Brad Stevens got his guy. Stevens and former Utah Jazz small forward and Ryan Gosling lookalike Gordon Hayward have unfinished business from their days together at Butler University, and they intend to finish that business in Boston. The Boston Celtics, in spite of their storied success, have not been a free agent destination for maximum players in their prime at any point in their history, but between acquiring Al Horford last summer and acquiring Hayward this summer, that knock on them no longer exists. It’s also worth noting that white small forwards from Indiana have historically done quite well in Boston, so the future looks bright for the Celtics.
That said, I cannot help but think what it would be like if they had been able to land Kevin Durant along with Horford last year. They went to The Hamptons, they got Tom Brady to sit in on the pitch meeting, but they could not offer what the Golden State Warriors could on the basketball side of things. The guys on the Warriors made financial sacrifices to Steph Curry could get his well deserved payday this summer, and they all wanted to stay in Golden State because they know nothing in their basketball careers will ever be better than what they have right now. The Celtics could not offer that. Durant joined the Warriors when the salary cap spiked, and now the rest of the NBA is paying the price.
In order to sign Hayward, the Celtics had to rescind their offer on Kelly Olynyk, who signed with the Miami Heat, and trade Avery Bradley to the Detroit Pistons for Marcus Morris. Both Olynyk and Bradley were guys the Celtics drafted and developed. Bradley was the last remaining Celtic to be teammates with Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce, and Olynyk went in four years from being the guy that traded up to get in the 2013 NBA Draft when they could have stood pat and taken Giannis Antetokounmpo with their original pick (though to be fair, half the NBA passed on Giannis, and no one knew he would be this good) to a guy who won a Game 7 against the Washington Wizards with the home crowd chanting his name. I understand the business of the NBA, and I realize teams have to make sacrifices to get big name players, but these guys will be missed.
I was a big fan of Bradley’s defense. He arrived in Boston the same summer Tony Allen left for Memphis, and while Allen was one of the NBA’s best defenders during his years with the Grizz, Bradley soon became a player of that caliber. Also, Bradley wore #0, which has been a number associated with fan favorites like Walter McCarty and Leon Powe as long as I’ve been following the Celtics, so he had that going for him.
I was personally hoping Bradley would be on the team when the Celtics make it back to the Finals, as he was drafted days after their last trip to the Finals in 2010, and because there are usually holdovers between great Celtics eras. John Havlicek and Don Nelson won titles with both Bill Russell and Dave Cowens, and Cowens was still on the team when Larry Bird arrived. There was supposed to be a youth movement to revitalize the Celtics as Bird, McHale, and Parish got older led by Len Bias and Reggie Lewis, and that tragically never happened. In theory, Bias and Lewis could have still been on the team when Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce arrived.
When the Celtics traded Rajon Rondo in 2014, Bradley became the longest tenured Celtic, and that was super weird to me because he’s six months younger than I am, and he was still in high school when the Celtics won the title in 2008. With Bradley gone, the longest tenured Celtic is Marcus Smart, who was drafted by the Celtics a solid year after I started this blog. Time is a cruel thing.
I didn’t get into writing about basketball to get headaches trying to make sense of the NBA salary cap, but that is where we are now. The trend had been that the salary cap usually goes up from one year to the next, but with new media deals kicking in, it went way up last year. It was expected to go up slightly or remain stagnant, but the Warriors carved through the West and the Cleveland Cavaliers carved through the East so efficiently, that there were much fewer playoff games, much fewer revenue opportunities this spring, than expected, and the cap actually went down. The Warriors and Cavs were so dominant that their dominance made it tangibly more difficult for the rest of the NBA to catch up to them.
The Bradley trade was a financial move more than a basketball move. To make room to sign Hayward, the Celtics were going to have to move Bradley, or Jae Crowder, or Marcus Smart. While Bradley, when healthy, is the most consistent player of the three, he is also has the most NBA service time of the three, has one year left on his deal, and he is going to get a lot of money if Detroit lets him get to free agency next summer. I thought Crowder was the odd man out, as he plays the same position as Hayward, and was clearly upset when Celtics fans were cheering Hayward when the Jazz came to Boston last season.
