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 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.
The other day, I got one of those notifications from Facebook that it was the two year anniversary of something I had posted, and asking if I wanted to re-share it for the sake of nostalgia. Now normally, these notifications are from much longer ago than 2014. By that point in my life, I had been over Facebook for a while. I’ve been on the social network since I was a high school senior in 2008, and posted a lot more things in the first couple years than I have since. By 2014, I was 24 years old. By December, I had just wrapped up my first semester back in college after a year and a half off (And my undergraduate journey at Fitchburg State University, that started when I transferred there from UMass Dartmouth in 2009, finally came to an end with graduation last week. Took me long enough!), and I even had the same smartphone I currently use at that stage in the game. I was working second shift at the time, and therefore did not have much of a social life, and it was a good six months before the year-and-a-half where seemingly all of my friends started getting married, so what could it have possibly been?
Oh, that’s right. I realized as soon as I clicked on it. Of course it was just me posting an article from this very blog for my Facebook friends to read. It was this week two years ago that the Boston Celtics traded Rajon Rondo, at the time the team’s captain and starting point guard and the last remaining player from the 2008 NBA Championship Celtics squad, to the Dallas Mavericks. Of the players Boston got in return, Jameer Nelson and Brandan Wright were not long for the team, but Jae Crowder has carved out an important role for himself on the Celtics as they have made the playoffs both years since the trade.
In the article, I shamelessly piggybacked onto a take from Bill Simmons, a bad habit I continue to do to this day, including in this post, but I’ll get to that in a minute. The big thing I got wrong, looking back on my post reacting to the Rondo Trade is how badly I missed on how Rondo would fit in Dallas, but I take solace in the fact that I was hardly the only one. If Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and general manager Donnie Nelson, who are not idiots and who have one of the better run franchises in the NBA, knew how badly Rondo would fit, they never would have pulled the trigger on the trade. After getting bounced by the in-state rival Houston Rockets, Rondo signed a one-year deal with the Sacramento Kings in the summer of 2015, and a one-year deal with the Chicago Bulls in the summer of 2016, joining forces with former nemesis Dwyane Wade in what has to be one of the most awkward locker room dynamics the NBA has seen that does not, to my knowledge, involve a player having an affair with a teammate’s wife or mother.
While I thought adding Rondo, one of the great playmaking point guards of his generation, to what was already a very efficient offense built around Dirk Nowitzki, Monta Ellis, and Tyson Chandler (Who has never been able to find a more perfect basketball situation than the one he had playing for Rick Carlisle and alongside Dirk. I know Phoenix offered him a lot of money in the summer of 2015, but he should have learned from leaving Dallas the first time that there is no greener pasture for him. If Chandler played his whole career as Dirk’s center, he’d be a no-brainer for the Hall of Fame, if you ask me.), but Rondo’s need to have the ball in his hands to make things happen coupled with his poor shooting, fear of driving to the basket due to his even graver fear of taking foul shots was too many moving parts, and things went off the rails in Dallas.
On the other hand, my frustration with Rondo when he was with the Celtics is well documented, and my feelings on this aspect of Rondo’s game made me want the C’s to trade him away two years before it actually happened, so I may have been wrong initially about how Rondo would fit in Dallas, but I also feel like it validated many of the things I had been saying about the player at parties for years, going back to when the Celtics were title contenders…which brings me to the real reason I am writing about all of this today.
The Boston Celtics have been in some sort of rebuild mode, whether they were ready to admit it or not, since time expired in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals at Staples Center, when the Los Angeles Lakers were handed their second Larry O’Brien Trophy in a three year span, instead of the Celtics. Before the end of the month, the Celtics would draft Avery Bradley, and were prepared to let Tony Allen walk in free agency when he was well on his way to becoming the NBA’s best defensive guard.
In July of that year, Allen signed with the Memphis Grizzlies, but the far bigger story was The Decision. With LeBron James and Chris Bosh joining forces with Dwyane Wade and taking their talents to South Beach, the landscape of the Eastern Conference was drastically altered, and while the Celtics remained competitive for a few more years, their championship window was effectively shut, as no LeBron-less team has come out of the East since the 2010 Celtics.
I do not know for sure, as I have never talked to him and cannot pretend to read his mind, but I think Celtics GM Danny Ainge realized just how futile resistance to the powerhouse Heat would be in the long term when he traded starting center and fan favorite Kendrick Perkins to the Oklahoma City Thunder, with the primary return in the trade being Jeff Green, at the trade deadline in 2011. The move cost the Celtics a legitimate chance at going back to the Finals that year, as their big man hopes without Perk were hinged entirely on the health of a 39 year old Shaquille O’Neal, who would retire from basketball that summer, but Ainge was already in the process of turning the roster into more desirable assets, as the New Big Three could not sustain the Celtics in the 2010s.
Ray Allen would join LeBron and the Miami Heat in the summer of 2012. In 2012-13, the Ray Allen-less Celtics stumbled out of the gate, and my frustration with Rajon Rondo was at an all time high, but after Rondo got injured, Garnett and Pierce rallied together and turned out another playoff berth. It wasn’t enough, though, and the Celtics were eliminated in the first round by the New York Knicks, and my first real blog post in this space was acknowledging the end of the Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce Era in Boston in the spring of 2013. In the summer of 2013, the Celtics made big changes, trading Garnett and Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets for some forgettable players and a boatload of first round draft picks, that have so far turned into James Young and Jaylen Brown, and the Celtics still own the right to swap picks with Brooklyn in 2017 and have Brooklyn’s first round pick in 2018 on top of that. They also traded head coach Doc Rivers to the Los Angeles Clippers, and hired Brad Stevens away from Butler University to oversee the development of the future of Celtics basketball. A year and a half later, the Celtics traded Rondo to Dallas, and I thought it meant the rebuild was in full swing. Two years later, it still feels like the Celtics are still stuck in the middle with no obvious way out.
