This week, after losing the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and with neither of the two games at TD Garden being at all competitive, the Boston Celtics announced that their start point guard, Isaiah Thomas, was out for the season. Then, the Celtics won Game 3 in Cleveland, and without their best player. Naturally, the narrative of “are the Celtics better off without Isaiah?” swirled around the Boston Sports Media for days. It was maybe the dumbest take, but also quite possibly the most predictable take ever.
I get how we got here. This is Boston. There are two radio stations and two TV stations devoted to the local sports teams, and the Celtics are the only one of the four currently in the playoffs. In addition to being a primary talking point for hosts and callers alike on WEEI and The Sports Hub alike, you have writers at The Boston Globe and The Boston Herald, national outlets with Boston roots like Barstool Sports and The Ringer, and probably hundreds of aspiring and trying millennials like me all trying to be read and be heard. On some level, the “better off without” opinion had legs, not because it was valid, not because anyone really believed it, but because the infrastructure of the Boston Sports Media needed it to happen. There were too many hours in the day for no one to say it, so people couldn’t stop saying it.
This is also the market that produced Bill Simmons, author of The Ewing Theory, which attempts to explain the phenomenon where a team loses their superstar who has never won a title, and the complementary pieces surrounding that star step up in their absence, and the team outperforms expectations. It was a theory Simmons first developed with a friend when Patrick Ewing was in college, and they noticed his Georgetown teammates seemed to play better when he was on the bench in foul trouble, and the theory was tested at the professional level when Ewing got hurt in the 1999 NBA Playoffs, and without him, his New York Knicks reached the NBA Finals as the #8 seed in the Eastern Conference. The ultimate Ewing Theory case is that of Drew Bledsoe, whom Simmons mentioned as a possible Ewing Theory candidate in a 2001 column, months before the Patriots’ franchise quarterback was wrecked by Mo Lewis, replaced by a second year QB out of Michigan named Tom Brady, and so began the Pats’ transformation to downtrodden perennial punchline to the model franchise in North American professional sports.
Of course the very existence of the theory causes people to anticipate a case before anything actually happens. The most prominent example of that was also Boston-centric, when Rajon Rondo got hurt in 2013, and the Celtics rallied around the loss and made the playoffs anyway, and it inspired Simmons’ “Ewing Theory Revisited” column. But as fun as a theory like is to think about, the reality is always much more nuanced, a huge reason I have become disillusioned with the sports media culture I am simultaneously trying to break into. Not everything is a hot take, and trying to find the hot take in every story only lowers the common denominator, and brings everybody down. Yes, the Knicks advanced farther in a lower seed after Ewing got hurt, but the 1999 NBA season was strange, compressed, and shortened by a lockout. The Knicks were probably a better team than they were in the regular season, and could have made noise in the power vacuum that was the East after the dismantling of the Chicago Bulls, who had dominated the conference for the bulk of the 1990s. Also, there is no way the Knicks were better off in the Finals without Patrick Ewing, going up against a San Antonio Spurs team that had both Tim Duncan and David Robinson.
Obviously, the Celtics are not better off without Isaiah. The guy was awesome for them this season, was the biggest reason (aside from Toronto’s injuries and Cleveland’s indifference to regular season results) that the Celtics finished atop the East after 82 games, and there is no way they get past the Washington Wizards in the second round (let alone Chicago in the first) without him. The Celtics were on the road, forced to play a different lineup, and caught LeBron James on a rare off night. That’s all it was. One game where the depleted Celtics held LeBron to 11 points and still needed needed a last-second three by Avery Bradley to win. That should not and does not wipe away all the great work Isaiah Thomas did for the Celtics this year.
As idiotic as the narrative was this week, it does serve as a cynical preview for the way things will likely go in Boston with Isaiah Thomas going forward. It took one win on the road in a series the Celtics were never going to win for fans and media to turn on the most beloved player the Celtics have had since Larry Bird. What is going to happen when the Celtics draft another point guard? They have the top pick in the 2017 Draft, and the consensus top two prospects, Markelle Fultz of Washington and Lonzo Ball of UCLA, are both point guards? What happens if they sign Utah Jazz All-Star small forward Gordon Hayward to a max contract this summer? As great as Isaiah has been for the Celtics, next summer, he will be a free agent, and will the Celtics be willing to make a 29 year old point guard who is under six feet and is already showing wear and tear from the beating one takes as a short guy in a big guy’s league one of the highest paid players in the NBA? I have a feeling this will not end well.
It may be a different sport with very different roster sizes and pay structures, but I have a feeling the way the New England Patriots have handled cornerback and Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler this offseason as something of a precursor to what could happen with IT and the Celtics. Butler became an instant household name when he made The Interception of the Century in the end zone against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. Last offseason, the most important players on New England’s defense were Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower, and Butler, and all were set to be free agents at some level this offseason, and the team needed to address that. Jones was traded to the Arizona Cardinals last spring, Collins was traded to the Cleveland Browns in the middle of the season. Hightower signed an extension with the Patriots after the Super Bowl, but Butler’s future remains murky. First it seemed like Butler, a restricted free agent, would get traded to the New Orleans Saints, but the trade never happened. To further complicate things, the Patriots paid big money to free agent corner Stephon Gilmore without ever playing a down for New England, while Butler had established himself as one of the NFL’s best with the Pats, playing a key role on a team that has won two of the last three Super Bowls, but the Patriots hold all the cards, and they may very well make Malcolm wait for the big payday many fans and media members alike feel like he has already earned.
