The Boston Celtics are playing their best basketball since the days of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and (yes, even) Ray Allen. They currently sit second in the Eastern conference, tthree games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers, with Kevin Love out with an injury and LeBron James logging more minutes than he should at age 32, and Brad Stevens is going to coach the Eastern Conference All-Stars for the first time in his career. Perhaps most impressive about what they have done is that they are winning games with regularity in spite of their significant lack of health, with the longest tenured current Celtic Avery Bradley and 2016 free agent acquisition Al Horford both missing extended periods due to injury.
The success of the Celtics two and a half years removed from being in the draft lottery themselves (as opposed to living vicariously though the Brooklyn Nets’ miserable season) to being a top-five team in the NBA, despite Danny Ainge’s inability to find suitors in this decade’s version of the Allen and Garnett trades that the fan base so desperately wanted, is a testament to the coaching staff and the smaller moves Ainge has been able to make, but the biggest story for the Celtics has been the NBA’s smallest blossoming superstar.
Isaiah Thomas stands 5’9″, two inches shorter than I am, and my always unrealistic dream of playing on a school basketball team, let alone in the NBA ended around sixth grade when I realized I’d never be tall enough to make up for my inherent lack of skill. Despite a good college career (two time 1st Team All-Pac-10, two time Pac-10 Tournament MVP at Washington), Thomas was overlooked by NBA teams for his height, and he was taken with the 60th and final pick of the 2011 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings.
What is amazing about players taken in the 2nd round of the NBA Draft is that the ones that make it as stars, make it with a vengeance. Draymond Green fell to the second round, is now the NBA’s best defender, the most polarizing player on the NBA’s best team, and has developed this revisionist history around his draft status where several teams claim they were about to take him even though they all had a chance at him. Manu Ginobili being selected by the San Antonio Spurs with the 57th overall pick in 1999 and forging a Hall of Fame career out of obscurity in Argentina is an even greater component to the mystique and the greatness of Gregg Popovich and the Spurs than lucking into Tim Duncan at #1 in 1997.
In Isaiah’s case, though, the Kings do not get the credit for finding a diamond in the rough of a superstar because they let him go before his full potential was realized–same goes for the Phoenix Suns–but the chip on his shoulder is just as big as Draymond’s. Thanks to another great trade by Danny Ainge (a three team trade with Phoenix and Detroit where the Celtics gave away Marcus Thornton, Tayshaun Prince, and a late 2016 1st round pick, and came away with Gigi Datome, Jonas Jerebko, and IT), Thomas arrived in Boston at the 2015 trade deadline.
The Boston teams are in the midst of an under-six-feet renaissance between Julian Edelman (5’10”), Dion Lewis (5’8″), Malcolm Butler (5’11”), Danny Amendola (5’11”), Dustin Pedroia (5’9″), Mookie Betts (5’9″), Andrew Benintendi (5’10”), Jackie Bradley Jr. (5’10”), Brad Marchand (5’9″), and Torey Krug (5’9″), but Isaiah Thomas is the ultimate example because of the emphasis on height in who plays basketball at the professional level. While the Red Sox and Patriots gain acclaim for taking a chance on shorter outfield prospects and surrounding Tom Brady with a bunch of quick and shifty little guys, the Celtics have turned into a borderline contender built around a little guy in a big guy’s sport. This is almost unprecedented.
My two favorite basketball players who never played for the Celtics are Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson. I have written plenty about Duncan over the years, given that he was an active player this time last year, and he and Pop have been the Brady and Belichick of basketball. I wanted to write my ode to AI in September when he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in September, but it was my last college semester, I was working full time, and my buddy Murf’s bachelor party was that same weekend. Life got in the way, but I am here now.
I attended my first Celtics game in 2001, weeks after Rick Pitino skipped town. The Philadelphia 76ers were in town in a year when they eventually reached the Finals and Iverson was the MVP. To this day, I believe he is the best athlete I have ever seen in person (Honorable mentions Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The interesting thing is that Malkin actually stands out more than Crosby in person because of his size.). By my memory, he systematically picked apart a Celtics team that had Pierce and Antoine Walker and was finally showing signs of a competitive pulse at the start of the Jim O’Brien Era almost entirely by himself. It was amazing.
