The Eastern Conference Final is not a battle between the Celtics and the Heat, rather it is a battle between Danny Ainge and Pat Riley
The Eastern Conference playoffs have been less predictable than we all initially thought. We saw the top two seeds go down in the second round and both upset forced us to re-evaluate the two Eastern Conference Finals teams in the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics. What’s interesting about the two teams, is that aside from Jimmy Butler, neither team has a top-ten player (the top-ten list is always subjective but Jimmy Butler is likely to be the only player that is undisputedly a top-ten player). Being that star-power isn’t what brought either team to the Conference Finals, one has to wonder how the Heat or Celtics got this far.
The NBA has seen in recent years (and historically) teams that are carried by star players or superteams that would have multiple stars. The Boston Celtics and Miami Heat are both capable of winning the NBA Championship and it would come as no surprise if either team does win the Championship. I see the Eastern Conference Final, which tips off tonight, as not a battle between the Celtics and the Heat. This is a battle between Danny Ainge and Pat Riley. Both executives were able to get their teams out of the dreaded hamster wheel that the NBA is known for.
Being a bad team is not the worst plight for an NBA team. On the contrary, being bad will allow your team to accumulate draft picks and top draft picks are more likely to translate into stars. The 76ers realized this and purposely lost in order to have four top-five picks in five years (we’ll ignore the fact that the 76ers drafted only two all-stars out of the four picks and it appears they will let go of one of them this off-season). The biggest nightmare in the NBA is to be in the hamster wheel of good but not great. Teams like the Washington Wizards, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, Indiana Pacers, and the Philadelphia 76ers are either in the hamster wheel or have been in the hamster wheel and it’s hard to see where these teams can go from here.
This is why I am more than impressed with the Heat and Celtics as Pat Riley and Danny Ainge have been able to build title-contenders after being in the hamster wheel, with that in mind, let’s look at how these executives built the two best teams in the East.
Pat Riley was known for luring LeBron James and Chris Bosh to South Beach to form the Big Three that won 2 NBA Championships and made it to four Finals in a row. However, this past off-season might be his most impressive one yet as an executive. Miami had a team that was going nowhere with the core they had and instead of blowing up the core to rebuild, Riley refueled and built a team that can combat today’s style of basketball.
The first and foremost action that Riley made was bringing Jimmy Butler to Miami. Jimmy Butler was known as a top player but was always criticized for his inability to work with other teammates. What Riley realized is that Jimmy Butler was over competitive and he hated star players that wouldn’t put in the same effort he had put in. Riley not only brought in Butler to build his team around but brought him in to set the tone for how the team was going to be built. It would be considered crazy to build your team around Jimmy Butler, considering that he is not the best player in the NBA or even in the top-5, the mentality set by Butler is what Riley cared about.
This of course forced Pat to give Butler a supporting cast that would be able to adapt to his work ethic. The players that were on the roster had to either adapt or be traded, and Riley made the difficult decisions to build the roster. The most notable player that adapted was Bam Adebayo, who now is one of the best big men in the NBA and mirrors Butler’s excellent two-way playing by being a constant scoring threat on offense and a force on defense. The young and eager draft picks have also suited that competitive mold as they realize that Jimmy Butler is only pushing them to become better, both Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn have shown their unquestionable value to a rising Heat team.
It was considered a ludicrous move to trade Hassan Whiteside in the off-season. We all saw one of the best rim-protectors in the league simply sent to Portland as a perceived cap space move, what Pat Riley realized is that Hassan Whiteside is simply a one-trick pony. Riley needed a big man that wasn’t expensive and could play both offense and defense, trading Whiteside opened up the offense and more importantly allowed the starting lineup to have a surplus of two-way players. The move also gave Bam Adebayo the minutes he needed to become a star, like many big men, the more game action they see the more accustomed to the game they become.
The roster Riley built looks like one that can be two steps ahead of the rest of the NBA. In a league that has seen a superfluous number of three-point shooters entering the game in recent years and seeing teams try to build their rosters where everyone can shoot from the outside, Riley took an alternate approach. He saw what happened to the Houston Rockets, with multiple three shooters but not an emphasis on defense. Pat Riley made sure that the roster was built with the mentality of scoring (regardless of how) and stopping teams from beating them from the three-point arc.
We know the move that Danny Ainge made a few years ago that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Nets in exchange for their future first rounds draft picks. While the move was praised when the picks both ended up becoming top-5 choices, the Celtics recently were criticized for not capitalizing on the opportunity, especially since the picks have yet to result in an NBA Championship. This year appears to be the one that can erase that doubt as the young core is coming to fruition and now leading the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals and possibly their first championship since 2008.
The first pick that the Celtics capitalized on was the 2016 number three overall pick which came as part of the Nets being one of the worst teams in the NBA. Jaylen Brown wasn’t seen as a top prospect entering the draft and has started his career out slower than many would have hoped. This past year, we have seen Jaylen Brown take the strides necessary to make him one of the leading players and the Celtics a title-contender. After his early years of coming off the bench, Brown has emerged as a perimeter scorer and this season had career highs in all significant categories as such.
The second pick that the Celtics benefitted from the Nets trade was the number one overall pick, which they traded as they knew they could grab Jayson Taytom at the third pick anyway. Jayson Taytom has shown immediate impact for the Boston Celtics, as an isolation scorer that can be counted on to score in the clutch. Jayson Taytom is seen by many as one of the future best players in the league, this is assuming that LeBron retires eventually.
One trade doesn’t make Danny Ainge the genius executive that he is. There is an underlying ability that Ainge has when it comes to building a championship contender, he can spot a player that appears to make a team better with skill but destroys the team's chemistry. Ainge was able to trade away Rajon Rondo, a move that was assumed would make the Celtics worse, instead, it made the Celtics a team that was able to return to the playoffs once again. While Ainge failed on the Kyrie Irving trade, sending a top pick and Isaiah Thomas to Cleveland for rental that only destroyed the locker room in Kyrie Irving, it was his credit to realize that Kemba Walker would prove to be significantly more valuable for a team that needed him and his work ethic. We all assumed that AL Horford leaving the Celtics would make them a worse team, the opposite has happened as the Celtics now look younger, faster, and most importantly, better.
What both Riley & Ainge have in common
Both executives have another virtue that is contrary to the thinking of most executives but has produced winning formulas. While the new generation of executives likes to use analytics to build a team, we see Pat Riley and Danny Ainge have an uncanny ability to build a winning roster with the old-school approach. Both executives are able to spot a player and know if they can play, if they can compete, if they have the winning drive, simply from looking at them. We see Masai Ujiri mastering the same approach, the ability to get a good feel and sense of a player is still the bar for measuring a player and if they can succeed in the NBA.