All of this has happened before, and Celtics fans have been lulled into patience. Danny Ainge was hired in 2003, and tore down what had been a perennial playoff team but hardly a title contender when he traded away Antoine Walker, and spent years collecting assets before making two big splashes in the summer of 2007, when he acquired Ray Allen from Seattle and Kevin Garnett from Minnesota. If it feels like things are taking longer than it did the last time, it’s because it is. Trader Danny’s reputation around the NBA now is such that teams are more wary of making a deal with him than they were nearly a decade ago. Generally, NBA front offices have gotten smarter since 2007, and while the Celtics are still regarded as one of the “smart teams,” that is a much larger group than it used to be.
Look at the big trades Ainge has made. Former Celtics Assistant GM (and son of legendary Boston Globe sportswriter Will McDonough) Ryan McDonough has to be on the hot seat in Phoenix given the way the franchise has struggled since he basically gave Isaiah Thomas away to the Celtics in 2015. Former Brooklyn Nets GM Billy King has “former” attached to his name largely because of how badly the Garnett/Pierce trade set the Nets back on what was a long-shot short-term championship gamble at best.
There is no friend and former Celtics teammate like Kevin McHale being strong-armed by his team’s ownership to trade their franchise superstar and rebuild the way McHale was in 2007. And before you say Larry Bird is running the Pacers and Paul George’s future in Indiana remains uncertain, Think about this: Larry Legend watched what McHale went through in the KG Trade Saga, ultimately having to choose between comparable but not great offers from the Celtics and Lakers, with Danny Ainge, the kid brother to the Original Big Three, now running the show in Boston, trying to think what Red Auerbach, the man who drafted Bird, McHale, and Ainge, and who had past away at the start of the 2006-07 season, would do or want him to do in that situation, and decided to show his loyalty to the team he played his entire Hall of Fame career for and trade KG to the Celtics instead of the Lakers. Since then, Bird saw McHale lose his job as GM of the Minnesota Timberwolves, do TV for a little while, coach the Houston Rockets for a few years before getting fired in 2015 because Dwight Howard and James Harden quit on him, and is now out of basketball. Do you really think Larry Bird, who has been running the Indiana Pacers virtually this entire century, would in a million years let himself fall into the same trap Kevin McHale did trading a franchise superstar to Danny Ainge and the Celtics, and when Paul George leads the C’s to a record 18th Title, have every talking head on ESPN and FS1, and every Internet commenter make the same joke about how the Celtics better give Larry Bird a ring the way they did with McHale in 2008? That’s never going to happen.
The most intriguing trade option out there is DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins of the Sacramento Kings. Simmons wrote two parallel columns a couple weeks ago, one where the Celtics traded for Cousins and they were the perfect match for one another, and Boston becomes an NBA power just as Cleveland and Golden State slide into a decline, and another where it’s an unmitigated disaster, and Danny Ainge’s future is as a color commentator on TNT, and Brad Stevens replaces Coach K as the head coach at Duke. While the columns were entirely speculative, it sure feels like Cousins-to-the-Celtics could only go one of those two ways, with no in between.
Cousins is supremely talented, was a college star at Kentucky, was picked 5th overall by the Kings in the 2010 NBA Draft, but has been the victim of maybe the most comically incompetent basketball operations in the NBA, is prone to tantrums, clashing with coaches, teammates, and members of the media. It is hard to tell if he is a product of his environment or if his environment is the product of him, to borrow from Jack Nicholson in The Departed, but I tend to believe that it’s the former. The Kings were inept long before Boogie got there, and their revolving door of coaches, executives, and owners since he arrived would have made people think less of any star player. Not to say he’d have Boogie’s reputation, but if the first six years of Tim Duncan’s career were in that kind of chaos, Tim Duncan would not be the Tim Duncan we know.
If I were Danny Ainge, I would go for it. I think the unmitigated disaster option, while frightening, is a risk worth taking. At any rate, the Celtics are still not any closer to their next contending team than they were two years ago, and it is time to shake things up. The Celtics are a playoff team, but not a true contender. They have nice pieces, and good surrounding talent like Al Horford, Jae Crowder, and Isaiah Thomas. They have promising young talent in Jaylen Brown, who has impressed in his limited minutes, but they still do not have a superstar, and it’s nearly impossible to win in the NBA without a superstar. I realize it’s harder in 2016 to do what he was able to do in 2007, but I am getting tired of being in the middle. Something needs to be done.
It’s not entirely fair to compare basketball to hockey as frequently as we do. Sure, both the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League play 82-game regular season that encompass the traditional North American academic year, and both are played indoors in arenas, and many basketball and hockey teams share said arenas in many cities, but basketball is poised to challenge football as the most popular sport in the United States in the next 20 years and challenge soccer internationally, while hockey is struggling just to stay in fourth place. While the NBA is as popular as it has ever been, leading to an enormous spike in the salary cap this year, the NHL’s cap is staying put by comparison. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two sports is they way their own versions of “The Decision” played out this summer.
