Tagged: Phil Jackson

Dolan and Jackson Deserved Each Other, Knicks Fans Deserve Better

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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. 

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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.

What’s next for the NBA?

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.

Trail Blazers at a Crossroads

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.

No Love Lost

I spent all of the 2013-14 basketball season thinking the Boston Celtics were poised to make a big splash this summer. It was a strange season, the first since 2006-07 that the C’s weren’t a playoff team, let alone a legitimate championship contender, and I thought it wouldn’t be long before they would be back in the mix. Instead, they fell to #6 in the draft lottery, and did not have enough assets to acquire Kevin Love from the Minnesota Timberwolves, who was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers this week in exchange for 2014 #1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins and 2013 #1 overall pick Anthony Bennett. It might be a while before the Celtics can compete with Cleveland, Chicago, and the best teams of the West again, but it’s not all bad.

There were no fireworks this summer in the way that Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck had hoped for during the season, but there were quite a few mildly exciting things that happened for the team. First off, the Celtics unveiled a new alternate logo, pictured in the top left corner of this article.

The green and white reminds me of the older version of the leprechaun logo that the Celtics used in the Larry Bird Era, and isn’t as busy as the newer one that debuted around the same time the team hired Rick Pitino in the mid-90s. Here are the two logos side by side:

The new logo is a sleeker, cleaner take on the classic Lucky the Leprechaun design that was first drawn up by Red Auerbach’s brother. It looks a little a lot cartoonish, and I’m thinking of referring to it as the “Bugs Bunny Celtics Logo” in future blog posts, but many of the best logos in sports are shamelessly cartoonish. That’s another article for another day.

The other big uniform change the Celtics are making this year is that the road green jerseys will now say “BOSTON” instead of “CELTICS” like they did back in the 50s and early 60s.

Again, I’m a big fan of the change. The Celtics have the best uniforms in the NBA in my opinion, and the great thing about that organization is that if they ever want to retool their look, they can just borrow from the past. Many teams in all four sports continue to change their color schemes and completely overhaul their logos, but the Celtics will never need to do that. Their identity is secure.

Another exciting thing to happen off the court for the Celtics this summer was Brian Scalabrine’s homecoming announcement. While the parody of LeBron James’ Sports Illustrated article is funny enough in and of itself, the fact that White Mamba is returning to the Celtics is welcome news. Scal belongs in Boston. Even if he’s just a broadcaster (and filling the shoes of Celtics legend and color commentator Tommy “That is bogus!!!” Heinsohn during road games) for CSSNE, it’s great to see him as part of the Celtics family once again.

Scalabrine was a fan favorite during the New Big Three Era where he carved out a role as the big redheaded guy in the huddle and the last guy on the bench, draining threes in games that Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett had already put away. After the C’s devastating seven game defeat at the hands of the Lakers in 2010, Scal signed with the Chicago Bulls, joining former Celtics assistant coach Tom Thibodeau, who had been hired as Chicago’s new head coach. He played a couple more seasons in the same role he had in Boston, but in a show that starred Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah instead of Pierce, Allen, and KG. This past season, he served as an assistant coach under Mark Jackson for the Golden State Warriors, but was reassigned towards the end of the season. After another early playoff exit, the Warriors fired Jackson and overhauled the basketball operation for the new coach Steve Kerr.

When it became apparent that Scalabrine would be looking for work, and that the Celtics might not be able to accomplish as much as they were hoping this summer, the guys from the Toucher and Rich show on 98.5 The Sports Hub decided to write a song to raise awareness and get Danny Ainge’s attention. Whether that song helped the cause or not, Brian Scalabrine is a Celtic again, and the world is better for it.

As for the changes the Celtics have made on the court, I think they drafted as well as they could with the #6 and #17 picks, acquiring Marcus Smart from Oklahoma State and James Young from Kentucky. They also signed former #2 overall pick Evan Turner, who played for the Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers last season. Those are three young players who still have plenty of upside. It will be interesting to see who stays in the Celtics’ long term plans among the “gluttony of guards” as Cedric Maxwell called on the night of the NBA Draft. Between Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley (who signed a four year deal this summer to stay in Boston), Smart, Young, Turner, and Phil Pressey, that’s a lot of small talent.

