A year ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder were reeling from the loss of Kevin Durant. Russell Westbrook turned his feelings of anger and betrayal into an MVP season, and the Thunder won 48 games without KD. As great was Russ was in his revenge tour, the Thunder were only good enough for a first round exit at the hands of the Houston Rockets when the playoffs started, and the narrative quickly shifted, to “will Westbrook leave, too?” After trades for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony this summer, that is no longer a question.
This week, Westbrook signed a five year, $205 million contract extension to stay in Oklahoma City through 2023. There is still no guarantee the Thunder will be able to keep George or Anthony in the long run, but their presence in the short run proved to Westbrook that the franchise is committed to competing, and that was enough to keep him around. I have been critical of Thunder general manager Sam Presti in the past, but what he did this summer was very impressive, and is changing the way I think about his handling of James Harden and Kevin Durant.
One of the major critical sticking points of Presti’s tenure was trading James Harden to the Houston Rockets when they did. The Thunder were a young and exciting team coming off a trip to the 2012 NBA Finals. They lost to the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh Miami Heat, but showed themselves to be a team on the rise that could potentially dominate the rest of the decade. Then Presti traded Harden to the Rockets.
In Houston, Harden became a starter, a franchise player, and a perennial MVP candidate on par with KD and Russ. Meanwhile in OKC, the combination of bad injury luck, the rise of the Golden State Warriors, and the resurgence of the San Antonio Spurs kept the Thunder out of the Finals in the years that followed. Right before Durant’s free agency, the Thunder blew a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference Finals, paving the way for KD’s exit. Fans and media personalities alike were right to question if the Thunder had done enough to keep KD. They could have been more aggressive in improving the roster post-Harden Trade, and a small market like Oklahoma City needed to be the best possible basketball situation if they wanted to keep their stars. This time around, Presti threw caution to the wind, learning from his earlier mistakes.
One one hand, I want to categorize this summer as Presti learning from the mistakes made with Harden and Durant, but it might not be that simple. Perhaps–and I have no inside information to back this up–Presti didn’t extend himself too far with Durant because Durant was the one more likely to leave. Perhaps Presti knew that Durant and Westbrook, two incredible talents who are wired very differently as people, were not compatible, and keeping them together for the duration of their careers was not a sustainable venture.
Perhaps Presti knew Westbrook–the maniacal cyborg programmed to play every possession like his life depended on it–was programmed for loyalty as well. The Boston Celtics may have reminded us this summer when they traded Isaiah Thomas that loyalty in sports is merely a public relations tool designed to sell jerseys, and that we should not hold a lack of loyalty against players who leave in free agency because teams can just as easily flip a loyal star for a younger, shinier model, but maybe Westbrook is different. Why wouldn’t Westbrook be different? He is already a very different kind of player from anyone else in the NBA, so the idea that he wants to live and play in Oklahoma City for his entire career might not be all that far-fetched. This is a guy who waited until Durant’s birthday to sign the extension, so the themes of betrayal, loyalty, and revenge appear to be at the front of Westbrook’s thoughts on and off the court.
Perhaps Presti was not convinced enough of Durant staying that he was not about to go all in when he was there. Sure, it looked bad at first. Sure, Durant went to the conference rival Warriors, won a title in his first year, and they look poised to dominate the NBA for years to come, but perhaps Presti did not lose sleep over Durant because he had a better idea about Westbrook’s intentions.
Thinking back to the summer of 2015, when the Portland Trail Blazers lost LaMarcus Aldridge, I thought it was a can’t miss signing for the Spurs, and a bad loss for a Portland team that fell apart due to injury and never got it together. It was a lesser example of a situation similar to Durant leaving OKC–Aldridge was inferior to Durant, the Spurs team Aldridge joined was inferior to the Warriors team Durant joined, and the Blazers team Aldridge left accomplished less than the Thunder team Durant left–but the Blazers did not fall as far as anyone thought when they lost Aldridge. In fact, in rebuilding on the fly around Damian Lillard, the Blazers were better in 2016 than they were in 2015. It also helped that even though the Spurs were still a very good team, Aldridge has been mostly disappointing since leaving Portland. Presti deserves credit for building around Russ, regardless of what happened with Durant.
