They have a great goalie in Braden Holtby. They have a great coach in Barry Trotz (Trotz Trotz Trotz! As Tony Kornheiser is fond of saying). They have one of the greatest goal scorers in the history of hockey in Alex Ovechkin. The Washington Capitals are the class of the NHL’s Eastern Conference and should be the the favorite to reach the Stanley Cup Final, if not win it, yet in the Ovechkin Era, they have never gotten out of the second round. It’s at the point where you have to ask about the Caps: if they can’t do it this year, will they ever?
This has been the history of the Washington Capitals for some 40 years. They are often good, occasionally great in the regular season, but that greatness almost never translates for more than a round in the playoffs, with the exception of the 1997-98 season when they made the Final, but lost to the defending champion Detroit Red Wings. They are the “choking dogs,” as Kornheiser likes to call them, of the NHL. Some of it is bad luck, some of it in recent years has been running into Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington’s personal kryptonite.
Jokes are often made that the San Jose Sharks are the Capitals of the Western Conference, or that the Caps are the Sharks of the East, but even San Jose broke through and made the Final last season. If the last 12 months have taught us nothing else, we have certainly learned that the unexpected can and will happen, and sports curses are made to be broken. The Sharks broke through the same year as the Cubs, and the Caps could be next.
That is why they are one of the biggest winners of the NHL trade deadline, acquiring defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk from the St. Louis Blues without having to give up anyone from their NHL roster. Shattenkirk not only bolsters their strength at the blue line, he is perhaps better prepared for what the Washington Capitals need than anyone on the trade market. Shattenkirk made a name for himself as a power-play quarterback in St. Louis, being the guy to set up Russian-born sniper Vladimir Tarasenko, so it should be an easy transition dishing the puck to Russian-born sniper Alex Ovechkin in D.C.
Best of all for the Capitals, Kevin Shattenkirk is the opposite of a choking dog: he is a prevailing Terrier. Shattenkirk was a member of the Boston University Terriers team that won the NCAA National Championship in 2009, and he assisted Colby Cohen on the overtime game-winner in the National Championship Game against Miami University. That game, it should be noted, was played at Verizon Center in Washington D.C., so Shattenkirk may have experienced better postseason success at Verizon Center, albeit in college, than anyone on the Capitals’ roster.
Nothing is guaranteed in hockey. Nothing is guaranteed in any sport, but that is especially true in hockey because it is on ice, and everything that happens is based on another mistake. That being said, on paper, the Caps should be the best team at the end, and that was true before adding Shattenkirk. Bur history also tells us the team that should win and the team that does win are often not the same. This trade helps their chances of a better outcome, though. We will see how it plays out.
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 honor of the NCAA Tournament, here is a compilation of pictures of Celtics past and present from their college basketball days.
Brad Stevens, Butler
Danny Ainge, BYU
Avery Bradley, Texas
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
Tyler Zeller, North Carolina
Isaiah Thomas, Washington
Evan Turner, Ohio State
Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga
Jae Crowder, Marquette
Phil Pressey, Missouri
James Young, Kentucky
Jeff Green, Georgetown
Rajon Rondo, Kentucky
Paul Pierce, Kansas
Ray Allen, Connecticut
Brian Scalabrine, Southern California
Doc Rivers, Marquette
Antoine Walker, Kentucky
Larry Bird, Indiana State
Kevin McHale, Minnesota
Bill Walton, UCLA
Dave Cowens, Florida State
Bill Russell, San Francisco
Bob Cousy, Holy Cross
This is the most interesting NBA Draft I can remember. It has the right combination of depth of talent, unknown commodities, and intriguing teams at the top of the draft, and that was before Joel Embiid broke his foot. There are a thousand different things that could happen on Thursday, and it has the potential to be a landmark day for the Boston Celtics. Here are some of the storylines to follow:
University of Kansas center Joel Embiid was a lock to get picked #1 by the Cleveland Cavaliers, but now his injury has teams second guessing their draft strategy. Now, teams like the Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers (the NBA’s two most successful franchises who have only missed the playoffs in the same year twice hold the #6 and #7 picks, respectively), who did not think Embiid would be available to them are back in play to land the talented Cameroonian big man. The foot injury is concerning for sure. Bill Walton’s career was derailed when he broke that same bone in his foot. Same thing with Yao Ming. On the other hand, Michael Jordan broke that bone and was fine. Jordan was at least six inches shorter than Walton, Yao, or Embiid, but Embiid is younger than any of those guys, so who knows?
