A year ago, I wrote about how weird it was to have the New York Yankees, the historical power and biggest spender in Major League Baseball, playing the role of seller at the trade deadline. They seemed poised for a rebuild, and I was confident Brian Cashman was smart enough to see that through, but it did not feel right. 2016 was a weird year, and the Yankees bracing to rebuild does not even come close to the top fifty strangest things that happened last year, but 2017 appears to be reverting to what we know as normal, at least in a baseball sense. The Yankees are back, and for some reason, I’m okay with it.
After dealing Andrew Miller to the Cleveland Indians and Aroldis Chapman to the Chicago Cubs, setting up the crucial late inning match-ups the World Series, there was the rise of Gary Sanchez. Sanchez, a catcher, batted .299 and hit 20 home runs in just 53 games, and finished second in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. Two great months from a rookie catcher do not immediately make a team a contender, and the expectations for New York were still that of a team building through the farm system to be great in a couple years heading into 2017. Then Aaron Judge happened.
If you told me the next great Yankee was an outfielder as big as Rob Gronkowski, who hits the ball harder than Giancarlo Stanton, and who is so humble he’s more likable than Derek Jeter and Mariano River combined, I would have thought you were crazy. There could not be a human like that. Aaron Judge is such human. Last year, he was a strikeout machine, and this year he has transformed himself into a baseball crushing machine who is quickly becoming one of the faces of baseball. It was only a matter of time before the Yankees had another transcendent icon of the game. They always land on their feet in that regard, but who would have thought it would be one like this? Baseball players aren’t supposed to be that big, and if they are, they become pitchers. All I can do is sit back and be amazed.
With their rebuild fast-tracked by a baseball unicorn, the Yankees resumed their normal role of buyers at the trade deadline, and they bought, and bought, and bought. They acquired third baseman Todd Frazier, starting pitcher Tommy Kahnle, and relief pitcher David Robertson from the Chicago White Sox, relief pitcher Jaime Garcia from the Minnesota Twins, and capped it all off by acquiring right handed ace Sonny Gray from the Oakland Athletics. The Yankees did not get the biggest names that moved this trade season, as the Texas Rangers sent Yu Darvish to the Los Angeles Dodgers and the White Sox sent Jose Quintana across town to the Cubs, but they acquired quality in volume and filled the most needs of any postseason contender. It also helped their cause that they made trades to bolster third base and the bullpen, taking players off the market in the most glaring places of need for their forever rival Boston Red Sox.
These are the Yankees I remember.
As much as I hate to admit, the Yankees being good is good for baseball. They are the lightning rod for the hate of the other 29 fan bases. The villain role in sports is something that should be embraced. As a Patriots fan, I embrace it. The Yankees are better at being the bad guy than anyone else in Major League Baseball. In the years since they last won the World Series in 2009, several teams have had the chance to take the Iron Throne of Evil from the Yankees, but the fit has never been quite right. The Red Sox, in spite of their three World Series titles since they last met the Yankees in the postseason, cannot get out of their own way year to year. The San Francisco Giants won three World Series titles in five years, but were irrelevant in the off years. The Dodgers, for all their regular season success and high payroll, have not won the National League Pennant since 1988. The Cubs only got good in the last two years and before 2016, the last president to be alive for a Cubs championship team was Lyndon Johnson, who was born two months earlier in 1908. They are not ready for that kind of role. The Red Sox are 13 years removed from becoming winners, and they aren’t even ready for it.
The team that came the closest was the St. Louis Cardinals. They have won the most titles of any team in the National League, they rub other fan bases the wrong way with their “best fans in baseball” mentality, and their was an actual FBI investigation into front office members hacking the Houston Astros (and somehow Deflategate got more coverage?). They should have become the most hated team in baseball, but animosity towards the Cardinals translated more into Cardinal fatigue more than Cardinal hate for me. It just wasn’t the same.
The Yankees are the Alabama football or Duke basketball of Major League Baseball. Nobody is indifferent to these teams. If you follow that respective sport, you have strong feelings one way or the other, and that keeps you engaged even if your own team is not a contender. I should be upset that the Yankees were not bad for a longer period of time, but hating a middling team or a team with a losing record is just not as much fun.
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 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.
