With the New York Knicks and team president Phil Jackson parting ways, it’s hard to argue that the arrangement they had wasn’t working. But these are the Knicks, and as bad as the current regime is, I cannot help but think the next executive James Dolan hires will be even worse. If there’s any reason for fans to hope it’s that Jackson did not manage to trade Kristaps Porzingis before his tenure ended.
When Jackson took over the Knicks in 2014, it seemed like a good idea on the very surface, but if you did any digging at all, it was incredibly baffling. Sure, fellow championship-winning Los Angeles Lakers coach Pat Riley made the transition from coach to executive with great success, but Jackson was 68 at the time, had never been a GM before, and was rooted in Los Angeles, engaged at the time to Lakers owner Jeanie Buss. From the Knicks’ perspective, yeah, the team had not won a championship since Jackson was still playing for them in 1973, and yeah, Jackson went on to win 11 titles as head coach of the Bulls and Lakers, but in an age when NBA GMs are constantly exploring new ways to make their teams better, through advanced metrics, sports science, and domestic and international scouting, they hired a 68 year old man with no front office experience who had been retired and was engaged to the owner of the Lakers. Only the Knicks could make hiring the Phil Jackson into a colossal mistake, but Jackson deserves just as much blame.
Jackson the executive proved to be even more arrogant than Jackson the coach. In an age when teams like the Warriors, Rockets, and Spurs are reinventing the game of basketball to great success, Jackson’s Knicks toiled in obscurity as Jackson stubbornly swore by the Triangle Offense, a system that peaked in popularity 20 years ago. While he won a lot of games with the Triangle over the years, I always thought it had more to do with the players on the court. Any system can be effective if you have Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen at one stop and Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal (and later Pau Gasol) at the other. Changes come slow–it took nearly 30 years of the three point line’s existence for NBA teams to realize its full potential–but Jackson was so set in his ways he failed to acknowledge what good basketball was.
Jackson’s love of the Triangle was hardly his only sin. He alienated Carmelo Anthony, and trashed him so publicly it killed Melo’s trade value, making it impossible to find a worthy trade where the player would also waive his no-trade clause. His tenure was not a complete failure. Taking Latvian superstar in the making Kristaps Porzingis with the #4 overall pick was a great selection, and Porzingis has a bright future in the NBA. But just last week, Jackson was openly complaining to the press about how Porzingis skipped his exit interview, and that he was open to trading him. Fortunately for Knicks fans, Dolan stepped in before Jackson could do something foolish. He had already done enough. As if alienating Melo wasn’t enough, he was already doing everything in his power to make Porzingis hate playing in New York. Jackson’s handling of the Knicks’ star players makes me wonder about his reputation for getting complicated stars to play together as a coach. Was he really the Zen Master, or were Jordan and Pippen really that good? Shaq and Kobe probably really did hate each other (that’s too big a feud to fabricate, right?), but maybe rather than manipulating them and getting them to work together, perhaps they bonded over their mutual feelings on how much of an arrogant moron Jackson was. I have no evidence to back that up, particularly the Shaq and Kobe stuff, but Jackson’s time as president of the Knicks makes me think about it. I thought he would be bad at running the Knicks, but not this bad.
The real losers are not Jackson (he made $12 million annually with New York) or Dolan (he’s a billionaire). The fans of the New York Knicks deserve a real basketball team, and I say that as a Celtics fan. They are great fans in both quality and quantity, their team has iconic uniforms and an iconic arena in a city where players should want to play. It takes a particularly amazing level of incompetence to not get it together with so much going for them. Hopefully they turn it around, but I have my doubts about it actually happening.
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.
This week, after losing the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and with neither of the two games at TD Garden being at all competitive, the Boston Celtics announced that their start point guard, Isaiah Thomas, was out for the season. Then, the Celtics won Game 3 in Cleveland, and without their best player. Naturally, the narrative of “are the Celtics better off without Isaiah?” swirled around the Boston Sports Media for days. It was maybe the dumbest take, but also quite possibly the most predictable take ever.