Iverson was officially listed at 6’0″, but even as a kid, I never really believed that number. AI was fearless and played like he was six inches taller than his actual height, making him one of the most intimidating people in the history of the NBA. He played hard and lived hard, and his career ended much more abruptly than many of his contemporaries as a result, but in his heyday, there were few players more compelling for someone flipping through the channels and stopping on a neutral site basketball game.
AI never won a title, and was labeled as a selfish player. Some of that was fair, but also a lot of that was the lack of quality talent that surrounded him in his prime. Unlike other elite point guards of his era like John Stockton, Gary Payton, and Steve Nash, AI never had a Karl Malone, or a Shawn Kemp, or a Dirk Nowitzki, or even an Amar’e Stoudemire to give the ball to. AI had Keith Van Horn and a past-his-prime Dikembe Mutombo. Iverson tried to do everything on offense by himself because that really was the best option in most years. This is the thing that has me worried about IT in Boston, but also not really. Sure, Al Horford is not the elite offensive threat that Karl Malone is. Sure, Kelly Olynyk is the victim of early Dirk comparisons. Sure, Jaylen Brown is an unproven rookie with some trouble finishing at the rim. But the Celtics are still building. Isaiah already does not have to do it all himself, even if he is consistently lighting it up in the fourth quarter, but they are still getting better.
What I really like about Isaiah Thomas the more I have learned about him is his self-awareness. In listening to recent podcasts where his sat down with Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer and Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, he has it all in perspective. He was the last pick in the draft. He was 27 and on his third team by the time he became an All-Star, and he’s just now getting recognized as a legitimate superstar at 28. It’s like an actor or musician who did not achieve success or fame until after he or she learned how to be an adult. In the NBA, we are at the point where we are surprised when someone drafted as a teenager like Kevin Garnett or LeBron James turns into a well-adjusted human being. Isaiah spent his basketball career being doubted, being overlooked, and has proven people wrong at every turn, so now that he’s arrived, he’s not about to let it get to his head.
This week, Thomas broke a 45 year old Celtics franchise record set by the great John Havlicek of 40 consecutive games scoring 20 points or more, with game 41 being Boston’s last-minute loss to the Chicago Bulls the other night. IT is making his way into the history books in the NBA’s most storied franchise, but this story is still in its early stages.
I’ve written before about franchise players who will never be eclipsed, primarily in the context of Boston’s teams. Because of Bill Russell, Larry Bird could never be better than the second best Celtic of all time. Because of Bobby Orr, Ray Boruque (who arrived in Boston the same year as Larry) could only ascend as high as second on the list of great Boston Bruins, even if Bourque played twice as long. David Ortiz may have three more World Series rings than Ted Williams, but if you think Ortiz means more to the history of the game and to the Red Sox, you’re lying to yourself. I wrote last month, that Tom Brady is that guy for the Patriots. Like Steve Young following Joe Montana, no Patriots quarterback will ever be better than Brady. I am convinced of that.
Salt Lake City only has one major professional sports team, and they have never won a title. Despite that, John Stockton and Karl Malone have firmly established themselves as the best that franchise will ever have. You can win as many championships as you like, but the Utah Jazz will never have a duo like that again. Stockton is the NBA’s all time leader in assists, and Malone is second only to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the all time scoring list. Stockton is considered the best pure point guard in NBA history (if you’re 6’9″ and played center in a Finals game like Magic Johnson did, you’re in a category of your own), but the battle to be Utah’s second best point guard is ongoing.
Deron Williams was an All-Star who took the Jazz to the playoffs a few times before forcing Jerry Sloan into retirement and getting traded to the (then) New Jersey Nets. The future of Utah Jazz basketball is now in the hands of an Australian teenager named Dante Exum. Exum was a coveted prospect in the 2014 NBA Draft, but was also a giant mystery. Sure, his highlights looked impressive, and his father was teammates with Michael Jordan at North Carolina, but Dante didn’t play college basketball. It’s difficult to determine how good someone will be in the NBA if they look good against overseas talent.