This is a similar situation to Isaiah with the Celtics. Thomas has been the good soldier, and consistently Boston’s best player since he arrived here on a very affordable contract (he is still playing on the four-year, $27 million deal he signed with the Phoenix Suns in 2014), while the team went out and paid Al Horford, tried to pay Kevin Durant, and may very well pay Gordon Hayward, all while being very deep at the point guard and possibly using yet another lottery pick on yet another point guard at next month’s draft. Isaiah made the Celtics respectable after the Nee Big Three left town, and just as he is playing his best basketball, the Celtics may already be figuring out his succession plan.
Both Thomas and Butler had to scratch and claw to become the players they became. While Thomas was the last pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, Butler went undrafted coming out of West Alabama. But Bill Belichick saw something in him, coached him up to be ready for the most pivotal moment of the most important game of the season, and was confident enough in his own coaching and Butler’s development to let Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner walk in free agency, confident that the Patriots’ secondary would be just fine. As much of a success story as Butler has been, Bill Belichick is confident in his ability to find the next Malcolm Butler if things between the player and the team go south, and Danny Ainge, like Belichick, is someone always thinking steps ahead.
Bill Belichick and Danny Ainge could not, as two professional sports executives who have been in Boston over a decade, carry themselves any more differently. Belichick is the gruff, ratty sweatshirt clad football coach who seems to go out of his way to be as terse with the media as possible, while Ainge is the clean-cut former NBA guard and MLB third baseman who regularly gets interviewed on the radio during the season. Ainge plays nice, but at his core, he’s a cold, calculating genius not unlike Belichick. Even when he’s tweeting praises of Isaiah, I have a hard time believing he isn’t weighing options should Isaiah not be in the Celtics’ long-term plans. Ainge built a team whose season lasted longer than any team other than the two teams everyone knew would be in the Finals the minute Durant announced he was going to Golden State last July, he did not have to give anything up at the trade deadline either of the last two years to get that far, and he has the ability to add a potentially franchise-altering player at the top of the draft. Like Belichick with Butler, Danny Ainge holds all the cards.
This turn of events says more about the over-reactionary nature of Boston Sports Media than it does about the future about the Celtics, but as predictable as it all was, it sheds some light on the things to come.
This Eastern Conference Finals is merely a formality for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. It did not matter if it was the Boston Celtics or the Washington Wizards as the opponent. Either one was going to get annihilated, likely swept, by the Cavs, just as the Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors were in the first two rounds. In the Western Conference, the Golden State Warriors have been every bit as dominant, cutting through the Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz like a buzz saw. Everything that has happened in this NBA season has just been a buildup to the third installment of the Cavaliers/Golden State Warriors NBA Finals Trilogy. Both teams are toying with and carving up their respective conferences, and are playing the best basketball they ever have. No other opponents are worthy.
All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.
The last three season have been the Cavs and Warriors, but LeBron has dominated the East far longer than Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Co. have been the class of the West. I’m 27, and as long as I have been old enough to drink, the New England Patriots have made it at least as far as the AFC Championship game, and whichever team currently employs LeBron has made it to the NBA Finals. What’s amazing to me is how consistently great both LeBron and Tom Brady have been. As a lifelong Massachusetts resident, I’ve been in on Brady since I was in 6th grade and he took the starting job from Drew Bledsoe like Lou Gehrig did to Wally Pipp, but also because of where I grew up, I was predisposed to disliking LeBron.
The New Big Three era Celtics were the team LeBron had to measure himself against in the East, like the OG Big Three and Bad Boy Detroit Pistons were for Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. The last time LeBron failed to reach the Finals, the Cavs were upset by the Celtics in a second-round series, on the way to their eventual 2010 Finals loss in seven games to the forever-rival Los Angeles Lakers. Days after the Finals ended, Boston drafted Avery Bradley out of the University of Texas, now the longest tenured Celtic, and a couple weeks after that, LeBron infamously decided to take his talents to South Beach, joining forces with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Pat Riley, and the Miami Heat.
In the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, it was the last stand for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and the Celtics. They gave Miami’s Big Three everything they could handle, but came up short in Game 7. Had the Celtics prevailed, I have my doubts they could have kept pace with the young and hungry Oklahoma City Thunder, who at the time still had Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, but it was the moment LeBron first overcame adversity, pushed through and won it all. That summer, Ray Allen left Boston for Miami, the Celtics got bounced in the first round by the New York Knicks during the month after I started this blog, and Pierce and KG were traded for the gift that keeps on giving that is the Brooklyn Nets’ perennially high first round draft picks.
In spite of his greatness, I was one of those people who constantly picked apart LeBron’s game. As recently as the days leading up to the 2015 Finals, the first since his return to Cleveland, and the first duel with Golden State, I wrote that LeBron was team basketball was his Kryptonite, largely in reaction to the way the Heat got methodically picked apart by the San Antonio Spurs, the Patriots of basketball, in the 2014 Finals. Since then, since overcoming a 3-1 series deficit in the 2016 Finals against a Warriors team that won a record-setting 73 games in the regular season and coped with defeat by adding Kevin Durant, the most talented, highly-coveted free agent since LeBron himself in 2010, and setting in motion the arms race between Golden State and Cleveland that is the 2016-17 season, since LeBron put a team on his back and overcame a rival in a way I have never seen him before, I have come around on him.
