This is my preview for the 2017 NBA Finals, the third straight between the Warriors and Cavaliers. For my preview of the 2015 NBA Finals, click here.
For my reaction to Kevin Durant signing with the Warriors and the 2016 NBA Finals, click here.
For my preview of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, click here.
The wait is almost over. All we went through this NBA season, from Russell Westbrook’s Triple Double Tear through the regular season, to the collaboration of James Harden and Mike D’Antoni, to Kawhi Leonard’s assertion in San Antonio in the first year post-Tim Duncan, to Brad Stevens’ overachieving Boston Celtics, to Doc Rivers’ underachieving (and likely soon to be dismantled) Los Angeles Clippers, was just a precursor to the third consecutive NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Warriors and Cavs blew through their conferences (in 12 and 13 games, respectively), there was a week between the last conference championship game and the first game of the Finals, giving basketball fans a Super Bowl-like layoff to think, and overthink, about the upcoming series. In that time, I keep going back and forth, over and over like this:
Golden State has more talent, and dominated the Western Conference with and without Kevin Durant. Westbrook felt burned by Durant leaving OKC and his stunning, anger-fueled 2016-17 season was one for the ages, but in spite of that, the Thunder were no match for the Houston Rockets, who were no match for the San Antonio Spurs, who, once Kawhi Leonard got hurt, did not belong on the same floor as the Golden State Warriors. This team is amazing, and they will dispose of Cleveland the same way they disposed of Portland, Utah, and San Antonio.
Yeah, but Cleveland has LeBron James, the best and most complete player in the NBA. Golden State may have more talent, but Cleveland has the league’s greatest singular talent. It’s hard to bet against LeBron right now.
Cleveland overcame a 1-3 series deficit last season against a record-breaking 73-win Warriors team last year, and in their third year together, LeBron and Kevin Love have figured out how to play better together than they ever have. Aside from a game and a half in the Conference Finals against the Celtics (if that), they have been in control the entire playoffs, and they already know they can win Game 7 in Oakland, in an NBA where road teams went 35 years without winning a Game 7 of the Finals.
Yeah, but the Warriors were well on their way to beating the Cavs in five games last year before Draymond Green’s suspension, and in the offseason they were able to replace Harrison Barnes with Kevin Durant. Kevin Durant.
Every time I talk myself into one team, I remember the team they are playing against. In 2017, these are the only two teams that matter, and now we get to see what they can do. Unlike previous years, both teams go into the series relatively healthy, and I expect this game to go seven games once again.
I am most interested in seeing how each team reacts when things do not go as planned. Aside from a brief moment against the Celtics, and the first half of the first game against the Spurs, neither team has faced any playoff adversity since the 2016 Finals. In a weird way, all the pressure is on the Warriors. It was Golden State, after all, who choked away a 3-1 lead last season. And it was Kevin Durant, after all, who as the biggest star on OKC, choked away a 3-1 series lead against Golden State in the Western Conference Finals, some six weeks before joining forces with them. The Warriors were the superior team, but too many little things went wrong. Steph Curry was banged up. Andre Igoudala was banged up. Draymond Green got suspended. Harrison Barnes had a crisis of confidence. Andrew Bogut got injured mid-series. Bogut was the fifth or sixth most important player for the Warriors, yet his injury was the last straw.
Durant’s first trip to the NBA Finals ended in defeat at the hands of LeBron James and the Miami Heat in 2012. It ended with LeBron finally getting over the hump in his third trip to the Finals. In 2012, it looked like Durant and the Thunder would be the NBA’s next great team, but between a polarizing trade, bad injury luck, the resurgence of the Spurs, and the rise of the Warriors, they never made it back. With Durant’s decision to sign with Golden State last summer, the KD and Russ Era Thunder became just another historical footnote like the Shaq and Penny Orlando Magic, the Payton and Kemp Seattle Supersonics, and the Olajuwon and Sampson Rockets, just another good young team that was never good enough, and broke up before their time. Joining the Warriors turned a juggernaut into a super-juggernaut, if there could be such a thing, but with immense talent comes immense pressure.
