I did not write about the Isaiah Thomas/Kyrie Irving trade the night the story first broke because I felt too close to it as a fan of Isaiah Thomas. In two and a half seasons, he became the most universally popular Celtics player among casual Boston sports fans–more so than Paul Pierce–since Larry Bird. Personally, I wrote about Isaiah in his relatively brief tenure almost as much as I have about David Ortiz, Tom Brady, and Patrice Bergeron, three titans of the City of Champions era that Boston has been enjoying since February of 2002.
I did not write about the Isaiah Thomas/Kyrie Irving trade in the week that followed, as the teams first acknowledged the trade on their various social media profiles, but then the trade did not get finalized right away. The Cleveland Cavaliers were skeptical of the integrity of Isaiah Thomas’ injured hip (a concern that admittedly did not get talked about enough once the Celtics’ season ended) and asked for more assets to complete the trade. It was not a one-for-one swap of two star point guards to begin with: the Celtics also gave up Jae Crowder, Ante Žižić, and the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 1st round draft pick, the last unrealized asset from the Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett trade to the Nets in 2013. To complete the deal with Cleveland’s concerns about Thomas’ hip, the Celtics also had to add a 2020 2nd round pick from the Miami Heat.
I did not write about the Isaiah Thomas/Kyrie Irving trade after the trade was finalized, and after the Celtics held their introductory press conference with Irving and free agent signing Gordon Hayward. While I understood that it was a huge trade, and objectively a good trade that will help the Celtics in the long run, I was not sure I could bring anything else to the table that had not already been said in the week between when the trade reported and when it became official. That said, I do have quite a few thoughts on the matter, and I have been writing about the Celtics in this space since the days of Pierce, Garnett, Doc Rivers, and Rajon Rondo, and if I never write about it, then why am I writing about basketball at all?
Bill Simmons pointed out on various podcasts that trades like this hardly ever happen. Two conference rivals, the two Eastern Conference finalists from 2017 just swapped point guards. The last time contenders of this caliber traded players of this caliber within the same conference was in 1980 when the Phoenix Suns dealt Paul Westphal to the Seattle SuperSonics for Dennis Johnson. But with the looming threat of LeBron James’ free agency next summer, these were desperate times for Cleveland. And with the looming threat of having to sign a guy under six feet in his late 20s with an injury history to a maximum contract, Boston was acting from a point of desperation in its own right.
I wrote in the spring about my worry that Isaiah would get the Malcolm Butler treatment from the Celtics, and in September, Butler is (for now) still a member of the Patriots, and Isaiah has been dealt. My worry was the Boston Sports Media would use any success in the Eastern Conference Finals after Isaiah went down with his hip injury to take him for granted and put the ball in motion towards running him out of town. I was admittedly emotionally attached to Isaiah, but I really did think he could be one of the three stars on a championship team. I did not think the Celtics would be able to get anything in return comparable to Isaiah, considering the asking prices at the deadline for Paul George and Jimmy Butler, and later, given the returns Indiana and Chicago got for George and Butler when they traded them during the summer. Of course, I thought all of that before I knew Kyrie Irving would be available.
In Irving, the Celtics landed another dynamic point guard who can score at will, but while both are injury-prone, Kyrie is taller and younger. Some have argued that the Celtics were not able to land a player who has proven he can be the best player on a championship team, but the only players who fit that description are LeBon, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and Kawhi Leonard that are still in their prime (sorry, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki), but Kyrie is the next best thing. He performed well in the Finals against Golden State, and even though he already has a ring, seems eager and poised to win outside of LeBron’s shadow.
The Celtics turned over their roster a lot for a team that was just in the Eastern Conference Finals. For some context, the Celtics had six players from the very bad 2006-07 team (Pierce, Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, Brian Scalabrine, Leon Powe, and Tony Allen) that contributed to the 2007-08 championship team, while they now only have four players (Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Jaylen Brown) left from three months ago. For even more context, the Bruins currently have six players (Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci, Brad Marchand, Adam McQuaid, and Tuukka Rask) left form their 2011 Stanley Cup team, and they won the Bruins won the Cup six years ago! Danny Ainge knew the Celtics were still far off from where they wanted to be, and he made the moves he needed to make if they wanted to move forward. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward might not be enough to get past the Warriors, but they have certainly narrowed the gap between them and Cleveland, with Cleveland’s future in jeopardy beyond 2018.
It’s really incredible how quickly Danny Ainge rebuilt the Celtics going out with a whimper against the New York Knicks in 2013. They only went into the lottery once with their own pick, made the two biggest free agent signings in franchise history, and got good returns in trades for Pierce, Garnett, Rondo, and Thomas. While the post-Kobe Lakers continue to toil in the lottery, Ainge reminded everyone that he is one of the best GMs in the game. A decade after bringing Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to Boston, the Celtics have reloaded once again. He made a move I could not have made (and that’s one of a hundred reasons I don’t run the Celtics), and improved the team’s championship odds, and expanded their championship window.
While I have my doubts about how quickly the Celtics will come together early in the season–I would not be surprised if they go through early struggles like the 2010-11 Miami Heat–the long-term future of the team is much brighter and clearer than it was even six months ago. From a local perspective, the NBA season got a lot more interesting.
Brad Stevens got his guy. Stevens and former Utah Jazz small forward and Ryan Gosling lookalike Gordon Hayward have unfinished business from their days together at Butler University, and they intend to finish that business in Boston. The Boston Celtics, in spite of their storied success, have not been a free agent destination for maximum players in their prime at any point in their history, but between acquiring Al Horford last summer and acquiring Hayward this summer, that knock on them no longer exists. It’s also worth noting that white small forwards from Indiana have historically done quite well in Boston, so the future looks bright for the Celtics.