After nearly a year of speculation, the Boston Celtics held onto their picks at #6 and #17 and drafted two adjectives: Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State University and James Young of the University of Kentucky. The Celtics do not have a championship roster yet, but they have more talent than they did last week, and it’s a step in the right direction.
Marcus Smart is a sophomore point guard who could have been the #1 pick in last year’s Draft (though probably not because the Cleveland Cavaliers had the top pick, already had a #1 pick point guard in Kyrie Irving, and botched the pick with Anthony Bennett), but decided to go back to school for another year. The 2014 NBA Draft was much deeper than 2013 was, and Smart was overshadowed by talented freshman prospects like Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins (picked #1 by Cleveland) and Joel Embiid (picked #3 by the Philadelphia 76ers), Duke’s Jabari Parker (picked #2 by the Milwaukee Bucks) Arizona’s Aaron Gordon (picked #4 by the Orlando Magic) and Kentucky’s Julius Randle (picked #7 by the Los Angeles Lakers), but the Celtics did not see a second year of college basketball as a red flag the way other teams do. Nate Silver had an interesting article about drafting sophomores and how the Celtics are smart to do so. Just two years ago, the Celtics drafted a sophomore power forward from Ohio State with injury concerns named Jared Sullinger, and now he’s one of their better players.
Smart makes the questions about Rajon Rondo’s future in Boston all the more glaring. The team is saying they could play together, but I think at some point they’ll have to make a decision one way or the other. The Celtics could do some interesting things with their collection of quick, athletic guards they now have which could create some interesting mismatches with bigger slower teams. I don’t know if we’ll ever see Smart, Young, Rondo, Avery Bradley, and Phil Pressey all out on the floor at the same time, but it would be really entertaining for a few minutes here and there.
In James Young, the Celtics drafted a young player with plenty of upside. He will not turn 19 until August, but he turned a lot of heads in his one season of college basketball, where he helped the Kentucky Wildcats reach the NCAA Championship Game. He’s athletic, a good shooter, and he’s still growing into his body. The Celtics had him ranked as the 11th best player in the Draft, but he was still on the board at #17, so they think it was a steal. The other interesting thing about James Young is that his star teammate Julius Randle was picked by the Lakers at #7. If the Celtics and Lakers ever meet in the Finals again with Young and Randle, that will certainly be an angle that ESPN will talk about until we’re all sick of it. I don’t think we’re all that far off from the next exciting chapter in the Celtics vs. Lakers rivalry being written, and Smart and Young could play a big part in it.
The team is young and getting younger. This is why the Celtics hired Brad Stevens. Drafting college players and trying to determine how good they will be in the NBA is random and nearly impossible to predict unless it’s LeBron, Shaq, or Tim Duncan, but with a former college coach in Stevens, guys like Smart, Young, Phil Pressey, Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk have a better chance of being better players in the NBA. When Stevens was the head coach at Butler University, he was the master of getting the most out of his roster, and made it to two NCAA championship games with inferior recruits than the teams that ultimately won. Smart and Young are better than any of the players Stevens coached at Butler, and I would not be surprised if the C’s make a run at the playoffs with the roster as it’s currently constituted. The Eastern Conference is flat enough that anything is possible… especially if LeBron lands in the West.
While I was listening to the NBA Draft and analysis of the Celtics’ picks on 98.5 The Sports Hub at work the other night, Celtics play-by-play announcer Sean Grande brought up some interesting points. The anticipation among Celtics fans was that this rebuild would be quick. Danny Ainge was able to turn the fortunes of the organization overnight in 2007 when he pulled off the trades for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. With rumors trending all over the Internet about Kevin Love getting dealt to Boston, we as fans thought that the summer of 2014 would be more like the summer of 2007, when it’s really more like 2005 or 2006. They’re heading in the right direction, but their assets are not stockpiled quite high enough to light those kinds of fireworks…at least not on Draft Night like the Ray Allen Trade was. Al Jefferson had twice as much NBA experience under his belt as Jared Sullinger when he was the cornerstone of the Kevin Garnett Trade. They not only collected assets, but they took time to develop them before flipping them to form the New Big Three. The Celtics have not created a championship team, but they’ve increased their options.