For the first time in his career, LeBron is not the focal point of scrutiny. He has won and lost in the NBA Finals in every way imaginable. His mostly unfair label as a choker was officially removed with Cleveland’s comeback win (and the city’s first title in any sport in over 50 years), leaving Miami’s 2011 Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks even more baffling than it was at the time. If the Cavs win this year, LeBron will have two Finals wins over Curry, and two Finals wins over Durant. If the Cavs lose, LeBron has still beaten all of Golden State’s stars in the Finals. If the Warriors win, it was because they were supposed to. They have put together three of the greatest regular seasons of all time together, and their enthusiasm for the three point shot will have changed basketball forever. If the Warriors lose, they are the Atlanta Braves of basketball. They may have been great, and they may have been iconic, but they should have more than one title when it’s all said and done, especially since they added Durant.
The more I think about it, the more I think anything can happen, and anything will happen. I would be most surprised if either team swept the other, but then again, both teams have done quite a bit of sweeping. No matter what happens, it should be epic. We waited for this series since the moment the 2016 Finals ended. After the season we went through, it better be epic.
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.
The other day, I got one of those notifications from Facebook that it was the two year anniversary of something I had posted, and asking if I wanted to re-share it for the sake of nostalgia. Now normally, these notifications are from much longer ago than 2014. By that point in my life, I had been over Facebook for a while. I’ve been on the social network since I was a high school senior in 2008, and posted a lot more things in the first couple years than I have since. By 2014, I was 24 years old. By December, I had just wrapped up my first semester back in college after a year and a half off (And my undergraduate journey at Fitchburg State University, that started when I transferred there from UMass Dartmouth in 2009, finally came to an end with graduation last week. Took me long enough!), and I even had the same smartphone I currently use at that stage in the game. I was working second shift at the time, and therefore did not have much of a social life, and it was a good six months before the year-and-a-half where seemingly all of my friends started getting married, so what could it have possibly been?
Oh, that’s right. I realized as soon as I clicked on it. Of course it was just me posting an article from this very blog for my Facebook friends to read. It was this week two years ago that the Boston Celtics traded Rajon Rondo, at the time the team’s captain and starting point guard and the last remaining player from the 2008 NBA Championship Celtics squad, to the Dallas Mavericks. Of the players Boston got in return, Jameer Nelson and Brandan Wright were not long for the team, but Jae Crowder has carved out an important role for himself on the Celtics as they have made the playoffs both years since the trade.
In the article, I shamelessly piggybacked onto a take from Bill Simmons, a bad habit I continue to do to this day, including in this post, but I’ll get to that in a minute. The big thing I got wrong, looking back on my post reacting to the Rondo Trade is how badly I missed on how Rondo would fit in Dallas, but I take solace in the fact that I was hardly the only one. If Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and general manager Donnie Nelson, who are not idiots and who have one of the better run franchises in the NBA, knew how badly Rondo would fit, they never would have pulled the trigger on the trade. After getting bounced by the in-state rival Houston Rockets, Rondo signed a one-year deal with the Sacramento Kings in the summer of 2015, and a one-year deal with the Chicago Bulls in the summer of 2016, joining forces with former nemesis Dwyane Wade in what has to be one of the most awkward locker room dynamics the NBA has seen that does not, to my knowledge, involve a player having an affair with a teammate’s wife or mother.
While I thought adding Rondo, one of the great playmaking point guards of his generation, to what was already a very efficient offense built around Dirk Nowitzki, Monta Ellis, and Tyson Chandler (Who has never been able to find a more perfect basketball situation than the one he had playing for Rick Carlisle and alongside Dirk. I know Phoenix offered him a lot of money in the summer of 2015, but he should have learned from leaving Dallas the first time that there is no greener pasture for him. If Chandler played his whole career as Dirk’s center, he’d be a no-brainer for the Hall of Fame, if you ask me.), but Rondo’s need to have the ball in his hands to make things happen coupled with his poor shooting, fear of driving to the basket due to his even graver fear of taking foul shots was too many moving parts, and things went off the rails in Dallas.
On the other hand, my frustration with Rondo when he was with the Celtics is well documented, and my feelings on this aspect of Rondo’s game made me want the C’s to trade him away two years before it actually happened, so I may have been wrong initially about how Rondo would fit in Dallas, but I also feel like it validated many of the things I had been saying about the player at parties for years, going back to when the Celtics were title contenders…which brings me to the real reason I am writing about all of this today.
The Boston Celtics have been in some sort of rebuild mode, whether they were ready to admit it or not, since time expired in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals at Staples Center, when the Los Angeles Lakers were handed their second Larry O’Brien Trophy in a three year span, instead of the Celtics. Before the end of the month, the Celtics would draft Avery Bradley, and were prepared to let Tony Allen walk in free agency when he was well on his way to becoming the NBA’s best defensive guard.