The Celtics still have Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger, Jeff Green, and Brandon Bass coming back for forwards, as well. Sullinger showed us a lot in his second year, after being limited by a season ending back injury and the limited amount of minutes Doc Rivers gave to young players as a rookie. Olynyk had a strong finish to his rookie season, finding a bit of a scoring touch by season’s end, and hopefully he can build upon that in 2014-15. Head coach Brad Stevens has a better roster to work with than he did his first year with the Celtics, and now the questions surrounding the Celtics should be less about draft position and more about playoff position.

The Eastern Conference is not very good. There is a reason the Miami Heat represented the East in the NBA Finals four straight years, and it’s not just because of LeBron James. There are a couple of very good teams. The past couple years, it was the Heat and the Indiana Pacers, but with LeBron’s return to Cleveland, and Indiana’s loss of Lance Stephenson in free agency to the Charlotte Hornets (yes, they’re the Hornets again!) and the loss of Paul George to a devastating injury in a meaningless game, it’ll be different teams this time around, in all likelihood.

The Chicago Bulls look poised to take the East by storm, with a healthy Derrick Rose coming back, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in the form of Joakim Noah, and the signing of veteran star Pau Gasol. The Washington Wizards, having signed free agent ex-Celtics Kris Humphries and Paul Pierce to go with a pretty good young core headlined by John Wall and Bradley Beal, could be another legit contender from the East, but after that, it’s wide open…especially in the Atlantic Division.

The biggest thing to be excited about with the Celtics is the fact that they play in an absolutely terrible division. Here’s a quick recap of who the C’s are up against for 1st place in the Atlantic and an automatic playoff berth:

The Toronto Raptors finally broke through and made the playoffs last year, but lost to the Brooklyn Nets in the first round. They were the beneficiaries of being in a weak division in a year with six or seven highly intriguing draft prospects, so they won the division by default.

The Brooklyn Nets went all in for the 2013-14 season, but came up way short against Miami in Round 2, and lost their head coach (and perhaps the best player to wear a Nets uniform besides Dr. J), Jason Kidd, when he tried to usurp his own general manager before interviewing for the Milwaukee Bucks’ head coaching job when the position was still filled. Now Kevin Garnett is a year older, and Paul Pierce has taken his talents to the nation’s capital. What a mess

The New York Knicks are the New York Knicks, and not even Phil Jackson can change that. They’re going to keep trying to do their thing, and they’re going to hold out hope that the bright lights of New York and the mystique of Madison Square Garden and the star power of Carmelo Anthony will be enough to lure Kevin Durant to them. As always, they’re the Knicks, so they’ll find a way (or multiple ways) to mess that up.

The Philadelphia 76ers are blatantly tanking for a top five pick in the NBA Draft…again. This is their new thing: lose as much as possible, draft a guy who is hurt and won’t be able to play for a year (Nerlens Noel in 2013, Joel Embiid in 2014), lose some more, get another high pick, and repeat the process until the entire roster is loaded with potential. Wake me up when they start trying.

With Coach Stevens, and the assemblage of talent already on the roster, the Celtics have as good a chance as anyone to make the playoffs. Once they’re there, the probably won’t win it all, but they can at least make it interesting. In Adam Silver’s NBA, the playoffs have already become less formulaic than they were for 30 years under David Stern, and maybe, just maybe, anything is possible. ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! We’ll just have to wait and see what that anything will be.

Rematch Time

The NBA playoffs have been intriguing and exciting this year, but we’re still down to the last two teams who were the last two teams last year.The Miami Heat look to three-peat while the San Antonio Spurs look for their fifth championship in franchise history, and their fifth championship since drafting Tim Duncan with the #1 overall pick in 1997. As close as last year’s NBA Finals was, this one should be a real thriller.

The NBA is changing. A year ago, David Stern was still in charge of the NBA and Donald Sterling was still the old racist bigot who controls the Los Angeles Clippers. Now Adam Silver has replaced Stern, and Silver has run Sterling out of the NBA, with retired Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer set to buy the Clippers, but this year’s Finals remains eerily similar to the one from last year. The same storylines apply. The Heat are defending champions, and the Spurs are turning back the clocks. People have been saying that Tim Duncan is too old to carry a team to a title since 2008, but he’s in position to do it again. Coach Pop has been great at getting San Antonio to play smart fundamental basketball, and it starts with their star big man.