The picture is slightly more clear than it was before the Draft, but there are still many, many directions this could go. For all I know, the Celtics could pull off a blockbuster trade tomorrow and the team will look completely different, but one thing is for sure about the 2014-15 Celtics season: there will be more to talk about than tanking the season for next year’s equivalent of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Joel Embiid.
This is the most interesting NBA Draft I can remember. It has the right combination of depth of talent, unknown commodities, and intriguing teams at the top of the draft, and that was before Joel Embiid broke his foot. There are a thousand different things that could happen on Thursday, and it has the potential to be a landmark day for the Boston Celtics. Here are some of the storylines to follow:
University of Kansas center Joel Embiid was a lock to get picked #1 by the Cleveland Cavaliers, but now his injury has teams second guessing their draft strategy. Now, teams like the Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers (the NBA’s two most successful franchises who have only missed the playoffs in the same year twice hold the #6 and #7 picks, respectively), who did not think Embiid would be available to them are back in play to land the talented Cameroonian big man. The foot injury is concerning for sure. Bill Walton’s career was derailed when he broke that same bone in his foot. Same thing with Yao Ming. On the other hand, Michael Jordan broke that bone and was fine. Jordan was at least six inches shorter than Walton, Yao, or Embiid, but Embiid is younger than any of those guys, so who knows?
Even without foot and back (which kept him out of the NCAA Tournament in March) concerns, Embiid was a high risk with a potentially high reward. Every draft selection has risk, but it seems that big men have the greatest chance of going bust. Remember Greg Oden? What would the NBA landscape look like today if the Portland Trail Blazers had taken Kevin Durant at #1 instead? Just because Embiid has the ceiling to be the next Hakeem Olajuwon or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, doesn’t mean he’ll get there. For the Celtics and the Lakers, that’s still a risk worth taking. If he reaches his potential, he could be the next great big man in the NBA, and those guys are hard to find. Dwight Howard and Roy Hibbert have yet to prove that they can carry a team to a championship, and while Tim Duncan just won his fifth career NBA Title with San Antonio last week, and he’s one of the all time greats, he’s also 38 years old and it’s safe to say he has more years behind him than ahead of him. One thing I really like about Embiid (and Andrew Wiggins, not that there’s any chance of him being available at #6) is that he played for the Kansas Jayhawks. The greatest Celtic I ever had the pleasure of watching, Paul Pierce, was also a Kansas Jayhawk. I would love to see the next great Celtic come out of Kansas, if it’s not one of the many kids with New England roots that keep making it into the Draft.
With Embiid falling in the draft, the Milwaukee Bucks, will likely take either Jabari Parker from Duke or Embiid’s Kansas teammate Andrew Wiggins at #2, whichever one doesn’t get picked by Cleveland. Before Embiid’s injury, it looked like Milwaukee was locked in on Parker and the Philadelphia 76ers would take Wiggins with the #3 pick. This puts the Philly in a tough spot. The Sixers made perhaps the most blatant attempt to tank the 2013-14 season and improve their draft standing, and they were rewarded for their efforts with the #3 pick. Going into the 2013-14 college basketball season, Wiggins was the most talked about prospect and he appeared to be falling into Philly’s lap. Embiid wasn’t as appealing to the Sixers because they used a lottery pick last year on a big man in (and Everett, MA native) Nerlens Noel. Wiggins was supposed to be the piece they could add to Noel and (Hamilton, MA native) Michael Carter-Williams and make a real effort to compete this year. Without Wiggins, the might be back in the lottery again next year. This has draft pick implications for the Celtics, too. Because of a previous trade, the C’s could get Philly’s 2015 1st round draft pick, but only if the Sixers make the playoffs. It’s going to feel weird, but Celtics are going to be rooting for their longtime division rivals to make the playoffs to add another pick to their stockpile.
