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.
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.
With the salary cap in the NBA jumping from $70 million to $94.1 million this summer, there was a real chance for the landscape of the league to dramatically change, and it did, but not in the way fans were hoping, unless they live in the Bay Area. After Kevin Durant’s Independence Day weekend in The Hamptons, in which Oklahoma City still thought they had a chance at keeping KD, and power brokers from Gregg Popovich to Pat Riley to Steve Ballmer to Steve Kerr and Jerry West to Danny Ainge and even Tom Brady got in on the action to try and lure him to their respective team and city, and ultimately Kevin Durant decided to take his talents to the record-breaking 73 regular season win Golden State Warriors.
To me, this doesn’t feel like when LeBron James made The Decision in 2010, to take his talents to South Beach, to join forces with Dwyne Wade and Chris Bosh, and to rip the collective heart out of a city that had not won a championship in any sport since the Johnson Administration. With Durant’s departure from OKC, he was leaving a better basketball situation than LeBron left in Cleveland, and chose a basketball situation that has even higher expectations, but also a better chance for success than Miami in year one was. In 2010, it was Wade and Pat Riley recruiting LeBron and Bosh to play for their team, circumventing the crap shoot that is building through the draft by putting together three of the top five picks from the 2003 NBA Draft as fully formed, fully developed NBA stars seven years later.
(It’s worth noting that this wasn’t the first time Riley was able to stockpile lottery picks from the same draft class. The 2006 Miami Heat team that beat Dallas in the NBA Finals was the only team to have the top three picks from the same draft: #1 pick Shaquille O’Neal, #2 pick Alonzo Mourning, and #3 pick Christian Laettner from the 1992 Draft, and none of them had been drafted by the Heat. In hockey, former Boston Bruins and current Edmonton Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli has now traded away the #1 and #2 picks from the 2010 NHL Draft, Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin, both good players, and both dealt for pennies on the dollar, making Chiarelli two thirds of the way to completing the illusive “Reverse Pat Riley.”)
I have mixed feelings when it comes to the plight of the Oklahoma City Thunder and their fans. It has to be devastating to lose such a dynamic talent without getting anything in return. As a Celtics fan, the tease of KD when he was a star at Texas in a year that the C’s were in the lottery was tantalizing, and the devastation when the Celtics fell to #5 in the draft order was real. The Portland Trail Blazers even took Greg Oden from Ohio State with the first pick so either of the top two picks could have made KD a Celtic. Again the possibility of Durant coming to Boston had me and other Celtics fans excited for a couple days, especially after the Greatest Quarterback of All Time and the Greatest Designated Hitter of All Time joined the recruiting effort, but again it wasn’t to be. If Kevin Durant could toy with my emotions all these years without ever playing for my team or against my team in a playoff series, the pain Thunder fans has to be exponentially worse. That being said, the Thunder had to see this coming.
Thunder GM Sam Presti did an excellent job picking in the lottery when was in there three straight years. First, he took Durant in 2007, then Russell Westbrook in 2008, and James Harden in 2009. That is about as good as it gets for building a young and athletic foundation for a franchise (though they may have been bested by Minnesota in the last couple years. Time will tell). They made the NBA Finals in 2012, and were not as ready for the moment as the aforementioned LeBron/Wade/Bosh Miami team that had finally figured it out. Even still, the future looked bright for Oklahoma City, and then they panicked. Before the start of the 2012-13 season, Presti traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets for an assortment of assets. In the years that followed, Harden blossomed into an All-Star, a franchise player, and a piece of tabloid fodder, but nonetheless a perennial MVP candidate along with his fellow former OKC lottery picks. NBA teams can go decades without landing even one player like this and the Thunder had stumbled upon three, right out of college and learning to be professionals together.