Even without foot and back (which kept him out of the NCAA Tournament in March) concerns, Embiid was a high risk with a potentially high reward. Every draft selection has risk, but it seems that big men have the greatest chance of going bust. Remember Greg Oden? What would the NBA landscape look like today if the Portland Trail Blazers had taken Kevin Durant at #1 instead? Just because Embiid has the ceiling to be the next Hakeem Olajuwon or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, doesn’t mean he’ll get there. For the Celtics and the Lakers, that’s still a risk worth taking. If he reaches his potential, he could be the next great big man in the NBA, and those guys are hard to find. Dwight Howard and Roy Hibbert have yet to prove that they can carry a team to a championship, and while Tim Duncan just won his fifth career NBA Title with San Antonio last week, and he’s one of the all time greats, he’s also 38 years old and it’s safe to say he has more years behind him than ahead of him. One thing I really like about Embiid (and Andrew Wiggins, not that there’s any chance of him being available at #6) is that he played for the Kansas Jayhawks. The greatest Celtic I ever had the pleasure of watching, Paul Pierce, was also a Kansas Jayhawk. I would love to see the next great Celtic come out of Kansas, if it’s not one of the many kids with New England roots that keep making it into the Draft.
With Embiid falling in the draft, the Milwaukee Bucks, will likely take either Jabari Parker from Duke or Embiid’s Kansas teammate Andrew Wiggins at #2, whichever one doesn’t get picked by Cleveland. Before Embiid’s injury, it looked like Milwaukee was locked in on Parker and the Philadelphia 76ers would take Wiggins with the #3 pick. This puts the Philly in a tough spot. The Sixers made perhaps the most blatant attempt to tank the 2013-14 season and improve their draft standing, and they were rewarded for their efforts with the #3 pick. Going into the 2013-14 college basketball season, Wiggins was the most talked about prospect and he appeared to be falling into Philly’s lap. Embiid wasn’t as appealing to the Sixers because they used a lottery pick last year on a big man in (and Everett, MA native) Nerlens Noel. Wiggins was supposed to be the piece they could add to Noel and (Hamilton, MA native) Michael Carter-Williams and make a real effort to compete this year. Without Wiggins, the might be back in the lottery again next year. This has draft pick implications for the Celtics, too. Because of a previous trade, the C’s could get Philly’s 2015 1st round draft pick, but only if the Sixers make the playoffs. It’s going to feel weird, but Celtics are going to be rooting for their longtime division rivals to make the playoffs to add another pick to their stockpile.
Depending on who is still available when the #6 pick comes around will have a lot to do with what the Celtics decide to do. They might keep the pick and come home with Embiid, or Arizona’s Aaron Gordon or Indiana’s (and Haverhill, MA’s) Noah Vonleh, or Kentucky’s Julius Randle. They might trade that pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves along with some combination of draft picks (the Celtics have this year’s #17 pick from the Brooklyn Nets as well as Brooklyn’s 1st round picks in 2016 and 2018, all thanks to Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce) and players on their roster (Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger seem the most likely since they’re young, still have high upside, and are both power forwards) in exchange for All-Star power forward Kevin Love. If they Celtics land Love, they could also try make a trade for Omer Asik, but if they can’t get Love, Rajon Rondo might get traded out of town and the rebuild through the draft will continue. Danny Ainge has plenty of options, and we will have a much clearer idea of what the Celtics will look like going forward this time next week. Who knows? Maybe if the C’s look like a contender again, free agent former captain Paul Pierce might make a return to Boston.
The speculation will continue until the night of the Draft. For all I know, a big name might be coming to Boston that nobody has mentioned yet. Nobody was talking about the possibility of Ray Allen coming to the Celtics until he was traded there on the night of the Draft in 2007. Once the Celtics had Allen along with Paul Pierce, it was easier to convince Kevin Garnett to go Boston. All I know is that something big will happen, it’s just a matter of time before we know what that is.
It didn’t take long for my chances at a billion dollar bracket were destroyed. I picked the Duke Blue Devils to beat Michigan State in the National Championship, but Duke couldn’t even get past Mercer University, who I had to Google to find out is located in Georgia. It’s anyone’s tournament at this point, and it’s a reminder that basketball is at its best when played as a team. That’s the beauty of the NCAA tournament: the unexpected happens, and it’s virtually impossible to pick the outcome. It’s a fun tournament and in a lot of ways is better than what the NBA has to offer.