Depending on who is still available when the #6 pick comes around will have a lot to do with what the Celtics decide to do. They might keep the pick and come home with Embiid, or Arizona’s Aaron Gordon or Indiana’s (and Haverhill, MA’s) Noah Vonleh, or Kentucky’s Julius Randle. They might trade that pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves along with some combination of draft picks (the Celtics have this year’s #17 pick from the Brooklyn Nets as well as Brooklyn’s 1st round picks in 2016 and 2018, all thanks to Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce) and players on their roster (Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger seem the most likely since they’re young, still have high upside, and are both power forwards) in exchange for All-Star power forward Kevin Love. If they Celtics land Love, they could also try make a trade for Omer Asik, but if they can’t get Love, Rajon Rondo might get traded out of town and the rebuild through the draft will continue. Danny Ainge has plenty of options, and we will have a much clearer idea of what the Celtics will look like going forward this time next week. Who knows? Maybe if the C’s look like a contender again, free agent former captain Paul Pierce might make a return to Boston.
The speculation will continue until the night of the Draft. For all I know, a big name might be coming to Boston that nobody has mentioned yet. Nobody was talking about the possibility of Ray Allen coming to the Celtics until he was traded there on the night of the Draft in 2007. Once the Celtics had Allen along with Paul Pierce, it was easier to convince Kevin Garnett to go Boston. All I know is that something big will happen, it’s just a matter of time before we know what that is.
It didn’t take long for my chances at a billion dollar bracket were destroyed. I picked the Duke Blue Devils to beat Michigan State in the National Championship, but Duke couldn’t even get past Mercer University, who I had to Google to find out is located in Georgia. It’s anyone’s tournament at this point, and it’s a reminder that basketball is at its best when played as a team. That’s the beauty of the NCAA tournament: the unexpected happens, and it’s virtually impossible to pick the outcome. It’s a fun tournament and in a lot of ways is better than what the NBA has to offer.
My bracket picks were by no means the most educated ones out there, but I wasn’t in the minority when I thought Duke would advance past the 1st round, or even past the Sweet Sixteen. Mike Krzyzerski is one of the best coaches in the history of college basketball, and has guided the Blue Devils to 11 Final Fours and four NCAA Championships since taking over the program in 1980. They’re the villain of college basketball, since they’re always good, and they carry themselves with an air of superiority. They’re what the Yankees are for baseball and the Canadiens are for hockey. It’s hard to pick against that kind of success. This year, Coach K had arguably the best player in college basketball in 19 year old freshman Jabari Parker. I saw maybe half a dozen college hoops games this regular season, but I was impressed with what I saw from Parker, and was hoping that my Boston Celtics would somehow land a high enough draft pick to get him this summer. My excitement over Parker sold me on Duke in the tournament, and it ended up costing me.
Parker had a bad game. Even the best players have bad games. It’s better if it doesn’t happen in the first game of the NCAA tournament against a team that you have no business losing to on paper, but that’s what happened. Paker scored 14 points, went 0-3 from the three point line, and had four fouls and four turnovers. Parker looked like a freshman playing against a team of seniors that weren’t afraid of taking shots, and had overcome adversity just to make the tournament. This is why college basketball players should stay in college. It’s a good place to learn these kinds of lessons. I understand the arguments for allowing high school seniors to enter the NBA draft. Kevin Garnett was ready for the NBA at 18. So was Kobe Bryant. So was Lebron James. But those are three of the ten best drafted into the NBA in my lifetime. Most kids that age could benefit from a few more reps in college before running with the big boys of the NBA. Allowing more time to develop in college would improve the quality of NBA players, and would improve the quality of these college games, too, if coaches don’t have to turn their rosters over every year. At the end of the day, a good basketball program should have a greater emphasis on the whole team, rather than putting so much weight on one 19 year old star. Coach K should know that. If it were up to me, high school players would be allowed to enter the draft, so the KGs and the Lebrons and the Kobes of the world can play in the NBA as soon as they have a diploma, but if you play college basketball, you must make at least a two year commitment, and players might actually learn a thing or two in class while they’re there.
Parker had such a good season that he might still get drafted with the #1 overall pick, but his early exit from the tournament opens the door for players like Julius Randle of Kentucky and Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid of Kansas to move up if their teams go on a run. They’re teenagers. The outcome of this tournament will not make or break their basketball careers if they respond to it the right way. There have been plenty of college superstars who have gone bust in the NBA, but there have also been plenty who elevated their game at the next level beyond what anyone thought they could. Larry Bird didn’t wallow in despair after his Indiana State lost to Magic Johnson’s Michigan State. Instead Bird and Magic took their rivalry that revived college basketball to the Celtics and Lakers and reignited the best rivalry in this history of the sport. They combined for eight championships as players, and it may have been more if they had today’s advancements in sports medicine when their careers were declining 25 years ago. If these kids stay healthy, work hard, and learn from their failure, they will have a lot of basketball ahead of them. In the meantime, we get to sit back and watch some great games, hoping that one of these great young players will be wearing green and white this time next year.