Of course, the Celtics are in a much better position to deal with the reality of the salary cap than a lot of teams. They don’t have to worry about their best player leaving town because he (justifiably) hates the owner like the Cavaliers. They are not located in the loaded Western Conference, where nearly every other high-profile free agent signed, and where Jimmy Butler and Paul George landed in trades. They did not spend years building methodically through the draft only to make the playoffs one time, get swept by the Warriors, and lose their best player to free agency like the Jazz. As happy as I am that the Celtics landed Hayward, I cannot help but feel for Jazz fans in all this. I would have been okay with Hayward staying in Utah. I was really just hoping he wouldn’t end up in Miami like LeBron James and Chris Bosh did in 2010.
The Celtics can compete now with Hayward, Horford, and Isaiah Thomas, but the key to advancing beyond the Eastern Conference Finals in the future was not going to be Avery Bradley or Kelly Olynyk or Jae Crowder. 2016 #3 overall pick Jaylen Brown and 2017 #3 overall pick Jayson Tatum are the future, and if Tatum’s Summer League performance so far is any indication, the future is bright.
This Eastern Conference Finals is merely a formality for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. It did not matter if it was the Boston Celtics or the Washington Wizards as the opponent. Either one was going to get annihilated, likely swept, by the Cavs, just as the Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors were in the first two rounds. In the Western Conference, the Golden State Warriors have been every bit as dominant, cutting through the Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz like a buzz saw. Everything that has happened in this NBA season has just been a buildup to the third installment of the Cavaliers/Golden State Warriors NBA Finals Trilogy. Both teams are toying with and carving up their respective conferences, and are playing the best basketball they ever have. No other opponents are worthy.
All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.
The last three season have been the Cavs and Warriors, but LeBron has dominated the East far longer than Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Co. have been the class of the West. I’m 27, and as long as I have been old enough to drink, the New England Patriots have made it at least as far as the AFC Championship game, and whichever team currently employs LeBron has made it to the NBA Finals. What’s amazing to me is how consistently great both LeBron and Tom Brady have been. As a lifelong Massachusetts resident, I’ve been in on Brady since I was in 6th grade and he took the starting job from Drew Bledsoe like Lou Gehrig did to Wally Pipp, but also because of where I grew up, I was predisposed to disliking LeBron.
The New Big Three era Celtics were the team LeBron had to measure himself against in the East, like the OG Big Three and Bad Boy Detroit Pistons were for Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. The last time LeBron failed to reach the Finals, the Cavs were upset by the Celtics in a second-round series, on the way to their eventual 2010 Finals loss in seven games to the forever-rival Los Angeles Lakers. Days after the Finals ended, Boston drafted Avery Bradley out of the University of Texas, now the longest tenured Celtic, and a couple weeks after that, LeBron infamously decided to take his talents to South Beach, joining forces with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Pat Riley, and the Miami Heat.
In the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, it was the last stand for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and the Celtics. They gave Miami’s Big Three everything they could handle, but came up short in Game 7. Had the Celtics prevailed, I have my doubts they could have kept pace with the young and hungry Oklahoma City Thunder, who at the time still had Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, but it was the moment LeBron first overcame adversity, pushed through and won it all. That summer, Ray Allen left Boston for Miami, the Celtics got bounced in the first round by the New York Knicks during the month after I started this blog, and Pierce and KG were traded for the gift that keeps on giving that is the Brooklyn Nets’ perennially high first round draft picks.
In spite of his greatness, I was one of those people who constantly picked apart LeBron’s game. As recently as the days leading up to the 2015 Finals, the first since his return to Cleveland, and the first duel with Golden State, I wrote that LeBron was team basketball was his Kryptonite, largely in reaction to the way the Heat got methodically picked apart by the San Antonio Spurs, the Patriots of basketball, in the 2014 Finals. Since then, since overcoming a 3-1 series deficit in the 2016 Finals against a Warriors team that won a record-setting 73 games in the regular season and coped with defeat by adding Kevin Durant, the most talented, highly-coveted free agent since LeBron himself in 2010, and setting in motion the arms race between Golden State and Cleveland that is the 2016-17 season, since LeBron put a team on his back and overcame a rival in a way I have never seen him before, I have come around on him.
