Since the Boston Celtics won the NBA Draft Lottery a few weeks ago, I had been watching a lot of Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz highlights on YouTube. When Ball refused to work out for the Celtics–and when his father insisted the UCLA point guard would play for the Los Angeles Lakers–I focused much more heavily on Fultz, who had far less video available because he played for a bad Washington team that did not make the NCAA Tournament. What I did see of Fultz, however, was exciting. The kid is a great athlete with a pretty-looking shot and the wingspan of a seven-footer.
With the news that the Celtics have traded the #1 overall pick to the division rival Philadelphia 76ers, my pre-draft video attention will be shifted to Josh Jackson of Kansas, Jayson Tatum of Duke, and De’Aaron Fox of Kentucky. In exchange for the top pick, the Celtics get this year’s #3 pick from the Sixers and either the Lakers’ 2018 pick (if it falls between #2 and #5) or the Sacramento Kings’ 2019 pick (unprotected). While it is underwhelming right now to go from having the top pick, and dreaming of a guy who has been described as a “right handed James Harden,” a “taller, more defensively stout Damian Lillard,” and a “6’4″ Tracy McGrady” as the next great Celtic, it keeps Boston’s options open for years to come, rolling over the window to built through the draft. And again, Danny Ainge is operating from a point of power, and channeling his inner Bill Belichick.
By trading down and allowing the Sixers to draft Fultz, Philadelphia has a Baby Big Three in Fultz, 2016 #1 overall pick Ben Simmons, and 2014 #3 pick (who was the consensus top prospect but fell when he broke his leg days before the draft), and after years of tanking finally appear to be building a team, something Philly fans and NBA fans as a whole have waited far too long to see.
The Sixers were tanking way back when the Celtics were still tanking in 2014. The second round playoff between the Sixers and Celtics, featuring Doug Collins, Jrue Holiday, Andre Igoudala, Elton Brand, Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo may have been in 2012, but it feels like a million years ago, considering how different the two teams have become. After the Sixers traded Igoudala to the Denver Nuggets and acquired Andrew Bynum in the disastrous Dwight Howard Trade, and after Ray Allen signed with the Miami Heat and the Celtics were eliminated in the first round by the only good New York Knicks team of the last 15 years, both teams were headed for a rebuild in the summer of 2013. Collins retired and Holiday was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans, while the Celtics traded Rivers to the Los Angeles Clippers, and traded KG and Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets.
Both teams took the long view in hiring their next coach, with the Sixers hiring longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant Brett Brown, and the Celtics hiring Butler University coaching wunderkind Brad Stevens. Both teams spent the 2013-14 season vying for top position in the Draft Lottery, only for the Cleveland Cavaliers to land the #1 pick as well as the ultimate lottery by convincing LeBron James to come home. This is where the similarities between the Sixers’ rebuild and the Celtics’ rebuild end.
Philadelphia drafted Joel Embiid and Dario Saric in the 1st round of the 2014 Draft, but neither played in an NBA game until 2016. Former 76ers GM Sam Hinkie called it “The Process:” the method of drafting high-upside prospects, even if they will miss years due to injury or due to playing in Europe, and keeping the present-day 76ers team as bad as possible, staying in the lottery and increasing the chance of landing a franchise-changing superstar.
The Celtics, meanwhile, drafted Marcus Smart with the #6 pick in 2014, and continued to incrementally build their team. In 2015 and 2016, they made the playoffs, and in 2017, made the Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics had their own version of The Process, but it was built on Brooklyn tanking for them, free to compete within the conference at the same time.
While it makes me nervous, on one hand, to trade the top pick and a potential superstar to a team in the division, I’m not about to doubt Danny Ainge. He did, after all, trade my two favorite Celtics of all time to division rival Brooklyn, and that turned out pretty well. While Embiid, Simmons, and Fultz are loaded with tantalizing potential, they also haven’t done anything yet. Philly’s Baby Big Three have played a combined 31 NBA games, with Simmons (another #1 overall pick whose college team missed the tournament) missing the entire 2016-17 season with an injury. As a fan of the NBA, I want there to be more good teams and more great players, and I want the Sixers’ young core to compete, but at some point they have to play. Embiid and Simmons have been highly anticipated, but the Celtics are giving their young players valuable experience. Ben Simmons hasn’t played a game yet, and Embiid has 31 games played in the three seasons since getting drafted, but Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Jaylen Brown have won playoff rounds.
