BOSTON — Tuesday was a fascinating day for the Boston Celtics franchise, an ode to the value of smart management, calculated risk-taking and stability.
At the draft lottery in Chicago, team president Rich Gotham shared an awkward dual-desk arrangement on the dais with Elton Brand, general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers G League team. Just a week after putting them out of the playoffs, the Celtics were at the lottery to ceremonially take a 76ers-owned pick if it landed in spot No. 2 or No. 3 .
Get ready for Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Trae Young and more top prospects.
It was the latest reminder of a trade the two teams made last June, a trade which Boston right now is winning by a couple of touchdowns — especially now that they’ll be taking the Sacramento Kings pick from the 76ers next year (and the Kings are drafting in the top 10 for the 10th consecutive year). And that on top of Celtics’ rookie Jayson Tatum having just completely outplayed rookie 76ers’ Ben Simmons while fellow rookie Markelle Fultz watched from the bench.
Then in the nightcap up in TD Garden, Boston and its youthful, team-centric and expectation-free roster punished an older, slower and definitely less-happier Cleveland Cavaliers team, 107-94, to take a 2-0 lead in the East Finals.
It was set against the backdrop of the Cavs staying at the No. 8 spot in the same lottery, the remaining business from the Kyrie Irving trade settled. The Celtics controlled the Brooklyn Nets pick for three straight seasons. It landed them Jaylen Brown, Tatum and, via trade, Irving. Those three players may end up being the foundation of a championship team plus whomever they use that Kings pick on a year from now.
The last player selected with the No. 8 pick to be an All-Star was Vin Baker, taken in the 1993 draft. The dye isn’t cast but the Cavs look to have an uphill battle to emerge from the Irving trade feeling positive.
When the Celtics players were frolicking to the basket in a second-half surge Tuesday, it wasn’t just the circumstances, the relentless crowd or Boston PA man Eddie Palladino’s flowing voice that were getting under their skin. It was each other.
The Cavs aren’t just battling the ascendant Celtics, they are battling an enemy that has dogged LeBron James teams in the past: It’s organizational fatigue, and it’s very real.
Like the Miami Heat before them and to a certain extent the last generation’s Cavs, it seems to be a side effect of having James. Where the quest for championships combined with a lack of security over keeping him leads to some win-now, pay-later decisions.
Acquire older veterans instead of developing younger players. Sign players to large contracts because they fit with James or because they can’t be replaced if they leave in free agency. Trade draft picks to get veterans or as a way to relieve payroll pressure. Deal with the stress of repeated long playoff runs, endure massive media scrutiny, manage varying degrees of drama.
The players get sick of each other. They get sick of the coach. The coach gets sick of the players. As a group they lose sight of the process of the season because it becomes monotonous. There are highs, with James teams there are always highs, but the baggage everyone is carrying makes the flight that much harder to maintain.
Pat Riley, who has seen about everything that can be seen in professional basketball, described this cyclical struggle of great teams as “the disease of me.” And even Riley, who wrote the book on it, couldn’t stop some of it from hitting his Heat franchise before James left town. The 2014 Heat team James got to the Finals was exhausted mentally, physically and spiritually by the end.
Then there the issues unique to the Cavs, where the previous successful general manager, David Griffin, and the owner, Dan Gilbert, couldn’t work together. The owner and James don’t trust each other. The new general manager, Koby Altman, was put in a next to impossible situation.
All of it has worn them out, all of them. Even the new players – George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance – they’ve gotten roasted for their inconsistent or nonexistent play. But they have to feel like they jumped on the back of a thoroughbred in the closing stretch, everything is moving so fast and is so disorienting from what they were used to.
These challenges have risen for the Cavs’ Western counterpart, Golden State Warriors, this year, too. Coach Steve Kerr has said repeatedly this has been his most challenging season. He’s tried every trick he knows to keep that group together, right down to letting players run huddles. But the difference in the influx of a talent like Durant vs. the departure of a talent like Irving is the difference that means everything.
Someday, this Celtics group might be there. When aging players want one last deal or all the young players want to be paid or when some get tired of coach Brad Stevens getting all the credit all the time. But that day isn’t today, this team is on the way up and enjoying the honeymoon and it shows it every facet of the game. They play without burden and it’s overwhelming the Cavs so far.
There’s no doubt with James as the driving force, the Cavs play like they have a certain mental edge over opponents. They’ve inflicted so much damage over the years to teams like the Toronto Raptors, Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls, et al.
But like the alpha male lion who had to fight his way to the head of the pride, the battles build up scar tissue and the younger upstarts circle plotting for a chance to shove him out. At some point, it catches up with you. That upstart, it is starting to appear, is the Celtics.
Calling a playoff series over too early is a classic mistake. Simply assuming the Celtics, who haven’t played well on the road in the postseason and still have some weaknesses that can catch them, will win two of the next five games is dangerous. The Cavs are hard to beat four in seven, they’ve won 12 series in the last four years after all. James has rescued his teams from worse spots.
But no matter how this conference finals plays out, it doesn’t change the organizational fatigue the Cavs are fighting. It’s hanging on them like a weight. Combined with their diminished talent from a season ago, it’s making this playoff run feel like a trudge.