That said, I cannot help but think what it would be like if they had been able to land Kevin Durant along with Horford last year. They went to The Hamptons, they got Tom Brady to sit in on the pitch meeting, but they could not offer what the Golden State Warriors could on the basketball side of things. The guys on the Warriors made financial sacrifices to Steph Curry could get his well deserved payday this summer, and they all wanted to stay in Golden State because they know nothing in their basketball careers will ever be better than what they have right now. The Celtics could not offer that. Durant joined the Warriors when the salary cap spiked, and now the rest of the NBA is paying the price.
In order to sign Hayward, the Celtics had to rescind their offer on Kelly Olynyk, who signed with the Miami Heat, and trade Avery Bradley to the Detroit Pistons for Marcus Morris. Both Olynyk and Bradley were guys the Celtics drafted and developed. Bradley was the last remaining Celtic to be teammates with Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce, and Olynyk went in four years from being the guy that traded up to get in the 2013 NBA Draft when they could have stood pat and taken Giannis Antetokounmpo with their original pick (though to be fair, half the NBA passed on Giannis, and no one knew he would be this good) to a guy who won a Game 7 against the Washington Wizards with the home crowd chanting his name. I understand the business of the NBA, and I realize teams have to make sacrifices to get big name players, but these guys will be missed.
I was a big fan of Bradley’s defense. He arrived in Boston the same summer Tony Allen left for Memphis, and while Allen was one of the NBA’s best defenders during his years with the Grizz, Bradley soon became a player of that caliber. Also, Bradley wore #0, which has been a number associated with fan favorites like Walter McCarty and Leon Powe as long as I’ve been following the Celtics, so he had that going for him.
I was personally hoping Bradley would be on the team when the Celtics make it back to the Finals, as he was drafted days after their last trip to the Finals in 2010, and because there are usually holdovers between great Celtics eras. John Havlicek and Don Nelson won titles with both Bill Russell and Dave Cowens, and Cowens was still on the team when Larry Bird arrived. There was supposed to be a youth movement to revitalize the Celtics as Bird, McHale, and Parish got older led by Len Bias and Reggie Lewis, and that tragically never happened. In theory, Bias and Lewis could have still been on the team when Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce arrived.
When the Celtics traded Rajon Rondo in 2014, Bradley became the longest tenured Celtic, and that was super weird to me because he’s six months younger than I am, and he was still in high school when the Celtics won the title in 2008. With Bradley gone, the longest tenured Celtic is Marcus Smart, who was drafted by the Celtics a solid year after I started this blog. Time is a cruel thing.
I didn’t get into writing about basketball to get headaches trying to make sense of the NBA salary cap, but that is where we are now. The trend had been that the salary cap usually goes up from one year to the next, but with new media deals kicking in, it went way up last year. It was expected to go up slightly or remain stagnant, but the Warriors carved through the West and the Cleveland Cavaliers carved through the East so efficiently, that there were much fewer playoff games, much fewer revenue opportunities this spring, than expected, and the cap actually went down. The Warriors and Cavs were so dominant that their dominance made it tangibly more difficult for the rest of the NBA to catch up to them.
The Bradley trade was a financial move more than a basketball move. To make room to sign Hayward, the Celtics were going to have to move Bradley, or Jae Crowder, or Marcus Smart. While Bradley, when healthy, is the most consistent player of the three, he is also has the most NBA service time of the three, has one year left on his deal, and he is going to get a lot of money if Detroit lets him get to free agency next summer. I thought Crowder was the odd man out, as he plays the same position as Hayward, and was clearly upset when Celtics fans were cheering Hayward when the Jazz came to Boston last season.
Of course, the Celtics are in a much better position to deal with the reality of the salary cap than a lot of teams. They don’t have to worry about their best player leaving town because he (justifiably) hates the owner like the Cavaliers. They are not located in the loaded Western Conference, where nearly every other high-profile free agent signed, and where Jimmy Butler and Paul George landed in trades. They did not spend years building methodically through the draft only to make the playoffs one time, get swept by the Warriors, and lose their best player to free agency like the Jazz. As happy as I am that the Celtics landed Hayward, I cannot help but feel for Jazz fans in all this. I would have been okay with Hayward staying in Utah. I was really just hoping he wouldn’t end up in Miami like LeBron James and Chris Bosh did in 2010.
The Celtics can compete now with Hayward, Horford, and Isaiah Thomas, but the key to advancing beyond the Eastern Conference Finals in the future was not going to be Avery Bradley or Kelly Olynyk or Jae Crowder. 2016 #3 overall pick Jaylen Brown and 2017 #3 overall pick Jayson Tatum are the future, and if Tatum’s Summer League performance so far is any indication, the future is bright.
Since the Boston Celtics won the NBA Draft Lottery a few weeks ago, I had been watching a lot of Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz highlights on YouTube. When Ball refused to work out for the Celtics–and when his father insisted the UCLA point guard would play for the Los Angeles Lakers–I focused much more heavily on Fultz, who had far less video available because he played for a bad Washington team that did not make the NCAA Tournament. What I did see of Fultz, however, was exciting. The kid is a great athlete with a pretty-looking shot and the wingspan of a seven-footer.
