Drinking from the NBA Drama Firehose
Training camp week has arrived! Before we get carried away prognosticating, here’s a diary of the Celtics’ madhouse summer— from this fan’s perspective.
You get the sense that we’re living through the Era of Corporatization of Sports. This summer has punctuated a growing pattern of superstar clustering, a widening in the competitive balance gap, a backlash against players for exercising their “free” agency — and a backlash from players against fans for getting upset at them for exercising said “free” agency.
The implication is that fans are meant to keep their cool. It’s a business, we’re told. And it had even started to feel that way. Part of me had rationalized that tempering the highs and lows of following the Celtics was a healthy part of growing up. Pushing into my thirties, I would sometimes DVR playoff games to moderate my NBA Playoffs drama intake (the equivalent of taking the last bastion of Live TV and giving it a lobotomy). I hated who I’d become.
Then the summer happened. With Danny Ainge flipping the switch from patient operator to man-rollerblading-down-a-hill-with-no-breaks, there was going to be no way to administer this stuff in moderate doses. Below is the play-by-play recounting the neurotic spectacle of being a Celtics fan this summer.
The consensus is that being a Celtics fans is a rare luxury. But for the past three seasons, the team’s record had betrayed fatal weaknesses that were hidden by Stevens’ microscopic attention to detail. Catatonic starts, leads lost, scoring droughts — somewhere along the way, the NBA Playoff theme song had gone from triggering my anticipation juices to producing elevated heart rates and a sense of impending doom.
On brand, the Celtics had just narrowly avoided being embarrassed by Rondo, one of the NBA’s most opaque, internal-narrative players, and were now slated to face the “funeral rival” Wizards. If they made it through to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavs would be waiting to sink their fangs in them.
Game 6 was an elimination game for the Wizards. The night of the game, I was bobbing along to Father John Misty with thousands of people at Brooklyn Steel, and in typical Celtics fashion, they just couldn’t put the Wizards away. Every fan has had to feign interest in their physical environment — in my case, FJM’s dulcet tones — while feeling that their fate was ultimately tied to the box score in their pocket. The Celtics were up 2 with 7.7 seconds left and FJM was getting ready to sound his last note. When the clock finally tick’d to 0 and the lights had come back on, John Wall had just cemented The Year of John Wall by nailing an absurd degree of difficulty game winning three and jumping on the scorer’s table.
Looking up at the schedule, Game 7 was slated for the day before the draft lottery. “Dear God, I thought, if you have to bless the Celtics with just one of the two, I choose Markelle Fultz”.
We all know what happened next: Game 7 was Olynyk’s one shining moment.
The very next day was the day the ping pong balls would augur a change in winds. Ever since the Celtics had sucked up the Nets’ stash of assets, they’d been living in the cushy world where they could develop their players while living off a lush inheritance. In a world more and more untethered to objective reality, a known value doesn’t stand a chance against the unchecked hubris of speculative futures. Who wants to face the sobering prospect of year 4 of an injury riddled Nerlens Noel when you can listen to Leo Papile gush about his potential as the honest-to-God second coming of Bill Russell?
This year, those ping pong balls had just one face on them: Markelle Fultz. Josh Jackson was a flawed but better version of Jaylen Brown, and an unsavory seasoning named Lavar came attached to Lonzo Ball. Everyone else was everyone else. On the fated evening of May 16th, the massive composite pile of previous draft lottery heartbreak melted away. My friend, having written the scouting report on my temperamental outbursts, kept on lowering expectations lest I got invested in winning the draft. When the Lakers logo reared its yellow and purple from the envelope, my reaction soared into a different dimension of lunacy. I spent the next three minutes tearing my vocal chords and high stepping the length of my apartment. I’d stop, then resume my victory stomp while my skittish cats took shelter in the loft. We were getting Fultz. We were getting Fultz. We were getting Fultz.
Fultz’ game was beautifully fierce and instinctive. The lines he drew with his dribble were impossible buttery swirls that hardly anyone possessed save Chris Paul and a few others. He was arguably the best guard to come out of the draft since Kyrie Irving in 2011. Acquiring Fultz meant the Celtics would have the luxury to divest from the Isaiah brinks truck train if they realized that they couldn’t lock him up on a reasonable contract next summer that wouldn’t preclude them from making a play for a franchise player.
