chip on his shoulder is just as big as Draymond’s. Thanks to another great trade by Danny Ainge (a three team trade with Phoenix and Detroit where the Celtics gave away Marcus Thornton, Tayshaun Prince, and a late 2016 1st round pick, and came away with Gigi Datome, Jonas Jerebko, and IT), Thomas arrived in Boston at the 2015 trade deadline.
The Boston teams are in the midst of an under-six-feet renaissance between Julian Edelman (5’10”), Dion Lewis (5’8″), Malcolm Butler (5’11”), Danny Amendola (5’11”), Dustin Pedroia (5’9″), Mookie Betts (5’9″), Andrew Benintendi (5’10”), Jackie Bradley Jr. (5’10”), Brad Marchand (5’9″), and Torey Krug (5’9″), but Isaiah Thomas is the ultimate example because of the emphasis on height in who plays basketball at the professional level. While the Red Sox and Patriots gain acclaim for taking a chance on shorter outfield prospects and surrounding Tom Brady with a bunch of quick and shifty little guys, the Celtics have turned into a borderline contender built around a little guy in a big guy’s sport. This is almost unprecedented.
My two favorite basketball players who never played for the Celtics are Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson. I have written plenty about Duncan over the years, given that he was an active player this time last year, and he and Pop have been the Brady and Belichick of basketball. I wanted to write my ode to AI in September when he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in September, but it was my last college semester, I was working full time, and my buddy Murf’s bachelor party was that same weekend. Life got in the way, but I am here now.
I attended my first Celtics game in 2001, weeks after Rick Pitino skipped town. The Philadelphia 76ers were in town in a year when they eventually reached the Finals and Iverson was the MVP. To this day, I believe he is the best athlete I have ever seen in person (Honorable mentions Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The interesting thing is that Malkin actually stands out more than Crosby in person because of his size.). By my memory, he systematically picked apart a Celtics team that had Pierce and Antoine Walker and was finally showing signs of a competitive pulse at the start of the Jim O’Brien Era almost entirely by himself. It was amazing.
Iverson was officially listed at 6’0″, but even as a kid, I never really believed that number. AI was fearless and played like he was six inches taller than his actual height, making him one of the most intimidating people in the history of the NBA. He played hard and lived hard, and his career ended much more abruptly than many of his contemporaries as a result, but in his heyday, there were few players more compelling for someone flipping through the channels and stopping on a neutral site basketball game.
AI never won a title, and was labeled as a selfish player. Some of that was fair, but also a lot of that was the lack of quality talent that surrounded him in his prime. Unlike other elite point guards of his era like John Stockton, Gary Payton, and Steve Nash, AI never had a Karl Malone, or a Shawn Kemp, or a Dirk Nowitzki, or even an Amar’e Stoudemire to give the ball to. AI had Keith Van Horn and a past-his-prime Dikembe Mutombo. Iverson tried to do everything on offense by himself because that really was the best option in most years. This is the thing that has me worried about IT in Boston, but also not really. Sure, Al Horford is not the elite offensive threat that Karl Malone is. Sure, Kelly Olynyk is the victim of early Dirk comparisons. Sure, Jaylen Brown is an unproven rookie with some trouble finishing at the rim. But the Celtics are still building. Isaiah already does not have to do it all himself, even if he is consistently lighting it up in the fourth quarter, but they are still getting better.
What I really like about Isaiah Thomas the more I have learned about him is his self-awareness. In listening to recent podcasts where his sat down with Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer and Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, he has it all in perspective. He was the last pick in the draft. He was 27 and on his third team by the time he became an All-Star, and he’s just now getting recognized as a legitimate superstar at 28. It’s like an actor or musician who did not achieve success or fame until after he or she learned how to be an adult. In the NBA, we are at the point where we are surprised when someone drafted as a teenager like Kevin Garnett or LeBron James turns into a well-adjusted human being. Isaiah spent his basketball career being doubted, being overlooked, and has proven people wrong at every turn, so now that he’s arrived, he’s not about to let it get to his head.
This week, Thomas broke a 45 year old Celtics franchise record set by the great John Havlicek of 40 consecutive games scoring 20 points or more, with game 41 being Boston’s last-minute loss to the Chicago Bulls the other night. IT is making his way into the history books in the NBA’s most storied franchise, but this story is still in its early stages.