I get how we got here. This is Boston. There are two radio stations and two TV stations devoted to the local sports teams, and the Celtics are the only one of the four currently in the playoffs. In addition to being a primary talking point for hosts and callers alike on WEEI and The Sports Hub alike, you have writers at The Boston Globe and The Boston Herald, national outlets with Boston roots like Barstool Sports and The Ringer, and probably hundreds of aspiring and trying millennials like me all trying to be read and be heard. On some level, the “better off without” opinion had legs, not because it was valid, not because anyone really believed it, but because the infrastructure of the Boston Sports Media needed it to happen. There were too many hours in the day for no one to say it, so people couldn’t stop saying it.
This is also the market that produced Bill Simmons, author of The Ewing Theory, which attempts to explain the phenomenon where a team loses their superstar who has never won a title, and the complementary pieces surrounding that star step up in their absence, and the team outperforms expectations. It was a theory Simmons first developed with a friend when Patrick Ewing was in college, and they noticed his Georgetown teammates seemed to play better when he was on the bench in foul trouble, and the theory was tested at the professional level when Ewing got hurt in the 1999 NBA Playoffs, and without him, his New York Knicks reached the NBA Finals as the #8 seed in the Eastern Conference. The ultimate Ewing Theory case is that of Drew Bledsoe, whom Simmons mentioned as a possible Ewing Theory candidate in a 2001 column, months before the Patriots’ franchise quarterback was wrecked by Mo Lewis, replaced by a second year QB out of Michigan named Tom Brady, and so began the Pats’ transformation to downtrodden perennial punchline to the model franchise in North American professional sports.
Of course the very existence of the theory causes people to anticipate a case before anything actually happens. The most prominent example of that was also Boston-centric, when Rajon Rondo got hurt in 2013, and the Celtics rallied around the loss and made the playoffs anyway, and it inspired Simmons’ “Ewing Theory Revisited” column. But as fun as a theory like is to think about, the reality is always much more nuanced, a huge reason I have become disillusioned with the sports media culture I am simultaneously trying to break into. Not everything is a hot take, and trying to find the hot take in every story only lowers the common denominator, and brings everybody down. Yes, the Knicks advanced farther in a lower seed after Ewing got hurt, but the 1999 NBA season was strange, compressed, and shortened by a lockout. The Knicks were probably a better team than they were in the regular season, and could have made noise in the power vacuum that was the East after the dismantling of the Chicago Bulls, who had dominated the conference for the bulk of the 1990s. Also, there is no way the Knicks were better off in the Finals without Patrick Ewing, going up against a San Antonio Spurs team that had both Tim Duncan and David Robinson.
Obviously, the Celtics are not better off without Isaiah. The guy was awesome for them this season, was the biggest reason (aside from Toronto’s injuries and Cleveland’s indifference to regular season results) that the Celtics finished atop the East after 82 games, and there is no way they get past the Washington Wizards in the second round (let alone Chicago in the first) without him. The Celtics were on the road, forced to play a different lineup, and caught LeBron James on a rare off night. That’s all it was. One game where the depleted Celtics held LeBron to 11 points and still needed needed a last-second three by Avery Bradley to win. That should not and does not wipe away all the great work Isaiah Thomas did for the Celtics this year.
As idiotic as the narrative was this week, it does serve as a cynical preview for the way things will likely go in Boston with Isaiah Thomas going forward. It took one win on the road in a series the Celtics were never going to win for fans and media to turn on the most beloved player the Celtics have had since Larry Bird. What is going to happen when the Celtics draft another point guard? They have the top pick in the 2017 Draft, and the consensus top two prospects, Markelle Fultz of Washington and Lonzo Ball of UCLA, are both point guards? What happens if they sign Utah Jazz All-Star small forward Gordon Hayward to a max contract this summer? As great as Isaiah has been for the Celtics, next summer, he will be a free agent, and will the Celtics be willing to make a 29 year old point guard who is under six feet and is already showing wear and tear from the beating one takes as a short guy in a big guy’s league one of the highest paid players in the NBA? I have a feeling this will not end well.