Going forward, the Celtics still have one more Brooklyn pick, and have the ability to tank vicariously through the Lakers, Kings, Clippers, and Memphis Grizzlies. Danny Ainge was willing to gamble and pass on Fultz, even if it means being mocked in the short-term. This is guy who pulled the trades for Allen and Garnett, sold off Pierce, Garnett, and Rivers when their values were still quite high, and turned the Boston into a franchise that is in as good position as anyone in the East to wait out LeBron’s prime. He didn’t turn stupid overnight. As much fun as rooting for Markelle Fultz might have been, I have trouble doubting Ainge’s plan right now.
The 2016-17 NBA season went according to plan. The Cleveland Cavaliers met the Golden State Warriors in the Finals for the third straight year, again, and the Cavs proved they were the definitive second best team in the NBA by doing something no other team could: winning a single playoff game against this juggernaut. All that was foretold came true, we just had to wait 11 months to see it play out.
Ever since last July, the Warriors were destined to, if healthy, get back to the Finals, even stronger than their 73 win team that came up short, and ever since LeBron James’ homecoming, the Cavs have been the undisputed champs of the East. In my Finals prediction, I probably gave Cleveland too much of a chance, and I would be lying if I wasn’t pulling for the Cavs, but I’m also not one of those people who hates the Warriors or Kevin Durant for doing what they did.
Even if it robbed an entire season of any real drama, it was the smart thing to do, and any other team would have done the same if they had been so well prepared for the cap spike and Durant’s free agency. As a Boston Celtics fan, I would have preferred if KD had been swayed by the recruiting pitch from Danny Ainge, Brad Stevens, and Tom Brady, but I cannot argue with the fact that Steve Kerr, Steph Curry, and Jerry West were able to offer a better basketball product. Had he joined the Celtics, Durant would have given LeBron his stiffest conference competitor since his first stint with Cleveland, and the Celtics would have immediately become one of the three or four true title contenders, rather than the NBA’s third of fourth best team with no real chance at a title. Instead, by joining Golden State, Durant had a chance to not only be a true contender, but to flirt with historical greatness for years to come. Boston was a good basketball situation, but Golden State may be the greatest basketball situation assembled since the the 1960s.
In Durant, Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, the Warriors have four All=NBA caliber players, and all are under 30. This kind of concentration of talent is unprecedented in the 30 team era, let alone the post-ABA/NBA merger era. Even in the 1980s, when super teams like the Lakers, Celtics, Sixers, and Pistons reigned supreme, the talent was more evenly concentrated, and there were more than two super teams at a time. In 2016-17, the Celtics and San Antonio Spurs, the other two conference finalists, each only had one All-Star (Isaiah Thomas for Boston, and Kawhi Leonard for San Antonio). The arms race between Golden State and Cleveland has left all others powerless to defeat them, but the addition of Durant made Golden State far better than even Cleveland.
When the Warriors took a 3-0 series lead, I stopped being entertained by the game and turned into a cold, heartless sportswriter, eager to have the most cut and dry narrative to write about. At that point, the best possible outcomes were a sweep (where I could write about how irredeemably lopsided Durant made the NBA, and be free to watch the new season of Orange Is The New Black free of guilt) or have Cleveland top their 2016 Finals comeback (where I could parallel it with the 2004 Red Sox, and imagine J.R. Smith trash talking any reporter who would listen like Kevin Millar taunted Dan Shaughnessy with the “don’t let us win tonight” line), but since one was significantly less likely than the other, I’m ashamed to admit I was rooting for the sweep. I still finished OITNB in one weekend, and I still wrote the gist of what I would have written in a sweep, but Cleveland’s Game 4 win on Friday night did complicate things a little.
As impressive as Golden State was and will continue to be for the next few years, it would be nice to see at least a couple more teams in each conference compete going forward. A lot can happen this summer, and it is my hope that I don’t spend this Independence Day knowing who the 2018 NBA champion will be. In the meantime, the Warriors are the greatest team in the NBA, maybe the greatest ever, and the fact that they had to add another superstar to get over Cleveland is a testament to how good LeBron James really is. No star player has ever looked better losing the NBA Finals in five games than King James this year. I’m sure he will be back.
Like many trilogies, the third installment was not the best, and hardly the most exciting, but we can still admire the journey and the technical achievement that got us to this point.