[Mental note: I’m deliberately skipping past Game 2 of the Cavs-Celtics series that I drove through Boston’s labyrinthian infrastructure for. That day, I witnessed a historic aberration I have since done my best to forget. The previous playoff game I had been to was Game 4 of the 2015 Cavs-Celtics series when Perk leveled Crowder and JR Smith clocked him, leaving his knee limp. When will it be safe to attend a Cavs-Celtics playoff game. Ever???]
The Morning After: Doubt
Something in me sat uneasy. Could Ainge possibly be pondering trading this long coveted asset? Now that the Celtics finally had it, it was theirs. But it also meant that the calls would come pouring in and that it would take a great deal of discipline not to get lured by the allure of the flip. Everyone reassured me of the historical improbability of such a move.
The season had ended three weeks ago, and everything was eerily normal heading into the draft. Then, rather probably, a Woj bomb dropped. And as soon as it did, it seemed like it was a fait accompli. The promise of Fultz was sent packing for another conditional lottery pick. And just like that, the Celtics seemed to be content living in the land of speculation again. I was disconsolate.
Draft Week, Summer League and the Beginning of Free Agency
“If the Celtics valued Tatum more than Fultz, then nabbing a second pick in the 2–5 range in 2018 or likely in the top 8 in 2019 was unequivocally the right move” — said some talking heads. But obvious conclusions based on one man’s questionable version of reality are hardly reassuring. Ainge is his own man; he falls in love with prospects he’s been stalkingly admiring since they were in middle school just like all GMs do, but the difference is that he acts on his crushes. In the last couple of years he had developed a reputation for picking players who had caused frantic Google Search spikes, more for their relative obscurity than their high profile (see: Rozier, Terry; Yabusele, Guerschon). In both cases, he seems to have been onto something.
Meanwhile, there was also growing buzz centered around the possibility of the Celtics pulling off two incredible moves in domino fashion reminiscent of their 2007 rebirth: sign Gordon Hayward, then trade for Paul George. Just as Hayward was slated to begin his three-team “Woo Gordon” tour, George was incomprehensibly and suddenly pried away by OKC. Other teams were getting richer and sacrificing surprisingly little, and the possibility that Ainge was little more than a hoarder (which completely flew in the face of his reputation as a gambler) started growing louder.
It’s with that sunken feeling that we flew to Utah to catch this year’s hyped summer league. Warren Legarie’s line has always been “You see them here first!”; instead of watching Fultz glide past other NBA hopefuls, we were hoping for a Tatum revelation. The first game pinned a freshly traded Fultz vs. Tatum in a high stakes trade referendum. Sitting in the arena, you could almost hear the competing narratives of what was playing out on the court with that of fans monitoring the close of Hayward’s free agency jaunt in San Diego. Every little pitch presentation detail got the After The Final Rose treatment: The Heat created a Hayward in a Heat jersey banner along the entrance to the AA stadium! But wait, the Celtics countered with a nice sign at legendary Fenway Park that also greeted Gordo’s wife — how classy. Did you hear that Rubio flew in from Spain to solidify Utah’s standing, could that be the clincher?
The calculus was unending, and every sneeze from the Celtics’ posse in the arena led to a new hasty conclusion on my part. I became a master of body language from a distance. “Man, Ainge looks really tense. Look at that clenched jaw. He’s under pressure after letting the George trade slip away. EVERYTHING hinges on Hayward.” Antsy, hopeful Jazz fans redoubled their “Stay-ward” chants, Stevens’ son kept on checking with Celtics officials for the latest update and Hayward re-shuffled his point system with every franchise he visited. This was a crazy parlay playing out in front of our eyes.
While that drama unfolded like poisonously languid molasses, the immediate subplot was Fultz and Tatum’s first meeting. Fultz immediately dazzled. Maya, who’s known for saying that she can’t see talent, leaned over to me and proclaimed that Fultz was easily a superstar within the first two minutes. “Oh, I can SEE it” she whispered, happy that even she could pick out his supernatural feel and oscillating moves. Meanwhile, Tatum was acting like I imagine my mom would play him in NBA 2k — all frenetic joystick action and button mashing — going into a series of swivel moves culminating with a rim clank. Damn … [Ainge checks his phone, raises his eyes to see Fultz eliciting oohs and aaahs and the drama continues…]. Then, the game started turning around. Tatum settled in and started showing us his arsenal of anachronistic moves and competitiveness to boot. Meanwhile, Fultz was forcing the action and displaying carelessness in the paint.