In July of that year, Allen signed with the Memphis Grizzlies, but the far bigger story was The Decision. With LeBron James and Chris Bosh joining forces with Dwyane Wade and taking their talents to South Beach, the landscape of the Eastern Conference was drastically altered, and while the Celtics remained competitive for a few more years, their championship window was effectively shut, as no LeBron-less team has come out of the East since the 2010 Celtics.
I do not know for sure, as I have never talked to him and cannot pretend to read his mind, but I think Celtics GM Danny Ainge realized just how futile resistance to the powerhouse Heat would be in the long term when he traded starting center and fan favorite Kendrick Perkins to the Oklahoma City Thunder, with the primary return in the trade being Jeff Green, at the trade deadline in 2011. The move cost the Celtics a legitimate chance at going back to the Finals that year, as their big man hopes without Perk were hinged entirely on the health of a 39 year old Shaquille O’Neal, who would retire from basketball that summer, but Ainge was already in the process of turning the roster into more desirable assets, as the New Big Three could not sustain the Celtics in the 2010s.
Ray Allen would join LeBron and the Miami Heat in the summer of 2012. In 2012-13, the Ray Allen-less Celtics stumbled out of the gate, and my frustration with Rajon Rondo was at an all time high, but after Rondo got injured, Garnett and Pierce rallied together and turned out another playoff berth. It wasn’t enough, though, and the Celtics were eliminated in the first round by the New York Knicks, and my first real blog post in this space was acknowledging the end of the Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce Era in Boston in the spring of 2013. In the summer of 2013, the Celtics made big changes, trading Garnett and Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets for some forgettable players and a boatload of first round draft picks, that have so far turned into James Young and Jaylen Brown, and the Celtics still own the right to swap picks with Brooklyn in 2017 and have Brooklyn’s first round pick in 2018 on top of that. They also traded head coach Doc Rivers to the Los Angeles Clippers, and hired Brad Stevens away from Butler University to oversee the development of the future of Celtics basketball. A year and a half later, the Celtics traded Rondo to Dallas, and I thought it meant the rebuild was in full swing. Two years later, it still feels like the Celtics are still stuck in the middle with no obvious way out.
All of this has happened before, and Celtics fans have been lulled into patience. Danny Ainge was hired in 2003, and tore down what had been a perennial playoff team but hardly a title contender when he traded away Antoine Walker, and spent years collecting assets before making two big splashes in the summer of 2007, when he acquired Ray Allen from Seattle and Kevin Garnett from Minnesota. If it feels like things are taking longer than it did the last time, it’s because it is. Trader Danny’s reputation around the NBA now is such that teams are more wary of making a deal with him than they were nearly a decade ago. Generally, NBA front offices have gotten smarter since 2007, and while the Celtics are still regarded as one of the “smart teams,” that is a much larger group than it used to be.
Look at the big trades Ainge has made. Former Celtics Assistant GM (and son of legendary Boston Globe sportswriter Will McDonough) Ryan McDonough has to be on the hot seat in Phoenix given the way the franchise has struggled since he basically gave Isaiah Thomas away to the Celtics in 2015. Former Brooklyn Nets GM Billy King has “former” attached to his name largely because of how badly the Garnett/Pierce trade set the Nets back on what was a long-shot short-term championship gamble at best.
There is no friend and former Celtics teammate like Kevin McHale being strong-armed by his team’s ownership to trade their franchise superstar and rebuild the way McHale was in 2007. And before you say Larry Bird is running the Pacers and Paul George’s future in Indiana remains uncertain, Think about this: Larry Legend watched what McHale went through in the KG Trade Saga, ultimately having to choose between comparable but not great offers from the Celtics and Lakers, with Danny Ainge, the kid brother to the Original Big Three, now running the show in Boston, trying to think what Red Auerbach, the man who drafted Bird, McHale, and Ainge, and who had past away at the start of the 2006-07 season, would do or want him to do in that situation, and decided to show his loyalty to the team he played his entire Hall of Fame career for and trade KG to the Celtics instead of the Lakers. Since then, Bird saw McHale lose his job as GM of the Minnesota Timberwolves, do TV for a little while, coach the Houston Rockets for a few years before getting fired in 2015 because Dwight Howard and James Harden quit on him, and is now out of basketball. Do you really think Larry Bird, who has been running the Indiana Pacers virtually this entire century, would in a million years let himself fall into the same trap Kevin McHale did trading a franchise superstar to Danny Ainge and the Celtics, and when Paul George leads the C’s to a record 18th Title, have every talking head on ESPN and FS1, and every Internet commenter make the same joke about how the Celtics better give Larry Bird a ring the way they did with McHale in 2008? That’s never going to happen.