This is my preview for the 2017 NBA Finals, the third straight between the Warriors and Cavaliers. For my preview of the 2015 NBA Finals, click here.
For my reaction to Kevin Durant signing with the Warriors and the 2016 NBA Finals, click here.
For my preview of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, click here.
The wait is almost over. All we went through this NBA season, from Russell Westbrook’s Triple Double Tear through the regular season, to the collaboration of James Harden and Mike D’Antoni, to Kawhi Leonard’s assertion in San Antonio in the first year post-Tim Duncan, to Brad Stevens’ overachieving Boston Celtics, to Doc Rivers’ underachieving (and likely soon to be dismantled) Los Angeles Clippers, was just a precursor to the third consecutive NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Warriors and Cavs blew through their conferences (in 12 and 13 games, respectively), there was a week between the last conference championship game and the first game of the Finals, giving basketball fans a Super Bowl-like layoff to think, and overthink, about the upcoming series. In that time, I keep going back and forth, over and over like this:
Golden State has more talent, and dominated the Western Conference with and without Kevin Durant. Westbrook felt burned by Durant leaving OKC and his stunning, anger-fueled 2016-17 season was one for the ages, but in spite of that, the Thunder were no match for the Houston Rockets, who were no match for the San Antonio Spurs, who, once Kawhi Leonard got hurt, did not belong on the same floor as the Golden State Warriors. This team is amazing, and they will dispose of Cleveland the same way they disposed of Portland, Utah, and San Antonio.
Yeah, but Cleveland has LeBron James, the best and most complete player in the NBA. Golden State may have more talent, but Cleveland has the league’s greatest singular talent. It’s hard to bet against LeBron right now.
Cleveland overcame a 1-3 series deficit last season against a record-breaking 73-win Warriors team last year, and in their third year together, LeBron and Kevin Love have figured out how to play better together than they ever have. Aside from a game and a half in the Conference Finals against the Celtics (if that), they have been in control the entire playoffs, and they already know they can win Game 7 in Oakland, in an NBA where road teams went 35 years without winning a Game 7 of the Finals.
Yeah, but the Warriors were well on their way to beating the Cavs in five games last year before Draymond Green’s suspension, and in the offseason they were able to replace Harrison Barnes with Kevin Durant. Kevin Durant.
Every time I talk myself into one team, I remember the team they are playing against. In 2017, these are the only two teams that matter, and now we get to see what they can do. Unlike previous years, both teams go into the series relatively healthy, and I expect this game to go seven games once again.
I am most interested in seeing how each team reacts when things do not go as planned. Aside from a brief moment against the Celtics, and the first half of the first game against the Spurs, neither team has faced any playoff adversity since the 2016 Finals. In a weird way, all the pressure is on the Warriors. It was Golden State, after all, who choked away a 3-1 lead last season. And it was Kevin Durant, after all, who as the biggest star on OKC, choked away a 3-1 series lead against Golden State in the Western Conference Finals, some six weeks before joining forces with them. The Warriors were the superior team, but too many little things went wrong. Steph Curry was banged up. Andre Igoudala was banged up. Draymond Green got suspended. Harrison Barnes had a crisis of confidence. Andrew Bogut got injured mid-series. Bogut was the fifth or sixth most important player for the Warriors, yet his injury was the last straw.
Durant’s first trip to the NBA Finals ended in defeat at the hands of LeBron James and the Miami Heat in 2012. It ended with LeBron finally getting over the hump in his third trip to the Finals. In 2012, it looked like Durant and the Thunder would be the NBA’s next great team, but between a polarizing trade, bad injury luck, the resurgence of the Spurs, and the rise of the Warriors, they never made it back. With Durant’s decision to sign with Golden State last summer, the KD and Russ Era Thunder became just another historical footnote like the Shaq and Penny Orlando Magic, the Payton and Kemp Seattle Supersonics, and the Olajuwon and Sampson Rockets, just another good young team that was never good enough, and broke up before their time. Joining the Warriors turned a juggernaut into a super-juggernaut, if there could be such a thing, but with immense talent comes immense pressure.