While Presti deserves credit for drafting as well as he did, the Thunder have had shortcomings in other areas of their basketball operation. They have never run a particularly creative offense, relying heavily on the individual athletic prowess of Durant and Westbrook to win games. To be fair, that helped them win a lot of games, but in an incredibly tough Western Conference, good has not been good enough most of the time. The one two punch of KD and Russ presents a tough mismatch for most teams, but it has been effectively neutralized in big games by the incomparable ball movement of the San Antonio Spurs and the great passing combined with the historically great three point shooting of the Golden State Warriors. After a disappointing 2014-15 season when reigning MVP Durant was injured most of the season and Westbrook had his share of injuries, OKC missed the playoffs and decided to part ways with head coach Scott Brooks. This would have been a great opportunity to replace Brooks with a proven and creative NBA coach like offensive mastermind Alvin Gentry (who led the Phoenix Suns to the Western Conference Finals in 2010 and was an assistant on Steve Kerr’s staff in Golden State that year) or defensive innovator Tom Thibodeau (who basically invented the modern NBA defense and was suddenly available after the Chicago Bulls stupidly decided to move on from him, but instead they decided to go with a very successful college coach in Billy Donovan. Now Gentry is coaching Anthony Davis in New Orleans, and Thibodeau has Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins to coach in Minnesota while Donovan had to adapt to the NBA after nearly two decades at the University of Florida on the fly while also trying to win in the short term and keep Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook confident and content in Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma City is at a disadvantage compared to some other NBA cities. They cannot offer the lifestyle opportunities that New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco or Chicago or Miami can, but they could take a page out of San Antonio’s book. San Antonio is in a similar situation. They’re not a huge city and the Spurs are the only major professional sports team in town (the same is true of OKC, Salt Lake City, Orlando, Sacramento, Portland, and Memphis, some of the most rabid NBA fanbases) so they won’t get a Hall of Fame quarterback as part of the recruiting pitch, but they can control what is in there control, and have the smartest, most cutting edge basketball operations department they can create, and give any player who might be interested the assurance that they will be put in the best position to win.
The biggest reason I feel differently about Durant’s departure from Oklahoma City than I do about LeBron’s Decision to leave Cleveland is because Oklahoma City is lucky to even have an NBA team. KD was not drafted by the Oklahoma City Thunder. He was drafted by the Seattle Supersonics. Remember them? They were this NBA team in Seattle with really good uniforms, who won a Title in the 1970s led by Dennis Johnson, and had an exciting team in the 1990s with Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton that lost to Jordan’s Bulls in the Finals. Also, they were in a real professional sports city that still has baseball and football. Seattle fans got to see Durant’s rookie season, in which he was already really good, and then the owners moved the team to Oklahoma. Sure, Durant is taking his talents to Golden State, but unlike the last NBA city he left, the whole team isn’t coming with him this time. “Oklahoma City Thunder” sounds like a minor league baseball team anyway.
Beyond the people of Oklahoma City, the regular season will suffer the most from Kevin Durant playing for the Warriors. In any given year, we are lucky if there are six or seven teams in the NBA who have a real chance at winning the championship. Last year, there were four (Golden State, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and Cleveland), and now, barring multiple catastrophic injuries to Golden State’s starters, that number is down to two. If, say Durant and Steph Curry can’t go for the playoffs for the Dubs, then maybe the Spurs or the Clippers could win the West, but otherwise we’re looking at Cleveland vs. Golden State Round 3 next June.
I was hoping that Durant would sign with the Celtics (obviously), but for reasons bigger than just my local fandom. There is no rival for LeBron in the Eastern Conference. LeBron’s team, whether it was Miami or Cleveland, has made the Finals every year since 2011. Every NBA Finals since I’ve been old enough to drink has had LeBron in it. Adding Durant to the Celtics (or Miami, although Boston has the stronger supporting cast especially with Wade leaving for Chicago this week), there would instantly be another contender in the East. The Celtics added Atlanta Hawks veteran big man Al Horford as a maximum contract free agent, whom Oklahoma City was interested in bringing in to play with Durant (Horford also won two National Championships at Florida playing for Billy Donovan), a great young coach in Brad Stevens, a good albeit undersized scorer in Isaiah Thomas, and lots of good, defensively stout role players like Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson, and Avery Bradley (who was selected for 1st Team All Defense for the first time in 2015). The Celtics had never landed a big name free agent in their prime, but after Horford agreed to join the Celtics, I talked myself into believing Durant could be the second. They had a good basketball situation to sell to KD, but nothing can compete with the chance to play with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and Draymond Green and get to play for a coach like Steve Kerr, who is quickly becoming the genius Phil Jackson/Gregg Popovich superstar coach hybrid for the new generation.