Going forward, the Thunder not only have a good team for 2017-18, they have a star player committed to the franchise who can be used to recruit more stars to OKC if George and Melo move on. The NBA is a star’s league, and it takes stars to get more stars. The Thunder have recovered better from losing Durant in a much better way than I thought they would or could.
The 2017 NBA offseason is the gift that keeps on giving. The Indiana Pacers trading Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder was not enough. The Los Angeles Clippers trading Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets was not enough. The Chicago Bulls trading Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves was not enough. Gordon Hayward signing with the Boston Celtics was not enough. The Cleveland Cavaliers trading Kyrie Irving to the Celtics for Isaiah Thomas was not enough.
The Los Angeles Lakers getting fined for tampering because Magic Johnson talked about Paul George on a talk show was not enough. Kevin Durant using a fake Twitter account to trash Russell Westbrook and Billy Donovan was not enough. Even this morning, the President of the United States uninviting Steph Curry to the White House when Curry said he did not want to attend, followed by LeBron James calling the POTUS a bum on Twitter (and in turn, causing “u bum” to trend) was not enough.
Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN (which is still weird to say after all his years at Yahoo Sports) reported last night that New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony had added Cleveland and Oklahoma City to the list of teams he wished to be traded, and this afternoon, Woj reported that the Knicks had traded Melo to the Thunder for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and a 2018 2nd round draft pick. A summer after losing Kevin Durant to free agency, they have a big three of Westbrook, George, and Anthony, and that is going to be very, very interesting.
Credit must be given to OKC GM Sam Presti, who has made his share of mistakes (most notably trading James Harden when he did, for what he got), and the loss of Durant was something that could have sunk the franchise into a decade of futility, but he acted instead of letting it happen and letting Westbrook leave. There is very little chance of George staying long-term, but the newly created trifecta could be enough to win now if things break the right way. These trades are bold moves for a small market franchise that has no chance of getting players of that caliber as free agents.
I don’t know if this is going to work. I thought the Timberwolves would be a playoff team last year, and I thought the Brooklyn Nets would contend when they traded for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, and Jason Kidd had never coached and NBA game before that season. What I do know is Westbrook and George got their teams to the playoffs last year as lone superstars, and that Melo best thrives when he does not have to be the #1 guy, like in the Olympics. With Russ and George already there, OKC is a better than average opportunity for the 33 year old Melo to become Olympic Melo once again. Does that put them ahead of the Spurs? Probably. The Rockets? Maybe. The defending champion Golden State Warriors? Probably not, but I would like to see them try.
I have been critical of Carmelo Anthony in the past, as many NBA fans have been over the years. I have never been a huge fan of his game, but the more I think about it, the issue I mostly had was the way teams play when Melo is their #1 option. He was The Guy in Denver, and again in New York (Linsanity notwithstanding), but for all the criticism of his selfish play, that criticism could not fairly extend beyond the basketball court. Melo is charitable, and one of the more socially aware NBA players in this new age of athlete activism. Just yesterday, he set up a donation page on The Players’ Tribune for hurricane relief for Puerto Rico. He may not have been the guy you want to build a championship team around like LeBron or Dwyane Wade were, but in a world with a lot of legitimately evil people catching breaks and moving up, Carmelo Anthony being in a better basketball situation than the comically dysfunctional Knicks is hardly the worst thing that can happen.
Last season, one of the biggest criticisms of the NBA was the inevitability of outcome. From the beginning of July, everyone knew the Warriors would meet the Cavaliers in the Finals for the third straight year. This year, the Warriors are not going anywhere, and the Cavs will be good so long as they have LeBron, but teams around them–the Thunder, the Rockets, and the Celtics, all got more interesting. Will interesting be good enough? We will find out soon enough.
