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.
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.