The 2016 Finals fundamentally changed the way I view LeBron as a player. Now, any anger, any feelings about how overrated and over-hyped he was. Not bitter. Not jaded. Just impressed. I often like to compare the San Antonio Spurs to the New England Patriots, and vice-versa. The parallels are uncanny, from the five titles, consistent sustained success built around an all-time great player and an all-time great coach connected to a military academy (Bill Belichick’s father was a longtime assistant football coach and scout for the Naval Academy, and Gregg Popovich is a graduate of the Air Force Academy) who are descended from immigrants from the former Yugoslavia (Belichick is Croatian, and Popovich is Serbian). The more I think about it, and the more his career continues to evolve, though, I am starting to think that Tom Brady is more the LeBron of football than the Tim Duncan. It’s not a knock on Duncan as much as it’s an illustration of how far LeBron has come.
LeBron is 32 years old, and has been playing big NBA minutes since he was 18. Tom Brady will be 40 by the time he plays his next game. Both have been remarkably durable, with only one major injury (the knee injury that wiped out all but a quarter of the first game of Brady’s 2008 NFL season) between them. The fact that both are playing the best of their respective sport at their respective age is nothing short of incredible.
LeBron James is so good at basketball at the age of 32 that a young team on the rise like the Celtics made the conscious decision at the trade deadline not to go all-in on this season, or the next couple seasons. Danny Ainge saw his roster, knew his team was good, but nowhere near good enough to get past the Cavaliers. Why give up high draft picks and/or important role players like Avery Bradley, Jaylen Brown, or Jae Crowder when adding Jimmy Butler of the Bulls or Paul Georgeof the Pacers, the two biggest names rumored to be available at the deadline, would still make them a long shot to get past Cleveland? The reward was not worth the risk because there was no stopping LeBron right now. Ainge saw the other pseudo-contenders in the East during LeBron’s run of dominance, the Bulls with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, the Pacers with George and Roy Hibbert, the Raptors with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and he saw them flame out flying too close to the sun, thinking they had a better chance at beating Miami or Cleveland than they did, and he was not about to panic and let the Celtics become another one of those cautionary tales.
Regardless of the current scoreboard, the best is yet to come for the Brad Stevens Era of Celtics basketball. Thanks to the steal of the century that was trading Pierce and Garnett to Brooklyn, the Celtics have the luxury of building their team for some level of playoff success, now one of the four remaining teams, yet still very far away from true contention in an extremely top-heavy NBA, while also adding lottery talent courtesy of a truly dreadful Brooklyn basketball club.
The night before the start of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics earned #1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. Patience at the trade deadline paid off. Even if Markelle Fultz from Washington, or Lonzo Ball from UCLA, or Josh Jackson from Kansas, or whoever they end up taking does not turn into a measurably better player than Butler or George, he will be a more affordable player than Butler or George for the first few years. The assets have appreciated, the guys on the current roster are gaining valuable playoff experience, and LeBron will not be able to sustain this level of basketball greatness forever (I’m assuming?). The Celtics could keep the pick and take Fultz, trade down and get a team that is overly enamored by one player (like the Lakers may be with Ball) and get them to overpay, or a hundred other combinations of scenarios, but right now Trader Danny is holding the best cards and the best leverage he has had in a decade.
A decade ago this summer, the Celtics had bad lottery luck, landing the #5 pick in the Greg Oden/Kevin Durant draft (and even though Portland took Oden with the first pick, it has been well documented how high Ainge was on KD then and now), a decade removed from when they had two shots at the Tim Duncan lottery and came away with Chauncey Billups and Ron Mercer. After 1997, the Celtics waded back and forth between mediocrity and futility for ten years, and by 2007, Ainge pushed his chips to the center of the table, cashing his young assets in to turn them into Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. A decade ago, Danny Ainge built the best Celtics team of my lifetime, and six years later, he flipped the aging core of that team to set a faster, smarter rebuild in motion.
The last four years have not been without their frustrations, but the great coaching of Brad Stevens combined with Ainge’s shrewd roster composition, keeping as many options open as possible in a constantly evolving NBA with a seemingly unstoppable force at the top of the Eastern Conference for the entire 2010s to this point, has put the Celtics in the best position to be the East’s next great team, infrastructure-wise. All they need is their superstar. It’s a pretty big only thing to need, but it’s better than most teams can boast.
Even if none of the games against Cleveland are competitive, it cannot take away the way the Celtics overcame adversity against the Bulls, with Isaiah Thomas lighting it up as he grieved the loss of his sister, and is will not take away they held home court against a dynamic Wizards team that gave them everything they could handle. No matter what happens in Game 3 and Game 4 in Cleveland, the Celtics are in a great spot going forward. This is starting to get exciting.
The 2016-17 NBA season has been the Year of Kevin Durant, ever since all of basketball, from the front offices to to the players to the fans to social media, held its collective breath last July 4th weekend as he decided to sign with the Golden State Warriors. For a weekend, The Hamptons was the center of the sports universe, and everything since has been in reaction to KD joining forces with a team that won a record 73 games last year.