It all came down to this last possession:
And just like that, Chapter 1 went down in the books as the game Tatum outplayed Fultz. That wasn’t quite the case, but summer league doesn’t traffic in reality.
A crowd gathered around Tatum’s autograph line with Jeff Twiss standing by in trademark ominous fashion, guarding his future star.
The day the world was promised a decision from Hayward had arrived. The clock kept on splitting into micro time units. As stillness bore down on everyone’s Independence Day festivities, the nature of the non-news became untenable. Against the backdrop of trying to enjoy lunch, news finally definitely broke. Maya surprised herself by shedding a tear (“I don’t know why I’m crying but I aaaam!”). The pre-made social media assets started pouring out into the stream like balloons dropping from the rafters. I excitedly took a screenshot of The Ringer’s tweet — Hayward back when he looked like James and the Giant Peach being stared at affectionately by Stevens — and hastily sent them off to my mom. It seemed strange that Woj was snoozing but the news was widespread. It was official, Gordon Hayward was a Celtic.
Then it happened.
Rewind. The leak was premature. Nothing had been decided. All the celebratory tweets from people who had a reputation to protect were deleted, and we were left with nothing except for Mark Bartelstein curt overreactions. “Reconsidering everything” rang in my ears as my tears turned bitter. Twitter trends was confused. This was an aberration, even by social media standards.
This might have been funny if it wasn’t for the fact that it was the most tragic July 4th ever.
We were slated to drive from Salt Lake City to the Red Mountain Resort, a pleasant five hour affair. The first hour was spent maniacally refreshing twitter every few minutes, after which we settled on a cadence of checking twitter every hour on the hour.
We dragged our lifeless carcasses to our room, and without any fanfare, in a lodge far from human civilization, I learned that Gordon Hayward had in fact become a Celtic. This was the aborted July 4th firework that fires a little spark after everyone’s already left the party. As the news settled, the excitement slowly came back.
Three Days Later
By this point, we had scaled Zion and Bryce and were headed to the Vegas Summer League. Tatum was now on everyone’s radar and the league was buzzing. The last two number three picks for the Celtics were clearly developing great chemistry as evidenced by a nickname and a handshake: 7/11.
After a handful of trade scenarios emerged that were needed to make room for Hayward, Avery Bradley became a quiet casualty to the Cavs and Warriors’ playoff dominance, which had had the effect of shrinking the league’s GDP. Just like that, we had traded the last vestige of the Pierce and KG era for the lesser of the Morris twins. It was a tough pill to swallow given Bradley’s continual evolution as a player and quiet leader, but you could rationalize it given that he was likely a goner next summer. One half of the recently christened 7/11 decided to jump on AB’s 0 jersey, leaving behind the promise of that newly minted identity.
For three weeks, the most exciting news we got was that Aron Baynes had become the latest Celtics mascot and that he was scouring Boston for BBQ. Leadership is important, and Baynes, in addition to being a big bouncy ball, has the prototypical makeup of a glue guy — crazy hair, gregarious, slightly off kilter, and sponsorship potential in nontraditional categories. And he’s an Aussie!
The Celtics had sacrificed roster flotsam and key players in Braley and Olynyk, but they were set to light the league ablaze with IT, Smart, Rozier, Brown, Tatum, Jae’s contract, Horford, Morris, Baynes, Yabusele, the tree trunk Ojeleye, the Nets and Lakers’ pics — and even Zizic, who’d finished the Vegas Summer League strong with a string of double doubles and gritty play.
Last Week of July: The Public Breakup
Kyrie Irving decided he was done being a firefly in a jar. As it was announced to the world that the tenuous Irving-LeBron era was over, Kobe Altman (who was in one of my grad school classes!!!) was named GM of the Cavaliers and charged with fixing this mess. When you have as many assets as the Celtics do, you’re automatically going to be included in every big trade rumor. Ainge had more or less done what every team in the league had done by placing a mandatory call into the Cavs to “monitor” the situation. The odds were tepid.
A couple of weeks later, exiled David Griffin tipped us off to the fact that the Celtics were now on Kyrie’s short list of teams he would be willing to go to. That should have signaled the warming probability of the Celtics landing Kyrie, but it still seemed like a wild rumor. In the midst of this unfolding story, I bumped into Kobe Altman (who was in one of my classes @ UMass) at the Newark Airport; I went up to him to say hello and we exchanged a hug and a quick word in a faint whisper. He was on the phone having a conversation IN WHICH HE WAS SAYING: “C’mon, I need to get more value from that…”. I’d been ambiently part of the Irving trade negotiations, I thought. This is as close as I was ever going to get.