The other day, I got one of those notifications from Facebook that it was the two year anniversary of something I had posted, and asking if I wanted to re-share it for the sake of nostalgia. Now normally, these notifications are from much longer ago than 2014. By that point in my life, I had been over Facebook for a while. I’ve been on the social network since I was a high school senior in 2008, and posted a lot more things in the first couple years than I have since. By 2014, I was 24 years old. By December, I had just wrapped up my first semester back in college after a year and a half off (And my undergraduate journey at Fitchburg State University, that started when I transferred there from UMass Dartmouth in 2009, finally came to an end with graduation last week. Took me long enough!), and I even had the same smartphone I currently use at that stage in the game. I was working second shift at the time, and therefore did not have much of a social life, and it was a good six months before the year-and-a-half where seemingly all of my friends started getting married, so what could it have possibly been?
Oh, that’s right. I realized as soon as I clicked on it. Of course it was just me posting an article from this very blog for my Facebook friends to read. It was this week two years ago that the Boston Celtics traded Rajon Rondo, at the time the team’s captain and starting point guard and the last remaining player from the 2008 NBA Championship Celtics squad, to the Dallas Mavericks. Of the players Boston got in return, Jameer Nelson and Brandan Wright were not long for the team, but Jae Crowder has carved out an important role for himself on the Celtics as they have made the playoffs both years since the trade.
In the article, I shamelessly piggybacked onto a take from Bill Simmons, a bad habit I continue to do to this day, including in this post, but I’ll get to that in a minute. The big thing I got wrong, looking back on my post reacting to the Rondo Trade is how badly I missed on how Rondo would fit in Dallas, but I take solace in the fact that I was hardly the only one. If Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and general manager Donnie Nelson, who are not idiots and who have one of the better run franchises in the NBA, knew how badly Rondo would fit, they never would have pulled the trigger on the trade. After getting bounced by the in-state rival Houston Rockets, Rondo signed a one-year deal with the Sacramento Kings in the summer of 2015, and a one-year deal with the Chicago Bulls in the summer of 2016, joining forces with former nemesis Dwyane Wade in what has to be one of the most awkward locker room dynamics the NBA has seen that does not, to my knowledge, involve a player having an affair with a teammate’s wife or mother.
While I thought adding Rondo, one of the great playmaking point guards of his generation, to what was already a very efficient offense built around Dirk Nowitzki, Monta Ellis, and Tyson Chandler (Who has never been able to find a more perfect basketball situation than the one he had playing for Rick Carlisle and alongside Dirk. I know Phoenix offered him a lot of money in the summer of 2015, but he should have learned from leaving Dallas the first time that there is no greener pasture for him. If Chandler played his whole career as Dirk’s center, he’d be a no-brainer for the Hall of Fame, if you ask me.), but Rondo’s need to have the ball in his hands to make things happen coupled with his poor shooting, fear of driving to the basket due to his even graver fear of taking foul shots was too many moving parts, and things went off the rails in Dallas.
On the other hand, my frustration with Rondo when he was with the Celtics is well documented, and my feelings on this aspect of Rondo’s game made me want the C’s to trade him away two years before it actually happened, so I may have been wrong initially about how Rondo would fit in Dallas, but I also feel like it validated many of the things I had been saying about the player at parties for years, going back to when the Celtics were title contenders…which brings me to the real reason I am writing about all of this today.
The Boston Celtics have been in some sort of rebuild mode, whether they were ready to admit it or not, since time expired in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals at Staples Center, when the Los Angeles Lakers were handed their second Larry O’Brien Trophy in a three year span, instead of the Celtics. Before the end of the month, the Celtics would draft Avery Bradley, and were prepared to let Tony Allen walk in free agency when he was well on his way to becoming the NBA’s best defensive guard.
In July of that year, Allen signed with the Memphis Grizzlies, but the far bigger story was The Decision. With LeBron James and Chris Bosh joining forces with Dwyane Wade and taking their talents to South Beach, the landscape of the Eastern Conference was drastically altered, and while the Celtics remained competitive for a few more years, their championship window was effectively shut, as no LeBron-less team has come out of the East since the 2010 Celtics.
I do not know for sure, as I have never talked to him and cannot pretend to read his mind, but I think Celtics GM Danny Ainge realized just how futile resistance to the powerhouse Heat would be in the long term when he traded starting center and fan favorite Kendrick Perkins to the Oklahoma City Thunder, with the primary return in the trade being Jeff Green, at the trade deadline in 2011. The move cost the Celtics a legitimate chance at going back to the Finals that year, as their big man hopes without Perk were hinged entirely on the health of a 39 year old Shaquille O’Neal, who would retire from basketball that summer, but Ainge was already in the process of turning the roster into more desirable assets, as the New Big Three could not sustain the Celtics in the 2010s.