While the NBA will not be the most competitive league from top to bottom next season, it will be strangely compelling to see how things unfold for this super-team in Golden State. It’s amazing how quickly this long-suffering franchise, that waited 40 years between titles after Rick Barry’s Warrior team fell apart against Phoenix in 1976 to when Curry and Co. overran LeBron and the Cavs the first time around, turned and replaced LeBron as the NBA’s greatest villain. All eyes will be on the Warriors this year, and most of those eyes will be rooting for failure. This is a team that went 73-9 in the 2015-16 regular season, overcame a 1-3 series deficit against OKC in the Western Conference Finals only to blow a 3-1 series lead against Cleveland in the NBA Finals. They had a chance to be greater than the 1996 Bulls or the 1986 Celtics or any other team in the “greatest team ever” argument, but instead they’re the 18-1 Patriots of basketball.
Really good Historically great, but the way it ended will always undercut the achievement. In defeat, the lineup that had been so dominant for two years looked suddenly exposed. LeBron put in a superhuman performance, but for the first time since Mark Jackson was coaching them and the possibility of trading Klay Thompson for Kevin Love seemed like a great idea for Golden State, the Warriors looked human.
First it was Curry’s nagging injuries after a season of abuse by bigger, more physical point guards, neutralizing the effect of the NBA’s first ever unanimous MVP (by the way, the only other players in any sport to be the unanimous MVP are Tom Brady and Wayne Gretzky. Ever heard of them?) and the most unconventional most dominant player basketball has ever seen. Then it was Draymond Green’s suspension. The Dubs were up three games to one on a Cleveland team that was fundamentally flawed, being run by an aging (although it really is amazing how good LeBron James still is considering how long he has been in the NBA, the load he has had to shoulder with relatively weak supporting casts compared to those of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or Michael Jordan and the fact that he has NEVER MISSED A FREAKING PLAYOFF GAME despite taking his teams to the Finals SEVEN TIMES including the last six years) superstar, who mortgaged their future two summers ago by trading #1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins to Minnesota for the mostly disappointing Kevin Love, but the suspension of Green for Game 5 gave Cleveland life and gave Cleveland momentum. Then it was the injury to Andrew Bogut, out for the last two games of the Finals, though he should be healthy enough to play for Team Australia in the Olympics this summer. If Bogut was the only thing to go wrong for the Warriors last month, they would be back-to-back champs, they would be the undisputed Greatest Team of All Time, and Bogut himself might still be a Warrior and not a Dallas Maverick, but sometimes the injury to a role player can reveal exactly how fragile the ecosystem of a basketball team really is. Was Kendrick Perkins the most important player on the New Big Three Era Celtics? Of course not, but when he got hurt in the 2010 Finals, it was all over for the Celtics, and the following year when Danny Ainge traded him to the Thunder, the Miami Heat were finally able to beat the Celtics. The Warriors were exposed. LeBron figured them out, and willed Cleveland to a long awaited Title. I’ve never been a huge LeBron fan, and I’ve always said I’d rather see the Browns or (more likely) the Indians be the ones to end Cleveland’s title drought, but I came away from the 2016 Finals impressed. This guy has lived up to as much hype as anyone who was compared to Michael Jordan while still in high school possibly could.
While the Pats took a while to redeem their lost championship, and in the year that followed became the first team since the 1980s to go 11-5 or better and miss the playoffs after Brady hurt his knee, the Warriors are going all in for 2016-17. The spike in the salary cap allowed for them to replace Harrison Barnes with Kevin Durant, and now a team that had three of the league’s best 15 players has four of them. Instead of playing it safe, they put the target on their backs and made the next season all about pursuing immortality all over again. Will they win 74 games this time? Will they get to 75 or 76? Will they sweep the playoffs? Will Steph Curry be okay with the Warriors bringing another MVP winner in his prime? Can Steve Kerr get his four superstars to play together and for each other? Can the Spurs or Clippers possibly keep pace? Can this team win 80 games in the regular season? What happens if they shatter their own win record and struggle in the Finals or against San Antonio? If they win it all will Durant leave? If they do anything short of winning it all, which would be a colossal disappointment, will Durant leave? This season is so inevitable that to quote the great Kevin Garnett, “ANYTHING’S POSSIBLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” We will see.