My bracket picks were by no means the most educated ones out there, but I wasn’t in the minority when I thought Duke would advance past the 1st round, or even past the Sweet Sixteen. Mike Krzyzerski is one of the best coaches in the history of college basketball, and has guided the Blue Devils to 11 Final Fours and four NCAA Championships since taking over the program in 1980. They’re the villain of college basketball, since they’re always good, and they carry themselves with an air of superiority. They’re what the Yankees are for baseball and the Canadiens are for hockey. It’s hard to pick against that kind of success. This year, Coach K had arguably the best player in college basketball in 19 year old freshman Jabari Parker. I saw maybe half a dozen college hoops games this regular season, but I was impressed with what I saw from Parker, and was hoping that my Boston Celtics would somehow land a high enough draft pick to get him this summer. My excitement over Parker sold me on Duke in the tournament, and it ended up costing me.
Parker had a bad game. Even the best players have bad games. It’s better if it doesn’t happen in the first game of the NCAA tournament against a team that you have no business losing to on paper, but that’s what happened. Paker scored 14 points, went 0-3 from the three point line, and had four fouls and four turnovers. Parker looked like a freshman playing against a team of seniors that weren’t afraid of taking shots, and had overcome adversity just to make the tournament. This is why college basketball players should stay in college. It’s a good place to learn these kinds of lessons. I understand the arguments for allowing high school seniors to enter the NBA draft. Kevin Garnett was ready for the NBA at 18. So was Kobe Bryant. So was Lebron James. But those are three of the ten best drafted into the NBA in my lifetime. Most kids that age could benefit from a few more reps in college before running with the big boys of the NBA. Allowing more time to develop in college would improve the quality of NBA players, and would improve the quality of these college games, too, if coaches don’t have to turn their rosters over every year. At the end of the day, a good basketball program should have a greater emphasis on the whole team, rather than putting so much weight on one 19 year old star. Coach K should know that. If it were up to me, high school players would be allowed to enter the draft, so the KGs and the Lebrons and the Kobes of the world can play in the NBA as soon as they have a diploma, but if you play college basketball, you must make at least a two year commitment, and players might actually learn a thing or two in class while they’re there.
Parker had such a good season that he might still get drafted with the #1 overall pick, but his early exit from the tournament opens the door for players like Julius Randle of Kentucky and Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid of Kansas to move up if their teams go on a run. They’re teenagers. The outcome of this tournament will not make or break their basketball careers if they respond to it the right way. There have been plenty of college superstars who have gone bust in the NBA, but there have also been plenty who elevated their game at the next level beyond what anyone thought they could. Larry Bird didn’t wallow in despair after his Indiana State lost to Magic Johnson’s Michigan State. Instead Bird and Magic took their rivalry that revived college basketball to the Celtics and Lakers and reignited the best rivalry in this history of the sport. They combined for eight championships as players, and it may have been more if they had today’s advancements in sports medicine when their careers were declining 25 years ago. If these kids stay healthy, work hard, and learn from their failure, they will have a lot of basketball ahead of them. In the meantime, we get to sit back and watch some great games, hoping that one of these great young players will be wearing green and white this time next year.
Yesterday, the Boston Celtics traded guards Jordan Crawford and Marshon Brooks to the Golden State Warriors. Last week they traded Courtney Lee to the Memphis Grizzlies. For Celtics fans, this is probably not the best time to get too attached to players on the team because they could be gone next week. There have been rumors surrounding Brandon Bass, Jeff Green, and Rajon Rondo all season, as well. That’s what you have to do to rebuild in today’s NBA, and there are few who are better at it than Danny Ainge.