The original “Decision” came in the summer of 2010, when LeBron James decided to rip out the collective heart of the city of Cleveland on live national television to take his “talents to South Beach.” The move was polarizing to say the least, added water to the packet of Instant Villain Mix that was the Miami Heat, and ultimately made LeBon’s eventual return to Cleveland and title run this spring that much sweeter for a city that hadn’t won a championship since the Johnson Administration. This summer, both the NBA and NHL had the biggest free agent courtship stories of the decade, and while the Kevin Durant free agency experience lived up to the billing, the drama in the NHL this August seems incredibly minor by comparison, but at the same time, a really big deal for that sport.
Enter Harvard University captain Jimmy Vesey of North Reading, Massachusetts. Vesey was selected in the 3rd Round (66th overall) by the Nashville Predators in the 2012 NHL Draft. He had such a good 2015-16 season for the Crimson that was received the Hobey Baker Award as the best player in college hockey , and was guaranteed a top-six spot on Nashville’s roster, as the Preds were gearing up for a playoff run in a stacked Western Conference. In as surprising move, Vesey informed the Predators that he was not interested in signing with them, and that he intended to hit free agency when his draft rights expired on August 15. While is must be frustrating for Nashville, who not only used a draft pick on him, but invested time working with him in development camps over the years with the understanding that he would be part of that team’s bright future (And the Predators are a team that is really going places. I’ll have more on that another day.), but it was well within Vesey’s rights to do what he did. Vesey did not choose Nashville. Nashville chose him, and he has blossomed into a really good player whose game has the potential to translate very well to the NHL. Had he been in the draft after his senior season at Harvard, he may very well have gone in the top ten. The summer of 2015 was a chance for Vesey to explore his options.
It is hard to quantify the equivalent talent in basketball that teams were courting in Jimmy Vesey. He’s obviously not an established, can’t-miss talent like LeBron in 2010 or Kevin Durant in 2016. He hasn’t even played in an NHL game yet even though Vesey, who turned 23 in May, is older than Jonathan Toews was the first time Toews captained the Chicago Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup. The closest thing I can think of would be if there was a basketball player from Eastern Europe or Australia who had YouTube highlight reels upon highlight reels destroying guys and hitting insane shots in half-empty gymnasiums that also had never been drafted by anyone. In a case like that, the chance of that guy becoming Euro-Jordan would be slim, but too tempting a chance to not at least look into when elite talent is so hard to come by. The award he won is promising, but not necessarily indicative of success at the next level, either. The Hobey Baker is about as hit and miss as the Heisman Trophy, if not more so, because the Junior Hockey leagues in Canada are still the more mainstream pipeline for NHL talent than the NCAA. Kids who can play in the NHL at 18 or 19 typically go from Juniors to the NHL. Those who cannot make that leap play college hockey, or end up there because they are American and get overlooked. Some Hobey Baker winners, though have made it as stars in the NHL, like Ryan Miller or Chris Drury, and the most recent winners, Johnny Gaudreau of Boston College and Jack Eichel of Boston University, have turned into promising and exciting players for the Calgary Flames and Buffalo Sabres, respectively. If you believe in things coming in threes, maybe Jimmy Vesey completes the Hobey Baker Winners Who Went To College In The Boston Area And Took The NHL By Storm Hat Trick.
What Vesey represented more than anything was a free high draft pick who would be cost controlled for the next couple years, who had a real chance to blossom into a top-six forward. The NHL has a hard salary cap, and teams generally hang onto their good players, unless they’re my Boston Bruins, in which case I need another drink. Jimmy Vesey was a low risk, potentially high reward acquisition for whichever team was able to land him. The Bruins, the Blackhawks, the Rangers, the Sabres, the Islanders, and the Maple Leafs were all in very different situations, but all really wanted the player because of how he could cheaply improve their team in an era when everyone is struggling with the same salary cap. Boston was the only city that was in the mix for both Vesey and Kevin Durant this summer, and the Bruins and Celtics both came up empty handed. With Durant, the Warriors were the far easier situation to join compared to anyone in the NBA, but with Jimmy Vesey’s decision to sign with the New York Rangers, the reasoning is not as clear.
I can understand not wanting to sign with Boston as a kid who grew up and went to college in Massachusetts. If you want to find out what it’s like to live somewhere else, there is no better time than when you’re 23. Was New York the better hockey situation, though? Not if he wants to win right away, I don’t think. The Blackhawks are the class of the NHL, and the chance to play with Jonathan Toews, who I think is this generation’s Steve Yzerman and that comparison might be selling Toews short, or the chance to play on a line with for the Islanders would be better than anything the Rangers can offer him, as they are a team that can only go as far as the still excellent but aging goaltender Henrik Lundqvist can take them. The Rangers offer him a place to showcase his talents as he prepares for that second contract, with little threat of getting bumped down a line from younger, hungrier talent. After that, maybe Jimmy Vesey decides to come home to Boston, or to a closer to contending Toronto or Buffalo team, or maybe he washes out of the NHL by then. The Hobey Baker Award doesn’t have the greatest track record of NHL success, after all.
The real problem with Jimmy Vesey’s Decision wasn’t that he exercised his right to pursue free agency, it was that it was August and hockey fans were so bored we made it a bigger story than it was because there was nothing else going on. The rest of the big free agents signed in the first week of July, and we’re still a couple of months away from real NHL games. All we have in August is regular season baseball (which as a Red Sox fan, has been good this year), and the mostly nonsense that is the Olympics. We did this to Jimmy Vesey more than he made this about himself. If his career doesn’t reach the level of anticipation that the past week did for hockey fans, we need to remember that.
