The Inbounds: How Danny Ainge created the FrankenCeltics monster

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Welcome to The Inbounds, touching on a big idea of the day. It could be news, it could be history, it could be a tangent, it could be love. OK, it’s probably not love. Enjoy.

As Boston entered last year’s playoffs, they were favored against the Hawks. The biggest reason for that, despite what anyone would tell you, is that they are the Celtics. That’s it. You know how in the College Football Top 25 the same teams are placed at the top and given the benefit of the doubt, traditional powers whose weaknesses are overlooked because of their historical significance? Yeah, that happens in the NBA as well, it just happens when playoff prediction time comes knocking. It’s inconceivable that the Celtics could be toppled by the Hawks, unless the Hawks had a transcendent superstar. The Hawks do not (with apologies to Nets fans who likely believe otherwise). And so the Celtics were heavily favored, based mostly on the fact that they’re the Celtics. In truth, the Hawks matched up exceptionally well at full strength. They had more depth, they had fewer weaknesses in the starting construct, and they could run, which the Celtics tend to act like they love for about a quarter, just enough to convince you not to do it anymore so their legs don’t have to sustain a full game of it.

But of course, as was the pattern for most of the playoffs, everything went wrong for the Hawks, and everything that the Celtics needed to make go right for themselves, they did.

Do not be confused. The Celtics did not beat the Hawks because they were lucky, but they were granted some things which helped, like any team that succeeds in the playoffs does. Much was made of Al Horford’s injury, but the Hawks missing Zaza Pachulia was as much of a factor. They had legitimate centers to throw at the Celtics to hurt them where they were weak: at true center. But injuries rendered that incapable. The Celtics had their own injuries. Ray Allen, Jeff Green, Paul Pierce was playing through a sprained MCL. But the specific absences for the Hawks gave Boston the strategic edges it needed, and they took full advantage of it. They advanced.

Philadelphia actually managed to push Boston to seven games. They, of course, should never have been there in the first place, but Derrick Rose tore his ACL and like the Celtics throughout the playoffs, the Sixers made the plays to take advantage of Rose’s absence and win the series. But in a Game 7, the Sixers needed a hot shooting night from a terrible offense. It just didn’t break for them. You can’t say the Sixers outplayed Boston, because when Boston was engaged like in Game 5, it wasn’t close. The Sixers played well for spurts but not nearly enough.

And then they pushed Miami. I bought it hook line and sinker after Game 5. I thought Miami had once again folded up shop, that they were through, and that Boston was going to the Finals, proving everyone wrong. That they’re not too old, they are too good, and they are a championship-worthy team, despite all evidence to the contrary from Christmas Day through Game 7 of the Sixers series.

And then LeBron James destroyed the building and took a souvenir with him.

But in that there were definitely signs that the Celtics were running out of gas. Allen’s cuts weren’t fast enough. Pierce mostly limped through that series, outside of his burst of swag in Game 5. And in Game 6 and 7, even the mighty Garnett, the playoffs MVP for two rounds, was slow to rotate, unable to get up the floor, winded, and you could tell, beaten.

So this would be the end, right? The Celtics would slide quietly into the grave, and perhaps make the playoffs next year and fade into irrelevance like Detroit did, eventually being ousted in blowouts in an empty building in the first round. Or they’d save their dignity and commit to a rebuilding project. That’s how it would end. That’s how these things end.

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And then Danny Ainge donned a white lab coat, stuck an antenna to the ceiling of TD Garden, whipped out Wyc Grousbeck’s checkbook and made himself the FrankenCeltics monster. Brought back from the dead, half alive, half dead, stitched together with loose parts and molting tissue, a beast capable of destroying the countryside or stumbling off a cliff. Make no mistake, Ainge has created a monster, and there’s little way to tell how the Celtics will fit into the NBA landscape next season.

There’s a growing sentiment of “these Celtics aren’t old anymore” from their fanbase, which is, of course, nonsense. Kevin Garnett will still be their primary weapon at both ends of the floor. Paul Pierce could recover from the MCL sprain and be fine, but that won’t change the fact that age has started to tilt his game toward the breaking point. Their biggest offseason addition, Jason Terry, will be 35 at the start of next season. This team is still old.

It’s just also young.

Well, OK. Young-er.

Rajon Rondo is 26, no longer a pup. Jeff Green is 26, and we’re still hoping to discover a moment of maturation where he becomes whatever it is that he’s supposed to be.  Courtney Lee, 26, Brandon Bass, 27, Jason Collins, 33. But there are young guys. The rooks, obviously, Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo, and Avery Bardley at just 22 at the start of next season. Ainge has tacked together a veteran team of pro’s pros with a young and versatile team, mixed with big shot makers and athletic perimeter players. It’s mixing, maybe not the best of both worlds, but on nights it will seem like it.