- Russell Westbrook is playing out of his mind this season because he’s mad at Durant.
- The Boston Celtics made their biggest free agent signing ever with Al Horford because they missed on Durant.
- What are the Washington Wizards supposed to do now that they had hoped to sign Kevin Durant, being the team from his hometown and all, but could not even get a meeting with him?
- How far have the Lakers really fallen now that they could not get a meeting with Durant, and they get meetings with everyone because they’re the Lakers?
- The Oklahoma City Thunder had three of the five best players in the NBA (Durant, Westbrook, and James Harden, with the other two top-five players being LeBron James and Steph Curry) at the beginnings of their careers, and now only have one. Are they now officially this generation’s version of the Shaq and Penny Orlando Magic that were super fun for a few years, but were gone before we could appreciate them and never won a title?
- Sure, the San Antonio Spurs will be good because they are always good, but in their first year without Tim Duncan, do they even have a chance against this Warriors team?
- Sure, the Houston Rockets will be interesting because they own the statistical darlings corner of the NBA and are the Oakland A’s of basketball, and the collaboration of GM Daryl Morey, newly hired head coach Mike D’Antoni, and star James Harden (who made the conversion from shooting guard to point guard this season and got even better) might even make them great, but can they hang with this Warriors team?
- Given the last two bullet points, are we destined (or doomed, depending on how you look at it) for a third straight Warriors/Cavs NBA Finals and the other 28 teams are merely bystanders in this inevitability?
That last bullet point was occupying my mind when I wrote about Durant-to-the-Warriors last July, and that still may very well be the end result of the Year of Durant, but the second tier contenders have been compelling this regular season (particularly Boston, Toronto, Washington, Houston, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Utah) and even teams that are not competing this year are made compelling by the bountiful crop of young talent in the Association from Kristaps Poszingis in New York, to Joel “The Process” Embiid in Philadelphia (whom the Sixers shut down for the rest of the season after appearing in just 31 games, but it was an unforgettable 31 games), Nikola Jokic in Denver, to Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns in Minnesota to Jabari Parker, Thon Maker, and Giannis “The Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee. The NBA is doing just fine, even if the end result feels inevitable. But just like everything else this season, when a post-trade deadline injury sent shock waves through the NBA, the injury in question was Kevin Durant.
A couple nights ago, playing against the Wizards in his hometown of Washington D.C. for the first time since he deliberately made it clear he did not want to play for his hometown, KD hurt his knee when he collided with teammate Zaza Pachulia. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, Durant could be out for the rest of the regular season, and perhaps longer than that. All of a sudden, things are not as certain as they seemed.
It’s impossible to write the Warriors off completely. They still have Steph Curry, they still have Klay Thompson, and they still have Draymond Green. They still have Steve Kerr as their coach. Those guys made The Finals each of the last two years without Durant, including coming back in a seven game series against Durant and the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals last spring. Even without Durant, their high-end talent in this high-end talent-driven league should make them better than most teams on any given night, but without him, their margin for error narrows significantly. Golden State also lacks the depth they enjoyed in previous seasons. In order to make room for Durant, the Warriors jettisoned Andrew Bogut (whose injury in the Finals was the straw that broke their collective back against Cleveland last spring), Harrison Barnes, and Festus Ezeli. The team they have is still very good, but the relative lack of depth was the risk they had to take by adding Durant to what could already be considered a super-team.
Durant’s injury also gives the Spurs and Rockets a better chance of crashing the party. I am not saying they are absolutely going to knock off the Warriors now, but this could make Golden State’s road that much more difficult. The Warriors currently sit at #1 in the Western Conference, with a 50-11 record. The Spurs are two and a half games behind them, at 47-13. If San Antonio could steal the #1 seed from Golden State, it would mean the Warriors potentially having to play the Rockets and the Spurs in order to get back to The Finals instead of the Rockets and Spurs having to play each other in the second round, as would happen if the standings remain the same. For Golden State, the possibility of Durant coming back and playing his first minutes in months in a second round playoff series against Houston, who could already pose as a touch match-up for them, is something that would scare me. The Warriors would much rather have San Antonio and Houston cancel each other out and only have to face one of them before their rubber match against LeBron and the Cavaliers.
I do not wish injury on anyone, and I am also not one to hold it against Kevin Durant for leaving OKC and joining the Warriors rather than beating them, but I have to admit this second half of the NBA regular season is more interesting than I expected, all because it is the Year of Kevin Durant.
The 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.
With free agent forward LaMarcus Aldridge agreeing to a four year, $80 million contract with the San Antonio Spurs after playing the first nine years of his NBA career with the Portland Trail Blazers, the biggest question of the summer in the NBA has been answered. Historically, the Spurs have not been the biggest players in this month of the NBA calendar, but this year, they hit a home run where the Lakers, Knicks, Bulls, and Heat struck out.
The Spurs are still the best. Generally speaking, if the Spurs do it, it’s probably the right move. Even in a year when they didn’t make it out of the first round of the playoffs, they’re winners, with former Popovich assistant Mike Budenholzer won the Coach of the Year Award as head coach of the Atlanta Hawks and former Spurs player Steve Kerr led the Golden State Warriors to their first NBA Title in 40 years. They haven’t missed the playoffs since drafting Tim Duncan in 1997, and by adding Aldridge, their future looks as bright as ever with Duncan heading into his 19th NBA season.