With the news that the Celtics have traded the #1 overall pick to the division rival Philadelphia 76ers, my pre-draft video attention will be shifted to Josh Jackson of Kansas, Jayson Tatum of Duke, and De’Aaron Fox of Kentucky. In exchange for the top pick, the Celtics get this year’s #3 pick from the Sixers and either the Lakers’ 2018 pick (if it falls between #2 and #5) or the Sacramento Kings’ 2019 pick (unprotected). While it is underwhelming right now to go from having the top pick, and dreaming of a guy who has been described as a “right handed James Harden,” a “taller, more defensively stout Damian Lillard,” and a “6’4″ Tracy McGrady” as the next great Celtic, it keeps Boston’s options open for years to come, rolling over the window to built through the draft. And again, Danny Ainge is operating from a point of power, and channeling his inner Bill Belichick.
By trading down and allowing the Sixers to draft Fultz, Philadelphia has a Baby Big Three in Fultz, 2016 #1 overall pick Ben Simmons, and 2014 #3 pick (who was the consensus top prospect but fell when he broke his leg days before the draft), and after years of tanking finally appear to be building a team, something Philly fans and NBA fans as a whole have waited far too long to see.
The Sixers were tanking way back when the Celtics were still tanking in 2014. The second round playoff between the Sixers and Celtics, featuring Doug Collins, Jrue Holiday, Andre Igoudala, Elton Brand, Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo may have been in 2012, but it feels like a million years ago, considering how different the two teams have become. After the Sixers traded Igoudala to the Denver Nuggets and acquired Andrew Bynum in the disastrous Dwight Howard Trade, and after Ray Allen signed with the Miami Heat and the Celtics were eliminated in the first round by the only good New York Knicks team of the last 15 years, both teams were headed for a rebuild in the summer of 2013. Collins retired and Holiday was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans, while the Celtics traded Rivers to the Los Angeles Clippers, and traded KG and Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets.
Both teams took the long view in hiring their next coach, with the Sixers hiring longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant Brett Brown, and the Celtics hiring Butler University coaching wunderkind Brad Stevens. Both teams spent the 2013-14 season vying for top position in the Draft Lottery, only for the Cleveland Cavaliers to land the #1 pick as well as the ultimate lottery by convincing LeBron James to come home. This is where the similarities between the Sixers’ rebuild and the Celtics’ rebuild end.
Philadelphia drafted Joel Embiid and Dario Saric in the 1st round of the 2014 Draft, but neither played in an NBA game until 2016. Former 76ers GM Sam Hinkie called it “The Process:” the method of drafting high-upside prospects, even if they will miss years due to injury or due to playing in Europe, and keeping the present-day 76ers team as bad as possible, staying in the lottery and increasing the chance of landing a franchise-changing superstar.
The Celtics, meanwhile, drafted Marcus Smart with the #6 pick in 2014, and continued to incrementally build their team. In 2015 and 2016, they made the playoffs, and in 2017, made the Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics had their own version of The Process, but it was built on Brooklyn tanking for them, free to compete within the conference at the same time.
While it makes me nervous, on one hand, to trade the top pick and a potential superstar to a team in the division, I’m not about to doubt Danny Ainge. He did, after all, trade my two favorite Celtics of all time to division rival Brooklyn, and that turned out pretty well. While Embiid, Simmons, and Fultz are loaded with tantalizing potential, they also haven’t done anything yet. Philly’s Baby Big Three have played a combined 31 NBA games, with Simmons (another #1 overall pick whose college team missed the tournament) missing the entire 2016-17 season with an injury. As a fan of the NBA, I want there to be more good teams and more great players, and I want the Sixers’ young core to compete, but at some point they have to play. Embiid and Simmons have been highly anticipated, but the Celtics are giving their young players valuable experience. Ben Simmons hasn’t played a game yet, and Embiid has 31 games played in the three seasons since getting drafted, but Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Jaylen Brown have won playoff rounds.
Going forward, the Celtics still have one more Brooklyn pick, and have the ability to tank vicariously through the Lakers, Kings, Clippers, and Memphis Grizzlies. Danny Ainge was willing to gamble and pass on Fultz, even if it means being mocked in the short-term. This is guy who pulled the trades for Allen and Garnett, sold off Pierce, Garnett, and Rivers when their values were still quite high, and turned the Boston into a franchise that is in as good position as anyone in the East to wait out LeBron’s prime. He didn’t turn stupid overnight. As much fun as rooting for Markelle Fultz might have been, I have trouble doubting Ainge’s plan right now.
When lefty reliever Andrew Miller was traded by the New York Yankees to the Cleveland Indians last summer, it changed the trajectory of the 2016 Major League Baseball season. Not only did the deal, along with another high-profile trade that sent Aroldis Chapman to the Chicago Cubs, mark a stark contrast from the Yankees’ normal trade deadline approach, Miller and Chapman were the centerpieces of the two bullpens that reached the World Series.
The 2016 World Series ended up being one of the most watched and most talked about Fall Classics in my lifetime, and as a result, Miller became a household name beyond the hardcore baseball fan community and the cities where he has pitched like Cleveland, New York, Baltimore, and Boston. It was a true Series for the Ages, and Miller put together a brilliant postseason for the Tribe, including being named ALCS MVP. One of the biggest moments of the series was when Chicago catcher (and fellow bearded 2013 World Series Champion) David Ross homered off him in Game 7, but that hardly diminishes Miller’s standing as one of the elite relief pitchers in the game today.
