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.

Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum commends Jody Allen for no vote

Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum
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The Trail Blazers, owned by Jody Allen, cast the lone dissenting vote on the NBA’s plan to resume with 22 teams.

Why?

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Portland guard CJ McCollum:

Damian Lillard expressed his concern: He wanted the Trail Blazers to have a real chance at making the playoffs. They got that.

Wojnarowski mentioned how lottery odds are calculated – relevant only if Portland misses the postseason and something current players tend not to dwell on.

This feels incongruous.

Was safety a concern? The risk of coronavirus is higher with 22 teams than 20. However, it’s higher with 20 teams than 16.

The Trail Blazers are 17th in the league. And nobody publicly mentioned health. Having just 20 teams – especially with a group stage – would’ve given Portland an easier path into the top 16. (It’s unclear how many teams would’ve made the playoffs with a group stage).

NBA commissioner Adam Silver wanted everyone to unite behind this plan. Even other owners who disagreed with the plan voted for it. But with the Trail Blazers’ no vote, Allen engendered greater support from her players. If nothing else, that has value.

Report: NBA eying in mid-July 2021 NBA Finals in advance of Olympics

Tokyo Olympics
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The NBA plans to rush through the 2020 offseason and begin the 2020-21 season Dec. 1… just to rush through the 2020-21 season.

Frank Isola of The Athletic:

The NBA Finals normally begin 226 days after the regular-season opener with an 18-day window to play the best-of-seven series. So, based on a typical timeline, a Dec. 1 opener would mean the Finals would be held July 15 – Aug. 1., 2021.

The Tokyo Olympics are slated to begin July 23, 2021.

So, something must give.

It probably won’t be regular-season games. As much as the NBA would like its players to get exposure in the Olympics, owners will be extremely reluctant to surrender direct revenue. Likewise, the many NBA players not headed to the Olympics should share similar financial concerns.

More likely, the league will reduce the number of rest days during the 2020-21 season. That seems risky given the drastic disruptions already affecting conditioning entering the season.

It’s also possible players whose NBA teams advance deep enough in the playoffs just won’t be able to play in the Olympics (or Olympic Qualifying Tournaments, which are scheduled for June and July 2021).

Like with many things affected by coronavirus, there are no good answers – just hard decisions on what to compromise.

Details leak on life inside Orlando bubble: Daily testing, 1,600 people, 2K crowd noise at games

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Players do not report to the Walt Dinsey World campus in Orlando for another month to restart the NBA season — and it will be weeks after that before games start on July 31 — but we’re beginning to learn more about life inside that bubble.

A bubble the players from a couple of teams could be in for more than three months.

On a Friday conference call, representatives of the National Basketball Players Association backed the 22-team return-to-play format.  Out of that call, we learned some more details about what life will be like in the bubble, courtesy Shams Charania of The Athletic. Among his notes:

– 1,600 maximum people on campus
– Coronavirus testing every day; minimum seven days of quarantine for a player who tests positive
– There could be crowd noise via NBA 2K video game sounds, but the NBA and NBPA is still discussing creative opportunities

That 1,600 people in the bubble/campus includes players and staffs from teams (about 770 people) plus referees, league personnel, broadcasters, and more. It fills up quickly, which is why family members — likely just three per player — will not be allowed until after at least the second round of the playoffs when a number of teams have cleared out (an issue for players).

Players were asked once in the bubble not to leave, and the same applied to their families when they arrive. This is not a summer vacation at Disney World. While there are no armed guards or security to keep players and staff on the campus, the goal was to create a safe environment and people heading out into greater Orlando, for whatever reason, sets that goal back.

The daily testing will be done by the NBPA and will involve mouth or light nasal swabs, not the invasive ones. Also, there will be no antibody testing, and no blood tests.

Teams will get a three-hour practice window during training camp and on off-days, which will include time in the provided wight room. After that, the equipment will be sanitized before the next team uses the courts.

Crowd noise — as seen on the Bundesliga soccer broadcasts from Germany seen here in the USA — is controversial. While the league is talking to the makers of the NBA 2K video game about piped-in crowd noise, that is definitely a topic still up for discussion.

As Keith Smith discussed on the ProBasketballTalk Podcast this week, games in Orlando are expected to be played sort of like at Summer League, with some starting at noon (or early afternoon) and alternating on courts all day. East Coast teams will likely have the earlier slots while there could be some 10 p.m. Eastern start times for a couple of West Coast teams (where it would still be just 7 p.m.).

We previously knew players would be allowed to golf and eat at outdoor restaurants at the Disney resort, so long as they followed social distancing guidelines.

For everything we know about life in the bubble, there are far more questions left unanswered. In the next month we will learn a lot more.

 

NBA players’ union approves 22-team format restart of season

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It’s not perfect and there are still details to be worked out — including exactly when next season will start — but the NBA players are on board with 22-team restart plan for the NBA season in Orlando.

Friday the National Basketball Players Association, with 28 team representatives on the conference call, voted to approve the 22-team plan. Here is the official statement from the union:

“The Board of Player Representatives of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) has approved further negotiations with the NBA on a 22-team return to play scenario to restart the 2019-20 NBA season. Various details remain to be negotiated and the acceptance of the scenario would still require that all parties reach agreement on all issues relevant to resuming play.”

This was expected. NBA Commissioner has worked closely with players union president Chris Paul of the Thunder and executive director Michelle Roberts throughout the process. There were no big surprises in the plan by the time it came up for a vote. Nobody got everything they wanted but everyone got a plan they could live with.

The issues still to be negotiated include some of the health and safety procedures — although players were informed on Friday’s call there will be daily testing and were asked not to leave the Orlando bubble — as well as the timing of the off-season and the start date of next season.

The biggest issue to be figured out still, of course, will be money.

It’s money that ultimately got owners and players to come together behind the 22-team format. It plays regular-season games — called “seeding games” — that can be broadcast on regional sports networks (helping those teams) plus a full playoffs with seven-game series broadcast on ESPN/ABC and TNT. Exactly what the financial picture for the league will be next season is still murky, but the sides are talking.

In terms of pure player safety, the league could have done better going straight to the 16-game postseason, but this was the balance of risk and financial reward the league settled upon.

The details of the format continue to leak out, and some of that is still to be negotiated, but with the player vote all sides have come together behind a plan.

The question becomes, can they pull it off?