I love that Aldridge apparently met with the Los Angeles Lakers, the Lakers thought they nailed their pitch to LMA, while Aldridge left the meeting no longer interested on the Lakers. Aldridge isn’t interested in the showbiz aspect LA has to offer. He’s not interested in being anyone’s co-pilot or getting tripped by a billionaire TV writer sitting courtside. He wants to win, and if going home to Texas wasn’t enough incentive, getting to play for the best coach in basketball (and one of the five best of all time), helping to put the Spurs over the top in their quest for a sixth championship, and being the eventual replacement for Duncan certainly was. I love everything about this move. The Spurs have never been big players in free agency because they haven’t needed to be.They drafted David Robinson with the #1 overall pick in 1988 (despite the fact that he wouldn’t be able to play for at least two years to fulfill his military service requirement) and Duncan with the #1 overall pick in 1997. They have been the masters of finding great value late in the first round (or the second round, in the case of Manu Ginobili, who was taken with the #57 overall pick in 1999), and Popovich and R.C. Buford have been great at finding key role players through trades.This year’s two top free agents (excluding LeBron James and Dwayne Wade, who opted out of their contracts, but are in all likelihood staying with their respective teams, but leveraging as much money as they can as the salary cap goes up), Aldridge and Marc Gasol (all signs point to Gasol staying in Memphis, and if he moves, that will be the biggest shock of the summer) are both star players that would make great Spurs. They are versatile, unselfish, ringless, experienced, and hungry. It has never been a better time for San Antonio to dabble in the free agency game.
Duncan turned 39 in April, and Ginobili will turn 38 later this month. The window is closing for those guys, but the outlook for the Spurs is as strong as ever with Aldridge, Danny Green, and Kawhi Leonard, who just turned 24 and already has a Finals MVP on his mantle at home. The key to Red Auerbach’s Celtics was always finding the next guys. Havlicek came after Cousy, Cowens came after Russell, and there was one year that Bird and Cowens spent together before Cowens retired and Robert Parish and Kevin McHale showed up. The other recent dominant teams in the NBA, the Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers, blew things up before they got better. The Bulls especially, by letting Scottie Pippin walk in free agency and pushing Phil Jackson out, it made Michael Jordan’s decision to retire that much easier. San Antonio didn’t let that happen. Duncan and Ginobili aren’t even gone yet (although Manu hasn’t officially committed to next season yet), and they’re already building for the future while competing in the moment. It’s not easy to pull off, but it looks like it has.
Portland dies of dysentery. As exciting as LMA joining forces with Duncan and Coach Pop is, this summer is devastating for Blazers fans. They signed point guard Damian Lillard to a contract extension, but their other four starters, Aldridge (signed with San Antonio), Wesley Matthews (signed with the Dallas Mavericks), Robin Lopez (signed with the New York Knicks), and Nicolas Batum (traded to the Charlotte Hornets), are gone. It was fun while it lasted. This team looked like a legit championship contender six months ago, and has now been dismantled. The injury to Wesley Matthews might go down as one of the biggest “what ifs” in the history of sports. They were holding their own in a tough Western Conference, but one injury to a starter showed the world just how fragile ecosystem of their rotation really was. A year ago, it felt like a long shot to for Aldridge to leave Portland, but the way things fell apart showed him and his teammates just how far off they really were. They have some rebuilding to do, but they’re not the only ones in the NBA in that boat right now.
Right now, the San Antonio Spurs are the model franchise in North American professional sports. The New England Patriots are defending Super Bowl Champions, but are in the midst of a phony controversy in their joke of a league.My Patriots fan bias is outweighed by the incompetence of the NFL’s commissioner, and they’re not on the level of the Spurs. Neither are the Lakers. Neither are the Canadiens. Neither are the Red Wings. Neither are the Yankees. Neither are the St. Louis Cardinals, who find themselves being investigated by the FBI. The San Francisco Giants and Chicago Blackhawks have emerged as dynasties in their respective sports after ending championship droughts in 2010, but neither has done it for as long as the Spurs have. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Coach Pop have accomplished something truly special, as the greatest team in the post-Jordan NBA, and with the signing of Aldridge this summer, there is no reason why it should end any time soon.
Edit: I wrote this post before David West also agreed to join the Spurs. Another good veteran player who wants to win, and based on reputation, is a great fit in San Antonio. The Spurs are the best, but we already knew that.
About a year and a half ago, I wrote an article for another website about the parity, or lack thereof, in the NBA in comparison to the NFL, NHL, and MLB. My main point was that since 1980, only nine teams had won NBA Titles, less than a third of the franchises in the Association, which was fewer than any other sport. By comparison, there have been 19 different World Series Champions in baseball (and that number has not changed since I wrote that article, as the Boston Red Sox and San Francisco Giants have already won in that span), 16 different Stanley Cup Champions in hockey (and that number will not change this year, as the Los Angeles Kings won their second Cup in 2014, and the New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Anaheim Ducks, and Chicago Blackhawks have all won the Cup in the last 35 years), and 15 different Super Bowl Champions (but now it’s up to 16 after the Seattle Seahawks won their first Super Bowl in 2014). After I wrote that article, we got a sequel to the 2013 NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs, but with a very different result. In 2015, there is new blood in the NBA Finals, sort of.