For the Heat, the chance at a three-peat can shut critics up once and for all. Sure, the leaguewide competition flattened when LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh teamed up in South Beach in the summer of 2010, but to their credit, they’ve executed on their end when it mattered. You might not like what they did, and you may think it has made the NBA less interesting (I certainly do), but it’s still impressive. It will be interesting to see how long they can sustain this level of success with younger star players knocking at the door and the level of competition finally starting to rise again in the NBA. Kobe and Shaq have a three-peat on their resume with the Los Angeles Lakers. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippin have two separate three-peats on theirs with the Chicago Bulls. Phil Jackson has three three-peats as coach of the Lakers and Bulls, and would have had another if it weren’t for those meddling Celtics in 2008. This is the chance for LeBron, Wade, and Bosh to join that elite company.

Duncan and the Spurs have never been repeat champions, but their legacies also have the chance to go from great to epic with a win in the 2014 Finals. Five titles would give Duncan as many as Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant and more than Shaq or Larry Bird. The last time Duncan won a championship was in 2007, in a four game sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers and some kid named LeBron James. That was the first time LeBron fell short in the playoffs. The older generation of NBA superstars: Duncan, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and Dirk Nowitzki, were the obstacles in the road on LeBron”s way to becoming the best player in basketball. It seems now that everyone else is either too young or too old to match LeBron right now, but Duncan wants to prove me wrong, I’m sure. Personally, I would love to see him do it, and he has the best chance of anyone to unseat the Miami Heat.

Pop is Human, Too

There was a cool sports moment over the weekend during the first round of the NBA playoffs. In a game between the in-state rival Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich was interviewed in the middle of the game, as he often is. Popovich has a well documented history of messing with and being terse with flamboyantly dressed TNT sideline reporter Craig Sager. Sager, who missed the game after it was announced that he had leukemia, was replaced by his son Craig Sager Jr. Sager Jr was not as brightly dressed as his father normally is, but he stepped in to ask the tough questions and he got this response from Coach Pop.

This was a nice thing to see from a guy that’s normally short with the media. Popovich more than Phil Jackson is this generation’s Red Auerbach, in that he’s stayed with one team and developed a system that wins consistently without following the next superstar around. Like Red, he doesn’t really care what the media writes about him, and he must be really aggravating for sportswriters in San Antonio, who only have the one major professional team. He’s basketball’s answer to Bill Belichick or John Tortorella. Those guys are so short with the media that it’s become a game outside of the actual games. This weekend, we saw a different side of Coach Pop. Sager has been his nemesis for years, but he realizes the games won’t be the same without him. He didn’t have to take a live interview in the middle of a playoff game if he didn’t want to, and he did anyway. There is a lot to like about the way the Spurs play the game of basketball, and now there’s reason to like the coach if you didn’t before.

The Spurs find themselves in a position similar to the Boston Bruins in hockey. They were very close to winning it all in 2013, and feel like they left a championship banner on the table, but instead of wallowing in self-pity and having a hangover season, like the New Jersey Devils did last year, or the Vancouver Canucks the year before, they played with a heightened sense of determination people didn’t realize they had. Both the Bruins and the Spurs are the top teams heading into the playoffs, and the playoffs were the only thing they were thinking about in the regular season. Coach Pop, Tim Duncan, and the Spurs are looking for their fifth NBA Title, after they were so close to upsetting LeBron James and the Miami Heat last June, until Ray Allen hit maybe the biggest three point shot of his Hall of Fame career, while the Bruins are looking for their franchise’s seventh Stanley Cup championship. Now we get to sit back and see how it all plays out. Hopefully Sager makes a recovery and will be back on the sidelines soon as well.

The Complicated Legacy of David Stern

Today, David Stern is retiring from his job as the commissioner of the National Basketball Association after 30 years on the job. Stern is leaving the NBA in a much better position than he found it, and he has done more to grow the game of basketball than any of the other three current league commissioners have for their respective sports, but David Stern’s NBA has a lot of room for improvement.