Ray Allen would join LeBron and the Miami Heat in the summer of 2012. In 2012-13, the Ray Allen-less Celtics stumbled out of the gate, and my frustration with Rajon Rondo was at an all time high, but after Rondo got injured, Garnett and Pierce rallied together and turned out another playoff berth. It wasn’t enough, though, and the Celtics were eliminated in the first round by the New York Knicks, and my first real blog post in this space was acknowledging the end of the Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce Era in Boston in the spring of 2013. In the summer of 2013, the Celtics made big changes, trading Garnett and Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets for some forgettable players and a boatload of first round draft picks, that have so far turned into James Young and Jaylen Brown, and the Celtics still own the right to swap picks with Brooklyn in 2017 and have Brooklyn’s first round pick in 2018 on top of that. They also traded head coach Doc Rivers to the Los Angeles Clippers, and hired Brad Stevens away from Butler University to oversee the development of the future of Celtics basketball. A year and a half later, the Celtics traded Rondo to Dallas, and I thought it meant the rebuild was in full swing. Two years later, it still feels like the Celtics are still stuck in the middle with no obvious way out.
All of this has happened before, and Celtics fans have been lulled into patience. Danny Ainge was hired in 2003, and tore down what had been a perennial playoff team but hardly a title contender when he traded away Antoine Walker, and spent years collecting assets before making two big splashes in the summer of 2007, when he acquired Ray Allen from Seattle and Kevin Garnett from Minnesota. If it feels like things are taking longer than it did the last time, it’s because it is. Trader Danny’s reputation around the NBA now is such that teams are more wary of making a deal with him than they were nearly a decade ago. Generally, NBA front offices have gotten smarter since 2007, and while the Celtics are still regarded as one of the “smart teams,” that is a much larger group than it used to be.
Look at the big trades Ainge has made. Former Celtics Assistant GM (and son of legendary Boston Globe sportswriter Will McDonough) Ryan McDonough has to be on the hot seat in Phoenix given the way the franchise has struggled since he basically gave Isaiah Thomas away to the Celtics in 2015. Former Brooklyn Nets GM Billy King has “former” attached to his name largely because of how badly the Garnett/Pierce trade set the Nets back on what was a long-shot short-term championship gamble at best.
There is no friend and former Celtics teammate like Kevin McHale being strong-armed by his team’s ownership to trade their franchise superstar and rebuild the way McHale was in 2007. And before you say Larry Bird is running the Pacers and Paul George’s future in Indiana remains uncertain, Think about this: Larry Legend watched what McHale went through in the KG Trade Saga, ultimately having to choose between comparable but not great offers from the Celtics and Lakers, with Danny Ainge, the kid brother to the Original Big Three, now running the show in Boston, trying to think what Red Auerbach, the man who drafted Bird, McHale, and Ainge, and who had past away at the start of the 2006-07 season, would do or want him to do in that situation, and decided to show his loyalty to the team he played his entire Hall of Fame career for and trade KG to the Celtics instead of the Lakers. Since then, Bird saw McHale lose his job as GM of the Minnesota Timberwolves, do TV for a little while, coach the Houston Rockets for a few years before getting fired in 2015 because Dwight Howard and James Harden quit on him, and is now out of basketball. Do you really think Larry Bird, who has been running the Indiana Pacers virtually this entire century, would in a million years let himself fall into the same trap Kevin McHale did trading a franchise superstar to Danny Ainge and the Celtics, and when Paul George leads the C’s to a record 18th Title, have every talking head on ESPN and FS1, and every Internet commenter make the same joke about how the Celtics better give Larry Bird a ring the way they did with McHale in 2008? That’s never going to happen.
The most intriguing trade option out there is DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins of the Sacramento Kings. Simmons wrote two parallel columns a couple weeks ago, one where the Celtics traded for Cousins and they were the perfect match for one another, and Boston becomes an NBA power just as Cleveland and Golden State slide into a decline, and another where it’s an unmitigated disaster, and Danny Ainge’s future is as a color commentator on TNT, and Brad Stevens replaces Coach K as the head coach at Duke. While the columns were entirely speculative, it sure feels like Cousins-to-the-Celtics could only go one of those two ways, with no in between.
Cousins is supremely talented, was a college star at Kentucky, was picked 5th overall by the Kings in the 2010 NBA Draft, but has been the victim of maybe the most comically incompetent basketball operations in the NBA, is prone to tantrums, clashing with coaches, teammates, and members of the media. It is hard to tell if he is a product of his environment or if his environment is the product of him, to borrow from Jack Nicholson in The Departed, but I tend to believe that it’s the former. The Kings were inept long before Boogie got there, and their revolving door of coaches, executives, and owners since he arrived would have made people think less of any star player. Not to say he’d have Boogie’s reputation, but if the first six years of Tim Duncan’s career were in that kind of chaos, Tim Duncan would not be the Tim Duncan we know.