One of the lessons I have taken away from me recent re-watch of Ken Burns’ Baseball is how often great pitchers slip up in these big moments, because you have to be really good to be on the mound in these ultimate high-leverage situations. Kirk Gibson’s pinch-hit home run in the 1988 World Series was an incredible feat not only because of how physically hobbled he was at the time, but also because it was Dennis Eckersley, the best reliever of his era, standing on the mound at the height of his powers for the Oakland A’s. Much of The Tenth Inning, in fact, is devoted to big moments in which Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer of all time, could not close the deal in both the 2001 World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks and the 2004 American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox.
What makes Miller so interesting is that unlike Eckersley or Rivera, Miller is not primarily a closer. In the 2016 postseason Cleveland manager Terry Francona elected to throw Miller out there in the highest leverage moments of the game, to shut down the opposing offense, regardless of what inning it was once the starter was out of the game. This unconventional bullpen approach, which flies in the face of decades (or maybe even a century, as I’m not entirely sure when the conventional system of bullpen structure first solidified, and much of “just the way things are done” in baseball dates back to the 19th century, and I didn’t have time to take a deep dive on bullpen usage history for what was supposed to be a quick tangent) of clearly defined relief roles. You have the “7th Inning Guy,” the “8th Inning Guy,” and the “9th Inning Guy,” and the guy pitching the 9th should be your best guy, your closer. Miller’s use in 2016 was a potential game-changer.
The rise of Andrew Miller since he became one of MLB’s best relievers starting in 2014 may very well be enough already to change some people’s minds about his entire career. For instance, in 2007, Miller was traded by the Detroit Tigers along with Dallas Trahern, Burke Badenhop, Frankie De La Cruz, Cameron Maybin, and Mike Rabelo to the Florida Marlins for Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera. For eleven years, this was widely regarded as one of the most one-sided trades in recent baseball history, and then-Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski has been widely lauded for pulling off the steal of Cabrera, who would go on to win two American League MVPs, earn the first offensive Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, and led Detroit to the World Series in 2012.
Cabrera has been one of the best hitters in the game for over a decade, and was still only 24 when the Marlins dealt him to Detroit. While the Tigers consistently contended in the decade that followed, the Marlins toiled in futility. There are obviously other factors involved. Miguel Cabrera was not the only great player on the Tigers during that stretch, and trading Cabrera was hardly the only baseball operations misstep by the Marlins in the years before, during, and since, but there was a clear winner and a clear loser in that trade. My worry now, is that decades from now, or probably sooner, people will go on Baseball Reference, see Cabrera’s page linked to Miller’s page by virtue of that trade, and think maybe that trade was not so bad for the Marlins because of the player Miller eventually turned into.
I can remember in the spring of 2014, when I was working a second shift data entry job, and regularly listening to Red Sox games on the radio the pass the night. This was how I followed the Red Sox in 2013 (all the until Koji Uehara recorded the final out of the World Series), 2014, and 2015, until I got moved to first shift. During one game, I remember, they had Alex Speier, a very knowledgeable baseball writer who at the time wrote for WEEI.com (he is now with The Boston Globe) in the broadcast booth to talk with Joe Castiglione and Dave O’Brien, and he talked about Miller and Burke Badenhop, who was new to the Red Sox that season and has one of my favorite names in all of baseball (I mean seriously, a ground ball pitcher with “bad” and “hop” in his name?). Speier talked about talking to Miller and Badenhop about the historic trade, about being forever connected to Cabrera, who had signed a record contract extension with the Tigers in the previous offseason. (Side note: after a little bit of research, this WEEI.com article by Katie Morrison that Speier contributed to from May of 2014 has a lot of the insights I remember and more.)
For whatever reason, this exchange in a game I cannot remember for a particularly bad Red Sox team three years ago stuck with me. Miller and Badenhop both turned into fine Major Leaguers, but even if they did their best pitching after the Marlins, there are ways the trade could be justified.
A good cross-sport comparison I like to make to the Miguel Cabrera Trade is the trade that sent Kevin Garnett from the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Boston Celtics (sorry for all the Boston-centric references, it’s what I know best). The Celtics gave up a bundle of players for a superstar, and turned into a title contender overnight. The Wolves have yet to make the playoffs since trading KG, and that trade got Kevin McHale fired as Minnesota’s GM in time. While McHale could feel vindicated by the solid NBA careers Gerald Green and Al Jefferson had (the latter was so promising that some in the Boston media including legendary Celtics power forward/head coach/homer broadcaster Tommy Heinsohn adamantly did not want Big Al to get moved in a trade for Garnett), they were not enough to fill the void left by KG in Minnesota. Like the Marlins in 2008 after Cabrera got dealt, the Timberwolves of that same era were also not helped by other roster building missteps bigger than the one one-sided trade, most notably having back-to-back picks in the top ten of the 2009 NBA Draft, and used them on Jonny Flynn and Ricky Rubio, both point guards, but neither was Steph Curry, who was taken at #9 by the Golden State Warriors in that same draft.
In spite of the success of the Celtics and the futility of the Wolves in the years that followed, I cannot help but thinking how close it could have come to being different. What if, in the summer of 2007, when the Celtics had already traded for Ray Allen and everybody on the roster not named Paul Pierce was on the table to package in a trade for the third star, what if Danny Ainge had slipped Rajon Rondo and/or Tony Allen instead of Sebastian Telfair in a moment of desperation to get McHale to bite on the Garnett trade? Would the roster have been good enough surrounding the New Big Three to really contend with the Cavs, Magic, and Pistons of the late 2000s?
Similarly, what if Dombrowski threw Justin Verlander into the bundle of players because he was so desperate to reacquire Cabrera, whom Dombrowski first signed as an amateur free agent while GM of the Marlins in 1999? While one great pitcher would not necessarily have turned the Marlins’ fortunes around, it certainly would have made the trade a lot less one-sided. Dombrowski would certainly not have the same reputation he currently had of being a genius trader (which I’m a bit skeptical of as a Red Sox fan, with the Drew Pomeranz trade and such).
