By: Jeffrey Newholm
Sometimes a perpetually fortunate team is said to have “the luck of the Irish”. All of us can think of a college basketball team that made a deep tournament run due to a lucky bounce or upset of someone else. But in the NBA, luck doesn’t really mean anything. There’s very little chance of an underdog being lucky enough to beat a top team four out of seven times. Furthermore, team executives who hold their thumbs for the #1 pick should be warned that only two franchises have won a title with their top pick still on the roster. So when the Celtics team site modestly proclaims the franchise was “fortunate” to pick third two years in a row, this statement should be taken with a grain of salt. Like all great things, Boston’s upswing has been the result of hard work and painstaking calculations. And the Cavs’ firm grip on power of the East is now just a tenuous grasp.
Boston did win a title in 2008, but the experience had a preordained and cheesy quality to it. The Celtics cherry picked some top players from other teams to become top dog. LeBron then beat the Celtics at their own game by stacking the Heat. The Celtics made a genius trade of these aging players to Brooklyn to stock the team with draft picks. Rather than tank for “most ping-pong balls”, general manager Danny Ainge painstakingly made a list of potential new coaches. According to owner Steve Pagliuca, Brad Stevens ranked only a fair third on the list. But the former Butler bracketbuster was apparently held in very high esteem, considering his subsequent hiring and simultaneous entry in every other spot in the list. The team gradually worked its way up into contention, only missing the playoffs once since their last title. To Ainge’s credit, he wasn’t content with the #1 seed in the East last year. And he shouldn’t have been, either.
The ’17 Cavs coasted to the playoffs, then predictably shifted to third gear and easily blew through a weak East again. Sure, the Celtics could have rationalized that beating Cleveland was something that one needs to build to. But Ainge completely blew up the roster, trading the house for Kyrie Irving and only bringing back three other players. The supposed year long adjustment turned out to only last two games, with the team not losing since. Stevens, repeating the sentiment of the team site, argues that “we’ve been fortunate to win a lot of the games in this streak”. But in my perspective, no one becomes “fortunate” and wins 15 games in a row. The Celtics’ emphasis on stout defense has already proved to be the antidote to Golden State three madness. The roster is also gelling a lot better than the mess the Cavs made in a shark-jumping heave to usurp the dubs.
Beyond being a new flavor of the month, the Celtics could provide an important role in the Association. In economics, the government intervenes to break up monopolies, or trusts, to produce more competition. Sports leagues try to do the same thing with drafts, unbalanced scheduling, and free agency. As the Patriots and Warriors have proven, clever teams can foil these well-intentioned checks and balances. Ideally and more fairly, a new team rises to the new higher bar. Sure, there’s no guarantee the team will succeed in May and June. But the first step to busting a trust is to have the top dog looking over his shoulder, scared-and not just to see if there’s someone beneath him on a dunk.