If I were Danny Ainge, I would go for it. I think the unmitigated disaster option, while frightening, is a risk worth taking. At any rate, the Celtics are still not any closer to their next contending team than they were two years ago, and it is time to shake things up. The Celtics are a playoff team, but not a true contender. They have nice pieces, and good surrounding talent like Al Horford, Jae Crowder, and Isaiah Thomas. They have promising young talent in Jaylen Brown, who has impressed in his limited minutes, but they still do not have a superstar, and it’s nearly impossible to win in the NBA without a superstar. I realize it’s harder in 2016 to do what he was able to do in 2007, but I am getting tired of being in the middle. Something needs to be done.
In a year when sports fans said goodbye to Peyton Manning and Kobe Bryant, and much more quietly to Tim Duncan, in a year when we get to sit back and appreciate the late-career renaissances of David Ortiz, Ichiro Suzuki, Dirk Nowitzki, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Joe Thornton, and Jaromir Jagr, and in a week we learned for sure that this the end for Mark Texeira (retiring at the end of the season), Prince Fielder (retiring effective immediately due to neck problems), and likely also Tim Lincecum (designated for assignment by the Angels after posting an earned run average over nine), the weirdest departure is that of New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez… because of course it is. He wouldn’t go down any other way.
A-Rod’s career is coming to an abrupt end this week, after playing the series this week at Fenway Park against the Red Sox, Rodriguez will play one more home game in front of the New York crowd, and then will begin a new career as a special adviser to the Yankees’ organization for the duration of his playing contract. No chase for 700 or 714 or 755 or 763 home runs. No farewell tour. Just one last chance to be heckled by the Boston fans who have been heckling him since 2004, and one last chance to be cheered by the New York fans who I imagine could not have felt good about this guy being one of the faces of their storied franchise for over a decade. It’s just weird. Nothing ever totally added up with this guy.
I’ve been aware of Alex Rodriguez for as long as I’ve been following baseball full time (my earliest recollection of watching the games and knowing what was going on was the 1996 World Series between the Yankees and Atlanta Braves, when I was six, but I did not start following baseball day to day until the 1998 season, when I was eight), and I always knew he was a supremely talented player from his early days with the Seattle Mariners and his big free agent payday with the Texas Rangers, when his ten year $252 million contract shattered the record for player contracts in North American professional sports set by Kevin Garnett, but I did not hate him until 2004. The deal that the Red Sox tried to make to acquire A-Rod, would have changed the landscape of Major League Baseball, with the Sox having A-Rod at shortstop in 2004, and without Nomar Garciaparra available to be the trade chip to fill out the roster with role players, without Manny to be behind Ortiz in the lineup right when David Ortiz was becoming David Ortiz, and without Jon Lester, their lefty ace of the future. A-Rod would have come into Boston with enormously high expectations, would have had to replace Nomar and Manny, and would have had to deal with 86 and counting years of emotional baggage. In hindsight, it’s hard to imagine the Red Sox winning the World Series in 2004 and 2007 without Manny, and hard to see the Red Sox winning the World Series in 2007 and 2013 without Lester. How would the ALCS comeback have even started? Do they even have Dave Roberts on the roster to steal second base if Nomar had already been dealt the winter before? Things turned out alright for the Red Sox without A-Rod, and I cannot see the A-Rod Era in Boston going any better than the last 12 years when A-Rod was in pinstripes went, but in the moment it was a slight that he ended up in New York that every Boston fan took personally on some level.
A-Rod was easy to root against because he was so insanely talented, yet so often disappeared from big moments. Michael Baumann of The Ringer wrote this week among other things about the bad week for star players who came to prominence in the late-2000s with unconventional bodies, with the end coming for the comically oversized Prince Fielder and the comically undersized Tim Lincecum, but A-Rod had it all from a physical standpoint. He was one of the seven most purely talented position players Major League Baseball has seen in the last 20 years, along with Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, Roberto Alomar, Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, and Mike Trout. While ballplayers like the inaptly named Fielder (Prince Fielder was so fat, he made Mo Vaughn look like Jacoby Ellsbury.) and Lincecum (Tim Lincecum was so small he made Pedro Martinez look like Roger Clemens. I think I’m done fat-shaming and skinny-shaming for this column. Moving on.) were praised for getting the most they could out of their unconventional baseball bodies, those seven guys had (and still have in the cases of Miggy and Trout) astronomically high expectations for their careers because they had it all. Griffey and Alomar are in Cooperstown already, Bonds should be, Pujols has cemented his status as a no-brainer Hall of Famer despite being on the decline, and Cabrera and Trout are well on their way. A-Rod has the numbers for the Hall of Fame, but it certainly feels like he never quite reached his full potential. There’s also the steroids thing, and being suspended for the entire 2014 season for PEDs. I’m on record as being pro-steroids to a degree. I’m a Barry Bonds apologist and a Manny Ramirez apologist, but the combination of A-Rod’s steroid use and his constant trying to shape his own image to be something he’s not (His tendency to try too hard to act human has given him comparisons to both Tom Cruise and Ted Cruz.) is what bothers me about him. He’s always acting because he wants people to like him. That’s something I can relate to, but on that level it’s annoying. Be yourself, man. Stop doing this weird Derek Jeter/Cal Ripken impression so people will like you more.