For the first time in his career, LeBron is not the focal point of scrutiny. He has won and lost in the NBA Finals in every way imaginable. His mostly unfair label as a choker was officially removed with Cleveland’s comeback win (and the city’s first title in any sport in over 50 years), leaving Miami’s 2011 Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks even more baffling than it was at the time. If the Cavs win this year, LeBron will have two Finals wins over Curry, and two Finals wins over Durant. If the Cavs lose, LeBron has still beaten all of Golden State’s stars in the Finals. If the Warriors win, it was because they were supposed to. They have put together three of the greatest regular seasons of all time together, and their enthusiasm for the three point shot will have changed basketball forever. If the Warriors lose, they are the Atlanta Braves of basketball. They may have been great, and they may have been iconic, but they should have more than one title when it’s all said and done, especially since they added Durant.
The more I think about it, the more I think anything can happen, and anything will happen. I would be most surprised if either team swept the other, but then again, both teams have done quite a bit of sweeping. No matter what happens, it should be epic. We waited for this series since the moment the 2016 Finals ended. After the season we went through, it better be epic.
This Eastern Conference Finals is merely a formality for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. It did not matter if it was the Boston Celtics or the Washington Wizards as the opponent. Either one was going to get annihilated, likely swept, by the Cavs, just as the Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors were in the first two rounds. In the Western Conference, the Golden State Warriors have been every bit as dominant, cutting through the Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz like a buzz saw. Everything that has happened in this NBA season has just been a buildup to the third installment of the Cavaliers/Golden State Warriors NBA Finals Trilogy. Both teams are toying with and carving up their respective conferences, and are playing the best basketball they ever have. No other opponents are worthy.
All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.
The last three season have been the Cavs and Warriors, but LeBron has dominated the East far longer than Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Co. have been the class of the West. I’m 27, and as long as I have been old enough to drink, the New England Patriots have made it at least as far as the AFC Championship game, and whichever team currently employs LeBron has made it to the NBA Finals. What’s amazing to me is how consistently great both LeBron and Tom Brady have been. As a lifelong Massachusetts resident, I’ve been in on Brady since I was in 6th grade and he took the starting job from Drew Bledsoe like Lou Gehrig did to Wally Pipp, but also because of where I grew up, I was predisposed to disliking LeBron.
The New Big Three era Celtics were the team LeBron had to measure himself against in the East, like the OG Big Three and Bad Boy Detroit Pistons were for Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. The last time LeBron failed to reach the Finals, the Cavs were upset by the Celtics in a second-round series, on the way to their eventual 2010 Finals loss in seven games to the forever-rival Los Angeles Lakers. Days after the Finals ended, Boston drafted Avery Bradley out of the University of Texas, now the longest tenured Celtic, and a couple weeks after that, LeBron infamously decided to take his talents to South Beach, joining forces with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Pat Riley, and the Miami Heat.
In the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, it was the last stand for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and the Celtics. They gave Miami’s Big Three everything they could handle, but came up short in Game 7. Had the Celtics prevailed, I have my doubts they could have kept pace with the young and hungry Oklahoma City Thunder, who at the time still had Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, but it was the moment LeBron first overcame adversity, pushed through and won it all. That summer, Ray Allen left Boston for Miami, the Celtics got bounced in the first round by the New York Knicks during the month after I started this blog, and Pierce and KG were traded for the gift that keeps on giving that is the Brooklyn Nets’ perennially high first round draft picks.
In spite of his greatness, I was one of those people who constantly picked apart LeBron’s game. As recently as the days leading up to the 2015 Finals, the first since his return to Cleveland, and the first duel with Golden State, I wrote that LeBron was team basketball was his Kryptonite, largely in reaction to the way the Heat got methodically picked apart by the San Antonio Spurs, the Patriots of basketball, in the 2014 Finals. Since then, since overcoming a 3-1 series deficit in the 2016 Finals against a Warriors team that won a record-setting 73 games in the regular season and coped with defeat by adding Kevin Durant, the most talented, highly-coveted free agent since LeBron himself in 2010, and setting in motion the arms race between Golden State and Cleveland that is the 2016-17 season, since LeBron put a team on his back and overcame a rival in a way I have never seen him before, I have come around on him.