In spite of their flaws, in spite of the underachievement by the players that were expected to be really good, the Boston Red Sox are a fun team to watch and a fun team to root for in 2016. For the first time since 2013, the Red Sox are still in the pennant race in the middle of August, and that’s a refreshing change of pace for a die hard fan of America’s Regional Pastime. As shaky as the pitching has been this year, the offense has carried the Red Sox more often than it hasn’t, and while David Ortiz is still amazing, and still an enormous part of what the Red Sox do offensively, this summer the torch has been passed to a new great hitter, and you wouldn’t know by looking at him.
Markus Lynn “Mookie” Betts, the Red Sox outfielder who will turn 24 in October, is doing everything he can to crash the season-long party that has been David Ortiz’ farewell tour in the best ways possible for the sake of the team. The Red Sox have an exciting core in the Four Bs (I’m still workshopping the nickname. I’m not married to it. It doesn’t roll off the tongue the way The Core Four does. Why do the Yankees always get to have nice things? I’m open to suggestions): Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and recently called up Andrew Benintendi. While all four received varying levels of hype, Betts has been the most consistent since getting called up to the Majors in 2014, and his ability to hit for power like this has shocked the baseball world to the point where Dave Cameron (not to be confused with David Cameron, the recently resigned British prime minister) of Fangraphs wrote this week about how Betts has defied the comparisons people like him have wanted to compare him to in his professional baseball career.
Mookie Betts has 28 home runs already this year (he hit 18 home runs in 2015, his first full Major League season), and has had two multi-home run games just this week, hitting three home runs against the Arizona Diamondbacks and becoming only the second Red Sox player to have multiple three home run games in a single season (the other was some guy named Ted Williams), and then a two home run game against the division rival Baltimore Orioles in which Mookie drove in all five runs for Boston in their crucial 5-3 win at Camden Yards. He’s not just hitting for power, but he’s hitting for power in big moments. That’s ripped straight from the David Ortiz playbook, but that’s where the Papi/Mookie comparisons stop. Ortiz is a left-handed hitter, while Betts is a right-handed hitter. Ortiz was a low-risk free agent signing after the Minnesota Twins wrote him off, while Betts was drafted by the Red Sox in 2011, and developed in their farm system ahead of schedule. Ortiz was crushing baseballs and giving fans hope for reversing the Curse of the Bambino when I was still in middle school, while Betts is younger than I am. Most of all, Ortiz is a bulky, lumbering 6’3″ beast of a man who gets opposing fans and pitchers alike shaking at their knees by his mere presence in the batter’s box, while Betts is a slight 5’9″, looks like Steph Curry to Papi’s LeBron, and is still getting underestimated by much of the competition. Other than that, they’re exactly the same.
It really amazing how much power Betts is packing into such a small body, and it’s refreshing to see a guy who can hit like that who can also move the way he does, both in the field and running the bases. Usually the Red Sox have guys who are one or the other. Guys like David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Ted Williams if you want to go back that far, they were all great hitters for average as well as power, but you also hold your breath whenever the ball is hit their way. Guys like Johnny Damon and Jacoby Ellsbury were all speed, but were never much in the way of power hitters. Betts is the best of both worlds, and he’s younger than me, shorter than me, faster than me (not that anyone cares), is making exponentially less money than Jacoby Ellsbury is right now with New York, and he’s still wearing a linebacker’s number as if he just got called up to Boston last week (One thing I always find mildly interesting is unconventional number/player combinations. I like it when an established, every day player still wears a high number like a recent call-up like Betts is wearing #50, or when Manny Ramirez chose #99 when he was with the Dodgers. Xander Bogaerts wore #72 in the 2013 World Series, but changed it to #2 the next year after Ellsbury signed with the Yankees, for instance. I also really like Sandy Leon this year. Partly because he’s been crushing everything that crosses the plate lately, and partly because he’s a catcher who has bounced between Boston and Pawtucket the last two years, but has a single digit jersey. How did he pull that off? Who in the Red Sox organization does he have dirt on?)!
This may be David Ortiz’ year, and he’s earned the right to be celebrated the way he has, but Mookie Betts has shown us this year that the Red Sox’ offense will be in good hands even after Big Papi retires, and it’s going to be a lot of fun along the way. If the Red Sox make the playoffs, Mookie Betts has a chance to win the American League MVP, especially since Mike Trout’s Angels are out of the picture (On a side note, it’s amazing how fast the baseball writers who vote on awards took Trout for granted. Guys like Peyton Manning and LeBron James both had to win three or four MVPs in their respective sports before people got sick of voting for them, and Trout only won once and before getting passed up in favor of Josh Donaldson last year. Trout should be really be mad at the Angels’ front office for not putting a better team around him. Donaldson won because the helped the Blue Jays end a 22 year postseason drought. Mike Trout only turned 25 a couple weeks ago and he’s already in danger of being the best player to have his prime squandered by an incompetent baseball operations department since Ted Williams, who only made the postseason once in his career, when the Red Sox lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games in the 1946 World Series, but even then, Ted played in an era when only one team in the American League made the playoffs every year. Trout’s Angels have five times as many chances! Sorry about that. Moving on.), but even if he doesn’t win, Mookie Betts is the most exciting thing to happen to the Red Sox since their fans got used to the idea of winning the World Series before they die. This isn’t the best Red Sox team we’ve ever seen, but it sure is a good time.
