With tonight’s Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals just hours away, we have two teams, remarkably different in makeup. One might as well have been penciled into this series back in July 2010, and the other was too old, their contention window not just shut but sealed and painted over. But, when the ball is tossed up in American Airlines Arena tonight, the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat will square off for the right to play the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Finals. It got me thinking a lot about the endless, often mindless chatter on ESPN and TNT about contention windows and breaking up teams from the armchair GMs.
I’ll focus on three cases that defy this reasoning: the Boston Celtics, San Antonio Spurs, and Dallas Mavericks. I’m not saying that teams haven’t overstayed their welcome with a given setup, but often times, the coaches and GMs have a better feel for when there’s time for a change in the chemistry and personnel of a team than the general public.
The Celtics won their title back in 2008, in the first year of the “Big Three’s” run, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen (both acquired via trade) joined the incumbent Paul Pierce and brought the title to Boston. It was a team built for the now, and even though they followed the title up with three 50+ win seasons, one more trip to the Finals in 2010, and made it to the second round or further each of those seasons, it wasn’t good enough in the eyes of many. Last season was supposed to be the end of Boston’s run after their loss to these Miami Heat in five games in the East Semis. Garnett and Allen were 35 at the end of the season, and Pierce was 33. Rajon Rondo rose to the level of an elite point guard in this league, but the thought process of some was to blow up this team and start over. This year, the Celtics won 39 of 66 and coasted to a #4 seed. But, in doing so, the window opened for them the minute that Derrick Rose went down in a heap. Rondo continued to improve his game in all facets, the acquisition of Brandon Bass to play an undersized center role proved to be an excellent one, and the spread out format of the playoffs has allowed Ray Allen to heal from injury and the old legs of the Celtics to avoid extreme fatigue. So much of it truly is the Celtics know what it takes, and they’ve been there before.
It’s a little like the original “Big Three” 1 that the Spurs had with Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker. Those three took titles home in ’03, ’05, and ’07 in the primes of their career. Then, with first round playoff exits in two of the last three seasons, many believed it was the end of the line. Duncan was 35, Ginobili was nearly 34, and Parker was 29. Instead, the Spurs, being the top flight organization that they are, surrounded those three with young role players in Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, Danny Green, and Gary Neal while bringing castaways Boris Diaw and former Spur Stephen Jackson into the mix. Then, they proceeded to win their first 10 games of the playoffs. Sure, they ultimately got stopped by the younger Thunder, who won four straight, but anyone who doesn’t think the Spurs were a bounce or two away, a key defensive stop or two away from awaiting for the winner of tonight’s game is mistaken.
Then, there’s the Dallas Mavericks, the defending champions. Dirk Nowitzki was the poster boy for failed playoff trips, and coupled with Jason Terry and Jason Kidd, they were always good, but not good enough. There were countless calls to break that team up before their title last season. Instead, it was the trade acquisitions of Brendan Haywood and Deshawn Stevenson from Washington and Tyson Chandler from Charlotte to go with Shawn Marion and J.J. Barea that put them over the top. A decade of coming up short with Nowitzki 2 but the title came because Mark Cuban chose to retool rather than rebuild.
What am I getting at here? The point is throwing three superstars together was supposed to be an open and shut case to a string of titles for Miami. To this point, it’s proven tougher than I’m sure most of us have imagined. There’s so many things that can go right and wrong in the playoffs. Sometimes, it’s injuries like those to Rose, Deng, and Noah in Chicago’s case this season. Then again, sometimes it’s matchups 3 . Sometimes, the shots just don’t fall or it’s coaching or it’s officiating. There are literally so many elements in the mix that just because something doesn’t go the team’s way and they lose the series, doesn’t mean that current team is ripe to be imploded.
So, as the Cavaliers look to return to the playoffs and contention in the coming years, perhaps the best advice is to preach patience. Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson are pieces to that puzzle. The Cavaliers will add another key piece to that puzzle with the #4 pick. 4 From there, it’s all about what Chris Grant (and Dan Gilbert’s pocketbook) can do with those 24th, 33rd, and 34th picks and that large amount of cap space in the coming years. Teams are declared too young, too old, too whatever to win a title, but we’ve seen that the commonly believed “best team” doesn’t always win the title((We know that all too well from the last era of Cavaliers basketball.)) Instead, it’s often about culture and coaching. Look no further than Doc Rivers and Gregg Popovich for that explanation.
NBA teams are trending upward and downward all the time. Windows are a funny thing in the association. Sometimes, they open before they’re scheduled to, and sometimes, they stay open a lot longer than expected. There are truly so many factors that come into play that the only way to win is to acquire as much talent as you can, have a clear plan, and play the game by getting into the playoffs. From there, luck, timing, and chemistry all play their own parts.
(Photo: Elise Amendola/AP)
- I’ve now said the term “Big Three” two more times than I would’ve liked in this article. I can’t STAND the term. [back]
- Four 1st round exits, four in the conference semis, one in the WCF, one in the Finals [back]
- For instance, the Cavs against Orlando in ’09 and the Cavs against Boston in ’10. It may be stubborn of me, but you’ll never convince me that the Cavaliers weren’t at least the better overall team in 2009. [back]
- I’ll have more on that tomorrow [back]