The quintessential moments of A-Rod’s career came in the 2004 season, and they are not clutch, game-winning hits to bring the Yankees to glory or anything like that. First, there was the fight with Jason Varitek after getting hit by a Bronson Arroyo pitch in a midsummer game against the Red Sox, and then of course, there was The Slap. In a play also involving Bronson Arroyo, A-Rod became A-Fraud in the eyes of Red Sox fans (I was proud of myself for coming up with that nickname in 2004 when I was a high school freshman, only to go on sports message boards years later and realize everyone else on the Internet was thinking it, too.). He swats the ball out Arroyo’s glove, Jeter goes around to score, the Yankees win again. That’s what was going to happen. 86 years without a World Series title, and this guy who was supposed to be our shortstop in 2004 swats it away from us in the cheapest way possible. Fortunately Tito came out of the dugout and argued, and fortunately another umpire had a better angle and overturned the play. The look on A-Rod’s face, caught red-handed in a lie, but still defiant enough to act like he was the one being persecuted, was Alex Rodriguez in a nutshell. He could have led the Yankees to five World Series titles, he could have hit 800 home runs, he could have never taken a performance enhancing drug in his life, and that defiance in the face of false persecution act on second base at Fenway Park on that October night would still be my lasting impression of him.
The difference between Alex Rodriguez and other sports villains is that nobody wants to defend him. San Francisco fans still love Barry Bonds. Lakers fans will always love Kobe. Patriots fans will die on a metaphorical hill for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Yankees fans don’t like A-Rod either. Brian Cashman couldn’t stand him. Joe Girardi couldn’t stand him. They couldn’t even wait to for the season to end to push him out. A-Rod hasn’t said he’s retiring, just that his time with the Yankees ends this week. Might he try a comeback with a team like the Miami Marlins? He’s beyond washed up, but he’s close to 700 home runs. Leave it to A-Rod to write a weird ending for himself.
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about baseball’s uncertain future, about baseball’s success as a regional sport may leave it in the dust behind football and basketball on the national stage. I cited my own fandom and the way my friends follow baseball. I am a bigger fan of baseball than most people in their mid-20s, and even though one of my closest friends is named Daniel Murphy (and it’s worth noting that MLB’s Daniel Murphy has followed up his incredible postseason with the New York Mets by leaving for the Washington Nationals and having a career year in D.C.), compelling playoff stories like the Mets or the Cubs or the Royals or the Blue Jays last year just don’t move the needle out of their local markets the way they would in other sports. In my observations of the declining relevance of baseball, I neglected to mention the demise of Boston’s most hated rival and the dull irrelevance of the New York Yankees.
Red Sox vs. Yankees used to be one of the best rivalries in sports, for decades. It was a lopsided rivalry, for sure, and having grown up on the losing end of the rivalry, it mattered that much more. For 86 years, the Red Sox had to measure themselves against the Yankees, after giving up arguably the greatest baseball player ever to New York before his potential was fully realized. The Yankees were a nothing franchise before Babe Ruth, like the New England Patriots before Tom Brady, or the Pittsburgh Steelers before Terry Bradshaw, or the Dallas Mavericks before Dirk Nowitzki, except magnified by nearly a century long sample size. Babe Ruth made the Yankees the Bronx Bombers, and ever since they had been baseball’s perfect villain. 27 World Series titles, 40 American League Pennants, and a meddling billionaire owner who was basically a more impressive version of Donald Trump. They were the perfect team to hate, and not just for Boston. That was what made October of 2004 as sweet as it was. The Red Sox did not just win the World Series. The Red Sox did not just vanquish their greatest foe. The Red Sox did not just vanquish their demons from 2003. It vanquished 1999 and 1978, and all the other years of “good, but not good enough” that defined Red Sox Baseball from Prohibition to Mission Accomplished. We had just gotten the upper hand over Yankees fans in the rivalry, and then it faded into obscurity.