With the salary cap in the NBA jumping from $70 million to $94.1 million this summer, there was a real chance for the landscape of the league to dramatically change, and it did, but not in the way fans were hoping, unless they live in the Bay Area. After Kevin Durant’s Independence Day weekend in The Hamptons, in which Oklahoma City still thought they had a chance at keeping KD, and power brokers from Gregg Popovich to Pat Riley to Steve Ballmer to Steve Kerr and Jerry West to Danny Ainge and even Tom Brady got in on the action to try and lure him to their respective team and city, and ultimately Kevin Durant decided to take his talents to the record-breaking 73 regular season win Golden State Warriors.
To me, this doesn’t feel like when LeBron James made The Decision in 2010, to take his talents to South Beach, to join forces with Dwyne Wade and Chris Bosh, and to rip the collective heart out of a city that had not won a championship in any sport since the Johnson Administration. With Durant’s departure from OKC, he was leaving a better basketball situation than LeBron left in Cleveland, and chose a basketball situation that has even higher expectations, but also a better chance for success than Miami in year one was. In 2010, it was Wade and Pat Riley recruiting LeBron and Bosh to play for their team, circumventing the crap shoot that is building through the draft by putting together three of the top five picks from the 2003 NBA Draft as fully formed, fully developed NBA stars seven years later.
(It’s worth noting that this wasn’t the first time Riley was able to stockpile lottery picks from the same draft class. The 2006 Miami Heat team that beat Dallas in the NBA Finals was the only team to have the top three picks from the same draft: #1 pick Shaquille O’Neal, #2 pick Alonzo Mourning, and #3 pick Christian Laettner from the 1992 Draft, and none of them had been drafted by the Heat. In hockey, former Boston Bruins and current Edmonton Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli has now traded away the #1 and #2 picks from the 2010 NHL Draft, Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin, both good players, and both dealt for pennies on the dollar, making Chiarelli two thirds of the way to completing the illusive “Reverse Pat Riley.”)
I have mixed feelings when it comes to the plight of the Oklahoma City Thunder and their fans. It has to be devastating to lose such a dynamic talent without getting anything in return. As a Celtics fan, the tease of KD when he was a star at Texas in a year that the C’s were in the lottery was tantalizing, and the devastation when the Celtics fell to #5 in the draft order was real. The Portland Trail Blazers even took Greg Oden from Ohio State with the first pick so either of the top two picks could have made KD a Celtic. Again the possibility of Durant coming to Boston had me and other Celtics fans excited for a couple days, especially after the Greatest Quarterback of All Time and the Greatest Designated Hitter of All Time joined the recruiting effort, but again it wasn’t to be. If Kevin Durant could toy with my emotions all these years without ever playing for my team or against my team in a playoff series, the pain Thunder fans has to be exponentially worse. That being said, the Thunder had to see this coming.
Thunder GM Sam Presti did an excellent job picking in the lottery when was in there three straight years. First, he took Durant in 2007, then Russell Westbrook in 2008, and James Harden in 2009. That is about as good as it gets for building a young and athletic foundation for a franchise (though they may have been bested by Minnesota in the last couple years. Time will tell). They made the NBA Finals in 2012, and were not as ready for the moment as the aforementioned LeBron/Wade/Bosh Miami team that had finally figured it out. Even still, the future looked bright for Oklahoma City, and then they panicked. Before the start of the 2012-13 season, Presti traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets for an assortment of assets. In the years that followed, Harden blossomed into an All-Star, a franchise player, and a piece of tabloid fodder, but nonetheless a perennial MVP candidate along with his fellow former OKC lottery picks. NBA teams can go decades without landing even one player like this and the Thunder had stumbled upon three, right out of college and learning to be professionals together.
While Presti deserves credit for drafting as well as he did, the Thunder have had shortcomings in other areas of their basketball operation. They have never run a particularly creative offense, relying heavily on the individual athletic prowess of Durant and Westbrook to win games. To be fair, that helped them win a lot of games, but in an incredibly tough Western Conference, good has not been good enough most of the time. The one two punch of KD and Russ presents a tough mismatch for most teams, but it has been effectively neutralized in big games by the incomparable ball movement of the San Antonio Spurs and the great passing combined with the historically great three point shooting of the Golden State Warriors. After a disappointing 2014-15 season when reigning MVP Durant was injured most of the season and Westbrook had his share of injuries, OKC missed the playoffs and decided to part ways with head coach Scott Brooks. This would have been a great opportunity to replace Brooks with a proven and creative NBA coach like offensive mastermind Alvin Gentry (who led the Phoenix Suns to the Western Conference Finals in 2010 and was an assistant on Steve Kerr’s staff in Golden State that year) or defensive innovator Tom Thibodeau (who basically invented the modern NBA defense and was suddenly available after the Chicago Bulls stupidly decided to move on from him, but instead they decided to go with a very successful college coach in Billy Donovan. Now Gentry is coaching Anthony Davis in New Orleans, and Thibodeau has Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins to coach in Minnesota while Donovan had to adapt to the NBA after nearly two decades at the University of Florida on the fly while also trying to win in the short term and keep Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook confident and content in Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma City is at a disadvantage compared to some other NBA cities. They cannot offer the lifestyle opportunities that New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco or Chicago or Miami can, but they could take a page out of San Antonio’s book. San Antonio is in a similar situation. They’re not a huge city and the Spurs are the only major professional sports team in town (the same is true of OKC, Salt Lake City, Orlando, Sacramento, Portland, and Memphis, some of the most rabid NBA fanbases) so they won’t get a Hall of Fame quarterback as part of the recruiting pitch, but they can control what is in there control, and have the smartest, most cutting edge basketball operations department they can create, and give any player who might be interested the assurance that they will be put in the best position to win.