As far as the television entertainment value is concerned, the 2015 NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors is a refreshing change of pace purely for the fact that our eyeballs will be watching different colored jerseys in June. It’s also refreshing because we will finally have a new champion that does not come from the Basketball Establishment, the nine franchises that have owned the last 35 years collectively. I’m a lifelong Boston Celtics fan, and I’m more than okay with the Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers, Dallas Mavericks, and Miami Heat all sitting this one out. In fact, of those teams, only the Moreyball Houston Rockets were the only ones to even make the Conference Finals. The Golden State Warriors have not won a championship or even been to The Finals since 1975. Rick Barry was their star player, Gerald Ford was President, and the world was still a few months away from Carlton Fisk’s legendary home run and the debut of Saturday Night Live. The Cleveland Cavaliers have never won a championship, and the city of Cleveland has not won a title in any of the four major sports since 1964, when the Cleveland Browns won the NFL Championship in the Pre-Super Bowl Era. The state of Ohio has not won a championship in a major professional sport since the Cincinnati Reds won the 1990 World Series. These are two title-starved fanbases.
Despite the new blood in the 2015 Finals, the DNA of the two teams that competed in 2013 and 2014 are clearly smeared all over this year’s championship series. The obvious example is LeBron James. Early in his career, LeBron made it to one NBA Finals in 2007 with the Cavs, but they did not belong in the same league as that San Antonio Spurs team. After ripping the still beating heart out of the city of Cleveland in the summer of 2010, LeBron went to the NBA Finals four straight years with the Miami Heat, after joining forces with Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, and Pat Riley. The level of competition in the Eastern Conference declined so greatly in that time due to the Celtics getting old (then getting very young), the Bulls and Pacers being cursed with devastating injuries, and teams like the Knicks, Nets, and Pistons being unable to get out of their own way in rebuilding attempts, Cleveland turned into the instant favorite to win the East despite missing the playoffs each of the four years LeBron was in South Beach when they re-signed him last summer.
Much the way the Cavaliers are a replica of the 2010-14 Heat, the Warriors emulate the San Antonio Spurs. Their game is predicated on depth, defense, and ball movement (they should look into getting that trademarked), and their head coach, Steve Kerr is a disciple of Gregg Popovich, having played for San Antonio in the early 2000s. Last summer, Kerr was the most coveted head coaching candidate despite having never coached before, and it’s clear why now. He ultimately chose the Warriors over the New York Knicks, and that looks like a no-brainer in hindsight as well. The Knicks, with Phil Jackson (an all time great coach, but a rookie executive who will turn 70 in September) running the team from the other side of the country where he lives with his fiance, who happens to be the owner of the Lakers, instead hired Derek Fisher, who like Kerr, has no coaching experience, but unlike Kerr, was playing in the Western Conference Finals for Oklahoma City this time last year and has not had the time to get proper perspective. New York was awful this year, but lost in the lottery, much the way Golden State did years ago in the first modern draft lottery when the Knicks came away with some guy named Patrick Ewing. This time, Golden State won the Steve Kerr lottery and are playing for their first NBA Title in 40 years, while New York is left with bad contracts and the dilemma of what to do with the 4th overall pick in the draft. Clearly, Kerr went to the Harrison Ford School of Choosing rather than the rival decision execution educational institution named for Julian Glover.
This Cleveland team has the same flaw every LeBron James team outside of the 2012 and 2013 Heat teams and the 2008 and 2012 USA Olympic teams has had: what is Plan B when LeBron is hurt/tired/effectively guarded? Sure, there’s Kyrie Irving, who can provide a ton of offense all by himself, but when playing against more balanced rosters that can distribute and contribute from three or four positions at any time, LeBron feels like he has to do everything himself. Kyrie Irving isn’t Dwayne Wade, and he isn’t Chris Bosh. Kevin Love was supposed to be in the picture as a third star, and they traded a budding superstar in Andrew Wiggins to get him, but Love got hurt in Game 4 of the first playoff round against the Celtics. With Love potentially leaving in free agency this summer, this has the potential to be one of those moves that really hurts in the long run. Much like when the Detroit Pistons took Darko Milicic with the 2nd pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, even if you win it all this year, with or without him, it’s hard to shake the feelings of what might have been had you not left someone like Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, or Dwayne Wade on the table. At least they have LeBron.