The 2016 Finals fundamentally changed the way I view LeBron as a player. Now, any anger, any feelings about how overrated and over-hyped he was. Not bitter. Not jaded. Just impressed. I often like to compare the San Antonio Spurs to the New England Patriots, and vice-versa. The parallels are uncanny, from the five titles, consistent sustained success built around an all-time great player and an all-time great coach connected to a military academy (Bill Belichick’s father was a longtime assistant football coach and scout for the Naval Academy, and Gregg Popovich is a graduate of the Air Force Academy) who are descended from immigrants from the former Yugoslavia (Belichick is Croatian, and Popovich is Serbian). The more I think about it, and the more his career continues to evolve, though, I am starting to think that Tom Brady is more the LeBron of football than the Tim Duncan. It’s not a knock on Duncan as much as it’s an illustration of how far LeBron has come.
LeBron is 32 years old, and has been playing big NBA minutes since he was 18. Tom Brady will be 40 by the time he plays his next game. Both have been remarkably durable, with only one major injury (the knee injury that wiped out all but a quarter of the first game of Brady’s 2008 NFL season) between them. The fact that both are playing the best of their respective sport at their respective age is nothing short of incredible.
LeBron James is so good at basketball at the age of 32 that a young team on the rise like the Celtics made the conscious decision at the trade deadline not to go all-in on this season, or the next couple seasons. Danny Ainge saw his roster, knew his team was good, but nowhere near good enough to get past the Cavaliers. Why give up high draft picks and/or important role players like Avery Bradley, Jaylen Brown, or Jae Crowder when adding Jimmy Butler of the Bulls or Paul Georgeof the Pacers, the two biggest names rumored to be available at the deadline, would still make them a long shot to get past Cleveland? The reward was not worth the risk because there was no stopping LeBron right now. Ainge saw the other pseudo-contenders in the East during LeBron’s run of dominance, the Bulls with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, the Pacers with George and Roy Hibbert, the Raptors with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and he saw them flame out flying too close to the sun, thinking they had a better chance at beating Miami or Cleveland than they did, and he was not about to panic and let the Celtics become another one of those cautionary tales.
Regardless of the current scoreboard, the best is yet to come for the Brad Stevens Era of Celtics basketball. Thanks to the steal of the century that was trading Pierce and Garnett to Brooklyn, the Celtics have the luxury of building their team for some level of playoff success, now one of the four remaining teams, yet still very far away from true contention in an extremely top-heavy NBA, while also adding lottery talent courtesy of a truly dreadful Brooklyn basketball club.
The night before the start of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics earned #1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. Patience at the trade deadline paid off. Even if Markelle Fultz from Washington, or Lonzo Ball from UCLA, or Josh Jackson from Kansas, or whoever they end up taking does not turn into a measurably better player than Butler or George, he will be a more affordable player than Butler or George for the first few years. The assets have appreciated, the guys on the current roster are gaining valuable playoff experience, and LeBron will not be able to sustain this level of basketball greatness forever (I’m assuming?). The Celtics could keep the pick and take Fultz, trade down and get a team that is overly enamored by one player (like the Lakers may be with Ball) and get them to overpay, or a hundred other combinations of scenarios, but right now Trader Danny is holding the best cards and the best leverage he has had in a decade.
A decade ago this summer, the Celtics had bad lottery luck, landing the #5 pick in the Greg Oden/Kevin Durant draft (and even though Portland took Oden with the first pick, it has been well documented how high Ainge was on KD then and now), a decade removed from when they had two shots at the Tim Duncan lottery and came away with Chauncey Billups and Ron Mercer. After 1997, the Celtics waded back and forth between mediocrity and futility for ten years, and by 2007, Ainge pushed his chips to the center of the table, cashing his young assets in to turn them into Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. A decade ago, Danny Ainge built the best Celtics team of my lifetime, and six years later, he flipped the aging core of that team to set a faster, smarter rebuild in motion.
The last four years have not been without their frustrations, but the great coaching of Brad Stevens combined with Ainge’s shrewd roster composition, keeping as many options open as possible in a constantly evolving NBA with a seemingly unstoppable force at the top of the Eastern Conference for the entire 2010s to this point, has put the Celtics in the best position to be the East’s next great team, infrastructure-wise. All they need is their superstar. It’s a pretty big only thing to need, but it’s better than most teams can boast.
Even if none of the games against Cleveland are competitive, it cannot take away the way the Celtics overcame adversity against the Bulls, with Isaiah Thomas lighting it up as he grieved the loss of his sister, and is will not take away they held home court against a dynamic Wizards team that gave them everything they could handle. No matter what happens in Game 3 and Game 4 in Cleveland, the Celtics are in a great spot going forward. This is starting to get exciting.