About a year and a half ago, I wrote an article for another website about the parity, or lack thereof, in the NBA in comparison to the NFL, NHL, and MLB. My main point was that since 1980, only nine teams had won NBA Titles, less than a third of the franchises in the Association, which was fewer than any other sport. By comparison, there have been 19 different World Series Champions in baseball (and that number has not changed since I wrote that article, as the Boston Red Sox and San Francisco Giants have already won in that span), 16 different Stanley Cup Champions in hockey (and that number will not change this year, as the Los Angeles Kings won their second Cup in 2014, and the New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Anaheim Ducks, and Chicago Blackhawks have all won the Cup in the last 35 years), and 15 different Super Bowl Champions (but now it’s up to 16 after the Seattle Seahawks won their first Super Bowl in 2014). After I wrote that article, we got a sequel to the 2013 NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs, but with a very different result. In 2015, there is new blood in the NBA Finals, sort of.
As far as the television entertainment value is concerned, the 2015 NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors is a refreshing change of pace purely for the fact that our eyeballs will be watching different colored jerseys in June. It’s also refreshing because we will finally have a new champion that does not come from the Basketball Establishment, the nine franchises that have owned the last 35 years collectively. I’m a lifelong Boston Celtics fan, and I’m more than okay with the Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers, Dallas Mavericks, and Miami Heat all sitting this one out. In fact, of those teams, only the Moreyball Houston Rockets were the only ones to even make the Conference Finals. The Golden State Warriors have not won a championship or even been to The Finals since 1975. Rick Barry was their star player, Gerald Ford was President, and the world was still a few months away from Carlton Fisk’s legendary home run and the debut of Saturday Night Live. The Cleveland Cavaliers have never won a championship, and the city of Cleveland has not won a title in any of the four major sports since 1964, when the Cleveland Browns won the NFL Championship in the Pre-Super Bowl Era. The state of Ohio has not won a championship in a major professional sport since the Cincinnati Reds won the 1990 World Series. These are two title-starved fanbases.
Despite the new blood in the 2015 Finals, the DNA of the two teams that competed in 2013 and 2014 are clearly smeared all over this year’s championship series. The obvious example is LeBron James. Early in his career, LeBron made it to one NBA Finals in 2007 with the Cavs, but they did not belong in the same league as that San Antonio Spurs team. After ripping the still beating heart out of the city of Cleveland in the summer of 2010, LeBron went to the NBA Finals four straight years with the Miami Heat, after joining forces with Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, and Pat Riley. The level of competition in the Eastern Conference declined so greatly in that time due to the Celtics getting old (then getting very young), the Bulls and Pacers being cursed with devastating injuries, and teams like the Knicks, Nets, and Pistons being unable to get out of their own way in rebuilding attempts, Cleveland turned into the instant favorite to win the East despite missing the playoffs each of the four years LeBron was in South Beach when they re-signed him last summer.
Much the way the Cavaliers are a replica of the 2010-14 Heat, the Warriors emulate the San Antonio Spurs. Their game is predicated on depth, defense, and ball movement (they should look into getting that trademarked), and their head coach, Steve Kerr is a disciple of Gregg Popovich, having played for San Antonio in the early 2000s. Last summer, Kerr was the most coveted head coaching candidate despite having never coached before, and it’s clear why now. He ultimately chose the Warriors over the New York Knicks, and that looks like a no-brainer in hindsight as well. The Knicks, with Phil Jackson (an all time great coach, but a rookie executive who will turn 70 in September) running the team from the other side of the country where he lives with his fiance, who happens to be the owner of the Lakers, instead hired Derek Fisher, who like Kerr, has no coaching experience, but unlike Kerr, was playing in the Western Conference Finals for Oklahoma City this time last year and has not had the time to get proper perspective. New York was awful this year, but lost in the lottery, much the way Golden State did years ago in the first modern draft lottery when the Knicks came away with some guy named Patrick Ewing. This time, Golden State won the Steve Kerr lottery and are playing for their first NBA Title in 40 years, while New York is left with bad contracts and the dilemma of what to do with the 4th overall pick in the draft. Clearly, Kerr went to the Harrison Ford School of Choosing rather than the rival decision execution educational institution named for Julian Glover.