Without venturing too much further in the Miguel Cabrera Trade What-If Rabbit Hole, here’s one more: what if this October, in an American League Wild Card Game or later series-clinching game between the Tigers and Indians, Andrew Miller, in the highest of high-leverage moments of the season, gets out of the inning (and to raise the stakes just a little bit more, let’s say he’s in a bases-loaded jam) by striking out Miguel Cabrera on three pitches? Can you imagine the think pieces coming out “In defense of the Miguel Cabrera Trade”? I certainly can, and it hasn’t even happened yet. That is why I am writing this to get out in front of it.
Ultimately, I don’t think there is anything Andrew Miller can do to validate that trade from the Marlins’ perspective, and not just because he did not put it all together until years after leaving Florida. Miller always had good stuff. His big frame and high velocity made him an attractive prospect, selected sixth overall by the Tigers in the 2006 MLB Amateur Draft. During his time with the Red Sox, he was featured in the excellent documentary Knuckleball! as the hard throwing lefty who takes Tim Wakefield’s spot in the starting rotation in 2011 while Wake is in pursuit of his 200th career win. With all the love and respect in the world to Wakefield and R.A. Dickey, the two stars of that doc, Miller’s validation and vindication from his role on the 2011 Red Sox is a much lower bar to clear, and it’s fair to say the 2016 postseason did that for him.
While Miller’s reinvention from mediocre and frustrating starter to elite and dominant reliever has been a fascinating transition, but when a new generation browses Baseball Reference years from now and thinks the Cabrera Trade was a fair trade, we must be vigilant and ready to set the record straight. Or maybe Miller will somehow reach a new level of bullpen greatness so profound that he is more famous in fifty years than Cabrera, but I have my doubts. Either way, time will tell.
This Eastern Conference Finals is merely a formality for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. It did not matter if it was the Boston Celtics or the Washington Wizards as the opponent. Either one was going to get annihilated, likely swept, by the Cavs, just as the Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors were in the first two rounds. In the Western Conference, the Golden State Warriors have been every bit as dominant, cutting through the Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz like a buzz saw. Everything that has happened in this NBA season has just been a buildup to the third installment of the Cavaliers/Golden State Warriors NBA Finals Trilogy. Both teams are toying with and carving up their respective conferences, and are playing the best basketball they ever have. No other opponents are worthy.
All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.
The last three season have been the Cavs and Warriors, but LeBron has dominated the East far longer than Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Co. have been the class of the West. I’m 27, and as long as I have been old enough to drink, the New England Patriots have made it at least as far as the AFC Championship game, and whichever team currently employs LeBron has made it to the NBA Finals. What’s amazing to me is how consistently great both LeBron and Tom Brady have been. As a lifelong Massachusetts resident, I’ve been in on Brady since I was in 6th grade and he took the starting job from Drew Bledsoe like Lou Gehrig did to Wally Pipp, but also because of where I grew up, I was predisposed to disliking LeBron.
The New Big Three era Celtics were the team LeBron had to measure himself against in the East, like the OG Big Three and Bad Boy Detroit Pistons were for Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. The last time LeBron failed to reach the Finals, the Cavs were upset by the Celtics in a second-round series, on the way to their eventual 2010 Finals loss in seven games to the forever-rival Los Angeles Lakers. Days after the Finals ended, Boston drafted Avery Bradley out of the University of Texas, now the longest tenured Celtic, and a couple weeks after that, LeBron infamously decided to take his talents to South Beach, joining forces with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Pat Riley, and the Miami Heat.
In the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, it was the last stand for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and the Celtics. They gave Miami’s Big Three everything they could handle, but came up short in Game 7. Had the Celtics prevailed, I have my doubts they could have kept pace with the young and hungry Oklahoma City Thunder, who at the time still had Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, but it was the moment LeBron first overcame adversity, pushed through and won it all. That summer, Ray Allen left Boston for Miami, the Celtics got bounced in the first round by the New York Knicks during the month after I started this blog, and Pierce and KG were traded for the gift that keeps on giving that is the Brooklyn Nets’ perennially high first round draft picks.
In spite of his greatness, I was one of those people who constantly picked apart LeBron’s game. As recently as the days leading up to the 2015 Finals, the first since his return to Cleveland, and the first duel with Golden State, I wrote that LeBron was team basketball was his Kryptonite, largely in reaction to the way the Heat got methodically picked apart by the San Antonio Spurs, the Patriots of basketball, in the 2014 Finals. Since then, since overcoming a 3-1 series deficit in the 2016 Finals against a Warriors team that won a record-setting 73 games in the regular season and coped with defeat by adding Kevin Durant, the most talented, highly-coveted free agent since LeBron himself in 2010, and setting in motion the arms race between Golden State and Cleveland that is the 2016-17 season, since LeBron put a team on his back and overcame a rival in a way I have never seen him before, I have come around on him.
The 2016 Finals fundamentally changed the way I view LeBron as a player. Now, any anger, any feelings about how overrated and over-hyped he was. Not bitter. Not jaded. Just impressed. I often like to compare the San Antonio Spurs to the New England Patriots, and vice-versa. The parallels are uncanny, from the five titles, consistent sustained success built around an all-time great player and an all-time great coach connected to a military academy (Bill Belichick’s father was a longtime assistant football coach and scout for the Naval Academy, and Gregg Popovich is a graduate of the Air Force Academy) who are descended from immigrants from the former Yugoslavia (Belichick is Croatian, and Popovich is Serbian). The more I think about it, and the more his career continues to evolve, though, I am starting to think that Tom Brady is more the LeBron of football than the Tim Duncan. It’s not a knock on Duncan as much as it’s an illustration of how far LeBron has come.