Last year’s NBA Finals started off competitive, but after LeBron cramped up in the first game, the Spurs took more and more control of the series, and the Heat limped their way through five games, physically and mentally drained from by the smart, unselfish dominance of the Spurs. Team basketball has been LeBron’s Kryptonite his whole career. I know that sounds harsh, but a big part of it is because he’s very rarely had a good team around him. He was drafted by Cleveland, a franchise with a very limited history of basketball success before his arrival in 2003. He didn’t grow up in a basketball culture like the Celtics or Spurs where there were other young stars that could be considered peers, so he was used to having to do everything himself. It wasn’t until his Miami stint when he had Wade and Bosh to play with that he ever had anything like “Big Three” to be a part of. In 2014, Wade and Bosh appeared to have lost a step, and once again it was LeBron vs. The World. That was good enough to get out of the flawed Eastern Conference, where their stiffest competition was an Indiana Pacers team on the verge of losing Lance Stephenson in free agency and struggling to find a consistent identity on the court, but reality hit when he ran into the Beautiful Game that is San Antonio Spurs basketball. The way to beat a team that has the best player on the planet, is by having five guys who can pass, who can play defense, and who can make each other better. San Antonio game LeBron more than he could handle in 2007, then it was the New Big Three Era Celtics and Stan Van Gundy’s Orlando Magic that gave him fits to the point where he left his native Ohio to join forces with two other All-Stars in the prime of his career. Even his first year in Miami, the Dallas Mavericks, a team of aging veterans, outworked the Heat on the floor while Rick Carlisle coached circles around Erik Spoelstra. In 2012 and 2013, LeBron was just that good. No team could beat him. The Spurs came the closest, but LeBron was the best whenever the Heat needed him to be those years. In 2014, it looked once again like LeBron didn’t have a team in Miami worthy of his greatness, and he went back home.
There are superstars who do it all themselves because they have to, and superstars who do it all themselves because they are selfish. It’s not always easy to see the difference. In hindsight, it’s fair to say that Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing never had teammates on the level of Scottie Pippin, James Worthy, Kevin McHale, or Robert Parish. Michael Jordan had Pippin, and Kobe Bryant had Shaq (and later Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum), but they still wanted to be the ones being the heroes in the end, and often that was the right call for the team. It’s unclear which camp LeBron truly belongs in, but I would like to see if he’s capable of becoming the third kind of superstar: the one who makes everyone around him better. This is the most intriguing kind of player to me, as an observer. Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Steve Nash, and Tim Duncan are the purest examples. They all played with more Hall of Famers than the selfish superstars because they made their teammates, who were good players, into Hall of Famers by winning as much as they did. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett made each other better when they joined forces in Boston, and now they’re working to make young players like John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Andrew Wiggins better with their new teams. Could LeBron join forces with another player and make themselves better? It’s hard to improve on what LeBron can do by himself, but it would be interesting to see if he ever had a teammate who could go toe-to-toe with him both athletically and intellectually.
The Golden State Warriors are built around one of these unselfish superstars. Stephen Curry is one of my favorite players in the game right now, and I’m glad to see he’s finally reaching the level I thought he could. When the Warriors picked him in 2009, he looked more like someone who should be going to his 8th grade graduation than someone getting selected in the NBA Draft, which may have been why Hasheem Thabeet, Ricky Rubio, and Jonny Flynn were drafted ahead of him (seriously, the Minnesota Timberwolves had the 5th and 6th picks in that draft, they used them both on point guards, and neither one was Steph Curry) despite being the leading scorer in college basketball that year, but he might be the best player to come out of that draft (I’ve joked about the busts, but that was also the draft where Blake Griffin went 1st and James Harden went 3rd, so it wasn’t all bad) when it’s all said and done. He’s the best shooter in the NBA, and his running of the Golden State offense makes Klay Thompson, Andrew Bogut, Draymond Green, and Harrison Barnes better players than they would be by themselves. Steve Nash would be proud. The NBA wasn’t quite ready for this kind of team when he was in his prime and turned the Phoenix Suns into this kind of team, but the season Curry has had is validation of Nash’s style.
Golden State is a joy to watch, and LeBron James is amazing to watch by himself. He’s now in The Finals for the fifth straight year, and the same question lingers: can he be better by himself than the best team in the NBA? If he can, then Cleveland will have won something for the first time since the Johnson Administration. If not, it is a victory for team basketball, a victory for the legacy of Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, a victory for up-tempo jump shooting philosophies, and a victory for a passionate and dedicated group of basketball fans who have not had much to cheer about in a long time.It should be fun, and it should be different from what we’ve seen the last few years, but not as different as you’d think.
It was fun while it lasted, but it was really sad to see how the 2014-15 season unfolded for the Portland Trail Blazers. Almost overnight, they transformed into a title contender after years of mediocrity, but their fall back to earth was as fast as their rise. A year removed from Damian Lillard’s Game 6 buzzer-beater against the Houston Rockets, their season ended in the form of a five game rout at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies, and the path ahead for the Blazers appears to be as clear as mud.
Maybe we overrated them. Maybe they were never as good as we thought. I wanted to see Portland become a powerhouse, and after their appearance on Portlandia (Blazers owner Paul Allen and general manager Neil Olshey were also featured in sketches from that episode), they were the suddenly coolest team in the NBA outside of the work of art that is the San Antonio Spurs. They had a lot of great personalities from the fearless little point guard that could in Lillard, to the perennially underrated veteran superstar LaMarcus Aldridge (Seriously, this guy hasn’t been talked about enough until recently in the discussion for best forwards in the NBA. It is tough that he plays in the same era as LeBron James, Tim Duincan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, and Anthony Davis.), to Robin Lopez, who looks like Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez’ evil twin because he his(I don’t know that he’s literally evil, but the fact that he let his hair go all Sideshow Bob on us while Brook kept his tight makes me suspicious), to tough guy Wesley Matthews. Also, they have great fans. One thing the NBA has really gotten right over the years has been putting teams in cities that are that don’t have a major league team in football, hockey, or baseball, which breeds a rabid fanbase like you see at the collegiate level or like the following hockey has in Canada. Portland is one of those cities just like San Antonio, Oklahoma City (sorry, Seattle), Memphis, Salt Lake City, and Sacramento, and Blazers fans, along with Portlandia has made me want to live there at some point. At the trade deadline, the Trail Blazers added shooting guard Arron Afflalo from the Denver Nuggets, a former UCLA standout so good that Kendrick Lamar he’s mentioned and praised in a Kendrick Lamar song, and they appeared poised for a deep playoff run. Then Matthews got hurt.