Then this .gif happened.
Exum blocked Williams in impressive fashion in a game between Utah and Brooklyn. The two were never teammates, and neither team is going anywhere this year, but this is the kind of thing people will remember if the Jazz become the powerhouse they were in the mid-90s. The best Jazz team ever had the misfortune of peaking during Jordan’s second three-peat, and were victims of some of the GOAT’s Greatest Moments of All Time. Maybe things will be different for Dante Exum.
A few times a year, rumors start to swirl about the possibility of the Boston Celtics trading star point guard (and team captain as 2014) Rajon Rondo. This has been going on since 2009, but really it was going on before that, but Rondo wasn’t the center of trade talks. Before the trades for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in the summer of 2007, no player on the Celtics’ roster was safe, with the possible exception of Paul Pierce. Then Minnesota Timberwolves general manager (and current Houston Rockets head coach, and forever a Celtics legend) Kevin McHale was interested in Rondo, but the deal for Kevin Garnett was centered around Al Jefferson and Gerald Green, and Celtics GM Danny Ainge was able to talk his former teammate into another young point guard in Sebastian Telfair, but he was rumored to be traded even back then. Rajon Rondo is the last player left from the 2007 Celtics team that failed in their attempt to tank for Kevin Durant or Greg Oden, and he’s also the last remaining Celtics player from the 2008 squad that took the NBA by storm and beat the Los Angeles Lakers in what felt like a six game sweep. He’s constantly rumored in trades, and nothing has changed that, but with Rondo expected to hit free agency in the summer of 2015, the rumors are really heating up this time. Something might actually happen. It’s been reported that he wants out, and won’t re-sign with the Celtics, but Rondo and his agent have also reportedly denied that report, so really it’s anyone’s guess at this point. Rondo probably doesn’t know, Danny Ainge probably doesn’t know, Wyc Grousbeck probably doesn’t know, and I certainly don’t know, but that’s what the Internet is for. Time to speculate!
The problem with trading Rajon Rondo is the question of what the Celtics would be able to get in return. When healthy, Rondo is an All-Star point guard in an era when there are a ton of good point guards. Derrick Rose. Deron Williams. Chris Paul. Russell Westbrook. Steph Curry. Tony Parker. Kyle Lowry. Ricky Rubio. Ty Lawson. Kyrie Irving. Goran Dragic. Trey Burke. And the list goes on. Even on the Celtics, there is a surplus at the position with second year PG Phil Pressey, and the 2014 #6 overall draft pick, Marcus Smart from Oklahoma State. The abundance of point guard talent has been crushing Rondo’s trade value. The C’s were unable to get a deal done for Kevin Love in part because their best asset was Rondo, and Rondo wasn’t enough of a draw by himself the way Cleveland could tempt Love with the chance to play with both Kyrie Irving and LeBron James, but also because they couldn’t include Rondo in a trade for Love because Minnesota already has a point guard in Ricky Rubio, and without another All-Star on the roster, there is no way Love would sign to stay in Boston for the long haul. The teams with assets the Celtics want don’t need an All-Star point guard, and the teams that want a point guard of Rondo’s caliber do not have assets the Celtics want, so it would seem that the best course of action would be to keep Rondo in Boston, but it’s not so simple.
Rajon Rondo is incredibly talented, but also incredibly frustrating. He is an elite passer, and his ability to make plays is incredible. Rondo is a pure point guard, much like Bob Cousy, Steve Nash, or John Stockton. What made those players great was their ability to make the players around them better, but I don’t always see that with Rondo. Before his knee injury, it looked like he had managed to turn the assist, an inherently selfless stat as it’s literally the number of time you pass it to the guy who gets credit for the points, into an unselfish one. He was racking up a lot of double-doubles by routinely racking up double digit assist games, but it seemed like he was making the play that would more likely earn him an assist than the one that was the best basketball play for the team at the time, making a low-percentage pass when he had a high-percentage lane to the basket, and the Celtics offense became stagnant as Rondo would let the shot clock drain before passing it with so little time that the recipient of the ball had no choice but to shoot it rather than move the ball around and develop and open scoring opportunity, and have someone else get credit for the assist. It made the Celtics one dimensional on offense…and that was when they still had Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett at their disposal.