LeBron is 32 years old, and has been playing big NBA minutes since he was 18. Tom Brady will be 40 by the time he plays his next game. Both have been remarkably durable, with only one major injury (the knee injury that wiped out all but a quarter of the first game of Brady’s 2008 NFL season) between them. The fact that both are playing the best of their respective sport at their respective age is nothing short of incredible.
LeBron James is so good at basketball at the age of 32 that a young team on the rise like the Celtics made the conscious decision at the trade deadline not to go all-in on this season, or the next couple seasons. Danny Ainge saw his roster, knew his team was good, but nowhere near good enough to get past the Cavaliers. Why give up high draft picks and/or important role players like Avery Bradley, Jaylen Brown, or Jae Crowder when adding Jimmy Butler of the Bulls or Paul Georgeof the Pacers, the two biggest names rumored to be available at the deadline, would still make them a long shot to get past Cleveland? The reward was not worth the risk because there was no stopping LeBron right now. Ainge saw the other pseudo-contenders in the East during LeBron’s run of dominance, the Bulls with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, the Pacers with George and Roy Hibbert, the Raptors with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and he saw them flame out flying too close to the sun, thinking they had a better chance at beating Miami or Cleveland than they did, and he was not about to panic and let the Celtics become another one of those cautionary tales.
Regardless of the current scoreboard, the best is yet to come for the Brad Stevens Era of Celtics basketball. Thanks to the steal of the century that was trading Pierce and Garnett to Brooklyn, the Celtics have the luxury of building their team for some level of playoff success, now one of the four remaining teams, yet still very far away from true contention in an extremely top-heavy NBA, while also adding lottery talent courtesy of a truly dreadful Brooklyn basketball club.
The night before the start of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics earned #1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. Patience at the trade deadline paid off. Even if Markelle Fultz from Washington, or Lonzo Ball from UCLA, or Josh Jackson from Kansas, or whoever they end up taking does not turn into a measurably better player than Butler or George, he will be a more affordable player than Butler or George for the first few years. The assets have appreciated, the guys on the current roster are gaining valuable playoff experience, and LeBron will not be able to sustain this level of basketball greatness forever (I’m assuming?). The Celtics could keep the pick and take Fultz, trade down and get a team that is overly enamored by one player (like the Lakers may be with Ball) and get them to overpay, or a hundred other combinations of scenarios, but right now Trader Danny is holding the best cards and the best leverage he has had in a decade.
A decade ago this summer, the Celtics had bad lottery luck, landing the #5 pick in the Greg Oden/Kevin Durant draft (and even though Portland took Oden with the first pick, it has been well documented how high Ainge was on KD then and now), a decade removed from when they had two shots at the Tim Duncan lottery and came away with Chauncey Billups and Ron Mercer. After 1997, the Celtics waded back and forth between mediocrity and futility for ten years, and by 2007, Ainge pushed his chips to the center of the table, cashing his young assets in to turn them into Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. A decade ago, Danny Ainge built the best Celtics team of my lifetime, and six years later, he flipped the aging core of that team to set a faster, smarter rebuild in motion.
The last four years have not been without their frustrations, but the great coaching of Brad Stevens combined with Ainge’s shrewd roster composition, keeping as many options open as possible in a constantly evolving NBA with a seemingly unstoppable force at the top of the Eastern Conference for the entire 2010s to this point, has put the Celtics in the best position to be the East’s next great team, infrastructure-wise. All they need is their superstar. It’s a pretty big only thing to need, but it’s better than most teams can boast.
Even if none of the games against Cleveland are competitive, it cannot take away the way the Celtics overcame adversity against the Bulls, with Isaiah Thomas lighting it up as he grieved the loss of his sister, and is will not take away they held home court against a dynamic Wizards team that gave them everything they could handle. No matter what happens in Game 3 and Game 4 in Cleveland, the Celtics are in a great spot going forward. This is starting to get exciting.
The Boston Celtics are playing their best basketball since the days of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and (yes, even) Ray Allen. They currently sit second in the Eastern conference, tthree games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers, with Kevin Love out with an injury and LeBron James logging more minutes than he should at age 32, and Brad Stevens is going to coach the Eastern Conference All-Stars for the first time in his career. Perhaps most impressive about what they have done is that they are winning games with regularity in spite of their significant lack of health, with the longest tenured current Celtic Avery Bradley and 2016 free agent acquisition Al Horford both missing extended periods due to injury.
The success of the Celtics two and a half years removed from being in the draft lottery themselves (as opposed to living vicariously though the Brooklyn Nets’ miserable season) to being a top-five team in the NBA, despite Danny Ainge’s inability to find suitors in this decade’s version of the Allen and Garnett trades that the fan base so desperately wanted, is a testament to the coaching staff and the smaller moves Ainge has been able to make, but the biggest story for the Celtics has been the NBA’s smallest blossoming superstar.
Isaiah Thomas stands 5’9″, two inches shorter than I am, and my always unrealistic dream of playing on a school basketball team, let alone in the NBA ended around sixth grade when I realized I’d never be tall enough to make up for my inherent lack of skill. Despite a good college career (two time 1st Team All-Pac-10, two time Pac-10 Tournament MVP at Washington), Thomas was overlooked by NBA teams for his height, and he was taken with the 60th and final pick of the 2011 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings.