The most intriguing trade option out there is DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins of the Sacramento Kings. Simmons wrote two parallel columns a couple weeks ago, one where the Celtics traded for Cousins and they were the perfect match for one another, and Boston becomes an NBA power just as Cleveland and Golden State slide into a decline, and another where it’s an unmitigated disaster, and Danny Ainge’s future is as a color commentator on TNT, and Brad Stevens replaces Coach K as the head coach at Duke. While the columns were entirely speculative, it sure feels like Cousins-to-the-Celtics could only go one of those two ways, with no in between.
Cousins is supremely talented, was a college star at Kentucky, was picked 5th overall by the Kings in the 2010 NBA Draft, but has been the victim of maybe the most comically incompetent basketball operations in the NBA, is prone to tantrums, clashing with coaches, teammates, and members of the media. It is hard to tell if he is a product of his environment or if his environment is the product of him, to borrow from Jack Nicholson in The Departed, but I tend to believe that it’s the former. The Kings were inept long before Boogie got there, and their revolving door of coaches, executives, and owners since he arrived would have made people think less of any star player. Not to say he’d have Boogie’s reputation, but if the first six years of Tim Duncan’s career were in that kind of chaos, Tim Duncan would not be the Tim Duncan we know.
If I were Danny Ainge, I would go for it. I think the unmitigated disaster option, while frightening, is a risk worth taking. At any rate, the Celtics are still not any closer to their next contending team than they were two years ago, and it is time to shake things up. The Celtics are a playoff team, but not a true contender. They have nice pieces, and good surrounding talent like Al Horford, Jae Crowder, and Isaiah Thomas. They have promising young talent in Jaylen Brown, who has impressed in his limited minutes, but they still do not have a superstar, and it’s nearly impossible to win in the NBA without a superstar. I realize it’s harder in 2016 to do what he was able to do in 2007, but I am getting tired of being in the middle. Something needs to be done.
In a year when sports fans said goodbye to Peyton Manning and Kobe Bryant, and much more quietly to Tim Duncan, in a year when we get to sit back and appreciate the late-career renaissances of David Ortiz, Ichiro Suzuki, Dirk Nowitzki, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Joe Thornton, and Jaromir Jagr, and in a week we learned for sure that this the end for Mark Texeira (retiring at the end of the season), Prince Fielder (retiring effective immediately due to neck problems), and likely also Tim Lincecum (designated for assignment by the Angels after posting an earned run average over nine), the weirdest departure is that of New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez… because of course it is. He wouldn’t go down any other way.
A-Rod’s career is coming to an abrupt end this week, after playing the series this week at Fenway Park against the Red Sox, Rodriguez will play one more home game in front of the New York crowd, and then will begin a new career as a special adviser to the Yankees’ organization for the duration of his playing contract. No chase for 700 or 714 or 755 or 763 home runs. No farewell tour. Just one last chance to be heckled by the Boston fans who have been heckling him since 2004, and one last chance to be cheered by the New York fans who I imagine could not have felt good about this guy being one of the faces of their storied franchise for over a decade. It’s just weird. Nothing ever totally added up with this guy.
I’ve been aware of Alex Rodriguez for as long as I’ve been following baseball full time (my earliest recollection of watching the games and knowing what was going on was the 1996 World Series between the Yankees and Atlanta Braves, when I was six, but I did not start following baseball day to day until the 1998 season, when I was eight), and I always knew he was a supremely talented player from his early days with the Seattle Mariners and his big free agent payday with the Texas Rangers, when his ten year $252 million contract shattered the record for player contracts in North American professional sports set by Kevin Garnett, but I did not hate him until 2004. The deal that the Red Sox tried to make to acquire A-Rod, would have changed the landscape of Major League Baseball, with the Sox having A-Rod at shortstop in 2004, and without Nomar Garciaparra available to be the trade chip to fill out the roster with role players, without Manny to be behind Ortiz in the lineup right when David Ortiz was becoming David Ortiz, and without Jon Lester, their lefty ace of the future. A-Rod would have come into Boston with enormously high expectations, would have had to replace Nomar and Manny, and would have had to deal with 86 and counting years of emotional baggage. In hindsight, it’s hard to imagine the Red Sox winning the World Series in 2004 and 2007 without Manny, and hard to see the Red Sox winning the World Series in 2007 and 2013 without Lester. How would the ALCS comeback have even started? Do they even have Dave Roberts on the roster to steal second base if Nomar had already been dealt the winter before? Things turned out alright for the Red Sox without A-Rod, and I cannot see the A-Rod Era in Boston going any better than the last 12 years when A-Rod was in pinstripes went, but in the moment it was a slight that he ended up in New York that every Boston fan took personally on some level.