And it’s allowed a high level of optimism to roam Beantown about next season. The problems with last year’s team (depth, versatility, and size) have been addressed through the draft and free agency. Ray Allen was “replaced” with Jason Terry. (Note: It’s an odd thing to say they replaced Allen with Terry. Terry is capable of scoring more with the ball, but is also not as efficient of a shooter, even last season when Allen had bone spurs in his ankles and suffered with his age, Terry also seemed to head off the cliff a bit with the Mavericks. It’s maybe an upgrade, but not at the same role.) They got the guys who were out who supposedly were missing from last year’s playoff run that would have been key contributors (Green, Wilcox).

But if we look past shamrock-colored glasses, what do we actually see of this monster Ainge has brought to life?

It’s going to be scary good at times, and an abject mess at others.

More of the former than the latter.

Experience matters in the NBA, and those teams tend to win. The Heat were the first team in a while whose core isn’t necessarily “old” to win the title. Those teams can usually topple others because their execution is sharper, their will stronger, their focus more resolute. And the Celtics have that. They won’t be missing guys who know how to close out a playoff series or hit the big shot. They won’t be missing defenders who understand system and don’t have to just rely on their bodies. But they also have those other players, the ones who can get out and run. For the first time, Rajon Rondo has the wheel and an engine to motor with. Green, Lee, Bradley, even the older Wilcox all can create mayhem in transition with Rondo whipping passes. The Celtics can produce offense in different ways than just throwing their opponent into the alley puddles and hoping they land a body blow, which was their offense last season.

They have the components to absolutely wreck teams. They can rest the starters when they need to and let the kids run, they can bring back the vets if things seem to be getting out of hand. Pierce and Garnett are still going to have throwback nights. But Boston’s not dependent on them every single night.

They can win without the old guys.

But they’ll win a lot of games because of the old guys.

When Garnett gets upset at people talking about him being old, he’s confused. He is old, in NBA terms, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a top-five player in the league last season. Factoring both ends, it’s hard to say he wasn’t. But he no longer has to be that great, every single game, for Boston to win.

This team may not be better than Indiana or Chicago next season. It is not better than the Heat. Its title chances are slim. But then, they were slimmer last season, and they were one quarter away from the Finals. The run is not over for the Big th….. oops. The Big Two Plus Rondo. This monster that Ainge has put together may not be invincible. But it’s not a bit character, either, a side plot. This thing’s going to have to be dealt with.

And if you want to kill it, you better bring more than pitchforks and fire.

Report: Bucks interested in Cavaliers GM David Griffin

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The Magic hired Jeff Weltman, and the Hawks are reportedly close to hiring Travis Schlenk.

In other words, Cavaliers general manager David Griffin – who’s still without a contract for next season – lost his leverage with other teams.

But to the rescue are the Bucks, who will not necessarily promote assistant general manager Justin Zanik to replace Orland-bound general manager John Hammond.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

Multiple sources told cleveland.com that the Bucks, who lost general manager John Hammond to the Orlando Magic this week, have interest in Griffin, 47.

Griffin and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert have spoken about continuing their partnership in recent days, sources said, though no agreement was reached.

I still think Griffin stays in Cleveland. He helped assemble a championship contender, and he has LeBron Jamesendorsement. Plus, the Cavaliers can afford him.

But whomever gets the Milwaukee job will inherit a roster stocked with promising young talent like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker, Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker. The Bucks wouldn’t be a bad fallback option for Griffin – if he can’t use them to get a deal with the Cavs.

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue: Celtics’ sets harder to defend than Warriors’

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With the Cavaliers up 3-1 on the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, most basketball observers are focused on Cavs-Warriors III in the NBA Finals.

But Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue is more concerned with Boston, which scored surprisingly well in Games 3 and 4 after losing Isaiah Thomas to injury.

Lue, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

“I don’t even think about them,” Lue said of the Warriors to a small group of traveling Cleveland beat writers following the Cavs’ Game 4 win on Tuesday. “We’re just focused on Boston. The stuff they’re running, it’s harder to defend than Golden State’s [offense] for me, as far as the actions and all the running around and all the guys who are making all the plays, so it’s a totally different thing.”

Wait, the Isaiah Thomas-less 53-win Celtics are harder to defend than the Kevin Durant-supercharged 67-win Warriors? Come again, Coach?