What is amazing about players taken in the 2nd round of the NBA Draft is that the ones that make it as stars, make it with a vengeance. Draymond Green fell to the second round, is now the NBA’s best defender, the most polarizing player on the NBA’s best team, and has developed this revisionist history around his draft status where several teams claim they were about to take him even though they all had a chance at him. Manu Ginobili being selected by the San Antonio Spurs with the 57th overall pick in 1999 and forging a Hall of Fame career out of obscurity in Argentina is an even greater component to the mystique and the greatness of Gregg Popovich and the Spurs than lucking into Tim Duncan at #1 in 1997.
In Isaiah’s case, though, the Kings do not get the credit for finding a diamond in the rough of a superstar because they let him go before his full potential was realized–same goes for the Phoenix Suns–but the chip on his shoulder is just as big as Draymond’s. Thanks to another great trade by Danny Ainge (a three team trade with Phoenix and Detroit where the Celtics gave away Marcus Thornton, Tayshaun Prince, and a late 2016 1st round pick, and came away with Gigi Datome, Jonas Jerebko, and IT), Thomas arrived in Boston at the 2015 trade deadline.
The Boston teams are in the midst of an under-six-feet renaissance between Julian Edelman (5’10”), Dion Lewis (5’8″), Malcolm Butler (5’11”), Danny Amendola (5’11”), Dustin Pedroia (5’9″), Mookie Betts (5’9″), Andrew Benintendi (5’10”), Jackie Bradley Jr. (5’10”), Brad Marchand (5’9″), and Torey Krug (5’9″), but Isaiah Thomas is the ultimate example because of the emphasis on height in who plays basketball at the professional level. While the Red Sox and Patriots gain acclaim for taking a chance on shorter outfield prospects and surrounding Tom Brady with a bunch of quick and shifty little guys, the Celtics have turned into a borderline contender built around a little guy in a big guy’s sport. This is almost unprecedented.
My two favorite basketball players who never played for the Celtics are Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson. I have written plenty about Duncan over the years, given that he was an active player this time last year, and he and Pop have been the Brady and Belichick of basketball. I wanted to write my ode to AI in September when he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in September, but it was my last college semester, I was working full time, and my buddy Murf’s bachelor party was that same weekend. Life got in the way, but I am here now.
I attended my first Celtics game in 2001, weeks after Rick Pitino skipped town. The Philadelphia 76ers were in town in a year when they eventually reached the Finals and Iverson was the MVP. To this day, I believe he is the best athlete I have ever seen in person (Honorable mentions Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The interesting thing is that Malkin actually stands out more than Crosby in person because of his size.). By my memory, he systematically picked apart a Celtics team that had Pierce and Antoine Walker and was finally showing signs of a competitive pulse at the start of the Jim O’Brien Era almost entirely by himself. It was amazing.
Iverson was officially listed at 6’0″, but even as a kid, I never really believed that number. AI was fearless and played like he was six inches taller than his actual height, making him one of the most intimidating people in the history of the NBA. He played hard and lived hard, and his career ended much more abruptly than many of his contemporaries as a result, but in his heyday, there were few players more compelling for someone flipping through the channels and stopping on a neutral site basketball game.
AI never won a title, and was labeled as a selfish player. Some of that was fair, but also a lot of that was the lack of quality talent that surrounded him in his prime. Unlike other elite point guards of his era like John Stockton, Gary Payton, and Steve Nash, AI never had a Karl Malone, or a Shawn Kemp, or a Dirk Nowitzki, or even an Amar’e Stoudemire to give the ball to. AI had Keith Van Horn and a past-his-prime Dikembe Mutombo. Iverson tried to do everything on offense by himself because that really was the best option in most years. This is the thing that has me worried about IT in Boston, but also not really. Sure, Al Horford is not the elite offensive threat that Karl Malone is. Sure, Kelly Olynyk is the victim of early Dirk comparisons. Sure, Jaylen Brown is an unproven rookie with some trouble finishing at the rim. But the Celtics are still building. Isaiah already does not have to do it all himself, even if he is consistently lighting it up in the fourth quarter, but they are still getting better.
What I really like about Isaiah Thomas the more I have learned about him is his self-awareness. In listening to recent podcasts where his sat down with Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer and Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, he has it all in perspective. He was the last pick in the draft. He was 27 and on his third team by the time he became an All-Star, and he’s just now getting recognized as a legitimate superstar at 28. It’s like an actor or musician who did not achieve success or fame until after he or she learned how to be an adult. In the NBA, we are at the point where we are surprised when someone drafted as a teenager like Kevin Garnett or LeBron James turns into a well-adjusted human being. Isaiah spent his basketball career being doubted, being overlooked, and has proven people wrong at every turn, so now that he’s arrived, he’s not about to let it get to his head.
This week, Thomas broke a 45 year old Celtics franchise record set by the great John Havlicek of 40 consecutive games scoring 20 points or more, with game 41 being Boston’s last-minute loss to the Chicago Bulls the other night. IT is making his way into the history books in the NBA’s most storied franchise, but this story is still in its early stages.