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.
This is my preview for the 2017 NBA Finals, the third straight between the Warriors and Cavaliers. For my preview of the 2015 NBA Finals, click here.
For my reaction to Kevin Durant signing with the Warriors and the 2016 NBA Finals, click here.
For my preview of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, click here.
The wait is almost over. All we went through this NBA season, from Russell Westbrook’s Triple Double Tear through the regular season, to the collaboration of James Harden and Mike D’Antoni, to Kawhi Leonard’s assertion in San Antonio in the first year post-Tim Duncan, to Brad Stevens’ overachieving Boston Celtics, to Doc Rivers’ underachieving (and likely soon to be dismantled) Los Angeles Clippers, was just a precursor to the third consecutive NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Warriors and Cavs blew through their conferences (in 12 and 13 games, respectively), there was a week between the last conference championship game and the first game of the Finals, giving basketball fans a Super Bowl-like layoff to think, and overthink, about the upcoming series. In that time, I keep going back and forth, over and over like this:
Golden State has more talent, and dominated the Western Conference with and without Kevin Durant. Westbrook felt burned by Durant leaving OKC and his stunning, anger-fueled 2016-17 season was one for the ages, but in spite of that, the Thunder were no match for the Houston Rockets, who were no match for the San Antonio Spurs, who, once Kawhi Leonard got hurt, did not belong on the same floor as the Golden State Warriors. This team is amazing, and they will dispose of Cleveland the same way they disposed of Portland, Utah, and San Antonio.
Yeah, but Cleveland has LeBron James, the best and most complete player in the NBA. Golden State may have more talent, but Cleveland has the league’s greatest singular talent. It’s hard to bet against LeBron right now.
Cleveland overcame a 1-3 series deficit last season against a record-breaking 73-win Warriors team last year, and in their third year together, LeBron and Kevin Love have figured out how to play better together than they ever have. Aside from a game and a half in the Conference Finals against the Celtics (if that), they have been in control the entire playoffs, and they already know they can win Game 7 in Oakland, in an NBA where road teams went 35 years without winning a Game 7 of the Finals.
Yeah, but the Warriors were well on their way to beating the Cavs in five games last year before Draymond Green’s suspension, and in the offseason they were able to replace Harrison Barnes with Kevin Durant. Kevin Durant.
Every time I talk myself into one team, I remember the team they are playing against. In 2017, these are the only two teams that matter, and now we get to see what they can do. Unlike previous years, both teams go into the series relatively healthy, and I expect this game to go seven games once again.
I am most interested in seeing how each team reacts when things do not go as planned. Aside from a brief moment against the Celtics, and the first half of the first game against the Spurs, neither team has faced any playoff adversity since the 2016 Finals. In a weird way, all the pressure is on the Warriors. It was Golden State, after all, who choked away a 3-1 lead last season. And it was Kevin Durant, after all, who as the biggest star on OKC, choked away a 3-1 series lead against Golden State in the Western Conference Finals, some six weeks before joining forces with them. The Warriors were the superior team, but too many little things went wrong. Steph Curry was banged up. Andre Igoudala was banged up. Draymond Green got suspended. Harrison Barnes had a crisis of confidence. Andrew Bogut got injured mid-series. Bogut was the fifth or sixth most important player for the Warriors, yet his injury was the last straw.
Durant’s first trip to the NBA Finals ended in defeat at the hands of LeBron James and the Miami Heat in 2012. It ended with LeBron finally getting over the hump in his third trip to the Finals. In 2012, it looked like Durant and the Thunder would be the NBA’s next great team, but between a polarizing trade, bad injury luck, the resurgence of the Spurs, and the rise of the Warriors, they never made it back. With Durant’s decision to sign with Golden State last summer, the KD and Russ Era Thunder became just another historical footnote like the Shaq and Penny Orlando Magic, the Payton and Kemp Seattle Supersonics, and the Olajuwon and Sampson Rockets, just another good young team that was never good enough, and broke up before their time. Joining the Warriors turned a juggernaut into a super-juggernaut, if there could be such a thing, but with immense talent comes immense pressure.