Back in NY, Out of Nowhere
On an unsuspecting August evening, I came out of my room and Maya was on the other side of the door staring at me giddily: “Guess what? guess what? guess what??” “There’s consensus to impeach Trump?!” “No, we got Kyrieeeeeeee!!!!!” “WHAT? WHO FOR??” “IT, Jae and Zizic!” ‘HOOOOOOLY SHIT… HOOOOOOLY SHIT. WE DID IT AGAAAAAAAAAIN?!?!”
Well, no. Not really. She hadn’t read to the part that mentioned the Nets’ u-n-p-r-o-t-e-c-t-e-d pick. Try this experiment: Give someone a gift they adore. Wait for them to fall in love with it. Then, announce that you’re going to have to take something from them. A ring their favorite late aunt gave them years ago and asked them to hand down to their daughter. Ask them how they feel about the gift now. Unprotected? I was baffled. IT just had a historic season, how did Kyrie warrant that much more?
We gingerly celebrated, then silently internalized the gravity of parting with next year’s unprotected first round pick, briefly checked in on Jeremy Lin’s summer regimen, made peace with losing the fabled Mighty IT — and the improbable story of him jolting an organization, who up until that point was a bright young wine that still needed years to mature into something drinkable.
JK, It May not Actually be Happening
But as with everything that had preceded this epic deal this summer, there was more than met the eye. Three days later, I woke up to the news of IT’s hip diagnosis, followed by the interminable posturing by a frittering organization that this trade could well have saved if it had stopped while it was ahead. Naturally, I was in Denver for a Japanese sake seminar that week and spent as much time thumbing twitter as I did focusing on brewing.
Still, I returned to the fact that if anything improbable was going to happen, it would happen to the Celtics. Markelle Fultz was our prize before he was re-routed to the 76ers; Hayward was a Celtic before he wasn’t anymore; Kyrie was a Celtic until we had to imagine the grotesque possibility of IT being shipped back to Boston. More assets were demanded by the Cavs, other teams lurked in the wings waiting for the deal to fall through, LeBron had soured on it, Dan Gilbert was trying to extort the Celtics, IT was paraplegic … whatever this was, it was worthy of Bill Veeck and his swinging dwarves.
After having tasted over 100 sakes in three days, then drunk a handful more at the conclusion of the seminar, I decided to walk around Larimer square and suck in some fresh Denver air before flying back to NY’s swampy inferno. With the Thursday trade deadline looming, it had dawned on me that the deal was still valid until voided, not the other way around. In a nick of time, Twitter came through and confirmed that the Celtics had sent an additional 2020 second round pick to appease the Cavaliers. NOW the roster was set. Or was it? Ainge bluffed there might be more to come…
The day finally came for Gordon Hayward’s press conference, only this time Kyrie was sitting next to him flashing his idiosyncratic rhetorical style and displaying genuine excitement. All told, Kyrie’s star shines brightest when Isaiah tends to struggle the most. “Clutch” is not something that automatically ports over to the playoffs when defenses lock in, least of all when you’re 5'9”. There was a great deal of reluctancy that crept into IT’s game come playoff time. This is something that few talked about in the aftermath of the trade, and precisely the moments the Celtics were making all these big bets for. They were tired of being the league’s Cinderella only to get sucker punched by the Cavs every spring. Rivers hit the nail on the head when he noted that “at the end of the game you need to have guys who are going to close the game for you. Now they have those. I don’t know if they’ve had that in the past, and now they do.”
After a set of dizzying transactions rife with misdirection at every turn, the Celtics are now primed to trot out an unrecognizable roster. This is the opposite of a controlled test. Practically all the variables have been swapped out, tampered with, spun around. What’s anyone to make of this complete shattering, this magnificent overhaul? This is the one season the Celtics could actually have benefited from the drawn out pre-season.
Now that the summer drama is behind us with plenty of unresolved basketball drama still in front of us (are the Celtics good enough to keep the last roster spot vacant until a PJ Brown type joins them for a deep playoff run? I miss that tactic.), we can regale in all the nonlinear twists and turns, the swirling rumors, the breaks, the surprises, the triumphs, the heartbreaks and everything in between. The Celtics first preseason game feels like a must-watch.