The injury to Wesley Matthews exposed just how vulnerable any NBA team is to collapse. The Blazers were a tight knit roster, artfully constructed with players in their prime (aside from Lillard, who still has a high ceiling, but his defensive shortcomings currently hold the 24 year old back from true super-stardom. They have an experienced coach in Terry Stotts, who won a championship as an assistant under Rick Carlisle in Dallas, and who has implemented a great offense in Portland. All of that is great, but the injury to Matthews, one of those hard working Marquette basketball players like Jae Crowder or Kenneth Faried, was a huge loss. Matthews was the tough guy that helped the skill guys shine, like what David West does for Indiana or Draymond Green does for Golden State.
The 2015 Trail Blazer are hardly the first championship contender to have a season and possibly a legacy derailed by injuries, and they certainly won’t be the last. My Celtics won a title in 2008 (the only one of their 17 that happened in my lifetime), had an even hotter start in 2008-09 before Kevin Garnett wrecked his knee and fell in seven games to the Dwight Howard and Stan Van Gundy-led Orlando Magic in the conference semifinals, came back older and slower the following year, but made the 2010 NBA Finals anyway before a knee injury to Kendrick Perkins in Game 6 left them with no answer for Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum. In 2011, they traded Perkins away, and had to rely on Shaq’s pushing 40 year old body, which inevitably did not hold up. In 2012, it was young Avery Bradley whose injury combined with LeBron’s arrival as a champion that derailed their last attempt at the illusive second title for that Celtics team. In the summer of 2012, Ray Allen signed with the Miami Heat, and the era was over. In Portland’s own history, injuries to Bill Walton, and more recently Greg Oden (who was drafted #1 overall, ahead of Kevin Durant in 2007) and Brandon Roy (drafted #6 overall in 2006, the same year the Trail Blazers also picked LaMarcus Aldridge at #2) have left fans and pundits alike wondering what might have been. I’m sure Blazers fans would love for a run like what the Celtics enjoyed, or even one like the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are in danger of losing Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to free agency, injury, or both, have had, but their window with this roster appears to be even smaller than it was even a couple of months ago. It’s amazing and frightening how quickly things can change.
The dark cloud looming over Portland’s summer is the impending free agency of LaMarcus Aldridge. LMA has the feel of a franchise superstar, and before a couple months ago, he was a consensus favorite to play in Portland for the rest of his career and retire as a Blazer.This is a franchise that has had a lot of talented players go through the organization, but few, if any stayed there forever, much like the Atlanta Braves. Even Hall of Famers Bill Walton (who was the MVP of the 1977 NBA Finals, Portland’s only championship) and Clyde Drexler (who helped bring Portland to the NBA Finals before losing to some guy named Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls) eventually found greener championship pastures in Boston and Houston. People had hoped that Aldridge would be the Trail Blazers’ Chipper Jones in that regard, but the way this season ended makes it a lot harder for Portland to bring him back. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and even Hank Aaron played for other teams, but Chipper was only ever a Brave. Bill Simmons wrote in one of his recent mailbag columns that Aldridge could stay in Portland out of loyalty, but as he enters his second decade in the NBA, it likely wouldn’t be the best basketball decision for a good to very good player who needs a ring to be remembered as a great player.
There are homecoming options for the Texas native if he signs with the Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs, or Houston Rockets. Dallas has an aging superstar in Dirk Nowitzki, and a roster in flux after the disaster that was trading for Rajon Rondo this season. They’ve been a consistent contender outside of their lockout-shortened 2012 championship hangover, but in the short term, they do not seem like a better basketball situation than Portland. San Antonio just lost a thrilling seven game series to the Los Angeles Clippers, after winning their fifth title in fifteen years. They have the best coach in the NBA (and the second best to build a franchise around in the history of the game after Red Auerbach, with all due respect to Phil Jackson and Pat Riley) in Gregg Popovich, they’re the only game in town the way the Trail Blazers are in Portland, they have a great mix of young and veteran talent, and he has the chance to be the “next guy” when Tim Duncan eventually retires. The burden of being the next guy is not for everyone. For every Dave Cowens to follow Bill Russell, there are a dozen discouraging examples like the revolving doors at the quarterback position the Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos experienced after Dan Marino and John Elway retired. That’s why the Houston Rockets, who have not won a title since the mid 90s with a completely different roster, and are still looking for a third All-Star caliber player to go with Dwight Howard and James Harden, might be the best place for Aldridge to land. There are also young teams in the East like Boston and Orlando that LMA could make into something exciting.
The future is murky, but it is hard to believe the Trail Blazers will be better next year than they were the last two. We will see, but there isn’t much to feel good about in Portland right now if you’re a basketball fan.