For the first time in his career, LeBron is not the focal point of scrutiny. He has won and lost in the NBA Finals in every way imaginable. His mostly unfair label as a choker was officially removed with Cleveland’s comeback win (and the city’s first title in any sport in over 50 years), leaving Miami’s 2011 Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks even more baffling than it was at the time. If the Cavs win this year, LeBron will have two Finals wins over Curry, and two Finals wins over Durant. If the Cavs lose, LeBron has still beaten all of Golden State’s stars in the Finals. If the Warriors win, it was because they were supposed to. They have put together three of the greatest regular seasons of all time together, and their enthusiasm for the three point shot will have changed basketball forever. If the Warriors lose, they are the Atlanta Braves of basketball. They may have been great, and they may have been iconic, but they should have more than one title when it’s all said and done, especially since they added Durant.
The more I think about it, the more I think anything can happen, and anything will happen. I would be most surprised if either team swept the other, but then again, both teams have done quite a bit of sweeping. No matter what happens, it should be epic. We waited for this series since the moment the 2016 Finals ended. After the season we went through, it better be epic.
This Eastern Conference Finals is merely a formality for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. It did not matter if it was the Boston Celtics or the Washington Wizards as the opponent. Either one was going to get annihilated, likely swept, by the Cavs, just as the Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors were in the first two rounds. In the Western Conference, the Golden State Warriors have been every bit as dominant, cutting through the Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz like a buzz saw. Everything that has happened in this NBA season has just been a buildup to the third installment of the Cavaliers/Golden State Warriors NBA Finals Trilogy. Both teams are toying with and carving up their respective conferences, and are playing the best basketball they ever have. No other opponents are worthy.
All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.
The last three season have been the Cavs and Warriors, but LeBron has dominated the East far longer than Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Co. have been the class of the West. I’m 27, and as long as I have been old enough to drink, the New England Patriots have made it at least as far as the AFC Championship game, and whichever team currently employs LeBron has made it to the NBA Finals. What’s amazing to me is how consistently great both LeBron and Tom Brady have been. As a lifelong Massachusetts resident, I’ve been in on Brady since I was in 6th grade and he took the starting job from Drew Bledsoe like Lou Gehrig did to Wally Pipp, but also because of where I grew up, I was predisposed to disliking LeBron.
The New Big Three era Celtics were the team LeBron had to measure himself against in the East, like the OG Big Three and Bad Boy Detroit Pistons were for Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. The last time LeBron failed to reach the Finals, the Cavs were upset by the Celtics in a second-round series, on the way to their eventual 2010 Finals loss in seven games to the forever-rival Los Angeles Lakers. Days after the Finals ended, Boston drafted Avery Bradley out of the University of Texas, now the longest tenured Celtic, and a couple weeks after that, LeBron infamously decided to take his talents to South Beach, joining forces with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Pat Riley, and the Miami Heat.
In the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, it was the last stand for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and the Celtics. They gave Miami’s Big Three everything they could handle, but came up short in Game 7. Had the Celtics prevailed, I have my doubts they could have kept pace with the young and hungry Oklahoma City Thunder, who at the time still had Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, but it was the moment LeBron first overcame adversity, pushed through and won it all. That summer, Ray Allen left Boston for Miami, the Celtics got bounced in the first round by the New York Knicks during the month after I started this blog, and Pierce and KG were traded for the gift that keeps on giving that is the Brooklyn Nets’ perennially high first round draft picks.