It may be a different sport with very different roster sizes and pay structures, but I have a feeling the way the New England Patriots have handled cornerback and Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler this offseason as something of a precursor to what could happen with IT and the Celtics. Butler became an instant household name when he made The Interception of the Century in the end zone against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. Last offseason, the most important players on New England’s defense were Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, and Butler, and all were set to be free agents at some level this offseason, and the team needed to address that. Jones was traded to the Arizona Cardinals last spring, Collins was traded to the Cleveland Browns in the middle of the season. Hightower signed an extension with the Patriots after the Super Bowl, but Butler’s future remains murky. First it seemed like Butler, a restricted free agent, would get traded to the New Orleans Saints, but the trade never happened. To further complicate things, the Patriots paid big money to free agent corner Stephon Gilmore without ever playing a down for New England, while Butler had established himself as one of the NFL’s best with the Pats, playing a key role on a team that has won two of the last three Super Bowls, but the Patriots hold all the cards, and they may very well make Malcolm wait for the big payday many fans and media members alike feel like he has already earned.
This is a similar situation to Isaiah with the Celtics. Thomas has been the good soldier, and consistently Boston’s best player since he arrived here on a very affordable contract (he is still playing on the four-year, $27 million deal he signed with the Phoenix Suns in 2014), while the team went out and paid Al Horford, tried to pay Kevin Durant, and may very well pay Gordon Hayward, all while being very deep at the point guard and possibly using yet another lottery pick on yet another point guard at next month’s draft. Isaiah made the Celtics respectable after the Nee Big Three left town, and just as he is playing his best basketball, the Celtics may already be figuring out his succession plan.
Both Thomas and Butler had to scratch and claw to become the players they became. While Thomas was the last pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, Butler went undrafted coming out of West Alabama. But Bill Belichick saw something in him, coached him up to be ready for the most pivotal moment of the most important game of the season, and was confident enough in his own coaching and Butler’s development to let Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner walk in free agency, confident that the Patriots’ secondary would be just fine. As much of a success story as Butler has been, Bill Belichick is confident in his ability to find the next Malcolm Butler if things between the player and the team go south, and Danny Ainge, like Belichick, is someone always thinking steps ahead.
Bill Belichick and Danny Ainge could not, as two professional sports executives who have been in Boston over a decade, carry themselves any more differently. Belichick is the gruff, ratty sweatshirt clad football coach who seems to go out of his way to be as terse with the media as possible, while Ainge is the clean-cut former NBA guard and MLB third baseman who regularly gets interviewed on the radio during the season. Ainge plays nice, but at his core, he’s a cold, calculating genius not unlike Belichick. Even when he’s tweeting praises of Isaiah, I have a hard time believing he isn’t weighing options should Isaiah not be in the Celtics’ long-term plans. Ainge built a team whose season lasted longer than any team other than the two teams everyone knew would be in the Finals the minute Durant announced he was going to Golden State last July, he did not have to give anything up at the trade deadline either of the last two years to get that far, and he has the ability to add a potentially franchise-altering player at the top of the draft. Like Belichick with Butler, Danny Ainge holds all the cards.
This turn of events says more about the over-reactionary nature of Boston Sports Media than it does about the future about the Celtics, but as predictable as it all was, it sheds some light on the things to come.
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 2016-17 NBA season has been the Year of Kevin Durant, ever since all of basketball, from the front offices to to the players to the fans to social media, held its collective breath last July 4th weekend as he decided to sign with the Golden State Warriors. For a weekend, The Hamptons was the center of the sports universe, and everything since has been in reaction to KD joining forces with a team that won a record 73 games last year.
- Russell Westbrook is playing out of his mind this season because he’s mad at Durant.
- The Boston Celtics made their biggest free agent signing ever with Al Horford because they missed on Durant.
- What are the Washington Wizards supposed to do now that they had hoped to sign Kevin Durant, being the team from his hometown and all, but could not even get a meeting with him?
- How far have the Lakers really fallen now that they could not get a meeting with Durant, and they get meetings with everyone because they’re the Lakers?