When Rondo has his head in the game, he can be truly brilliant, but sometimes it takes the C’s having their backs against the wall in a playoff series for brilliant Rondo to show himself. He’s not exactly known as someone who is easy to get along with either. Many have speculated that both Ray Allen and Doc Rivers left Boston when they did because they couldn’t stand working with Rondo anymore. You don’t have to be the nicest guy in the world to be a winner. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant are perfect examples of that in basketball, and I could rattle off a dozen other names in other sports to prove my point, but the difference between Rondo and someone like MJ or Kobe is that those guys were the best in the NBA at the height of their demanding nature towards their teammates, and Rondo is a very talented point guard who is not a very good shooter in a game where any team whose best player fits that description cannot win a title.
What I would like to see, even more than signing him long term, is for the Celtics to trade Rondo for a good player at a different position, possibly a rim-protector, and move forward with Marcus “Wicked” Smart as the franchise point guard. The Celtics might be able to pull off the tandem point guard scheme that the San Antonio Spurs won a championship with this spring with Tony Parker and Patty Mills, but if Rondo is non-committal, I don’t mind seeing him leave if they C’s can get something of substance in return. I would love for the Celtics to strike a deal with the Indiana Pacers, who were the second best team in the Eastern Conference the last two seasons, but are a long shot for the playoffs this year after losing talented young guard Lance Stephenson in free agency to the Charlotte Hornets (yes, they’re the Hornets again!) and losing their best player, Paul George, for the season after he suffered a brutal leg break in an exhibition game this summer. The Pacers have something that I would love to see in a Celtics uniform, and that something is center Roy Hibbert. Hibbert, who was a star player at Georgetown in college, and has guest starred as himself on Parks and Recreation a couple of times, and he also happens to be a legit NBA center who could use a change of scenery. The Pacers have been good the past few years, but it looks as if the core of that team has reached its ceiling, and with the losses of George and Stephenson, now might be the best time for Larry Bird and Co. to retool and rebuild. Hibbert would make the Celtics better, and Rondo could be the complimentary piece to go with Paul George once he is healthy again. The Celtics would not be finished rebuilding, but being able to put Smart, Hibbert, Avery Bradley, and Jared Sullinger on the floor together would be a great start.
Time will tell if this latest batch of Rondo rumors are anything to believe, but this time next year, there is a very real chance that he will not be wearing a Celtics uniform, and if that’s the case, I hope the Celtics got something worthwhile in return.
With the Heat and Spurs moving on for their Finals rematch, the Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder are going home disappointed once again. Both teams had high hopes for the year, but fell short. I expect there to be changes made in both franchises, since neither team is in a market that can really compete with New York or Los Angeles or Chicago. Both teams are close, but neither team can afford to stand pat this summer.
The Indiana Pacers went into the season talking about the need for the home court advantage in an inevitable playoff rematch with the Miami Heat. They exploded out the gate and earned that advantage, with the best regular season record in the Eastern Conference, despite struggling the last couple months of the season, but were nearly eliminated by the lowly Atlanta Hawks in the first round. After taking seven games to dispose of Atlanta, the Pacers had their hands full with the young and fearless Washington Wizards. Indiana made it past Washington, but there was no reason to be confident in the team heading into their showdown with Miami. They were in the Eastern Conference Finals, but it didn’t feel like this team belonged there. Miami disposed of the Pacers in six games, one game less than it took last year.