This Cleveland team has the same flaw every LeBron James team outside of the 2012 and 2013 Heat teams and the 2008 and 2012 USA Olympic teams has had: what is Plan B when LeBron is hurt/tired/effectively guarded? Sure, there’s Kyrie Irving, who can provide a ton of offense all by himself, but when playing against more balanced rosters that can distribute and contribute from three or four positions at any time, LeBron feels like he has to do everything himself. Kyrie Irving isn’t Dwayne Wade, and he isn’t Chris Bosh. Kevin Love was supposed to be in the picture as a third star, and they traded a budding superstar in Andrew Wiggins to get him, but Love got hurt in Game 4 of the first playoff round against the Celtics. With Love potentially leaving in free agency this summer, this has the potential to be one of those moves that really hurts in the long run. Much like when the Detroit Pistons took Darko Milicic with the 2nd pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, even if you win it all this year, with or without him, it’s hard to shake the feelings of what might have been had you not left someone like Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, or Dwayne Wade on the table. At least they have LeBron.
Last year’s NBA Finals started off competitive, but after LeBron cramped up in the first game, the Spurs took more and more control of the series, and the Heat limped their way through five games, physically and mentally drained from by the smart, unselfish dominance of the Spurs. Team basketball has been LeBron’s Kryptonite his whole career. I know that sounds harsh, but a big part of it is because he’s very rarely had a good team around him. He was drafted by Cleveland, a franchise with a very limited history of basketball success before his arrival in 2003. He didn’t grow up in a basketball culture like the Celtics or Spurs where there were other young stars that could be considered peers, so he was used to having to do everything himself. It wasn’t until his Miami stint when he had Wade and Bosh to play with that he ever had anything like “Big Three” to be a part of. In 2014, Wade and Bosh appeared to have lost a step, and once again it was LeBron vs. The World. That was good enough to get out of the flawed Eastern Conference, where their stiffest competition was an Indiana Pacers team on the verge of losing Lance Stephenson in free agency and struggling to find a consistent identity on the court, but reality hit when he ran into the Beautiful Game that is San Antonio Spurs basketball. The way to beat a team that has the best player on the planet, is by having five guys who can pass, who can play defense, and who can make each other better. San Antonio game LeBron more than he could handle in 2007, then it was the New Big Three Era Celtics and Stan Van Gundy’s Orlando Magic that gave him fits to the point where he left his native Ohio to join forces with two other All-Stars in the prime of his career. Even his first year in Miami, the Dallas Mavericks, a team of aging veterans, outworked the Heat on the floor while Rick Carlisle coached circles around Erik Spoelstra. In 2012 and 2013, LeBron was just that good. No team could beat him. The Spurs came the closest, but LeBron was the best whenever the Heat needed him to be those years. In 2014, it looked once again like LeBron didn’t have a team in Miami worthy of his greatness, and he went back home.
There are superstars who do it all themselves because they have to, and superstars who do it all themselves because they are selfish. It’s not always easy to see the difference. In hindsight, it’s fair to say that Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing never had teammates on the level of Scottie Pippin, James Worthy, Kevin McHale, or Robert Parish. Michael Jordan had Pippin, and Kobe Bryant had Shaq (and later Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum), but they still wanted to be the ones being the heroes in the end, and often that was the right call for the team. It’s unclear which camp LeBron truly belongs in, but I would like to see if he’s capable of becoming the third kind of superstar: the one who makes everyone around him better. This is the most intriguing kind of player to me, as an observer. Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Steve Nash, and Tim Duncan are the purest examples. They all played with more Hall of Famers than the selfish superstars because they made their teammates, who were good players, into Hall of Famers by winning as much as they did. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett made each other better when they joined forces in Boston, and now they’re working to make young players like John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Andrew Wiggins better with their new teams. Could LeBron join forces with another player and make themselves better? It’s hard to improve on what LeBron can do by himself, but it would be interesting to see if he ever had a teammate who could go toe-to-toe with him both athletically and intellectually.