You’re not supposed to trade your two best players to title contenders and get better. That shouldn’t work in any sport, but it did for the 2014-15 Boston Celtics. They sent Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks, and Jeff Green to the Memphis Grizzlies, and then made a run at the postseason. They did not advance beyond their first round opponent. LeBron James’ and Kyrie Irving’s reboot of The Cleveland Show is too talented to let that happen, but there is a lot to be excited about for the future of a team that already has 17 championship banners in the rafters of TD Garden, by far the most by one team in one city in basketball. They got swept, but it does not feel nearly as bad as when the C’s lost to the New York Knicks in 2013, which was the inspiration for the first real sports post I made on this blog nearly two years ago, the last time we saw Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Doc Rivers as Celtics, and certainly not as devastating as the so-close-yet-so-far ending to the 2010 NBA Finals against the Lakers. They had no chance this year. That’s how it’s supposed to be. Cleveland is so good that losing to anyone other than the San Antonio Spurs or the Golden State Warriors (and even then, it would still mean they were in the NBA Finals) would be considered a choke job for the ages. It’s okay that the Celtics not a real contender yet, because the franchise still has so much upside. Let’s take a moment now to appreciate how far they’ve come in such a short period of time.
In December, Danny Ainge traded Rondo, the last remaining player from the 2008 championship team and the 2010 team that made it to a seventh game at Staples Center before bowing out to the Los Angeles Lakers, to the Dallas Mavericks for Jameer Nelson, Brandan Wright, and Jae Crowder what will inevitably be a late 1st round draft pick (because Dallas always makes the playoffs!), and by the trade deadline, all that remained on in Boston’s possession was Crowder and the pick. Doc Rivers is now coaching the Los Angeles Clippers. Paul Pierce is lighting it up in the playoffs for the Washington Wizards. Kevin Garnett went home to the Minnesota Timberwolves to presumably be the Whiplash-esque mentor to 20 year old budding superstar Andrew Wiggins. Glen “Big Baby” Davis is playing meaningful minutes for Doc in LA on what might be the worst bench of any playoff team. Kendrick Perkins is riding the pine in Cleveland (unless he’s going after Jae Crowder). Ray Allen is out of basketball. Brian Scalabrine and Leon Powe are back with the C’s, but in front office or broadcasting capacities. It was a fun ride, but all rides end eventually.
Trading Rondo closed the book on that era of Celtics basketball. His trade to Dallas was supposed to make the Celtics sink further (they had a losing record with him as their starting point guard and captain), improve their standing for the 2015 NBA Draft, and help take the Mavs to the next level. It did none of those things. As it turned out, Crowder was a great fit for the Celtics, and responded really well to Brad Stevens’ coaching. He’s one of those hard working kids from Marquette, who in hindsight was underutilized by Dallas. Rondo, on the other hand, was a terrible fit for Dallas. On a team that plays best when the ball is moving constantly, like Rick Carlisle had the Mavericks doing before Rondo arrived, Rondo is a point guard who wants control, and who wants to be dribbling the ball for the majority of the possession. In an era where the smart teams place emphasis on three pointers and foul shots, Rondo is a bad three point shooter who does not drive to the hoop nearly enough out of fear of having to go to the foul line. He was a bad fit for Rick Carlisle’s offense, and he hasn’t played defense with any kind of consistency since 2012.
When the Celtics traded Jeff Green to Memphis, they got aging veteran Tayshaun Prince in return. The Celtics were able to get more out of Prince than Memphis was, and flipped him at the trade deadline to the Detroit Pistons for Jonas Jerebko and Luigi Datome.This is the second time the Celtics have traded away Jeff Green. The first time was after they drafted him with the #5 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, and sent him to Seattle (back when Seattle had a team) as one of the pieces that ultimately brought back Ray Allen and Big Baby. History shows us that good things happen when the Celtics trade Jeff Green.
The Celtics are not a contender, and it is not a great place to be in the NBA, if you’re always making the playoffs but never getting anywhere. They have the GM. They have the coach. They have the draft picks. They have the role players. They just need a superstar or two. I didn’t like the taking season. It was mentally exhausting to root for your hometown team to lose to improve draft standing. The Celtics failed to win 30 games in the 2013-14 season, but only landed the #6 pick. The C’s aren’t good at taking. Winning franchises shouldn’t be. Players have too much pride, coaches are too competitive, and even after all the losses, you’re still unlikely to get the ping pong balls to fall in your favor. They could’t get Tim Duncan that way in 1997. They couldn’t get Kevin Durant that way in 2007, and they couldn’t get Andrew Wiggins that way in 2014.
I don;t think the Celtics will be in #8 seed purgatory (or #7 seed purgatory, for that matter. Being the 8th best team would have given them a more competitive opponent in the form of the Atlanta Hawks.) for long, though. The difference between the #11 pick and the #16 pick or whatever, isn’t that great, so making the playoffs doesn’t hurt them in the draft as much as some people think. Getting swept by Cleveland was also a great learning opportunity for Brad Stevens, who coached two Butler University teams to the NCAA National Championship Game, but is younger than Tim Duncan and got his first taste of the NBA playoffs this spring. It’s part of the learning experience for Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder, as they had to guard playoff mode Kyrie Irving and LeBron James.
This is a young team. Marcus Smart is 21. Kelly Olynyk is 24. Jae Crowder is 24. Jared Sullinger is 23. Tyler Zeller is 25. Isaiah Thomas (acquired from the Phoenix Suns at the trade deadline) is 26. Evan Turner is 26. James Young is 19. Even Avery Bradley, who is the longest tenured member of the Celtics, will not turn 25 until November, and was still in high school the last time the Celtics won a title. Maybe LeMarcus Aldridge signs with Boston this summer. Maybe one of the many free agent rim protectors lands here. Maybe they package up some of this talent to get a fully formed superstar. There are still a lot of possibilities, but the step forward the Celtics took this season is encouraging. I would take that over what is going on in Philadelphia or Sacramento every day of the week.