It being late May, the sun rose first this morning in the continental United States at Mars Hill, Maine, around 4:44 a.m., 38 minutes after first light. At various other times of the year it rises first at Maine’s Cadillac Mountain, or West Quoddy Head Lighthouse in the city of Lubec, population 1,359. But, always, it rises.
Apparently, then, an epoch did not have to take place before true competition returned to the NBA.
The last two years have been filled with caterwauling about that subject that would make the Magical Mr. Mistoffelees from Cats blanch. Kevin Durant’s decision to join the Warriors in 2016, combined with LeBron James’s dominance with the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference, had both veteran team officials around the league and many who cover it in a state of panic about the supposed end of real battles for championships. And three straight Warriors-Cavaliers Finals only added fuel to the perception that the Dubs had become unbeatable, and the Cavaliers unthreatened in the East.
But just two years after Durant disclosed his next chapter in The Players’ Tribune, his Warriors were staring down a seventh game on the road against the Rockets, a team built specifically to take Golden State down. James and the Cavs were also in an elimination game on the road, in Boston, against the upstart Celtics, whose future looks limitless in the East, and which beat an equally emerging power in Philadelphia in the second round. It marked the first time there were two Game 7s in the conference finals since 1979.
That James and his Cavs, even without Kevin Love, still triumphed over Boston to clinch an eighth straight Finals appearance for his Eastern Conference teams since 2010, is further testament to his greatness. But it doesn’t mean he wasn’t stretched almost to the breaking point this postseason, having been taxed to the limit by Indiana in the first round before having to go seven against Boston — which, it must be stated, made it to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals with a bunch of kids leading the way — and without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
It did not take a generation for someone to figure out how to threaten the Warriors’ hegemony, and create a team that could jam up the gears of Golden State’s point scoring, league-changing machine. With the Celtics and 76ers rapidly rising in the East, James does not look to have an unending string of Finals appearances in the future.
"The fact that Boston is winning with such young players in high pressure situations gives young teams hope.”
Challenging Golden State and Cleveland didn’t take a miracle or an act of Congress. It took planning, aggressive dealmaking and some good fortune. The rise of the Rockets and Celtics does not mean building such a team is easy, or sustainable; everyone is an ACL away from the Lottery. But it can be done.
“It obviously gives hope,” one Western Conference executive said over the weekend, “but I think you have to dig deeper and see how each of them were able to build their respective teams.”
True. Each was built completely differently from the other.
Boston, of course, picked the Nets clean in that 2013 trade that centered on Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett going to Brooklyn in exchange for a sack full of first-round picks — in 2014, 2016 and 2018, with the right to swap firsts with Brooklyn in 2017. The Celtics didn’t hit on all of them; the first first-rounder was used in 2014 on James Young, who didn’t pan out for the Cs after two-plus seasons.
But Celtics president Danny Ainge took Jaylen Brown with what became the third pick overall in the 2016 Draft, then used the flipped 2017 pick from Brooklyn — which became the top pick overall in the ’17 Draft — in a deal with Philly to move down to three, where Ainge took Duke’s Jayson Tatum. (Ainge got yet another first out of the deal, from Philly, that will be conveyed to Boston in 2019 — either the Sixers’ own pick or the first-round pick Philadelphia has via Sacramento, whichever is better). And Boston took the 2018 first from Brooklyn and put it in the package that netted Irving from Cleveland last summer.
Yet Boston’s successful pursuit of Al Horford (2016) and Gordon Hayward (2017) in free agency was just as important. The Celtics didn’t get Durant, but they got the next best prizes available in successive years. And Ainge’s biggest, boldest acquisition, of course, was getting Brad Stevens out of Butler and watching him blossom into one of the NBA’s top three or four coaches seemingly overnight.
“Boston having lottery picks without bottoming out and selecting the right players and having a high performing culture driving veteran with Horford has been critical to their success,” the Western Conference executive said. “The Brooklyn trade is the gift that keeps giving. The fact that Boston is winning with such young players in high pressure situations gives young teams hope.”
Houston’s build started with the acquisition of James Harden from Oklahoma City in 2012, along with the ascension of GM Daryl Morey and his belief in the primacy of the three. The Rockets have built Harden’s supporting cast mainly through trades (Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza) and free agency (P.J. Tucker, Luc Mbah a Moute), but they hit big in the Draft in 2014 with Clint Capela, taken late in the first round.