The biggest reason I feel differently about Durant’s departure from Oklahoma City than I do about LeBron’s Decision to leave Cleveland is because Oklahoma City is lucky to even have an NBA team. KD was not drafted by the Oklahoma City Thunder. He was drafted by the Seattle Supersonics. Remember them? They were this NBA team in Seattle with really good uniforms, who won a Title in the 1970s led by Dennis Johnson, and had an exciting team in the 1990s with Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton that lost to Jordan’s Bulls in the Finals. Also, they were in a real professional sports city that still has baseball and football. Seattle fans got to see Durant’s rookie season, in which he was already really good, and then the owners moved the team to Oklahoma. Sure, Durant is taking his talents to Golden State, but unlike the last NBA city he left, the whole team isn’t coming with him this time. “Oklahoma City Thunder” sounds like a minor league baseball team anyway.
Beyond the people of Oklahoma City, the regular season will suffer the most from Kevin Durant playing for the Warriors. In any given year, we are lucky if there are six or seven teams in the NBA who have a real chance at winning the championship. Last year, there were four (Golden State, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and Cleveland), and now, barring multiple catastrophic injuries to Golden State’s starters, that number is down to two. If, say Durant and Steph Curry can’t go for the playoffs for the Dubs, then maybe the Spurs or the Clippers could win the West, but otherwise we’re looking at Cleveland vs. Golden State Round 3 next June.
I was hoping that Durant would sign with the Celtics (obviously), but for reasons bigger than just my local fandom. There is no rival for LeBron in the Eastern Conference. LeBron’s team, whether it was Miami or Cleveland, has made the Finals every year since 2011. Every NBA Finals since I’ve been old enough to drink has had LeBron in it. Adding Durant to the Celtics (or Miami, although Boston has the stronger supporting cast especially with Wade leaving for Chicago this week), there would instantly be another contender in the East. The Celtics added Atlanta Hawks veteran big man Al Horford as a maximum contract free agent, whom Oklahoma City was interested in bringing in to play with Durant (Horford also won two National Championships at Florida playing for Billy Donovan), a great young coach in Brad Stevens, a good albeit undersized scorer in Isaiah Thomas, and lots of good, defensively stout role players like Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson, and Avery Bradley (who was selected for 1st Team All Defense for the first time in 2015). The Celtics had never landed a big name free agent in their prime, but after Horford agreed to join the Celtics, I talked myself into believing Durant could be the second. They had a good basketball situation to sell to KD, but nothing can compete with the chance to play with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and Draymond Green and get to play for a coach like Steve Kerr, who is quickly becoming the genius Phil Jackson/Gregg Popovich superstar coach hybrid for the new generation.
While the NBA will not be the most competitive league from top to bottom next season, it will be strangely compelling to see how things unfold for this super-team in Golden State. It’s amazing how quickly this long-suffering franchise, that waited 40 years between titles after Rick Barry’s Warrior team fell apart against Phoenix in 1976 to when Curry and Co. overran LeBron and the Cavs the first time around, turned and replaced LeBron as the NBA’s greatest villain. All eyes will be on the Warriors this year, and most of those eyes will be rooting for failure. This is a team that went 73-9 in the 2015-16 regular season, overcame a 1-3 series deficit against OKC in the Western Conference Finals only to blow a 3-1 series lead against Cleveland in the NBA Finals. They had a chance to be greater than the 1996 Bulls or the 1986 Celtics or any other team in the “greatest team ever” argument, but instead they’re the 18-1 Patriots of basketball.
Really good Historically great, but the way it ended will always undercut the achievement. In defeat, the lineup that had been so dominant for two years looked suddenly exposed. LeBron put in a superhuman performance, but for the first time since Mark Jackson was coaching them and the possibility of trading Klay Thompson for Kevin Love seemed like a great idea for Golden State, the Warriors looked human.
First it was Curry’s nagging injuries after a season of abuse by bigger, more physical point guards, neutralizing the effect of the NBA’s first ever unanimous MVP (by the way, the only other players in any sport to be the unanimous MVP are Tom Brady and Wayne Gretzky. Ever heard of them?) and the most unconventional most dominant player basketball has ever seen. Then it was Draymond Green’s suspension. The Dubs were up three games to one on a Cleveland team that was fundamentally flawed, being run by an aging (although it really is amazing how good LeBron James still is considering how long he has been in the NBA, the load he has had to shoulder with relatively weak supporting casts compared to those of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or Michael Jordan and the fact that he has NEVER MISSED A FREAKING PLAYOFF GAME despite taking his teams to the Finals SEVEN TIMES including the last six years) superstar, who mortgaged their future two summers ago by trading #1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins to Minnesota for the mostly disappointing Kevin Love, but the suspension of Green for Game 5 gave Cleveland life and gave Cleveland momentum. Then it was the injury to Andrew Bogut, out for the last two games of the Finals, though he should be healthy enough to play for Team Australia in the Olympics this summer. If Bogut was the only thing to go wrong for the Warriors last month, they would be back-to-back champs, they would be the undisputed Greatest Team of All Time, and Bogut himself might still be a Warrior and not a Dallas Maverick, but sometimes the injury to a role player can reveal exactly how fragile the ecosystem of a basketball team really is. Was Kendrick Perkins the most important player on the New Big Three Era Celtics? Of course not, but when he got hurt in the 2010 Finals, it was all over for the Celtics, and the following year when Danny Ainge traded him to the Thunder, the Miami Heat were finally able to beat the Celtics. The Warriors were exposed. LeBron figured them out, and willed Cleveland to a long awaited Title. I’ve never been a huge LeBron fan, and I’ve always said I’d rather see the Browns or (more likely) the Indians be the ones to end Cleveland’s title drought, but I came away from the 2016 Finals impressed. This guy has lived up to as much hype as anyone who was compared to Michael Jordan while still in high school possibly could.
