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NBA Sunday: Danny Ainge’s Tough Decision

In 2003, Joe Dumars chose locker room harmony over the best prospect. What will Danny Ainge do?

Moke Hamilton

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If there’s one thing you’ve gotta credit the Boston Celtics for, it’s this: they always seem to be just one or two pieces away from winning the NBA’s Eastern Conference.

Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce had the team in contention on an almost annual basis, and Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, for the most part, did the same. Since moving on from Pierce and Garnett a few years ago, the Celtics were supposed to be rebuilding.

Instead, behind Isaiah Thomas and one of the most inspiring postseason performances we have seen in some years, the NBA universe is wondering whether the Celtics have what it would take to shock the world.

It sounds like a good problem to have, but truth is, the unintended consequence of the overachieving Celtics has put both president of basketball operations Danny Ainge and Thomas in an impossible predicament.

By virtue of the Celtics owning the rights to the 2017 pick belonging to the Brooklyn Nets, Ainge has to decide whether to fully commit himself to Thomas as the team’s lynchpin. Before such an inspiring season (and postseason), the prevailing sentiment was that the Celtics would be wise to use what may end up being the first overall pick on either Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball.

Today? The decision has become much more difficult.

For Thomas, no matter what happens from here, he will forever be linked to Fultz and Ball. If the Celtics commit to him and trade a pick that could have amounted to either of them, assuming they fulfill their potential, anything less than a championship would be a Scarlett letter that Thomas would wear the rest of the way.

Interestingly enough, the scenario is precisely what transpired with Stu Jackson, Otis Thorpe and Joe Dumars.

For Ainge, one can only hope that the ending is as happy.

* * * * * *

About 20 years ago, the Vancouver Grizzlies were just finishing up their second NBA season. With a combined 29 wins, they seemed to be a clear step behind Canada’s other expansion team—the Toronto Raptors. Out West, however, the Grizzlies had bigger concerns than just their Canadian counterparts.

Across the country in Ontario, the Raptors had lucked into three 20-something-year-olds who each had high hopes for the future: Damon Stoudemire, Marcus Camby and Shawn Respert. The Grizzlies, on the other hand, had the impressive Shareef Abdur-Rahim, as well as Bryant “Big Country” Reeves.

General manager Stu Jackson thought it wise to add a few veterans to his young core, and with it being a poorly kept secret that former NBA Champion Otis Thorpe had fallen out with head coach Doug Collins, Jackson pounced. He agreed to trade a future first round pick to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Thorpe. This wouldn’t vest until 2003, when it was only protected if it happened to be first overall. So, when the Cleveland Cavaliers won the draft lottery that year, it meant that the Grizzlies had won the right to the second pick. That, of course, also meant that they had to fork it over to the Pistons.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and faulting Jackson for failing to be able to see the future is, at the very least, unfair.

For Joe Dumars, however, the same can’t be said.

Having spent his entire 14-year career as a member of the Pistons, Dumars and Thorpe were teammates when Thorpe was traded in 1997. But having emerged as the son of the franchise, Dumars would eventually win the front office in 2000, after his playing career had ended. It was on Dumars’ watch that the Pistons received that second overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft—one of the deepest in history.

At the time, the Pistons had recently installed Rick Carlisle as their head coach and had just lost to Jason Kidd and his New Jersey Nets in the Eastern Conference Finals. The year before, they lost to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals, so they had obviously been showing signs of progression.

With Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Clifford Robinson, Ben Wallace and two impressive youngsters named Mehmet Okur and Tayshaun Prince, the Pistons truly believed themselves to be one or two pieces away from becoming a championship team. When you’re that close, drafting a player like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh or Chris Kaman—all top-flight players—could be disruptive.

Young players with promise want to come into the league and prove their mettle. No player wants to be remembered in the same light as Michael Olowokandi, Marcus Fizer, Kedrick Brown or Dajuan Wagner.

That’s why everyone needs to continue watching Jaylen Brown and his situation so carefully. By virtue of the treasure trove of picks Ainge has assembled for what was expected to be a long rebuild in Boston, he used the third overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft on Brown. Brown played 17.2 minutes per game during his rookie year and has played 8.3 minutes per game during the playoffs.

The safe money says that Brown wants to play more, and it’s probably only a matter of time before that request becomes a tad more forceful.

The politics of the NBA locker room, particularly as they relate to young players wanting to fulfill their promise, is one of the more underreported things in the league.

It was exactly for that reason that, in 2003, Dumars went against the prevailing sentiment and opted against drafting the “no brainer” pick with the second selection of the 2003 draft—Carmelo Anthony.

Opting against drafting Anthony was easy enough to understand, but considering the Pistons were playing 36-year-old Cliff Robinson 35 minutes per night, it stood to reason that the team could use a young post player. Either Bosh or Kaman would have made all the sense in the world.

Instead, not wanting to disturb the harmony in his locker room, Dumars opted to select an unknown European project player named Darko Milicic. Milicic, it was thought, could be brought along slowly. The throne would be his in the future, and he would be fine with waiting.

Meanwhile, in a draft that featured at least 18 difference-making players who enjoyed outstanding careers, at the top of the draft, the Pistons whiffed. Although Milicic would go on to have a respectable 10-year career in the NBA, he never came close to fulfilling the expectations that amounted from being selected second overall in a draft that has featured nine NBA All-Stars and four All-NBA team members.

As fate would have it, Dumars would eventually land Rasheed Wallace during the 2003-04 season, and Wallace would go on to be the missing piece for the Pistons. The club would win the NBA Finals in 2004 and come within one game of repeating in 2005, as they would eventually lose the Finals the next year, in seven games, to the San Antonio Spurs.

Still, the Pistons serve as a fine example of a scenario seldom seen in the NBA—one where the rich have the means to get richer.

What on earth is a general manager to do with a top-three draft pick when he has a team that seems to be one or two pieces away?

What on earth is the GM to do when the draft class is especially loaded?

These are the questions Danny Ainge must answer.

And based on what we have seen from Isaiah Thomas the past few weeks, he has made the decision as tough as humanly possible.

Behind door number one, Ainge has Isaiah Thomas and the player that he nets from trading his incoming lottery pick for him. In that scenario, Ainge would need Thomas and the unknown player to amount to more than the player that is drafted with the pick. Behind door number two, Ainge would do the unthinkable—trade Thomas to the highest bidder. He would then have to turn his team over to the rookie point guard he would draft and Jaylen Brown and firmly set his sights on becoming the Eastern Conference’s next power after LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers have run their course.

Either way, at this point, it’s difficult to imagine Thomas and either Fultz or Ball harmoniously splitting minutes in the backcourt. After what Thomas has done for these Celtics, it’s too difficult a decision to make.

For Ainge, the best case scenario would probably be trading the incoming lottery pick to the Chicago Bulls for Jimmy Butler. With Thomas and Al Horford, the Celtics would cement themselves as the conference’s other top dog with the Cavaliers.

One way or another, though, assuming the Celtics pick in the 2017 draft falls where it’s supposed to, Thomas will forever be linked with Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball.

Another 20 years from now, it’ll be interesting to see whether we discuss them in the same way we today remember Otis Thorpe, Carmelo Anthony, Stu Jackson and the 2003 NBA Draft.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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