A-Rod was easy to root against because he was so insanely talented, yet so often disappeared from big moments. Michael Baumann of The Ringer wrote this week among other things about the bad week for star players who came to prominence in the late-2000s with unconventional bodies, with the end coming for the comically oversized Prince Fielder and the comically undersized Tim Lincecum, but A-Rod had it all from a physical standpoint. He was one of the seven most purely talented position players Major League Baseball has seen in the last 20 years, along with Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, Roberto Alomar, Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, and Mike Trout. While ballplayers like the inaptly named Fielder (Prince Fielder was so fat, he made Mo Vaughn look like Jacoby Ellsbury.) and Lincecum (Tim Lincecum was so small he made Pedro Martinez look like Roger Clemens. I think I’m done fat-shaming and skinny-shaming for this column. Moving on.) were praised for getting the most they could out of their unconventional baseball bodies, those seven guys had (and still have in the cases of Miggy and Trout) astronomically high expectations for their careers because they had it all. Griffey and Alomar are in Cooperstown already, Bonds should be, Pujols has cemented his status as a no-brainer Hall of Famer despite being on the decline, and Cabrera and Trout are well on their way. A-Rod has the numbers for the Hall of Fame, but it certainly feels like he never quite reached his full potential. There’s also the steroids thing, and being suspended for the entire 2014 season for PEDs. I’m on record as being pro-steroids to a degree. I’m a Barry Bonds apologist and a Manny Ramirez apologist, but the combination of A-Rod’s steroid use and his constant trying to shape his own image to be something he’s not (His tendency to try too hard to act human has given him comparisons to both Tom Cruise and Ted Cruz.) is what bothers me about him. He’s always acting because he wants people to like him. That’s something I can relate to, but on that level it’s annoying. Be yourself, man. Stop doing this weird Derek Jeter/Cal Ripken impression so people will like you more.
The quintessential moments of A-Rod’s career came in the 2004 season, and they are not clutch, game-winning hits to bring the Yankees to glory or anything like that. First, there was the fight with Jason Varitek after getting hit by a Bronson Arroyo pitch in a midsummer game against the Red Sox, and then of course, there was The Slap. In a play also involving Bronson Arroyo, A-Rod became A-Fraud in the eyes of Red Sox fans (I was proud of myself for coming up with that nickname in 2004 when I was a high school freshman, only to go on sports message boards years later and realize everyone else on the Internet was thinking it, too.). He swats the ball out Arroyo’s glove, Jeter goes around to score, the Yankees win again. That’s what was going to happen. 86 years without a World Series title, and this guy who was supposed to be our shortstop in 2004 swats it away from us in the cheapest way possible. Fortunately Tito came out of the dugout and argued, and fortunately another umpire had a better angle and overturned the play. The look on A-Rod’s face, caught red-handed in a lie, but still defiant enough to act like he was the one being persecuted, was Alex Rodriguez in a nutshell. He could have led the Yankees to five World Series titles, he could have hit 800 home runs, he could have never taken a performance enhancing drug in his life, and that defiance in the face of false persecution act on second base at Fenway Park on that October night would still be my lasting impression of him.
The difference between Alex Rodriguez and other sports villains is that nobody wants to defend him. San Francisco fans still love Barry Bonds. Lakers fans will always love Kobe. Patriots fans will die on a metaphorical hill for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Yankees fans don’t like A-Rod either. Brian Cashman couldn’t stand him. Joe Girardi couldn’t stand him. They couldn’t even wait to for the season to end to push him out. A-Rod hasn’t said he’s retiring, just that his time with the Yankees ends this week. Might he try a comeback with a team like the Miami Marlins? He’s beyond washed up, but he’s close to 700 home runs. Leave it to A-Rod to write a weird ending for himself.