We’re now in our third Presidential Election year since the Red Sox defeated the Yankees in the most thrilling seven game series (or at least the most thrilling comeback) in the history of baseball, and the Red Sox and Yankees have not met in the playoffs since. The Sox won the World Series two more times in 2007 and 2013, and the Yankees won it all in 2009, but the rivalry just isn’t what it was. If baseball can’t matter to New Englanders as much as it did before 2004, that is especially true of their most hated rival.
In 2016, the Yankees are in a position they are not used to being in at the trade deadline: sell mode. Money cannot fix all their problems. The enormous contracts they gave out to C.C. Sabathia and Mark Teixeira before the 2009 season (which seemed like great deals at the time as New York would not have won the World Series that year without those two players) have hindered their ability to retool on the fly. Baseball has no salary cap, but it has implemented a luxury tax system that when a team like the Yankees or Dodgers cross that threshold, spending more becomes prohibitive. After the 2013 World Series, the Yankees paid top dollar for the dynamic, but oft-injured Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, and Red Sox fans weren’t even mad, for the most part. The following winter, when former Red Sox lefty ace Jon Lester was available in free agency, the Yankees were not even in the mix for his services. The Yankees were not dominating in the standings or in hot stove headlines, and it was weird.
This week, Yankees GM Brian Cashman sent controversial closer Aroldis Chapman (who was suspended for domestic violence after the Yankees traded for him from Cincinnati last winter and whose presence will no doubt complicate the feelings of Cubs fans as their highly anticipated 2016 postseason run approaches) to the Chicago Cubs for a haul of prospects, and today sent hard throwing lefty (and 2013 World Series Champion with Boston) Andrew Miller to the Cleveland Indians for even more prospects. Gutting New York’s stout bullpen like this is essentially waiving the white flag on the 2016 season, but it could set the Yankees up for a brighter future when Teixeira’s and Alex Rodriguez’ contracts come off the books in the coming years. At the same time it raises the stakes even more for a Chicago team that has not won the World Series since 1908 and a Cleveland team that last won it in 1948.
Now Cashman has a chance to show that he’s the talented GM I believe he is. Since he became GM in 1998, inheriting a team that was already really good and had the spending power to add and add and add, his reputation has been just that. I thought that when Theo Epstein left Boston for the Cubs after the 2011 season, that Cashman might try to do something similar. While Theo has the distinction already of being the executive who built a championship team in Boston when no one had been able to since 1918, and now is trying to do that for the lowly Cubbies, I thought Cashman might find another midwestern National League team with over a century of history of his own, perhaps the Cincinnati Reds, to forge a second chapter of his legacy in a smaller market.
If Cashman can make the Yankees great again (gulp!), in this new competitive landscape, then he will deserve a lot more credit than he will likely get. No other team’s fans have any love for the New York Yankees, but there is something missing from baseball season when they are not in the mix. I hate to say this, but for Major League Baseball to be a national sport like the NFL or NBA, maybe it needs the Yankees. And I say that as a fourth generation Red Sox fan (gulp! again).
It was fun while it lasted, but it was really sad to see how the 2014-15 season unfolded for the Portland Trail Blazers. Almost overnight, they transformed into a title contender after years of mediocrity, but their fall back to earth was as fast as their rise. A year removed from Damian Lillard’s Game 6 buzzer-beater against the Houston Rockets, their season ended in the form of a five game rout at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies, and the path ahead for the Blazers appears to be as clear as mud.
Maybe we overrated them. Maybe they were never as good as we thought. I wanted to see Portland become a powerhouse, and after their appearance on Portlandia (Blazers owner Paul Allen and general manager Neil Olshey were also featured in sketches from that episode), they were the suddenly coolest team in the NBA outside of the work of art that is the San Antonio Spurs. They had a lot of great personalities from the fearless little point guard that could in Lillard, to the perennially underrated veteran superstar LaMarcus Aldridge (Seriously, this guy hasn’t been talked about enough until recently in the discussion for best forwards in the NBA. It is tough that he plays in the same era as LeBron James, Tim Duincan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, and Anthony Davis.), to Robin Lopez, who looks like Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez’ evil twin because he his(I don’t know that he’s literally evil, but the fact that he let his hair go all Sideshow Bob on us while Brook kept his tight makes me suspicious), to tough guy Wesley Matthews. Also, they have great fans. One thing the NBA has really gotten right over the years has been putting teams in cities that are that don’t have a major league team in football, hockey, or baseball, which breeds a rabid fanbase like you see at the collegiate level or like the following hockey has in Canada. Portland is one of those cities just like San Antonio, Oklahoma City (sorry, Seattle), Memphis, Salt Lake City, and Sacramento, and Blazers fans, along with Portlandia has made me want to live there at some point. At the trade deadline, the Trail Blazers added shooting guard Arron Afflalo from the Denver Nuggets, a former UCLA standout so good that Kendrick Lamar he’s mentioned and praised in a Kendrick Lamar song, and they appeared poised for a deep playoff run. Then Matthews got hurt.