While the Pats took a while to redeem their lost championship, and in the year that followed became the first team since the 1980s to go 11-5 or better and miss the playoffs after Brady hurt his knee, the Warriors are going all in for 2016-17. The spike in the salary cap allowed for them to replace Harrison Barnes with Kevin Durant, and now a team that had three of the league’s best 15 players has four of them. Instead of playing it safe, they put the target on their backs and made the next season all about pursuing immortality all over again. Will they win 74 games this time? Will they get to 75 or 76? Will they sweep the playoffs? Will Steph Curry be okay with the Warriors bringing another MVP winner in his prime? Can Steve Kerr get his four superstars to play together and for each other? Can the Spurs or Clippers possibly keep pace? Can this team win 80 games in the regular season? What happens if they shatter their own win record and struggle in the Finals or against San Antonio? If they win it all will Durant leave? If they do anything short of winning it all, which would be a colossal disappointment, will Durant leave? This season is so inevitable that to quote the great Kevin Garnett, “ANYTHING’S POSSIBLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” We will see.
About a year and a half ago, I wrote an article for another website about the parity, or lack thereof, in the NBA in comparison to the NFL, NHL, and MLB. My main point was that since 1980, only nine teams had won NBA Titles, less than a third of the franchises in the Association, which was fewer than any other sport. By comparison, there have been 19 different World Series Champions in baseball (and that number has not changed since I wrote that article, as the Boston Red Sox and San Francisco Giants have already won in that span), 16 different Stanley Cup Champions in hockey (and that number will not change this year, as the Los Angeles Kings won their second Cup in 2014, and the New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Anaheim Ducks, and Chicago Blackhawks have all won the Cup in the last 35 years), and 15 different Super Bowl Champions (but now it’s up to 16 after the Seattle Seahawks won their first Super Bowl in 2014). After I wrote that article, we got a sequel to the 2013 NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs, but with a very different result. In 2015, there is new blood in the NBA Finals, sort of.
As far as the television entertainment value is concerned, the 2015 NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors is a refreshing change of pace purely for the fact that our eyeballs will be watching different colored jerseys in June. It’s also refreshing because we will finally have a new champion that does not come from the Basketball Establishment, the nine franchises that have owned the last 35 years collectively. I’m a lifelong Boston Celtics fan, and I’m more than okay with the Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers, Dallas Mavericks, and Miami Heat all sitting this one out. In fact, of those teams, only the Moreyball Houston Rockets were the only ones to even make the Conference Finals. The Golden State Warriors have not won a championship or even been to The Finals since 1975. Rick Barry was their star player, Gerald Ford was President, and the world was still a few months away from Carlton Fisk’s legendary home run and the debut of Saturday Night Live. The Cleveland Cavaliers have never won a championship, and the city of Cleveland has not won a title in any of the four major sports since 1964, when the Cleveland Browns won the NFL Championship in the Pre-Super Bowl Era. The state of Ohio has not won a championship in a major professional sport since the Cincinnati Reds won the 1990 World Series. These are two title-starved fanbases.
Despite the new blood in the 2015 Finals, the DNA of the two teams that competed in 2013 and 2014 are clearly smeared all over this year’s championship series. The obvious example is LeBron James. Early in his career, LeBron made it to one NBA Finals in 2007 with the Cavs, but they did not belong in the same league as that San Antonio Spurs team. After ripping the still beating heart out of the city of Cleveland in the summer of 2010, LeBron went to the NBA Finals four straight years with the Miami Heat, after joining forces with Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, and Pat Riley. The level of competition in the Eastern Conference declined so greatly in that time due to the Celtics getting old (then getting very young), the Bulls and Pacers being cursed with devastating injuries, and teams like the Knicks, Nets, and Pistons being unable to get out of their own way in rebuilding attempts, Cleveland turned into the instant favorite to win the East despite missing the playoffs each of the four years LeBron was in South Beach when they re-signed him last summer.
Much the way the Cavaliers are a replica of the 2010-14 Heat, the Warriors emulate the San Antonio Spurs. Their game is predicated on depth, defense, and ball movement (they should look into getting that trademarked), and their head coach, Steve Kerr is a disciple of Gregg Popovich, having played for San Antonio in the early 2000s. Last summer, Kerr was the most coveted head coaching candidate despite having never coached before, and it’s clear why now. He ultimately chose the Warriors over the New York Knicks, and that looks like a no-brainer in hindsight as well. The Knicks, with Phil Jackson (an all time great coach, but a rookie executive who will turn 70 in September) running the team from the other side of the country where he lives with his fiance, who happens to be the owner of the Lakers, instead hired Derek Fisher, who like Kerr, has no coaching experience, but unlike Kerr, was playing in the Western Conference Finals for Oklahoma City this time last year and has not had the time to get proper perspective. New York was awful this year, but lost in the lottery, much the way Golden State did years ago in the first modern draft lottery when the Knicks came away with some guy named Patrick Ewing. This time, Golden State won the Steve Kerr lottery and are playing for their first NBA Title in 40 years, while New York is left with bad contracts and the dilemma of what to do with the 4th overall pick in the draft. Clearly, Kerr went to the Harrison Ford School of Choosing rather than the rival decision execution educational institution named for Julian Glover.