The Golden State Warriors are built around one of these unselfish superstars. Stephen Curry is one of my favorite players in the game right now, and I’m glad to see he’s finally reaching the level I thought he could. When the Warriors picked him in 2009, he looked more like someone who should be going to his 8th grade graduation than someone getting selected in the NBA Draft, which may have been why Hasheem Thabeet, Ricky Rubio, and Jonny Flynn were drafted ahead of him (seriously, the Minnesota Timberwolves had the 5th and 6th picks in that draft, they used them both on point guards, and neither one was Steph Curry) despite being the leading scorer in college basketball that year, but he might be the best player to come out of that draft (I’ve joked about the busts, but that was also the draft where Blake Griffin went 1st and James Harden went 3rd, so it wasn’t all bad) when it’s all said and done. He’s the best shooter in the NBA, and his running of the Golden State offense makes Klay Thompson, Andrew Bogut, Draymond Green, and Harrison Barnes better players than they would be by themselves. Steve Nash would be proud. The NBA wasn’t quite ready for this kind of team when he was in his prime and turned the Phoenix Suns into this kind of team, but the season Curry has had is validation of Nash’s style.
Golden State is a joy to watch, and LeBron James is amazing to watch by himself. He’s now in The Finals for the fifth straight year, and the same question lingers: can he be better by himself than the best team in the NBA? If he can, then Cleveland will have won something for the first time since the Johnson Administration. If not, it is a victory for team basketball, a victory for the legacy of Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, a victory for up-tempo jump shooting philosophies, and a victory for a passionate and dedicated group of basketball fans who have not had much to cheer about in a long time.It should be fun, and it should be different from what we’ve seen the last few years, but not as different as you’d think.
It was fun while it lasted, but it was really sad to see how the 2014-15 season unfolded for the Portland Trail Blazers. Almost overnight, they transformed into a title contender after years of mediocrity, but their fall back to earth was as fast as their rise. A year removed from Damian Lillard’s Game 6 buzzer-beater against the Houston Rockets, their season ended in the form of a five game rout at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies, and the path ahead for the Blazers appears to be as clear as mud.
Maybe we overrated them. Maybe they were never as good as we thought. I wanted to see Portland become a powerhouse, and after their appearance on Portlandia (Blazers owner Paul Allen and general manager Neil Olshey were also featured in sketches from that episode), they were the suddenly coolest team in the NBA outside of the work of art that is the San Antonio Spurs. They had a lot of great personalities from the fearless little point guard that could in Lillard, to the perennially underrated veteran superstar LaMarcus Aldridge (Seriously, this guy hasn’t been talked about enough until recently in the discussion for best forwards in the NBA. It is tough that he plays in the same era as LeBron James, Tim Duincan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, and Anthony Davis.), to Robin Lopez, who looks like Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez’ evil twin because he his(I don’t know that he’s literally evil, but the fact that he let his hair go all Sideshow Bob on us while Brook kept his tight makes me suspicious), to tough guy Wesley Matthews. Also, they have great fans. One thing the NBA has really gotten right over the years has been putting teams in cities that are that don’t have a major league team in football, hockey, or baseball, which breeds a rabid fanbase like you see at the collegiate level or like the following hockey has in Canada. Portland is one of those cities just like San Antonio, Oklahoma City (sorry, Seattle), Memphis, Salt Lake City, and Sacramento, and Blazers fans, along with Portlandia has made me want to live there at some point. At the trade deadline, the Trail Blazers added shooting guard Arron Afflalo from the Denver Nuggets, a former UCLA standout so good that Kendrick Lamar he’s mentioned and praised in a Kendrick Lamar song, and they appeared poised for a deep playoff run. Then Matthews got hurt.
The injury to Wesley Matthews exposed just how vulnerable any NBA team is to collapse. The Blazers were a tight knit roster, artfully constructed with players in their prime (aside from Lillard, who still has a high ceiling, but his defensive shortcomings currently hold the 24 year old back from true super-stardom. They have an experienced coach in Terry Stotts, who won a championship as an assistant under Rick Carlisle in Dallas, and who has implemented a great offense in Portland. All of that is great, but the injury to Matthews, one of those hard working Marquette basketball players like Jae Crowder or Kenneth Faried, was a huge loss. Matthews was the tough guy that helped the skill guys shine, like what David West does for Indiana or Draymond Green does for Golden State.
