The plan is sound and it might still bear fruit. The season will probably officially end for the Boston Celtics Thursday night. Realistically, it was over before the Eastern Conference Finals with the Cleveland Cavaliers started. Even the most hardcore, Larry Bird-jersey wearing Southie zealot had to know. LeBron James could have played with one arm in a sling. (It looked like he did in Game 3, egads!) It wouldn’t have mattered.
Boston should feel optimistic. The team with the best record in the Eastern Conference will have the No. 1 overall pick in June’s NBA Draft. Just add a potential franchise cornerstone draft pick and a key free agent to all-NBA second team selection Isaiah Thomas. Voilà! That could boost this team to the NBA Finals in 2018 or 2019 at the latest, right?
General manager Danny Ainge’s plan was to find the best available young coach to replace Doc Rivers. Brad Stevens, 40, has maximized the talent available to him. The Celtics have improved very year (going from 25 to 40, then 48 and 53 wins) without a truly transformative player. Ainge has stockpiled draft picks, including a shrewd move that resulted in acquiring Brooklyn’s 2017 first-round pick. That pick – thanks to some lottery fortune – is the No. 1 overall selection.
Boston has also been fortunate that Thomas turned out to be an impactful player. When he was acquired in a trade with the Phoenix Suns, no one could have predicted that the diminutive guard would emerge this year as an MVP candidate. If Thomas were healthy, maybe Boston stretches this series to six games.
The next part of the Ainge plan – unintentionally or not – is to wait for LeBron to get old. He’ll turn 33 in December. Father Time is undefeated. Every great player eventually shows signs of age. It happened to Larry, Magic, and Michael, and it’ll happen to LeBron. In the NBA’s cutthroat ecosystem, there is always someone younger, faster, more athletic coming after you.
But when all those pieces collected by Ainge come together, it will result in the NBA’s most storied franchise getting back to the NBA Finals. Right? Unfortunately, there is one large impediment in the plan: the seemingly indestructible LeBron James. There is no evidence that James is slowing down. Prior to his inexplicable Game 3 clunker, LeBron’s player efficiency rating this postseason was the highest among all players, as was his Win Shares Per 48 Minutes and Value Over Replacement Player.
That was until his uncharacteristic Sunday night clunker in which he failed to score in the fourth quarter. Treat that as an anomaly. LeBron is a force of nature, seemingly indestructible and overwhelming.
LeBron baseline ? ? ? pic.twitter.com/mOV7A4oEAL
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) May 24, 2017
LeBron never gets hurt. Over his 14-year career, he has never sustained a serious injury. That’s extraordinary, considering he has spent the past six seasons in the NBA Finals and logging a ridiculous amount of postseason minutes over his career. He has played the second-most playoff minutes in NBA history, second only to Tim Duncan. LeBron is smart about his body and doesn’t overexert himself during the regular season. He stays fresh for the playoffs and the result this year has been quite possibly the best postseason LeBron we’ve ever seen.
There is every reason to believe that LeBron will continue to play at an elite level for at least another two to three years. Will Boston be patient enough to wait that out? And what happens if the team is unable to sustain the momentum it has built up in the past few years? LeBron has blocked the path to the NBA Finals for every other Eastern Conference team.
Since LeBron’s NBA Finals run started in 2011 – the first season of the Big Three (James, Wade and Chris Bosh) in Miami – only one team has even made back-to-back conference finals trips against LeBron. That was the Indiana Pacers in 2013 and 2014. That team probably thought they were close to a breakthrough.
Look at those Pacers now. Roy Hibbert is gone and never emerged as a franchise center. Lance Stephenson’s career short-circuited after leaving as a free agent. (He’s now back with Indiana.) And Paul George will probably will bolt after next season as free agent if the Pacers don’t trade him first.
Getting to the Eastern Conference finals is no guarantee that your team is ready to ascend to the next level. The Toronto Raptors probably thought they were going to take the next step. As did the Atlanta Hawks, the Pacers, etc.
This Celtics defense ? pic.twitter.com/YfYQbRYMHI
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) May 24, 2017
All Boston can do is to try to increase its talent base and hope for the best. And hope that the wear and tear on LeBron eventually robs him of his superpowers. Kobe Bryant, who like LeBron came out of high school and spent a lot of time making deep playoff runs, started to show his decline at 35.
Boston cannot afford to miss on the first overall pick. If that turns out to be Washington’s Markelle Fultz, he must be a great player. Or perhaps the Celtics will turn to Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum or Josh Jackson.
In the NBA, you need at least two great players to be a viable championship team. The Golden State Warriors have four, Cleveland has three. That’s what Boston has to compete with. Stevens appears to be a great, young coach, but overachieving teams don’t win championships in this league.
And does Boston really want to bank that Thomas is going to lead them to a title? He will be a free agent after 2017-18. Can his 5-foot-9 body hold up?
For a team that is playing in the Eastern Conference Finals, Boston could still be a long way from the NBA Finals.