“Once they landed two stars, they have done an excellent job of surrounding them with enough shooting and toughness,” the West executive said, “along with the continued emergence of Capela who has become a top 7-8 center in the league.”
Teams other than Houston and Boston hadn’t completely abandoned ship in pursuit of the Warriors and Cavs. Oklahoma City went all in to compete this year with its acquisitions of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony; Toronto maxed out in the regular season; New Orleans was a buyer at the trade deadline, bringing in Nikola Mirotic after DeMarcus Cousins’s season-ending Achilles’ injury. But the Raptors flamed out again against the Cavs in the playoffs, costing Dwane Casey his job, and the Pelicans were game but ultimately not good enough to beat Golden State in the second round.
The question for those teams now — and for upstarts like Indy in the East and Portland in the West — is what their next steps will be to continue improving and to provide potential real challenges to the elite teams in their conferences.
It’s hard enough to build a team good enough to consistently win 50 games every year; San Antonio’s 18-year streak of 50-win seasons is an outlier of gigantic proportion. The meat of the Nowitzki Era in Dallas — 11 straight years of 50 or more wins between 2000 and 2011 — is such a hard thing to consistently sell to everyone if you don’t break through for championships: to ownership, to fans, to media (though Mark Cuban, Donnie Nelson, Rick Carlisle and Nowitzki managed to do so in Dallas for the most part before finally being rewarded in 2011).
The fog of history tends to obscure the details and gray areas of all of us. The Bulls, if you listen to some who weren’t there at the time, were never challenged during the Jordan Era, never met opponents who competed with them at the highest level. And that’s just so much nonsense. The Knicks and Heat and Pacers each pushed Chicago in the East before the Bulls triumphed, and the Jazz were seconds away from forcing a seventh game in 1998, which would have been played in Salt Lake City.
But those Jazz teams led by Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone — 11 50-win seasons, two Finals appearances, three Western Conference finals appearances — would likely never get that much time today, to just be really good for a decade, because that’s no longer acceptable in most places.
Boston’s rise wasn’t linear. Ainge took a lot of flak for not cashing in those picks, rolling them over year after year, waiting for the right guys to take, rather than packaging a couple of them for an All-Star he could have paired with, say, Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley and won a comfortable 45-50 every season. But Ainge was willing to wait, to turn his roster over and over again until he found potential difference makers. And the Celtics’ ownership backed him.
Teams can either compete for titles today, or be in teardown mode. There doesn’t seem to be a place for a team like the Jazz, or the Bucks teams of Don Nelson in the ’80s. You are either at the apex of your very short window as a true contender, or you have to be in complete teardown/tank mode, with no guarantee you’ll ever get back to the level you were at before. The Process, ultimately, worked in Philadelphia. It required an inordinate amount of patience from ownership, which ultimately still didn’t stay patient long enough for Sam Hinkie to keep his job.
Oklahoma City built a championship level team with Durant, Harden and Russell Westbrook, stayed at that level after trading Harden, and has remained a playoff team after losing Durant for nothing. That’s a decade of success in a small market, and it’s not the norm. Indiana’s George window opened and closed, and the Pacers should get all the credit in the world for a remarkably quick rebuild. But will these Pacers get back to a conference finals soon? And if they don’t, how patient will everyone involved be?
The league is strewn with recently successful playoff teams that quickly have reached various crossroads — Washington, Milwaukee, Charlotte, Memphis. (I want to write “San Antonio.” I should write “San Antonio.” I’m afraid to write “San Antonio.”) Will they keep plugging at it, trying to make their teams marginally better, or rip up their current plans and take gambles with big trades involving their current star players?
That doesn’t include recent perennial playoff teams that have gone full teardown — Atlanta, Chicago, Brooklyn, Dallas, Phoenix, the Clippers. It’s not a criticism of any of those teams to ask: how long will it take before the Hawks win 60 games in a regular season again? How long will it take the Suns to make another conference final? Can you stay in the game, spending money (either as the owner or as the season ticket holder) when your team isn’t likely to be playing in June?
Because sticking with it, and staying at it, is the only way you’ll even get a chance to have a shot at Golden State or Cleveland, much less knock them off.
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