The 2015 Trail Blazer are hardly the first championship contender to have a season and possibly a legacy derailed by injuries, and they certainly won’t be the last. My Celtics won a title in 2008 (the only one of their 17 that happened in my lifetime), had an even hotter start in 2008-09 before Kevin Garnett wrecked his knee and fell in seven games to the Dwight Howard and Stan Van Gundy-led Orlando Magic in the conference semifinals, came back older and slower the following year, but made the 2010 NBA Finals anyway before a knee injury to Kendrick Perkins in Game 6 left them with no answer for Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum. In 2011, they traded Perkins away, and had to rely on Shaq’s pushing 40 year old body, which inevitably did not hold up. In 2012, it was young Avery Bradley whose injury combined with LeBron’s arrival as a champion that derailed their last attempt at the illusive second title for that Celtics team. In the summer of 2012, Ray Allen signed with the Miami Heat, and the era was over. In Portland’s own history, injuries to Bill Walton, and more recently Greg Oden (who was drafted #1 overall, ahead of Kevin Durant in 2007) and Brandon Roy (drafted #6 overall in 2006, the same year the Trail Blazers also picked LaMarcus Aldridge at #2) have left fans and pundits alike wondering what might have been. I’m sure Blazers fans would love for a run like what the Celtics enjoyed, or even one like the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are in danger of losing Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to free agency, injury, or both, have had, but their window with this roster appears to be even smaller than it was even a couple of months ago. It’s amazing and frightening how quickly things can change.
The dark cloud looming over Portland’s summer is the impending free agency of LaMarcus Aldridge. LMA has the feel of a franchise superstar, and before a couple months ago, he was a consensus favorite to play in Portland for the rest of his career and retire as a Blazer.This is a franchise that has had a lot of talented players go through the organization, but few, if any stayed there forever, much like the Atlanta Braves. Even Hall of Famers Bill Walton (who was the MVP of the 1977 NBA Finals, Portland’s only championship) and Clyde Drexler (who helped bring Portland to the NBA Finals before losing to some guy named Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls) eventually found greener championship pastures in Boston and Houston. People had hoped that Aldridge would be the Trail Blazers’ Chipper Jones in that regard, but the way this season ended makes it a lot harder for Portland to bring him back. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and even Hank Aaron played for other teams, but Chipper was only ever a Brave. Bill Simmons wrote in one of his recent mailbag columns that Aldridge could stay in Portland out of loyalty, but as he enters his second decade in the NBA, it likely wouldn’t be the best basketball decision for a good to very good player who needs a ring to be remembered as a great player.
There are homecoming options for the Texas native if he signs with the Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs, or Houston Rockets. Dallas has an aging superstar in Dirk Nowitzki, and a roster in flux after the disaster that was trading for Rajon Rondo this season. They’ve been a consistent contender outside of their lockout-shortened 2012 championship hangover, but in the short term, they do not seem like a better basketball situation than Portland. San Antonio just lost a thrilling seven game series to the Los Angeles Clippers, after winning their fifth title in fifteen years. They have the best coach in the NBA (and the second best to build a franchise around in the history of the game after Red Auerbach, with all due respect to Phil Jackson and Pat Riley) in Gregg Popovich, they’re the only game in town the way the Trail Blazers are in Portland, they have a great mix of young and veteran talent, and he has the chance to be the “next guy” when Tim Duncan eventually retires. The burden of being the next guy is not for everyone. For every Dave Cowens to follow Bill Russell, there are a dozen discouraging examples like the revolving doors at the quarterback position the Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos experienced after Dan Marino and John Elway retired. That’s why the Houston Rockets, who have not won a title since the mid 90s with a completely different roster, and are still looking for a third All-Star caliber player to go with Dwight Howard and James Harden, might be the best place for Aldridge to land. There are also young teams in the East like Boston and Orlando that LMA could make into something exciting.
The future is murky, but it is hard to believe the Trail Blazers will be better next year than they were the last two. We will see, but there isn’t much to feel good about in Portland right now if you’re a basketball fan.