In the early part of the season, Jordan Crawford looked like a legit NBA point guard. After he arrived in Boston when the C’s traded away Jason Collins, I never thought I would use the phrase “legit NBA point guard” to describe Jordan Crawford. He’s undisciplined, he is too much of an impulsive player, and just plays a stupid brand of basketball in general. This, season he seemed like a completely different player. I have to give Brad Stevens a lot of credit on that one. Coach Stevens has gotten as much as he possibly can out of the roster he was given. That’s what Brad Stevens does. He never had a particularly loaded roster at Butler, but he took that program to the NCAA National Championship Game twice. He ultimately fell to the much more talented Duke and UConn teams, but it’s hard to say Stevens was outcoached by the Hall of Famer coaches he faced in those games. He made Crawford look pretty good, but he fell back to earth in December. With Rajon Rondo coming back this week, the Celts don’t need Crawford anymore. I would have been happy if the Celtics cut Crawford over the summer, but Stevens transformed him into an asset that they could get things in return for. They know what he is, and they don’t see him as part of the core of the next great Celtics team, so Danny Ainge pulled the trigger on a deal while his value was at an all time high.
In a rebuilding season, nobody on the Celtics roster should be safe. Rondo is the team’s best player and one of the elite point guards in the game, but he’s also due to hit free agency next year, can’t hit a jump shot, and hasn’t played in a year. The last time Rondo was healthy, the Celtics had a losing record and were out of the playoff picture while Rondo had two future Hall of Famers to dish the ball to in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. For the right return, I would not be shocked to see Ainge deal Rondo away, either.
I would trade Jeff Green in a second. I hated the trade as soon as it happened when Ainge sent Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson to Oklahoma City for Green and Nenad Krstic. Perk was a huge part of the Celtics teams that reached the Finals in 2008 and 2010, and Robinson has proven to be a pretty good little player since then. Krstic is currently playing professional basketball in Russia because he couldn’t hack it in the NBA. Because of what they gave up, Jeff Green had to really blow people’s doors off to keep fans satisfied, and he’s never quite gotten there. He shows flashes of brilliance, but he’s not the guy to carry the team on his shoulders that they thought he could be. He’s not on the same level as his former OKC teammates Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. I would not be heartbroken if he got traded.
Besides Rondo, the players I would be most careful about trading are Jared Sullinger, Avery Bradley, and Kelly Olynyk. These three guys are the young talent to build around, but none are necessarily the next Larry Bird or Paul Pierce, either. Sullinger is emerging in his second NBA season as the best player on the team game in and game out. He can score. He can rebound. He gets in foul trouble, but that’s because he’s been playing motivated, aggressive defense. Sully has been the brightest spot for the Celtics rebuild thus far. Avery Bradley is now the second longest tenured Celtic after Rondo, despite being drafted after the C’s 2010 Finals appearance against the Lakers. He’s a good defensive guard who can occasionally turn great defense into great offense and he’ll be looking for a new contract this offseason. Olynyk is the most intriguing player on the Celtics right now. The 22 year old Canadian seven footer out of Gonzaga has a lot of skill and basketball intelligence, but there are still a lot of growing pains for him as he adjusts to the grind of playing in the NBA. He’s considered by some to be Gonzaga’s best NBA prospect since John Stockton, and the very optimistic think he can become the next Dirk Nowitzki or Larry Bird. Danny Ainge used his only 1st round pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, so it’s not likely that he’ll give up on him this early. Rick Pitino traded away Chauncey Billups midway through the first season of his Hall of Fame career, and that’s a big part of why Pitino’s phone calls in Boston end like this these days.
Another guy who intrigues me, but is not quite as safe since the Celtics did not invest as much in him as they did Sully, Bradley, and Olynyk is undrafted rookie point guard Phil Pressey. I have a soft spot for undrafted players in general. I get excited when guys like Wes Welker , LeGarrette Blount, Torey Krug and Brian Rafalski become stars in football and hockey, and this kind of thing doesn’t happen enough in basketball. At 5’11”, Pressey is a smaller than average point guard, but he impressed them in the Orlando Summer League and has made progress learning from Brad Stevens and Rajon Rondo this season. He showed off some of his moves with this behind-the-back pass to Avery Bradley after he got the start in Toronto last night.
What the Celtics have to do right now is acquire assets and create options for themselves. They are much better off now than they were when Danny Ainge took over the Celtics’ basketball operations department in 2003, and hopefully they’ll be a contender sooner than 2017-18 at this rate. Building an NBA roster is as confusing as it is fascinating, and in a lot of ways is more interesting than NBA games themselves. It’s okay to like these Celtics and still root for them to get in better draft position. It’s okay to root for the players on the team, but you shouldn’t lose to much sleep over the players that get traded. It will get better. It’s not clear when. It’s not clear how, but Danny Ainge will make the C’s a winner again.