Just how good are the Boston Celtics?
It’s a question that even a casual NBA observer has to be wondering at this point.
Entering play on January 7, the Celtics not only have the top record in the Eastern Conference at 33-10, they trail the mighty Golden State Warriors for the best record in the NBA by just a half-game.
They lead the NBA in points allowed per game at 97.6 and in points allowed per 100 possessions (101.9) and specialize in causing opponents to miss shots—they’re not overly reliant on forcing turnovers.
In short, the Celtics are a true championship contender, and as they continue on toward what appears to be a collision course with the Cleveland Cavaliers, it’s become obvious that as time progresses, the Celtics are only becoming better.
* * * * * *
What makes us marvel at LeBron James more than almost anything else is his sheer durability. As has been written about in this space on more than one occasion, James’ intersection of pristine health and superhuman abilities has put him in position to challenge Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the NBA’s all-time scoring record. Few in the national media ever discuss the idea because Kareem’s record still seems far away, but that James appears to have a puncher’s chance of running him down is truly remarkable.
Unfortunately, none of us can tell the future, and we simply don’t know how long James can continue to play at the level he has.
Now in his 15th year, and remarkably after 1,100 games, James has been the most productive version of himself that we’ve ever seen. Despite losing Kyrie Irving and not having Isaiah Thomas, the Cleveland Cavaliers, behind James’ leadership, continue to play like the conference favorite that they should be.
James has played another 217 career playoff games, which includes at least 18 playoff games in each of the past seven years—each of which has resulted in a trip to the NBA Finals.
We have now officially reached the point where it’s fair to wonder how much longer James can play at this high of a level. Doubting him would be unwise, but pondering when his dominance will yield due to attrition—it’s completely fair.
And when that time comes, you can bet that Kyrie Irving and his Celtics will be right there to end the Eastern Conference’s collective watching of the throne.
Obviously, we don’t know if the minutes and the toll on James will become evident before the end of the season or during the playoffs, but what we do know is that, after 43 games, the Celtics have proven to have everything they need to compete at the highest level and beat anyone—the Golden State Warriors included.
With a brilliant head coach who both knows how to motivate and maximize his players, those that have played for Brad Stevens all seem to agree on one thing: the coach works just as hard to connect with his players on an emotional level as he does on the basketball court. Aside from simply knowing Xs and Os, one of Stevens’ advantages is understanding who his players are at their cores and figuring out how to best motivate them.
With Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the club has a rare combination of players who have young legs, excellent defensive instincts, floor-spacing ability and, most importantly, a team-first attitude.
The addition of Kyrie Irving, in the end, was the proverbial icing on the cake. In Irving, the Celtics got a true superstar player who is capable of taking over a game and galvanizing his teammates through his dedication to his craft and pursuit of winning without an individual agenda.
From there, of the other players that get regular rotation minutes from Stevens, not a single one doesn’t give maximum effort when they’re on the floor.
The Celtics are on their way to being the Eastern Conference’s best team, and how soon they are able to assume that title will be determined by James’ individual erosion and Danny Ainge’s ability to continue to find pieces to improve the team, brick by brick.
With respect to those two variables, the latter deserves more attention than its been given.
* * * * * *
As Paul Pierce sat before the media, it was the first time the truth had been shown a lie. He was no longer a Celtic, and the familiar wooden floors of Boston’s Garden were replaced by the new smell arena of Barclays Center.
Since being traded by Ainge, Pierce spent the final years of his career as a journeyman—a true injustice for an all-time great who deserved the honor of retiring with his franchise. In Brooklyn, Pierce gave the Nets all that he had left before spending his final years in D.C. and Los Angeles as a mentor to some of the league’s younger talents.
Yes, Ainge’s trade of Pierce was bad for the heartstrings, but, it was good for avoiding the lengthy rebuild that typically follows a team after its franchise player retires. And that’s The Truth.
Remarkably, the 2013 trade that sent Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn resulted in the Celtics ending up with Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. As has been well-documented, the Nets gave the Celtics their first round picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018, as well as the right to swap first round picks with them in 2017.
The 2018 pick was the major carrot that the Celtics sent to the Cavs in exchange for Irving. The 2017 pick, which became first overall, was traded to the Sixers and eventually became Jayson Tatum, while the 2016 pick was used to draft Brown.
Along the way, Ainge managed to sign Al Horford and Gordon Hayward as free agents and managed to move out production players, including Jeff Green, in exchange for future draft picks.
As a result of the events that have unfolded since 2013, the Celtics have a superstar in his prime in Irving, two veteran pieces to complement him in Hayward and Horford, and two young players with incredibly high ceilings in Brown and Tatum.
Ainge also isn’t done.
With four first round pick credits for the 2018 and 2019 NBA Draft, even after pulling off the trade for Irving, Ainge has a treasure trove of future draft picks at his disposal. While the protections on the picks are complicated and may or may not cause them to vest as top picks, the credits themselves are tantamount to lottery tickets that are valuable currency.
In other words, players who are in the final or penultimate year of a contract that will end or could be ending will very likely emerge as targets for the Celtics over the next year or two. DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan sit front and center, while players like Paul George, Kenneth Faried, Tyson Chandler and Jonas Valanciunas have to be considered to at least be within grasp.
To this point the Celtics have scored wins over every other elite NBA team they’ve played—the Warriors, Cavs, Rockets, Spurs, Thunder, Raptors and Pistons among them.
They play hard, they play together and they play as it they’re true believers in themselves.
It’s about time we’ve all joined them in believing, just like LeBron has.
And as he attempts to make his eighth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals, we simply can’t deny that James is far from done.
… But neither are the Celtics.
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