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Wednesday, 29 May 2013 23:49

Loosely connected thoughts on the NBA Playoffs and the Boston Celtics

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BREAKING NEWS – Lebron fouls out of a playoff game

In what might very well be the most shocking development in recent NBA history, Lebron James fouled out with just less than a minutes left in last night’s Heat-Pacers Game 4.  The foul that earned Lebron a seat on the bench was called on an illegal screen.  It was a call that might have been ignored earlier in the game (especially since it was perpetrated by the reigning MVP) but it was the correct call and had to be made in that situation.  The defender, Lance Stephenson, lost his balance fighting through the screen, which created a big advantage for the Heat at a critical juncture.  Lebron probably had an argument on a couple of earlier fouls he picked up and, as expected, complained after the game.

Welcome to the NBA Lebron!  You just experienced how every other player in the NBA (except for perhaps your equally pampered teammate Dwayne Wade and maybe Kobe Bryant) gets treated on a game-by-game basis.

It is worth considering that James brought the situation upon himself with his comments between Games 3 and 4 on the subject of flopping.  NBA referees, among professional sports officials, are singled out for their seeming awareness of the league’s marketing concerns and willingness to apply their whistles accordingly.  On the other hand they are, along with MLB umpires, the most visible and recognizable officials in professional sports.  That recognition understandably brings with it a heightened sensitivity to being publicly called out or shown up by players and that’s just what Lebron did by claiming that his (and his teammates’) attempts to deceive the referees and make them look foolish is just part of the game.

Speaking of Lebron….

The other significant storyline to emerge from last night’s game is the woeful 17-51 shooting by James’ supporting cast (minus Udonis Haslem and Norris Cole who combined to go 5-8).  Lebron had a decent, if unspectacular game, and as usual escaped any post-game criticism.  Since the Finals debacle against the Mavericks in 2011, whenever the Heat lose, the focus is whether the players around James did their jobs well enough.  The operating assumption is that Lebron’s overall dominance, passing skills and “unselfishness” makes life easier for the players around him and thus if those players don’t perform then he must not be getting the help he needs to succeed.

Unselfishness in the NBA is an interesting concept.  Typically, high assist numbers and the ability and willingness to pass effectively are considered markers of unselfishness in a player.  Certainly, that willingness to sacrifice your own point totals is, all else being equal, a desirable trait in a player of Lebron’s stature. However, there is a subtlety to the concept of unselfishness that is often overlooked.  What is ultimately driving that unselfishness for a particular player and what impact does this motivation have on teammates?

The unselfishness of players like Russell, Magic, and Bird was an extension of their all-consuming competitiveness and their innate basketball IQ.  These guys all inherently understood that the likelihood of winning was enhanced when every member of the team understood their role and was put in the position to perform that role as effectively as possible.  Further, they understood that their own individual abilities gave them the capacity, and the responsibility, to ensure that these teammates were put into that position.  They were unselfish because it gave them the best chance to win and winning was the only thing that mattered.

There is considerable evidence that Lebron is motivated by vanity more than competitiveness.  Sure, he wants to win, but winning itself isn’t the goal, it’s the vehicle to getting the acclaim he feels entitled to.  It’s a chore for him; one of the tasks he has to endure on his way to becoming a “global icon”.  Similarly, his unselfishness is motivated by vanity.  He recognizes that “making the players around you better” is a necessary component to the legacy he wants for himself and, like winning, it’s another chore.

Does this distinction matter?  Maybe, maybe not.  There is mounting evidence that, like Wilt Chamberlain before him, Lebron’s passing skills and assist numbers don’t actually translate into making other players around him better.  James is in a position where he is surrounded by two other top-tier talents as well as a cast of effective role-players.  If he fails to win another championship, particularly after the season that the Heat had and the numerous breaks they have gotten this postseason (no Derrick Rose, no Rajon Rondo, no Russell Westbrook, no Kobe), is it time for the national media to start questioning why, despite his individual greatness, Lebron never seems to have enough help?

Speaking of what happens if the Heat don’t win it all….

There is still a long ways to go before the 2013 NBA Championship is determined.  The Heat are still in the drivers seat in the Eastern Conference Finals and if they advance, will likely be considered the favorite in a Finals matchup with Spurs.  However, at this stage, the road has proven to be more difficult than many expected at the outset of the playoffs.  If the Heat do fall to the Pacers or reach the Finals only to lose to the Spurs, how does that change the perception of the Heat and James’ place in recent NBA history?

Heading into the playoffs, the conventional narrative was that the Heat, and James, got over the proverbial hump when they defeated Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder to secure the 2012 NBA Championship.  Their terrific regular season, particularly the tremendous second-half performance further underscored the idea that the dynasty had been launched and Lebron was on the way to getting his “not one…not two…not three…” etc.

That narrative gets turned on its head if we’re looking back a month from now at a second playoff meltdown in three years.  2012 will no longer be looked at as the year King James put it together and started his dynastic reign.  It will be rightfully be seen as the year that the Heat backed into a title by virtue of not having to face Derrick Rose and the Bulls and instead, drawing a beaten up Celtics team in the Conference Finals and a happy-to-be-there Thunder squad in the Finals.  It will cast Lebron’s legacy back into question.  Unless, that is, World Wide Wes and the national media find a way to spin the failure to James’ advantage.