This Cleveland team has the same flaw every LeBron James team outside of the 2012 and 2013 Heat teams and the 2008 and 2012 USA Olympic teams has had: what is Plan B when LeBron is hurt/tired/effectively guarded? Sure, there’s Kyrie Irving, who can provide a ton of offense all by himself, but when playing against more balanced rosters that can distribute and contribute from three or four positions at any time, LeBron feels like he has to do everything himself. Kyrie Irving isn’t Dwayne Wade, and he isn’t Chris Bosh. Kevin Love was supposed to be in the picture as a third star, and they traded a budding superstar in Andrew Wiggins to get him, but Love got hurt in Game 4 of the first playoff round against the Celtics. With Love potentially leaving in free agency this summer, this has the potential to be one of those moves that really hurts in the long run. Much like when the Detroit Pistons took Darko Milicic with the 2nd pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, even if you win it all this year, with or without him, it’s hard to shake the feelings of what might have been had you not left someone like Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, or Dwayne Wade on the table. At least they have LeBron.
Last year’s NBA Finals started off competitive, but after LeBron cramped up in the first game, the Spurs took more and more control of the series, and the Heat limped their way through five games, physically and mentally drained from by the smart, unselfish dominance of the Spurs. Team basketball has been LeBron’s Kryptonite his whole career. I know that sounds harsh, but a big part of it is because he’s very rarely had a good team around him. He was drafted by Cleveland, a franchise with a very limited history of basketball success before his arrival in 2003. He didn’t grow up in a basketball culture like the Celtics or Spurs where there were other young stars that could be considered peers, so he was used to having to do everything himself. It wasn’t until his Miami stint when he had Wade and Bosh to play with that he ever had anything like “Big Three” to be a part of. In 2014, Wade and Bosh appeared to have lost a step, and once again it was LeBron vs. The World. That was good enough to get out of the flawed Eastern Conference, where their stiffest competition was an Indiana Pacers team on the verge of losing Lance Stephenson in free agency and struggling to find a consistent identity on the court, but reality hit when he ran into the Beautiful Game that is San Antonio Spurs basketball. The way to beat a team that has the best player on the planet, is by having five guys who can pass, who can play defense, and who can make each other better. San Antonio game LeBron more than he could handle in 2007, then it was the New Big Three Era Celtics and Stan Van Gundy’s Orlando Magic that gave him fits to the point where he left his native Ohio to join forces with two other All-Stars in the prime of his career. Even his first year in Miami, the Dallas Mavericks, a team of aging veterans, outworked the Heat on the floor while Rick Carlisle coached circles around Erik Spoelstra. In 2012 and 2013, LeBron was just that good. No team could beat him. The Spurs came the closest, but LeBron was the best whenever the Heat needed him to be those years. In 2014, it looked once again like LeBron didn’t have a team in Miami worthy of his greatness, and he went back home.
There are superstars who do it all themselves because they have to, and superstars who do it all themselves because they are selfish. It’s not always easy to see the difference. In hindsight, it’s fair to say that Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing never had teammates on the level of Scottie Pippin, James Worthy, Kevin McHale, or Robert Parish. Michael Jordan had Pippin, and Kobe Bryant had Shaq (and later Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum), but they still wanted to be the ones being the heroes in the end, and often that was the right call for the team. It’s unclear which camp LeBron truly belongs in, but I would like to see if he’s capable of becoming the third kind of superstar: the one who makes everyone around him better. This is the most intriguing kind of player to me, as an observer. Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Steve Nash, and Tim Duncan are the purest examples. They all played with more Hall of Famers than the selfish superstars because they made their teammates, who were good players, into Hall of Famers by winning as much as they did. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett made each other better when they joined forces in Boston, and now they’re working to make young players like John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Andrew Wiggins better with their new teams. Could LeBron join forces with another player and make themselves better? It’s hard to improve on what LeBron can do by himself, but it would be interesting to see if he ever had a teammate who could go toe-to-toe with him both athletically and intellectually.
The Golden State Warriors are built around one of these unselfish superstars. Stephen Curry is one of my favorite players in the game right now, and I’m glad to see he’s finally reaching the level I thought he could. When the Warriors picked him in 2009, he looked more like someone who should be going to his 8th grade graduation than someone getting selected in the NBA Draft, which may have been why Hasheem Thabeet, Ricky Rubio, and Jonny Flynn were drafted ahead of him (seriously, the Minnesota Timberwolves had the 5th and 6th picks in that draft, they used them both on point guards, and neither one was Steph Curry) despite being the leading scorer in college basketball that year, but he might be the best player to come out of that draft (I’ve joked about the busts, but that was also the draft where Blake Griffin went 1st and James Harden went 3rd, so it wasn’t all bad) when it’s all said and done. He’s the best shooter in the NBA, and his running of the Golden State offense makes Klay Thompson, Andrew Bogut, Draymond Green, and Harrison Barnes better players than they would be by themselves. Steve Nash would be proud. The NBA wasn’t quite ready for this kind of team when he was in his prime and turned the Phoenix Suns into this kind of team, but the season Curry has had is validation of Nash’s style.
Golden State is a joy to watch, and LeBron James is amazing to watch by himself. He’s now in The Finals for the fifth straight year, and the same question lingers: can he be better by himself than the best team in the NBA? If he can, then Cleveland will have won something for the first time since the Johnson Administration. If not, it is a victory for team basketball, a victory for the legacy of Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, a victory for up-tempo jump shooting philosophies, and a victory for a passionate and dedicated group of basketball fans who have not had much to cheer about in a long time.It should be fun, and it should be different from what we’ve seen the last few years, but not as different as you’d think.