In spite of his greatness, I was one of those people who constantly picked apart LeBron’s game. As recently as the days leading up to the 2015 Finals, the first since his return to Cleveland, and the first duel with Golden State, I wrote that LeBron was team basketball was his Kryptonite, largely in reaction to the way the Heat got methodically picked apart by the San Antonio Spurs, the Patriots of basketball, in the 2014 Finals. Since then, since overcoming a 3-1 series deficit in the 2016 Finals against a Warriors team that won a record-setting 73 games in the regular season and coped with defeat by adding Kevin Durant, the most talented, highly-coveted free agent since LeBron himself in 2010, and setting in motion the arms race between Golden State and Cleveland that is the 2016-17 season, since LeBron put a team on his back and overcame a rival in a way I have never seen him before, I have come around on him.
The 2016 Finals fundamentally changed the way I view LeBron as a player. Now, any anger, any feelings about how overrated and over-hyped he was. Not bitter. Not jaded. Just impressed. I often like to compare the San Antonio Spurs to the New England Patriots, and vice-versa. The parallels are uncanny, from the five titles, consistent sustained success built around an all-time great player and an all-time great coach connected to a military academy (Bill Belichick’s father was a longtime assistant football coach and scout for the Naval Academy, and Gregg Popovich is a graduate of the Air Force Academy) who are descended from immigrants from the former Yugoslavia (Belichick is Croatian, and Popovich is Serbian). The more I think about it, and the more his career continues to evolve, though, I am starting to think that Tom Brady is more the LeBron of football than the Tim Duncan. It’s not a knock on Duncan as much as it’s an illustration of how far LeBron has come.
LeBron is 32 years old, and has been playing big NBA minutes since he was 18. Tom Brady will be 40 by the time he plays his next game. Both have been remarkably durable, with only one major injury (the knee injury that wiped out all but a quarter of the first game of Brady’s 2008 NFL season) between them. The fact that both are playing the best of their respective sport at their respective age is nothing short of incredible.
LeBron James is so good at basketball at the age of 32 that a young team on the rise like the Celtics made the conscious decision at the trade deadline not to go all-in on this season, or the next couple seasons. Danny Ainge saw his roster, knew his team was good, but nowhere near good enough to get past the Cavaliers. Why give up high draft picks and/or important role players like Avery Bradley, Jaylen Brown, or Jae Crowder when adding Jimmy Butler of the Bulls or Paul Georgeof the Pacers, the two biggest names rumored to be available at the deadline, would still make them a long shot to get past Cleveland? The reward was not worth the risk because there was no stopping LeBron right now. Ainge saw the other pseudo-contenders in the East during LeBron’s run of dominance, the Bulls with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, the Pacers with George and Roy Hibbert, the Raptors with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and he saw them flame out flying too close to the sun, thinking they had a better chance at beating Miami or Cleveland than they did, and he was not about to panic and let the Celtics become another one of those cautionary tales.
Regardless of the current scoreboard, the best is yet to come for the Brad Stevens Era of Celtics basketball. Thanks to the steal of the century that was trading Pierce and Garnett to Brooklyn, the Celtics have the luxury of building their team for some level of playoff success, now one of the four remaining teams, yet still very far away from true contention in an extremely top-heavy NBA, while also adding lottery talent courtesy of a truly dreadful Brooklyn basketball club.
The night before the start of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics earned #1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. Patience at the trade deadline paid off. Even if Markelle Fultz from Washington, or Lonzo Ball from UCLA, or Josh Jackson from Kansas, or whoever they end up taking does not turn into a measurably better player than Butler or George, he will be a more affordable player than Butler or George for the first few years. The assets have appreciated, the guys on the current roster are gaining valuable playoff experience, and LeBron will not be able to sustain this level of basketball greatness forever (I’m assuming?). The Celtics could keep the pick and take Fultz, trade down and get a team that is overly enamored by one player (like the Lakers may be with Ball) and get them to overpay, or a hundred other combinations of scenarios, but right now Trader Danny is holding the best cards and the best leverage he has had in a decade.