Speaking of the Conference Finals teams…

It is interesting to look at the crossroads the Boston Celtics are facing this offseason in light of the composition of the teams participating in the Conference Finals.  Looking at the 37 rotation players for those four teams and how they were acquired:

·      15 were free agent signings of some form or another

·      10 were acquired by trade

·      5 were drafted in the lottery by their current team

·      5 were drafted in the mid-late first round by their current team

·      2 were drafted in the second round by their current team

This pokes a pretty serious hole in the “its better to be terrible than mediocre” argument used by the “blow it up” crowd.  These teams weren’t built on lottery appearances.  Four of the five lottery picks; Duncan, Wade, Conley, and George (Hansbrough is the fifth) are certainly significant factors in their teams’ success, but Duncan is hardly an argument for the value of dropping into the lottery.  As Celtics fans are painfully aware, the Spurs appearance in the 1997 lottery was a fluke resulting from an injury that kept David Robinson out the previous season.

There are some names on the ‘acquired by trade’ list that are significant; Hibbert, Randolph, Gasol, Leonard, Hill, and it is natural to think that lottery picks or players of that talent level were involved in those trades, but that’s not the case.  Even in the George Hill for Kawhi Leonard swap, Hill was a late first round draft pick and Leonard was the 15th pick.

The keys to building a championship caliber team are maintaining payroll and salary cap flexibility, taking advantage of opportunities that the draft and trade market present, and evaluating talent.  Sacrificing competitiveness to land in the lottery does not translate into success.

Speaking of the Celtics offseason….

The twists and turns of the Boston Celtics offseason are beginning to resemble the plot of a romantic comedy.  The future of the franchise and the NBA fates of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry, and Rajon Rondo, as well as head coach Doc Rivers and even President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge, are ensnared in a tangle of relationships.  Outsiders with suspicious motives further complicate the mess with rumors and innuendo.

Danny Ainge is weighing the franchise’s loyalty to Paul Pierce against his value on the trade market and the potential cap room his $5M buyout might provide.

Kevin Garnett’s return is contingent on Pierce’s status, unless the bone spurs in his ankles don’t respond to rest.

Doc Rivers may be flinching at the reality of life after the Big Three and with the mercurial Rajon Rondo as his leader, while NBA media personalities like Stephen A. Smith fuel the doubts.

Rondo is recovering from season-ending surgery while Ainge fends off calls from other GMs hoping to get a bargain.

The uncertainty surrounding the composition of the team next season complicates the Celtics draft plans.

All of this will sort itself out over the next 4-6 weeks but it is safe to expect some measure of drama along the way.

Speaking of the Celtics draft plans…

Last week, the Celtics began holding pre-draft workouts to evaluate potential draftees.  The collection of players they worked out were an interesting mix of point guards and centers and of projected first rounders and potential undrafted free agents.

Reports indicate the team brought in point guards Shane Larkin, Erick Green, Pierre Jackson, Peyton Siva, and Phil Pressey and centers Steven Adams, Jeff Withey, Gregory Echinique, and Colton Iverson (they also worked out shooting guards Ricky Ledo and Vander Blue).  There is also a rumor suggesting that Danny Ainge has already made a promise to German point guard Dennis Schroeder to select him if he’s available when the Celtics pick at #16.

There is speculation that these workouts indicate that the team plans to move up or down in the draft and/or try to acquire a second-round pick (they traded away two second-rounders in this draft in the deal to acquire Courtney Lee).  That speculation may very well come to pass, but there is a simpler potential explanation.

Point guard and center are clearly the team’s two biggest needs and with only one pick in the draft, it makes sense to compare the quality of players likely to be available when you pick against the quality of players at the same position that are likely to be available as undrafted free agents.  If, for example, the drop-off in value between Adams and Iverson is greater than the drop-off between Larkin and Pressey, it makes sense to use the #16 pick on the center and try to add depth at point guard by signing an undrafted free agent.

The status of Pierce and Garnett also play into the equation.  If they return, there would be more urgency to fill a hole in the rotation by drafting a big man or a backup point guard.  If, on the other hand, one or both retire, Ainge would have greater freedom to select the player with the highest upside available regardless of position or their level of NBA readiness.  Personally, I’d be happy if they were to come out of the draft with Schroeder or Adams, but both players may be out of their reach.

Rich Conte

Rich Conte has been passionately following the Boston Celtics and the NBA for almost 40 years.  That interest began with the classic Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Final, blossomed during the original Big Three era, and persisted through the lean years of the 90s and the "Thanksdad" Gaston era.  Rich has been blogging and podcasting through CLNS Radio for the past two years  and also hosts a technology podcast; The Tech Life on the Beats and Eats network.  You can follow him on Twitter @richconte and find him as a frequent contributor to the Celtics Beat Podcast discussion group on Facebook.