“Like, they hit the post, Golden State runs splits and all that stuff, but these guys are running all kinds of s—,” Lue said of Boston coach Brad Stevens’ schemes. “I’ll be like, ‘F—.’ They’re running all kinds of s—, man. And Brad’s got them moving and cutting and playing with pace, and everybody is a threat. It’s tough, you know, it’s tough.”

I think Lue means in a very specific way – getting his players into proper position. And in that regard he might be right.

I also think the Warriors will take this in the broadest, most offensive way possible. That’s just the nature of this rivalry.

Without Thomas, Stevens has been forced to diversify Boston’s offense. The Cavaliers, who prepared for a very different scheme, were caught off guard and are adjusting on the fly.

That’s a real challenge. But framing it as the central issue sells Golden State short.

Even if it’s harder for Lue to get his players into proper position against the Celtics, the Warriors’ surplus talent – including Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green – more than makes up for it. And it’s not as if Golden State runs a basic scheme.

So why did Lue say this?

He didn’t think the travelling Cleveland beat writers would publish his candid remarks? He didn’t convey his thoughts clearly? He naively didn’t consider how this would motivate the Warriors? All are plausible.

Another theory: Lue is trying to plant a seed that acting Golden State coach Mike Brown, whose known (fairly or not) for his simplistic offensive schemes, is holding back the Warriors. If Steve Kerr doesn’t return, resentment of Brown is one of the few things that could tear apart a dominant Golden State team.

Richard Jefferson: LeBron James was sick during Cavaliers-Celtics Game 3

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LeBron James was inexplicably bad in the Cavaliers’ Game 3 loss to the Celtics on Sunday.

Except maybe it was explicable.

Cleveland forward Richard Jefferson, via Fox Sports Ohio

I know he won’t talk about it, so I’ll give my big guy a shout. Deron Williams missed shootaround this morning, because he had like a little bug, just really lethargic, had no energy. And I think that’s what Bron had. And sometimes these little bugs can go around.

When Deron didn’t show up to shootaround, it kind of started clicking in his head. Because for him it was more of like, “I don’t know why I was so lethargic, why I had no energy, I had nothing.” And so, these little things happen. There was no panic.

Look, he was lethargic. They hit a bunch of tough shots. If Marcus Smart doesn’t go 7-for-10 from 3, then we’re not even talking about it.

I don’t know whether LeBron was truly sick or Jefferson is just trying to help a teammate’s reputation. It can be both.

LeBron was better in Game 4, but not quite right.

If he’s dealing with a minor illness, that could clear up by Game 5 tomorrow. It should especially clear up by the Finals, which begin June 1. That’d be great news for the Cavs, who have no chance against the Warriors if LeBron isn’t at full strength.

The uncertainty of why LeBron hit a slump now of all times loomed over Cleveland’s playoff future. But Jefferson provided reason for the Cavaliers to breathe easy.

Michigan’s D.J. Wilson staying in NBA draft

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Michigan bigs D.J. Wilson and Moe Wagner declared for the NBA draft in similar situations – coming off breakout seasons, particularly excelling down the stretch, and sitting on the first-round bubble for the NBA draft. Neither hired an agent, leaving their options open.

But this is where their paths diverge.

Michigan releases:

University of Michigan junior forward D.J. Wilson announced today (Wednesday, May 24) he will forgo his final two seasons of eligibility and submit the necessary paperwork to remain as an early entrant into the 2017 NBA Draft.

University of Michigan sophomore forward Moritz Wagner announced today (Wednesday, May 24) he will return to the Wolverine basketball program after removing his name from consideration for the 2017 NBA Draft.

Wilson and Wagner both said they’d stay in the draft only if they’d be first-round picks. I wonder whether Wilson got a first-round promise or is just confident enough he’ll get picked there. The latter wouldn’t be a bad bet. Even if the 22-year-old Wilson slips into the second round, this might be the peak of his draft value.

At times, it’s easy to forget Wilson is a 6-foot-11 big man. He shoots 3-pointers, dribbles and moves like a wing. He also too often shies from contact, which particularly hurts his rebounding.

But he’s a big. Those perimeter skills wouldn’t shine quite as brightly if he were matched up with opposing wings. Wilson has a 7-foot-3 wingspan, and he also protect the rim. However, his shot-blocking relies on a bounciness that’s not as effective when pressed into more physical matchups. He needs some space to launch – but when he has it, it also pays off in quality finishing at the rim.

Wilson has the tools to be a good NBA power forward, but he’s still a work in progress. In other words, he still looks like a borderline first-round pick.