When LeBron James infamously “took his talents to South Beach” in the summer of 2010, it was the biggest sports story of the year (in a year with Tiger Woods’ sex scandal and the Giants’ first World Series victory since moving to San Francisco more that half a century earlier, no less) for all the wrong reasons. When LeBron James decided to back the the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team that drafted him and played in his home state of Ohio, in the summer of 2014, it was the biggest sports story of the year for all the right reasons. James is still the best player on the planet, as he was four years ago, but now he has two championship rings, two more MVP awards, and has grown up immensely since ripping Cleveland’s collective heart out on ESPN the way he did. This changes everything.
When LeBron did The Decision, it set a bad precedent for the NBA. Small markets like Cleveland had a short windows to win championships because star players would just leave when they hit free agency. If LeBron, a native of Akron, Ohio, wouldn’t stay in Cleveland, who would? During LeBron’s four years in Miami, the Cavs never made the playoffs, and earned the #1 overall pick three times. LeBron is now returning home, but there is more talent on the roster now than when he left it. He can be the veteran leadership the Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins need, but those guys are good enough that he won’t have to do it all on his own. It’s about time things started to look up for Cleveland.
Even before LeBron went to Miami, Cleveland was a sports punchline in this country. They have not won a championship in any sport since the Browns were NFL Champions (before the Super Bowl Era) in 1964. The Indians last won the World Series in 1947, and the Cavaliers have never won it all. Bill Simmons popularized the phrase “God hates Cleveland” in his columns, and not even the futility of the Chicago Cubs or the Buffalo Bills could top the city of Cleveland. The only time the Cavs got close was in 2007 when a much younger LeBron James took a Cavs team that had no business being there to the NBA Finals, only to get swept by the San Antonio Spurs, the most dominant and most complete team of the current NBA era.
A big part of why LeBron left wasn’t just because the weather was warmer and the taxes were lower in Florida, but in Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, James would have the opportunity to play with consistent All-Stat caliber players for the first time in his career. Basketball stars may have the most impact on a team’s success than individual players in any other sport (including quarterbacks in football, but with the possible exception of hockey goalies in certain cases), but even the biggest stars can’t do it alone. It’s still a team game. Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippin, and later Dennis Rodman. Magic Johnson had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. Larry Bird had Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Nate “Tiny” Archibald, Dennis Johnson, and Bill Walton as Hall of Fame teammates on championship squads. Tim Duncan had David Robinson, currently has Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, and Patty Mills and 2014 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard could very well be in the early stages of Hall of Fame careers as well. LeBron had no one like that in Cleveland for his first seven NBA seasons. The Cavs were one of the most poorly run organizations in basketball who got bailed out by their superstar every year to save face, and I’m still shocked that ex-Cavaliers GM Danny Ferry ever got another front office job (sorry, Atlanta Hawks fans).
Now, LeBron is coming back to make things right. He’s showing the kids of northeast Ohio that it’s not just a place to leave and never come back. He’s finishing what he started where it all began. Nothing like this has ever happened before in basketball, and I’ve been struggling to to find a comparable situation in the other sports. I superstar leaves in free agency, but goes back to the same small market where he started out while he’s still in his prime? The never happens. I’m also thrilled that he’s leaving Miami as much as I’m thrilled he’s returning to Cleveland. For four years the Heat acted like they were this innovative basketball powerhouse with a proud history because of their current success. That team could have happened anywhere, but Dwayne Wade was already in Miami, and he got James and Bosh to join him. Also, their fans were really lame. What kind of hard core fan base leaves early in an NBA Finals game when the team is down by five points, only to have Ray Allen drain a three to force overtime in front of a half-empty arena. Cleveland may not be a basketball town the way Boston or New York or Los Angeles or San Antonio is, but they’re still great fans. They keep showing up for the Browns every year. That takes dedication. LeBron is one of the ten best players in NBA history on anyone’s list, and the Cleveland fans will appreciate him more than Miami ever could.
More than anything else, the Re-Decision has fundamentally changed the way I view LeBron James. I can’t think of an athlete as established as LeBron having public opinion sway this much this late in their career for the better. Usually when there is a change of opinion this dynamic, it’s something like Lance Armstrong’s doping downfall or O.J. Simpson’s murder trial or Pete Rose’s gambling revelations, but this time LeBron changed the narrative on us, and it’s a good thing. The King is coming home, and we are all witness.