Posted Dec 22 2009 8:04AM
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Gifts? The players and coaches on the Celtics and Magic, who play Christmas Day, have known a few.
At some point in their careers, they received an unexpected present, something that helped each of them reach this point. The box with the bow on top didn't arrive under the tree, and in most cases it didn't even arrive in December. But without it, these players and coaches wouldn't be on our TV screens this Friday, spreading good basketball cheer. And in some specific cases, they wouldn't still be in the league, period.
It's just something to think about as Dwight Howard prepares to trade elbows with Kevin Garnett, and Doc Rivers returns home (his family lives year-round in Orlando), and Jameer Nelson gets a good test here in his comeback week against Rajon Rondo, and the rest of the East braces to see which of these two contenders will emerge with the upper hand.
And so here are the main principals involved, the basketball gifts they received and why they'll be smiling (along with your children) come Christmas morning:
It's hard to believe, but just as little as three years ago, the Celtics were in chaos. They won only 24 games, second-lowest in their storied history; Paul Pierce wanted out and Ainge was under pressure to do something. The team, which had just been sold a few years before, was clearly at a crossroad.
And then Santa arrived, in the form of old friend Kevin McHale, Ainge's former Celtic teammate, and then the Minnesota GM. Only they can answer if their relationship had anything to do with McHale sending Garnett to Boston, but it's worked out rather well for Ainge and the Celtics, don't you think?
McHale is guaranteed at least two cards every Christmas -- you can bet that KG sends him a thank you note every time he polishes his championship ring.
In 1999-2000, he was a rookie head coach in Orlando with no previous experience. And his team had no impact players. But virtually the entire roster was playing for contracts, however, which is a great motivator in itself -- hustle wasn't an issue. The Magic broke even at 41-41 and for the first time that anyone could recall in professional sports, the coach of the year award was given to someone who didn't have a winning season or make the playoffs.
This award was Doc's gift, because it gave him lasting credibility in lean times later in Orlando and helped him get hired in Boston. Also, make that three cards that McHale gets every Christmas.
An unsettled ownership and arena situation in Seattle was a blessing in disguise for Allen. Until then, he was an All-Star guard who didn't have enough help to get past the great Laker and San Antonio teams in the 2000s. The controversy and doubt surrounding the franchise forced the Sonics to tighten the finances and part ways with Allen, sending him to Boston, where he joined KG and Pierce. In shooting terms, winning a championship for Allen went from a full-court heave to a layup.
Billy Donovan was all set to inherit Dwight Howard and coach the Magic until something strange happened: He had a change of heart. In hindsight, he'd rather go back to the University of Florida and spend his time sweet-talking 18-year-olds into playing college basketball at a football school.
What a surprise, for both the Magic and also an unemployed coach who missed out on a championship ring in Miami in 2006 after suddenly resigning a month into the season to (cough, cough) spend time with his family. A "gift" opening resulted in Van Gundy landing one of the best jobs in the NBA.
Two summers ago the Nets pledged allegiance to their franchise player when they gave Carter $62 million over four years. They put him on billboards and made him the face of the franchise in the post-Jason Kidd era. About a year into that deal, they realized he cost too much for a team bleeding money. So in the process of dumping salaries (Richard Jefferson's included), Carter was sent to a ready-made championship contender. Carter never saw this gift coming back in 2007, when his starting center was Jason Collins. Now it's Howard.
In order to get Carter from the Nets, the Magic had to sacrifice Rafer Alston, their backup point guard, which created an opening and a gift for a semi-retired player. J-Will lived nearby and more importantly, came cheap. He went from sitting on the couch watching his kids to sitting on the Magic bench. And when Nelson went down with an injury he suddenly became a starter. If all goes well, this gift may keep on giving, right through June.
In a far different economic time, giving $118 million to a borderline All-Star apparently wasn't too outrageous, because Lewis has the contract to prove it. Not only did Orlando have the money to force a sign-and-trade with the troubled Sonics, they also had a reason: Howard needed help. With money drying up everywhere in sports, would he even make half that amount nowadays? Lewis is very thankful for the timing and the circumstances that led him to Orlando.
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here.
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