The 2016 Finals fundamentally changed the way I view LeBron as a player. Now, any anger, any feelings about how overrated and over-hyped he was. Not bitter. Not jaded. Just impressed. I often like to compare the San Antonio Spurs to the New England Patriots, and vice-versa. The parallels are uncanny, from the five titles, consistent sustained success built around an all-time great player and an all-time great coach connected to a military academy (Bill Belichick’s father was a longtime assistant football coach and scout for the Naval Academy, and Gregg Popovich is a graduate of the Air Force Academy) who are descended from immigrants from the former Yugoslavia (Belichick is Croatian, and Popovich is Serbian). The more I think about it, and the more his career continues to evolve, though, I am starting to think that Tom Brady is more the LeBron of football than the Tim Duncan. It’s not a knock on Duncan as much as it’s an illustration of how far LeBron has come.
LeBron is 32 years old, and has been playing big NBA minutes since he was 18. Tom Brady will be 40 by the time he plays his next game. Both have been remarkably durable, with only one major injury (the knee injury that wiped out all but a quarter of the first game of Brady’s 2008 NFL season) between them. The fact that both are playing the best of their respective sport at their respective age is nothing short of incredible.
LeBron James is so good at basketball at the age of 32 that a young team on the rise like the Celtics made the conscious decision at the trade deadline not to go all-in on this season, or the next couple seasons. Danny Ainge saw his roster, knew his team was good, but nowhere near good enough to get past the Cavaliers. Why give up high draft picks and/or important role players like Avery Bradley, Jaylen Brown, or Jae Crowder when adding Jimmy Butler of the Bulls or Paul Georgeof the Pacers, the two biggest names rumored to be available at the deadline, would still make them a long shot to get past Cleveland? The reward was not worth the risk because there was no stopping LeBron right now. Ainge saw the other pseudo-contenders in the East during LeBron’s run of dominance, the Bulls with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, the Pacers with George and Roy Hibbert, the Raptors with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and he saw them flame out flying too close to the sun, thinking they had a better chance at beating Miami or Cleveland than they did, and he was not about to panic and let the Celtics become another one of those cautionary tales.
Regardless of the current scoreboard, the best is yet to come for the Brad Stevens Era of Celtics basketball. Thanks to the steal of the century that was trading Pierce and Garnett to Brooklyn, the Celtics have the luxury of building their team for some level of playoff success, now one of the four remaining teams, yet still very far away from true contention in an extremely top-heavy NBA, while also adding lottery talent courtesy of a truly dreadful Brooklyn basketball club.
The night before the start of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics earned #1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. Patience at the trade deadline paid off. Even if Markelle Fultz from Washington, or Lonzo Ball from UCLA, or Josh Jackson from Kansas, or whoever they end up taking does not turn into a measurably better player than Butler or George, he will be a more affordable player than Butler or George for the first few years. The assets have appreciated, the guys on the current roster are gaining valuable playoff experience, and LeBron will not be able to sustain this level of basketball greatness forever (I’m assuming?). The Celtics could keep the pick and take Fultz, trade down and get a team that is overly enamored by one player (like the Lakers may be with Ball) and get them to overpay, or a hundred other combinations of scenarios, but right now Trader Danny is holding the best cards and the best leverage he has had in a decade.
A decade ago this summer, the Celtics had bad lottery luck, landing the #5 pick in the Greg Oden/Kevin Durant draft (and even though Portland took Oden with the first pick, it has been well documented how high Ainge was on KD then and now), a decade removed from when they had two shots at the Tim Duncan lottery and came away with Chauncey Billups and Ron Mercer. After 1997, the Celtics waded back and forth between mediocrity and futility for ten years, and by 2007, Ainge pushed his chips to the center of the table, cashing his young assets in to turn them into Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. A decade ago, Danny Ainge built the best Celtics team of my lifetime, and six years later, he flipped the aging core of that team to set a faster, smarter rebuild in motion.
The last four years have not been without their frustrations, but the great coaching of Brad Stevens combined with Ainge’s shrewd roster composition, keeping as many options open as possible in a constantly evolving NBA with a seemingly unstoppable force at the top of the Eastern Conference for the entire 2010s to this point, has put the Celtics in the best position to be the East’s next great team, infrastructure-wise. All they need is their superstar. It’s a pretty big only thing to need, but it’s better than most teams can boast.
Even if none of the games against Cleveland are competitive, it cannot take away the way the Celtics overcame adversity against the Bulls, with Isaiah Thomas lighting it up as he grieved the loss of his sister, and is will not take away they held home court against a dynamic Wizards team that gave them everything they could handle. No matter what happens in Game 3 and Game 4 in Cleveland, the Celtics are in a great spot going forward. This is starting to get exciting.
The 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.