The Pacers have a good collection of talent, but it hasn’t translated into being a great team in the playoffs yet. It’s unclear who the leader of the team is and who the star is. There is a lot to like about Roy Hibbert, David West, George Hill, and Paul George, and I’m not ready to give up on Lance Stephenson just yet, despite his antics, but there is no one on that roster comparable to a LeBron or a Durant or a Garnett or a Pierce or a Duncan or a Nowitzki that history shows you need win a championship in the NBA (the Detroit Pistons team headlined by Chauncey Billups and Ben Wallace, two very good players who belong in the Hall of Fame but are not quite on that level is the exception to that rule). The Pacers have already announced that head coach Frank Vogel is keeping his job, but that is far from the only tough decision that Pacers team president Larry Bird will have to make this summer.
Basketball is to Indiana what football is to Texas and hockey is to Canada, but the passion and appreciation for the game at the high school and college levels has yet to translate to championship glory in the NBA. Larry Bird is perhaps an even more revered figure in his home state of Indiana than for his playing days at Indiana State than he is in Massachusetts for his legendary NBA career with the Boston Celtics, but if he can succeed in leading the Pacers to a championship, he might get elected governor on a write-in campaign without even trying. Larry has his work cut out for him.
The Oklahoma City Thunder, on the other hand, have the elite talent already. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are among the best players in the NBA, with Durant winning the MVP for the first time in his career a couple of weeks ago. While they are both very good players, as long as they do not win a championship, questions will be asked about their compatibility. Perhaps OKC could benefit from a shakeup. Perhaps Durant can better maximize his potential with a more pure, pass-first point guard rather than the high-scoring Westbrook. Perhaps Rajon Rondo would be the perfect guy to dish the ball to Durant, and perhaps Rondo would love the idea of reuniting with his old buddy Kendrick Perkins in OKC. Perhaps a trade between the Thunder and Boston Celtics that would bring Rondo and Durant together and make Westbrook the centerpiece of the next great Celtics team is the best thing for all parties involved. Is it wishful thinking as a Celtics fan? Absolutely, but stranger things have happened. The more I think about it, the more I would love for it to happen.
Neither the Pacers nor the Thunder had what it took to reach the Finals in a season dominated by the two remaining teams from a year ago, and while both teams were close last year, they can’t afford to hold steady for another one. Time waits for no team, and these opportunities don’t just grow on trees. Just ask the Utah Jazz of the late 1990s or the New Jersey Nets of the early 2000s. Those were really good teams that came away from it without championship banners when they were playing their best basketball. John Stockton and Karl Malone top-ten players of all time at their respective positions, but are always mentioned with the qualifier of being one of the best never to win a championship. I’d hate to see that happen to these teams and these players that are so fun to watch, but it could very well happen of they don’t make the right moves this summer.
Yesterday, the Boston Celtics traded guards Jordan Crawford and Marshon Brooks to the Golden State Warriors. Last week they traded Courtney Lee to the Memphis Grizzlies. For Celtics fans, this is probably not the best time to get too attached to players on the team because they could be gone next week. There have been rumors surrounding Brandon Bass, Jeff Green, and Rajon Rondo all season, as well. That’s what you have to do to rebuild in today’s NBA, and there are few who are better at it than Danny Ainge.
In the early part of the season, Jordan Crawford looked like a legit NBA point guard. After he arrived in Boston when the C’s traded away Jason Collins, I never thought I would use the phrase “legit NBA point guard” to describe Jordan Crawford. He’s undisciplined, he is too much of an impulsive player, and just plays a stupid brand of basketball in general. This, season he seemed like a completely different player. I have to give Brad Stevens a lot of credit on that one. Coach Stevens has gotten as much as he possibly can out of the roster he was given. That’s what Brad Stevens does. He never had a particularly loaded roster at Butler, but he took that program to the NCAA National Championship Game twice. He ultimately fell to the much more talented Duke and UConn teams, but it’s hard to say Stevens was outcoached by the Hall of Famer coaches he faced in those games. He made Crawford look pretty good, but he fell back to earth in December. With Rajon Rondo coming back this week, the Celts don’t need Crawford anymore. I would have been happy if the Celtics cut Crawford over the summer, but Stevens transformed him into an asset that they could get things in return for. They know what he is, and they don’t see him as part of the core of the next great Celtics team, so Danny Ainge pulled the trigger on a deal while his value was at an all time high.