He’s back. Rajon Rondo played in his first NBA game in about a year on Friday in the Boston Celtics’ home loss to their age old nemesis, Los Angeles Lakers. Before the game Rondo was announced as the team captain, just the fifteenth in franchise history and taking over after Paul Pierce, who had been at least co-captain since 2000, was traded to the Brooklyn Nets in June of 2013. With this great responsibility will come great expectations. The list of Celtics captains includes Hall of Famers Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Dave Cowens, Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Dominique Wilkins (though The Human Highlight Film only played one season in Boston and is in the Hall mostly for what he did as a member of the Atlanta Hawks), as well as a future Hall of Famer and the most popular Celtic since I’ve been following the basketball in Pierce. Rondo has some big shoes to fill, a lot of people to prove wrong, and a legacy of winning to uphold.
I would imagine that naming him captain takes him off the trade block, but the last two Celtics captains, Pierce and Antoine Walker both had their Celtics tenures end by getting traded (in fact, Walker was traded away twice). This shows that the Celtics are committed to building around Rondo, but it’s up to Rondo to be a foundation worth building around. Rondo’s strength as a player is his ability to get the ball to the open man, and make the guys around him better if he has his head in the game. With Pierce and Kevin Garnett down in Brooklyn, Rondo is the longest tenured Celtic and the last holdover from the 2008 team that took the basketball world by storm and beat the Lakers in six games to clinch the franchises 17th championship banner. His intensity can rub people the wrong way, including former Celtics head coach Doc Rivers and veteran superstar teammates like Ray Allen (and Pierce and KG to a lesser extent). By all accounts, he has bought into Brad Stevens’ system and admires his cerebral young coach. Perhaps they are a perfect match. Perhaps they “get” each other in a way that can transform Rondo from the guy I wanted out of town last year before he hurt his knee to the kind of guy who can lead a championship team. Stranger things have happened. Kobe Bryant is every but as abrasive as Rondo, but he’s also the kind of guy who will stand by his teammates as long as they’re giving it an honest effort, and he has five championship rings and two Finals MVPs to show for it. Kobe even offered up the comparison to himself when asked about Rondo having to weather a franchise rebuild. I’ve been hard on Rondo in the past, but the Celtics owe it to him and they owe it to Stevens to give their collaboration a chance.
Rondo only played 19 minutes and 25 seconds in his return to NBA action, but his presence was felt. He finished the game with eight points and four assists as he tried to shake the rust off. The other bright spot of the night for the Celtics was rookie center Kelly Olynyk. The 22 year old 13th overall pic scored a career high 25 points to go along with 8 assists in the game, and played 32 minutes and 49 seconds. I would love to see Rondo’s presence help Olynyk grow as a player and help him reach his full potential. It would be a great step in the right direction if Rondo develops chemistry with Olynyk, Sullinger, and Bradley, and Phil Pressey becomes a solid point guard off the bench.
Rondo’s presence is not enough to make the C’s a championship contender this season, and might not even be enough to make them a playoff team, either. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. The Celtics currently find themselves out of the playoff picture heading into the deepest NBA Draft in a decade. There’s Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins at Kansas (Paul Pierce’s alma mater), Jabari Parker at Duke, Julius Randle at Kentucky (Rajon Rondo’s alma mater), and the list goes on. The Celtics have a chance to add one of these blue chip prospects to a young core that is learning from one of the best teaching coaches in the business. Danny Ainge has plenty of options for making moves. Former Butler Bulldog Gordon Hayward is set to become a restricted free agent this summer, and reuniting with his old college coach seems appealing to all parties involved. The point is that the Celtics are well on their way to the future, and the next great Celtics team could arrive sooner than we thought when the C’s came up short against the New York Knicks last April. At least for now, Rondo is the man at the helm, and he and Coach Stevens are ready to steer this storied green ship.