- The Oklahoma City Thunder had three of the five best players in the NBA (Durant, Westbrook, and James Harden, with the other two top-five players being LeBron James and Steph Curry) at the beginnings of their careers, and now only have one. Are they now officially this generation’s version of the Shaq and Penny Orlando Magic that were super fun for a few years, but were gone before we could appreciate them and never won a title?
- Sure, the San Antonio Spurs will be good because they are always good, but in their first year without Tim Duncan, do they even have a chance against this Warriors team?
- Sure, the Houston Rockets will be interesting because they own the statistical darlings corner of the NBA and are the Oakland A’s of basketball, and the collaboration of GM Daryl Morey, newly hired head coach Mike D’Antoni, and star James Harden (who made the conversion from shooting guard to point guard this season and got even better) might even make them great, but can they hang with this Warriors team?
- Given the last two bullet points, are we destined (or doomed, depending on how you look at it) for a third straight Warriors/Cavs NBA Finals and the other 28 teams are merely bystanders in this inevitability?
That last bullet point was occupying my mind when I wrote about Durant-to-the-Warriors last July, and that still may very well be the end result of the Year of Durant, but the second tier contenders have been compelling this regular season (particularly Boston, Toronto, Washington, Houston, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Utah) and even teams that are not competing this year are made compelling by the bountiful crop of young talent in the Association from Kristaps Poszingis in New York, to Joel “The Process” Embiid in Philadelphia (whom the Sixers shut down for the rest of the season after appearing in just 31 games, but it was an unforgettable 31 games), Nikola Jokic in Denver, to Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns in Minnesota to Jabari Parker, Thon Maker, and Giannis “The Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee. The NBA is doing just fine, even if the end result feels inevitable. But just like everything else this season, when a post-trade deadline injury sent shock waves through the NBA, the injury in question was Kevin Durant.
A couple nights ago, playing against the Wizards in his hometown of Washington D.C. for the first time since he deliberately made it clear he did not want to play for his hometown, KD hurt his knee when he collided with teammate Zaza Pachulia. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, Durant could be out for the rest of the regular season, and perhaps longer than that. All of a sudden, things are not as certain as they seemed.
It’s impossible to write the Warriors off completely. They still have Steph Curry, they still have Klay Thompson, and they still have Draymond Green. They still have Steve Kerr as their coach. Those guys made The Finals each of the last two years without Durant, including coming back in a seven game series against Durant and the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals last spring. Even without Durant, their high-end talent in this high-end talent-driven league should make them better than most teams on any given night, but without him, their margin for error narrows significantly. Golden State also lacks the depth they enjoyed in previous seasons. In order to make room for Durant, the Warriors jettisoned Andrew Bogut (whose injury in the Finals was the straw that broke their collective back against Cleveland last spring), Harrison Barnes, and Festus Ezeli. The team they have is still very good, but the relative lack of depth was the risk they had to take by adding Durant to what could already be considered a super-team.
Durant’s injury also gives the Spurs and Rockets a better chance of crashing the party. I am not saying they are absolutely going to knock off the Warriors now, but this could make Golden State’s road that much more difficult. The Warriors currently sit at #1 in the Western Conference, with a 50-11 record. The Spurs are two and a half games behind them, at 47-13. If San Antonio could steal the #1 seed from Golden State, it would mean the Warriors potentially having to play the Rockets and the Spurs in order to get back to The Finals instead of the Rockets and Spurs having to play each other in the second round, as would happen if the standings remain the same. For Golden State, the possibility of Durant coming back and playing his first minutes in months in a second round playoff series against Houston, who could already pose as a touch match-up for them, is something that would scare me. The Warriors would much rather have San Antonio and Houston cancel each other out and only have to face one of them before their rubber match against LeBron and the Cavaliers.
I do not wish injury on anyone, and I am also not one to hold it against Kevin Durant for leaving OKC and joining the Warriors rather than beating them, but I have to admit this second half of the NBA regular season is more interesting than I expected, all because it is the Year of Kevin Durant.
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.
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.