In a rebuilding season, nobody on the Celtics roster should be safe. Rondo is the team’s best player and one of the elite point guards in the game, but he’s also due to hit free agency next year, can’t hit a jump shot, and hasn’t played in a year. The last time Rondo was healthy, the Celtics had a losing record and were out of the playoff picture while Rondo had two future Hall of Famers to dish the ball to in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. For the right return, I would not be shocked to see Ainge deal Rondo away, either.
I would trade Jeff Green in a second. I hated the trade as soon as it happened when Ainge sent Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson to Oklahoma City for Green and Nenad Krstic. Perk was a huge part of the Celtics teams that reached the Finals in 2008 and 2010, and Robinson has proven to be a pretty good little player since then. Krstic is currently playing professional basketball in Russia because he couldn’t hack it in the NBA. Because of what they gave up, Jeff Green had to really blow people’s doors off to keep fans satisfied, and he’s never quite gotten there. He shows flashes of brilliance, but he’s not the guy to carry the team on his shoulders that they thought he could be. He’s not on the same level as his former OKC teammates Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. I would not be heartbroken if he got traded.
Besides Rondo, the players I would be most careful about trading are Jared Sullinger, Avery Bradley, and Kelly Olynyk. These three guys are the young talent to build around, but none are necessarily the next Larry Bird or Paul Pierce, either. Sullinger is emerging in his second NBA season as the best player on the team game in and game out. He can score. He can rebound. He gets in foul trouble, but that’s because he’s been playing motivated, aggressive defense. Sully has been the brightest spot for the Celtics rebuild thus far. Avery Bradley is now the second longest tenured Celtic after Rondo, despite being drafted after the C’s 2010 Finals appearance against the Lakers. He’s a good defensive guard who can occasionally turn great defense into great offense and he’ll be looking for a new contract this offseason. Olynyk is the most intriguing player on the Celtics right now. The 22 year old Canadian seven footer out of Gonzaga has a lot of skill and basketball intelligence, but there are still a lot of growing pains for him as he adjusts to the grind of playing in the NBA. He’s considered by some to be Gonzaga’s best NBA prospect since John Stockton, and the very optimistic think he can become the next Dirk Nowitzki or Larry Bird. Danny Ainge used his only 1st round pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, so it’s not likely that he’ll give up on him this early. Rick Pitino traded away Chauncey Billups midway through the first season of his Hall of Fame career, and that’s a big part of why Pitino’s phone calls in Boston end like this these days.
Another guy who intrigues me, but is not quite as safe since the Celtics did not invest as much in him as they did Sully, Bradley, and Olynyk is undrafted rookie point guard Phil Pressey. I have a soft spot for undrafted players in general. I get excited when guys like Wes Welker , LeGarrette Blount, Torey Krug and Brian Rafalski become stars in football and hockey, and this kind of thing doesn’t happen enough in basketball. At 5’11”, Pressey is a smaller than average point guard, but he impressed them in the Orlando Summer League and has made progress learning from Brad Stevens and Rajon Rondo this season. He showed off some of his moves with this behind-the-back pass to Avery Bradley after he got the start in Toronto last night.
What the Celtics have to do right now is acquire assets and create options for themselves. They are much better off now than they were when Danny Ainge took over the Celtics’ basketball operations department in 2003, and hopefully they’ll be a contender sooner than 2017-18 at this rate. Building an NBA roster is as confusing as it is fascinating, and in a lot of ways is more interesting than NBA games themselves. It’s okay to like these Celtics and still root for them to get in better draft position. It’s okay to root for the players on the team, but you shouldn’t lose to much sleep over the players that get traded. It will get better. It’s not clear when. It’s not clear how, but Danny Ainge will make the C’s a winner again.