The injury to Wesley Matthews exposed just how vulnerable any NBA team is to collapse. The Blazers were a tight knit roster, artfully constructed with players in their prime (aside from Lillard, who still has a high ceiling, but his defensive shortcomings currently hold the 24 year old back from true super-stardom. They have an experienced coach in Terry Stotts, who won a championship as an assistant under Rick Carlisle in Dallas, and who has implemented a great offense in Portland. All of that is great, but the injury to Matthews, one of those hard working Marquette basketball players like Jae Crowder or Kenneth Faried, was a huge loss. Matthews was the tough guy that helped the skill guys shine, like what David West does for Indiana or Draymond Green does for Golden State.
The 2015 Trail Blazer are hardly the first championship contender to have a season and possibly a legacy derailed by injuries, and they certainly won’t be the last. My Celtics won a title in 2008 (the only one of their 17 that happened in my lifetime), had an even hotter start in 2008-09 before Kevin Garnett wrecked his knee and fell in seven games to the Dwight Howard and Stan Van Gundy-led Orlando Magic in the conference semifinals, came back older and slower the following year, but made the 2010 NBA Finals anyway before a knee injury to Kendrick Perkins in Game 6 left them with no answer for Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum. In 2011, they traded Perkins away, and had to rely on Shaq’s pushing 40 year old body, which inevitably did not hold up. In 2012, it was young Avery Bradley whose injury combined with LeBron’s arrival as a champion that derailed their last attempt at the illusive second title for that Celtics team. In the summer of 2012, Ray Allen signed with the Miami Heat, and the era was over. In Portland’s own history, injuries to Bill Walton, and more recently Greg Oden (who was drafted #1 overall, ahead of Kevin Durant in 2007) and Brandon Roy (drafted #6 overall in 2006, the same year the Trail Blazers also picked LaMarcus Aldridge at #2) have left fans and pundits alike wondering what might have been. I’m sure Blazers fans would love for a run like what the Celtics enjoyed, or even one like the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are in danger of losing Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to free agency, injury, or both, have had, but their window with this roster appears to be even smaller than it was even a couple of months ago. It’s amazing and frightening how quickly things can change.
The dark cloud looming over Portland’s summer is the impending free agency of LaMarcus Aldridge. LMA has the feel of a franchise superstar, and before a couple months ago, he was a consensus favorite to play in Portland for the rest of his career and retire as a Blazer.This is a franchise that has had a lot of talented players go through the organization, but few, if any stayed there forever, much like the Atlanta Braves. Even Hall of Famers Bill Walton (who was the MVP of the 1977 NBA Finals, Portland’s only championship) and Clyde Drexler (who helped bring Portland to the NBA Finals before losing to some guy named Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls) eventually found greener championship pastures in Boston and Houston. People had hoped that Aldridge would be the Trail Blazers’ Chipper Jones in that regard, but the way this season ended makes it a lot harder for Portland to bring him back. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and even Hank Aaron played for other teams, but Chipper was only ever a Brave. Bill Simmons wrote in one of his recent mailbag columns that Aldridge could stay in Portland out of loyalty, but as he enters his second decade in the NBA, it likely wouldn’t be the best basketball decision for a good to very good player who needs a ring to be remembered as a great player.
There are homecoming options for the Texas native if he signs with the Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs, or Houston Rockets. Dallas has an aging superstar in Dirk Nowitzki, and a roster in flux after the disaster that was trading for Rajon Rondo this season. They’ve been a consistent contender outside of their lockout-shortened 2012 championship hangover, but in the short term, they do not seem like a better basketball situation than Portland. San Antonio just lost a thrilling seven game series to the Los Angeles Clippers, after winning their fifth title in fifteen years. They have the best coach in the NBA (and the second best to build a franchise around in the history of the game after Red Auerbach, with all due respect to Phil Jackson and Pat Riley) in Gregg Popovich, they’re the only game in town the way the Trail Blazers are in Portland, they have a great mix of young and veteran talent, and he has the chance to be the “next guy” when Tim Duncan eventually retires. The burden of being the next guy is not for everyone. For every Dave Cowens to follow Bill Russell, there are a dozen discouraging examples like the revolving doors at the quarterback position the Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos experienced after Dan Marino and John Elway retired. That’s why the Houston Rockets, who have not won a title since the mid 90s with a completely different roster, and are still looking for a third All-Star caliber player to go with Dwight Howard and James Harden, might be the best place for Aldridge to land. There are also young teams in the East like Boston and Orlando that LMA could make into something exciting.
