Well, that wasn’t pretty at all.
The Cavaliers beat the Celtics by 44 points — the largest margin of defeat ever for a No. 1 seed in the playoffs. A game that Isaiah Thomas promised would be different was ultimately more of the same. Cleveland is a much better team than Boston, and LeBron James remains head and shoulders the best player on the planet. It doesn’t matter if you fear him or only see him as a regular guy. You’re just deciding if you prefer delusion or despair.
To the Celtics fans, it’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s … not your fault.
They can take consolation in knowing that this year is superfluous to the overall timeline. The Celtics being the No. 1 seed is great and reaching the Eastern Conference Finals is even better. But it is an extra achievement en route to the bigger prize. The inevitable series loss and embarrassment to Cleveland will sting, but it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of the Celtics’ plans. They’re not banking on the Isaiah Thomas/Al Horford era, but what will come after it.
All things, even the reign of LeBron James, must come to an end. It seems hard to imagine that now, with James getting better when all ordinary people fade, but he is not eternal. He will wane and subsequently retire. Maybe even before that, his superteam could disperse. The chance for a new beast to rise in the East will present itself.
It’s foolish to pretend otherwise and attempt to topple James at his best. That endeavor is a waste of resources.
For some teams, like the Raptors, the choice was out of their hands. Kyle Lowry is in his 30s and his free agency was approaching. DeMar DeRozan is in his late 20s and the rest of the team is in the same age bracket. They had no choice but to expend their resources on a fruitless effort, because their championship window was small. To be more accurate: The open window was a hallucination, and they could do nothing but attempt the improbable. It ended as expected.
The Celtics don’t have that problem. These last few seasons have been more about showcasing the talents of Brad Stevens and restoring the reputation of the team more than anything else. This is still ultimately a rebuilding year, and you can look to the Brooklyn Nets for that.
Thanks to Brooklyn’s foolishness, the Celtics had the No. 3 pick in the draft last year, the No. 1 pick in the draft this year, enough cap space to sign Horford last year and chase a free agent star this summer, and the Nets’ unprotected No. 1 pick in 2018. They have the ability to wait out this Cavaliers and Warriors mega-battle and then swoop in later to establish themselves as that era ends.
That’s why there was no need to make a big trade for Jimmy Butler or Paul George this season. A loss to the Cavaliers was still the most likely scenario. Beyond adding a maximum contract for at least three years, which would have made it harder to retain the current crop of players, the margin of loss would have only been closer. There are no awards for failing better than everyone else.
It’s true that assets, picks, and potential stars to acquire in a trade are not on the court yet. Markelle Fultz, Gordon Hayward, George, and Jimmy Butler are all enticing names, but each comes with his own difficulties.
Fultz could fail to adapt and develop in the NBA. George seems destined for LA. Butler doesn’t look as sensible an option as Hayward when Hayward could be gained without giving up anything. Hayward, of course, could very well stay with the Jazz. Another superteam could pop out of nowhere — hello, Bucks! There’s also a danger to holding onto assets for too long.
But if the worst should all happen, the Celtics are still in a better position than most other East teams. If they remain the same team that they are now in a few years, with Thomas and Horford aging gracefully, they would be one of the best teams in the league. If they do succeed in their plans, they could have a core of Fultz, Hayward, a mature Jaylen Brown, and whomever the 2018 pick is.
That’s even deadlier.
Let LeBron James have his dominion now. There’s not much that can be done about a force of nature like him. Rather than trying to drive through the hurricane, the sensible thing is to find a safe place and wait it out. The immediate loss of the time spent standing by is nothing compared to surviving it and thriving afterward.
The Celtics are in good shape now, but their plan is to be in their ideal state when the LeBron era is over. Because even though it doesn’t seem like it now, the clouds will eventually go away.