A decade ago this summer, the Celtics had bad lottery luck, landing the #5 pick in the Greg Oden/Kevin Durant draft (and even though Portland took Oden with the first pick, it has been well documented how high Ainge was on KD then and now), a decade removed from when they had two shots at the Tim Duncan lottery and came away with Chauncey Billups and Ron Mercer. After 1997, the Celtics waded back and forth between mediocrity and futility for ten years, and by 2007, Ainge pushed his chips to the center of the table, cashing his young assets in to turn them into Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. A decade ago, Danny Ainge built the best Celtics team of my lifetime, and six years later, he flipped the aging core of that team to set a faster, smarter rebuild in motion.
The last four years have not been without their frustrations, but the great coaching of Brad Stevens combined with Ainge’s shrewd roster composition, keeping as many options open as possible in a constantly evolving NBA with a seemingly unstoppable force at the top of the Eastern Conference for the entire 2010s to this point, has put the Celtics in the best position to be the East’s next great team, infrastructure-wise. All they need is their superstar. It’s a pretty big only thing to need, but it’s better than most teams can boast.
Even if none of the games against Cleveland are competitive, it cannot take away the way the Celtics overcame adversity against the Bulls, with Isaiah Thomas lighting it up as he grieved the loss of his sister, and is will not take away they held home court against a dynamic Wizards team that gave them everything they could handle. No matter what happens in Game 3 and Game 4 in Cleveland, the Celtics are in a great spot going forward. This is starting to get exciting.
The 2016-17 NBA season has been the Year of Kevin Durant, ever since all of basketball, from the front offices to to the players to the fans to social media, held its collective breath last July 4th weekend as he decided to sign with the Golden State Warriors. For a weekend, The Hamptons was the center of the sports universe, and everything since has been in reaction to KD joining forces with a team that won a record 73 games last year.
- Russell Westbrook is playing out of his mind this season because he’s mad at Durant.
- The Boston Celtics made their biggest free agent signing ever with Al Horford because they missed on Durant.
- What are the Washington Wizards supposed to do now that they had hoped to sign Kevin Durant, being the team from his hometown and all, but could not even get a meeting with him?
- How far have the Lakers really fallen now that they could not get a meeting with Durant, and they get meetings with everyone because they’re the Lakers?
- The Oklahoma City Thunder had three of the five best players in the NBA (Durant, Westbrook, and James Harden, with the other two top-five players being LeBron James and Steph Curry) at the beginnings of their careers, and now only have one. Are they now officially this generation’s version of the Shaq and Penny Orlando Magic that were super fun for a few years, but were gone before we could appreciate them and never won a title?
- Sure, the San Antonio Spurs will be good because they are always good, but in their first year without Tim Duncan, do they even have a chance against this Warriors team?
- Sure, the Houston Rockets will be interesting because they own the statistical darlings corner of the NBA and are the Oakland A’s of basketball, and the collaboration of GM Daryl Morey, newly hired head coach Mike D’Antoni, and star James Harden (who made the conversion from shooting guard to point guard this season and got even better) might even make them great, but can they hang with this Warriors team?
- Given the last two bullet points, are we destined (or doomed, depending on how you look at it) for a third straight Warriors/Cavs NBA Finals and the other 28 teams are merely bystanders in this inevitability?
That last bullet point was occupying my mind when I wrote about Durant-to-the-Warriors last July, and that still may very well be the end result of the Year of Durant, but the second tier contenders have been compelling this regular season (particularly Boston, Toronto, Washington, Houston, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Utah) and even teams that are not competing this year are made compelling by the bountiful crop of young talent in the Association from Kristaps Poszingis in New York, to Joel “The Process” Embiid in Philadelphia (whom the Sixers shut down for the rest of the season after appearing in just 31 games, but it was an unforgettable 31 games), Nikola Jokic in Denver, to Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns in Minnesota to Jabari Parker, Thon Maker, and Giannis “The Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee. The NBA is doing just fine, even if the end result feels inevitable. But just like everything else this season, when a post-trade deadline injury sent shock waves through the NBA, the injury in question was Kevin Durant.
