Monday, June 23, 2008

Finals P.S.: Thibodeau Notes; L.A. Can Still Win 70

Emptying the notebook with one last post of Finals thoughts, before we put 2007-08 to rest for good and spin it forward....

I still can't entirely get my head around how everything fell into place so improbably and perfectly for the Boston Celtics in 2007-08.

Beyond the fact that the franchise was devastated by finishing with just the no. 5 pick in the 2007 lottery, and that KG rejected the original deal in late June (it was finally consummated on July 31), don't forget that defensive guru Tom Thibodeau was hired by the Wizards on July 3 and coached with the team for a few days before having a change of heart.

As Pradamaster of Bullets Forever broke it down last summer:
    From what it seems, it was an awkward situation all around. Ernie [Grunfeld] went and got a coach over [Eddie Jordan]'s authority, but didn't give Thibodeau the lead assistant role, which pissed off Thibodeau. Then, Ernie signed all of EJ's assistants to one year deals while offering Thibodeau a two-year contract, which probably stung EJ a bit. Still, the whole thing seems a bit murky.
Pradamaster went on to hand out blame thusly:
    If we really have to assign blame, it should include everyone. Blame Thibodeau for quitting after giving a verbal agreement. Blame Ernie for creating an awkward situation by signing Thibodeau to a 2 year contract, then giving all of EJ's assistants one-year deals. Blame EJ for seemingly not being all that receptive to Thibodeau and not giving him the lead assistant role.
If Grunfeld and Jordan and Thibodeau simply could have all got along, then there's no Thibodeau, and probably no title, in Boston.

And the last line of the excerpt above makes me think that, among all of the praiseworthy things that Doc Rivers did in this magical season, perhaps the most important thing was his willingness to accept a strong lead assistant such as Thibodeau.

As a coach on the hot seat coming off of a 24-58 season, Rivers might have felt threatened by having a potential head-coach-in-waiting lurking over his shoulder. He might have chafed at all of the stories which have credited Thibodeau for such a large share of the team's turnaround.

So give Doc credit for sublimating his ego, and for having the common sense to realize that more W's would reflect well on him - as it overwhelmingly has - regardless of who helped deliver them.

Because, as much as I thought Doc had a great season, esp. in the Finals, I don't believe that this team wins a championship without the addition of Tom Thibodeau, and I think Thibodeau is now one of the more underrated free agents on the market this summer.

The Chicago Tribune reports that the Bulls "are considering making a run" at Thibodeau, which would be weird considering that he is not only more qualified for the head-coaching job than Vinny Del Negro, but conceivably could be worth more than the $2 million a year that Del Negro is reportedly making.

My blogging partner-in-crime, Jay Aych, floated the intriguing idea that the Knicks should try to throw a ton of money at Thibodeau, to pair his defensive prowess with D'Antoni's expertise. Indeed, one would think that the Knicks could conceivably improve by 20-25 games on coaching alone by replacing the underachievement of the Isiah era with a D'Antoni/Thibodeau combo. Even if it were a legitimate possibility, though, one wonders if D'Antoni's ego could be as flexible as Doc's, considering that Steve Kerr tried unsuccessfully to get D'Antoni to hire Thibodeau in Phoenix last season.

Marc Stein reported that Thibodeau "probably is sticking around" in Boston after not scoring a head-coaching gig. The Celtics certainly need him if they hope to repeat.

Speaking of which, there's of course a summer of transactions ahead, but at first blush, these Celtics don't strike me as the type of team that will be repeat champions. They had such a unique alchemy this season, as they were carried through the playoffs by a combination of an intense hunger to win and a home-court advantage that was the fruits of their regular-season-long intensity. I think that both of those elements will be hard to replicate as precisely next season, and with Messrs. Pierce, Garnett and Allen at ages 31, 32, and 33, respectively, next season, I just don't see it all coming together again. This team's margin of error was ultimately much smaller than the colossal Game 6 blowout that's fresh in our minds.

Now, that said, I was assuming that the 2007-08 version of the Celtics would ultimately be underappreciated in a historical sense b/c they were a defensive-oriented team, which made them a little uglier to watch at times, so I was somewhat pleasantly shocked to see Bob Ryan name them the second-best Celtics team ever, above Bird's '84 team, and above all of the Russell teams.

Amen. Give this team its due. They are possibly the greatest defensive basketball team I've ever seen, and statistically, they rank as the greatest defensive team out of all NBA champions since the NBA started tracking TO's in 1973-74.

On the other side of the coin are the Lakers. I am somewhat amused though hardly surprised at the harshness of the criticism being levelled at the Lakers - it's the nature of sports media to overreact to the most recent events.

I still believe that, if Andrew Bynum comes back healthy, these Lakers have a chance to win 70 games in 2008-09. As ugly as Game 6 was, the fundamentals remain the same to me:

  • not only did this year's team win 57, but they went 22-4 in games that Pau Gasol finished,
  • their core players Bryant (30), Odom (29) and Gasol (28) will all still be in their primes,
  • they will be adding pretty much the equivalent of a no. 1 overall draft pick in Bynum, who will be 21, and whose per-40 minute averages this season were 18 pts, 14 reb and 3 blk,
  • Derek Fisher (who will be 34) is the only player over 30 in the rotation; bench players such as his backup Jordan Farmar (22) and Sasha Vujacic (25) are still improving,
  • they not only have a ton of depth to withstand injuries, but are also essentially adding another nice versatile bench piece in Trevor Ariza (23),
  • I think they'll come back with more hunger after the ultimate disappointment of this season.

Yes, I was moderately disturbed by the lack of fire shown by Gasol and Odom in Game 6, but I don't think that will affect their performance in the regular season. And of course there are personnel questions still to be answered such as whether they will re-sign Sasha Vujacic and whether they'll look to move Odom and his expiring deal (and what they might get in return).

I just believe that people have forgotten how good this Lakers team was because of what's fresh in their minds: not just Game 6, but actually the last month of basketball - 11 straight games against the two best defenses in basketball, which made people forget just how good the L.A. offense was this season when they had things clicking.

In the regular season, very few teams can approach the level of defense that Boston and S.A. unleashed on the Lakers, and I think that most teams will get overwhelmed by the Laker offense over the course of the 82 next year.

Also, as much as people might want to call the Finals a "six-game sweep," it really was closer than the Game 6 blowout indicated. There's no question that Boston was the better team, but still, the series easily could have gone back to Boston with L.A. up 3-2. This team is not far away.

This season was gravy for L.A., it was still a success - esp. after the deep turmoil of last summer and fall - despite the disappointing ending. I still think the Lakers are on the cusp of dominating the league for the next few seasons, and yes, I still think they can win 70 games next season.

I can't remember the last time I was so happy for a guy to win a championship as I was for KG this season. I don't have anything original here, as I can't top Slate's must-read breakdown of both his entertainingly unhinged post-championship interview, and his famously emotional interview with John Thompson in 2005.

Just wanted to make sure I was on the record in showing KG some post-championship love, so here are the YouTube clips of those two interviews, as well as Jimmy Cagney's "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" valedictory from the 1949 gangster movie White Heat, the improbable inspiration for some of KG's post-game rantings/ravings, which I found in this message board discussion on Celtics Blog.

KG with Thompson (emotion kicks in at 4:20)

KG with Tafoya (all emotion)

Cagney in White Heat


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