For one thing, this graphic from a game the other night does a great job of quantifying Stern’s impact on the NBA. The games were aired in two countries in 1984 (U.S. and Canada, I’m assuming) while they can be seen in 215 countries today. Under David Stern, the NBA has passed the NHL and MLB to become the second most popular professional sports league after the NFL, and the game of basketball has given soccer a legitimate run for its money internationally. He took a league with a serious drug problem and image problem and has transformed it into one with more marketable stars than any other. Larry Bird. Magic Johnson. Michael Jordan. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kevin McHale. Robert Parish. James Worthy. Julius Erving. Scottie Pippin. Isiah Thomas. Clyde Drexler. Charles Barkley. Karl Malone. John Stockton. Hakeem Olajuwon. Patrick Ewing. Kobe Bryant. Shaquille O’Neal. Gary Payton. Reggie Miller. David Robinson. Tim Duncan. Chris Webber. Dirk Nowitzki. Steve Nash. Paul Pierce. Kevin Garnett. Ray Allen. Jason Kidd. LeBron James. Dwayne Wade. Carmelo Anthony. Yao Ming. Pau Gasol. Dwight Howard. Kevin Durant. Russell Westbrook. James Harden. Kevin Love. Steph Curry. And the list goes on. On one hand, he caught lightning in a bottle when he inherited the Magic Johnson/Larry Bird rivalry, which had already revived college hoops and was about to created a showdown for the ages with the 1984 Finals, but Stern deserves a lot of credit for keeping that momentum going for three decades.

Allowing NBA players to participate in the Olympics is perhaps the biggest factor in growing the game. The 1992 USA “Dream Team” is the greatest basketball roster ever assembled, and their dominance in Barcelona inspired a generation of international stars. In the 2012 Olympics, the United States still won Olympic Gold, but the competition was much stiffer because basketball has grown so much in countries like Spain, Germany, France, Argentina, and Turkey.

The NBA’s star power is also part of the NBA’s flaw. Too much emphasis is placed on the achievements of the individual in what is supposed to be a team game. David Stern’s NBA is a league where star players get the benefit of the doubt from referees, because an awesome dunk won’t get played on SportsCenter if he gets called for traveling while driving to the hoop. If star players foul out, they won’t be able to make it exciting at the end. The disparity between the stars and the guys who have to work hard to get the last spot on the bench is greater in the NBA than it is in every other sport. Months after becoming commissioner, he got his first conspiracy theory in the 1984 NBA Finals. Larry Bird told Dan Shaughnessy of The Boston Globe that David Stern wanted a Game 7, so the officials called Game 6 in the Lakers’ favor. That’s a pretty harsh accusation, and Stern would later develop a reputation for fining player and coaches who question the integrity of the officiating (which happens all the time), but Larry Legend was never fined for those comments.

The C’s ended up winning Game 7, but David Stern’s NBA has gone on to have more conspiracy theories than the NFL, NHL, and MLB combined. In the 2010 playoffs, the officiating was awful. The NBA was still only a few years removed from a serious betting scandal involving a referee, and it seemed that every other day, Phil Jackson, Doc Rivers, and Stan Van Gundy, the three best coaches in the tournament, were getting fined for second guessing the officiating. It seemed like Stern and the NBA had something to hide. The other three leagues have their flaws, but sometimes it seems like the NBA is trying to be more like pro wrestling than a real sport. At least pro wrestling is honest about what the product is, and not trying to be a legitimate sports league.

Less than a third of the teams in the NBA won championships in the 30 years Stern was at the helm. The other three leagues have all had at least half their teams win in that same time span. It’s become a league where you need at least two or three Hall of Fame caliber superstars to win a title, and those guys don’t grow on trees. Every year, there are maybe five or six teams with a real chance to win it all. Those odds make it hard to stay interested in basketball. Even in Boston, where the Celtics had been a contender for the last six years, fans saw the Bruins and Red Sox build championship teams and the Patriots reach a Super Bowl since the Celtics last reached the Finals in 2010. Rebuilding in the NBA can take decades, and there’s not guaranteed formula for success. I would like to see an NBA with a greater emphasis on the team, a more level playing field, and more exciting competition.

Now it’s Adam Silver’s turn to run the NBA. David Stern did some great things for the league, but it’s time for a new voice for the future. I don’t know much about Adam Silver (in fact, I have to consult Google a lot because I frequently get him confused with Nate Silver), but I’m excited to see what direction the NBA takes in the coming years. David Stern built the NBA into a powerhouse, but now it’s time to legitimize the business.