A couple nights ago, playing against the Wizards in his hometown of Washington D.C. for the first time since he deliberately made it clear he did not want to play for his hometown, KD hurt his knee when he collided with teammate Zaza Pachulia. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, Durant could be out for the rest of the regular season, and perhaps longer than that. All of a sudden, things are not as certain as they seemed.
It’s impossible to write the Warriors off completely. They still have Steph Curry, they still have Klay Thompson, and they still have Draymond Green. They still have Steve Kerr as their coach. Those guys made The Finals each of the last two years without Durant, including coming back in a seven game series against Durant and the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals last spring. Even without Durant, their high-end talent in this high-end talent-driven league should make them better than most teams on any given night, but without him, their margin for error narrows significantly. Golden State also lacks the depth they enjoyed in previous seasons. In order to make room for Durant, the Warriors jettisoned Andrew Bogut (whose injury in the Finals was the straw that broke their collective back against Cleveland last spring), Harrison Barnes, and Festus Ezeli. The team they have is still very good, but the relative lack of depth was the risk they had to take by adding Durant to what could already be considered a super-team.
Durant’s injury also gives the Spurs and Rockets a better chance of crashing the party. I am not saying they are absolutely going to knock off the Warriors now, but this could make Golden State’s road that much more difficult. The Warriors currently sit at #1 in the Western Conference, with a 50-11 record. The Spurs are two and a half games behind them, at 47-13. If San Antonio could steal the #1 seed from Golden State, it would mean the Warriors potentially having to play the Rockets and the Spurs in order to get back to The Finals instead of the Rockets and Spurs having to play each other in the second round, as would happen if the standings remain the same. For Golden State, the possibility of Durant coming back and playing his first minutes in months in a second round playoff series against Houston, who could already pose as a touch match-up for them, is something that would scare me. The Warriors would much rather have San Antonio and Houston cancel each other out and only have to face one of them before their rubber match against LeBron and the Cavaliers.
I do not wish injury on anyone, and I am also not one to hold it against Kevin Durant for leaving OKC and joining the Warriors rather than beating them, but I have to admit this second half of the NBA regular season is more interesting than I expected, all because it is the Year of Kevin Durant.
This was a crazy week in Boston sports, perhaps the craziest since the one when the Bruins lost to Chicago in the Stanley Cup Final, Aaron Hernandez was arrested for murder, and the Celtics traded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets, or possibly the weekend in October of that same year that had David Ortiz’ ALCS grand slam against the Detroit Tigers and the “Unicorns! Show ponies! Where’s the beef?!” game against the New Orleans Saints. I am just now getting around to writing about what happened this weekend, but for my article on the Patriots comeback in Super Bowl LI, click here, and for my reaction to the Bruins firing longtime head coach Claude Julien and the current direction of the team, click here.
Like the Bruins, the Celtics had big news this week that was overshadowed by the Patriots’ fifth Super Bowl win, but unlike the Bruins, the Celtics were not trying to bury it. Earlier in the afternoon on Super Bowl Sunday, Paul Pierce played his last game at TD Garden. That’s just how the schedule worked out, as the Los Angeles Clippers only make one trip to Boston the whole season. It was the only time the former team captain and former head coach Doc Rivers would be in front of the Celtics’ crowd in the 2016-17 season, and the 39 year old Pierce has announced that this is his last NBA season.
While Pierce played his last game as a Celtic in 2013, shortly after I launched this blog, and is now in his third team since leaving Boston, he will always be remembered as a Celtic. Fifteen years, ten All-Star appearances, two trips to the NBA Finals, a title, and a Finals MVP is not a bad legacy. Paul Pierce is not the greatest player of his era, and certainly not the greatest Celtic ever, but he will always be my favorite, as I was too young to enjoy the Larry Bird and Kevin McHale teams, let alone Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, or Dave Cowens.