The future is murky, but it is hard to believe the Trail Blazers will be better next year than they were the last two. We will see, but there isn’t much to feel good about in Portland right now if you’re a basketball fan.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is a shrewd businessman. He’s outspoken. He is one of the biggest personalities in the NBA, but has never played or coached a game. He is polarizing, and he is full of himself. He loves to quote Ayn Rand almost as much as he likes feeling like the smartest person in the room all the time. When the Mavericks failed to land free agent All-Star point guard Deron Williams in 2012 because Cuban skipped a chance to meet with Williams to film an episode of Shark Tank, basketball writers around the country and around the world jumped at the chance to poke fun at the Internet billionaire, but looking back on it, not signing Deron Williams was the smartest thing Cuban could have done.
This isn’t a knock on Deron Williams (although it is a little bit). He’s a very good player, but he’s very well paid in an era where everyone seems to have at least a pretty good point guard. Williams signed a five year $98.7 million contract to remain with the Nets as they planned to move from New Jersey to Brooklyn. Only Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers, who signed a five year $107 million contract the following summer, makes more money from the point guard position than Williams. Williams and Paul came into the NBA in the same year (Williams was drafted third by the Utah Jazz, and Paul was drafted fourth by the New Orleans Hornets in 2005), and for many years, “who’s better: Williams or Paul?” was a serious debate among basketball fans, but no longer. In the years since Williams re-signed with the Nets and the Nets moved to Brooklyn, Williams has become stagnant, battled injury, and his team has underachieved, while Chris Paul is the best player on one of the best teams in the NBA’s best conference.
The red flags with Williams were apparent before Cuban had the chance to sign him, but people were willing to overlook them because of his talent. It took him a while to earn a “coach killer” reputation, but once he got it, he really got it. In 2011, his falling out with Jazz head coach (and Hall of Famer) Jerry Sloan forced Sloan into midseason retirement. Two weeks later, Williams was traded to the New Jersey Nets. After Sloan, he played under Tyrone Corbin (briefly before getting traded out of Utah), Avery Johnson, P.J. Carlesimo, Jason Kidd, and now Lionel Hollins. Six head coaches have attempted to coach Deron Williams in the last four calendar years, and in that time, Williams has been leapfrogged by Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry, John Wall, Goran Dragic. Russell Westbrook, and Kyrie Irving (if not, more players) in the hierarchy of point guards in the NBA. Even without the “coach killer” reputation he earned when he forced out a coach who had been in the same city since 1988, he it’s a bad contract two years later because the NBA is in the midst of a point guard renaissance and the supply of good point guards is so great, it would be silly to pay someone like Williams that much.
Not having to pay Williams has allowed Dallas to do other things to rebuilt and retool. Since Cuban’s infamous scheduling conflict, the Mavs have added Tyson Chandler (who was a key part of their 2011 championship squad, and would be a surefire Hall of Famer if he had played his whole career for Rick Carlisle or alongside Dirk Nowitzki), Chandler Parsons, Monta Ellis, and Rajon Rondo, while also being able to keep Dirk Nowitzki. While their defense is lacking, the Dallas Mavericks run a simple, yet ingenious offense that works beautifully with the personnel and the coach they have. Any variable, like Williams dribbling too much, or butting heads with head coach Rick Carlisle, and Dallas would not be as efficient as they are now. Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Nets have too much money tied up in Williams, Joe Johnson, and Brook Lopez, and they are struggling just to stay in the playoff picture in the less than loaded Eastern Conference. Williams is no longer the impact player he was in Utah, and the Nets do not have the flexibility to build around him. They also cannot build through the draft because of trades that send their first round picks to the Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics (Danny Ainge is a genius!) for years to come. They have no present, and no future, but their payroll is that of a championship contender.
This time, Mark Cuban got the last laugh. He actually was the smartest guy in the room, and he can write another book or perhaps pitch another reality show from the brilliance of this business non-transaction. Like him or hate him, he nailed it. Wouldn’t it be fun if he was also a hockey or baseball owner? He’s tried to but the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers, and New York Mets in the past. I can only imagine what he’d be like in the baseball hot stove league. It would be amazing, and it would be insufferable, and baseball needs a villain owner now that George Steinbrenner is gone. I’m on board.