Maybe an even greater aspect of his legacy, depending on how the next couple of drafts go, is what the Celtics got in return from the Nets when they traded him and KG in the summer of 2013. Brooklyn thought they were building a contender with Pierce, Garnett, Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez, and Deron Williams, but it never got off the ground. The Celtics have already gotten the draft picks that became James Young and Jaylen Brown out of the deal (and Brown has shown true flashes of brilliance at times in his rookie season this year), as well as the ability to swap picks with Brooklyn in 2017 (the Nets are running away the the NBA’s worst record and have yet to record double digit wins) and Brooklyn’s pick in 2018. Pierce only played one season with the Nets, while Garnett was traded to Minnesota in the middle of his second Brooklyn season, and has since retired. Without a doubt, the Celtics won that trade, but just how great a haul that was is still to be determined.
While Pierce did not have a say in getting traded to the Nets (Garnett had a no-trade clause in his contract, while Pierce did not), Doc Rivers was ultimately traded from the Celtics to the Clippers because he did not want to endure another rebuild in Boston. Doc would rather work for a garbage human being of an owner like Donald Sterling (which he did until Sterling was banned from the NBA by Adam Silver in 2014) than have to toil through losing seasons and coach up young talent for a storied organization like the Boston Celtics. On one hand, I do not blame Doc, and the Celtics found a replacement in Brad Stevens who is probably a better coach anyway, and gave Stevens the benefit of adapting to the NBA game without the pressure of needing to win now like fellow college coaches Billy Donovan in Oklahoma City and Fred Hoiberg in Chicago had to, but at the same time, the way Doc left Boston made it harder to root for him in Los Angeles.
Rivers took over the Clippers in the summer of 2013, the same summer that Dwight Howard spurned the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency, leaving them without a superstar in his prime for the first time since the early 90s after the retirements of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, and the San Antonio Spurs had just lost to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals in such devastating fashion, it was uncertain at that time (before, of course, they came back in 2014 with a vengeance) that they could ever recover. There was a sudden power vacuum in the Western Conference, and the Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder appeared poised to take over. Rivers was eager to coach a roster that had Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan, and he, like many people, thought they could be another Big Three for him to coach. Alas, the Golden State Warriors crashed the party in the West, and the Clippers under Rivers still have not advanced past the second round of the playoffs.
Meanwhile, Brad Stevens has the Celtics in a good place. Beyond LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, any of the playoff teams in the East can beat any other team, but the Celtics currently sit second in the conference and fifth in the NBA. Isaiah Thomas has blossomed into an All-Star and someone who might get some MVP attention (though I will be shocked if anyone other than Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, or James Harden wins it this years), and Jae Crowder has turned into a good NBA role player and a much more valuable trade asset than Rajon Rondo, the guy who was traded to acquire Crowder. The Celtics are headed in the right direction, which I cannot say with certainty about the other team that plays at TD Garden, but it is still nice to remember Doc and Pierce for the way the made this franchise respectable again when I was a teenager. The 2008 Celtics will always have a special place in my heart as the first, and so far only championship basketball team that was also my team.
At 39, Pierce is hardly the player he once was, and has been playing significantly diminished minutes this season, but near the end of the game, Celtics fans were chanting, demanding he go back in. Doc Rivers obliged, and Pierce sank a three in the end, though the Celtics still won. TD Garden erupted in cheers. Paul Pierce, The Truth, had his final moment in front of the Garden crowd. It may not have been the right uniform; anything other than Celtics green just did not look right on him, but the fans never stopped loving this guy. After all they had been through together, the ups, the downs, the victories, and the devastating defeats, Paul Pierce was the guy making the big shot at the end. His next great moment in Boston will be when the Celtics inevitably retire his #34 to the Garden rafters, something that was destined to happen as soon as they reached the Finals in 2008. It was a fun ride, and I was glad to see it happen, even if it got overshadowed by the Super Bowl.