Celtics’ win over Warriors in Oracle marks Boston as the place to go for free agents

The Boston Celtics didn’t merely snap the NBA’s longest home-court winning streak Friday night in Oakland.

They offered a vision of what the NBA could become over the next several years.

Earlier this week, we wrote about how this regular season’s late-stage games are generally providing questions more than answers. Boston’s win in Oracle Arena — the first for any regular season visitor to the building since Chicago pulled off the feat on January 27, 2015 — runs counter to that larger trend.

No, the cessation of the Warriors’ 54-game home streak doesn’t mean the Celtics are ready to dethrone LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the East (not this year, at least). It also shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the Warriors are profoundly more vulnerable than before. When Andre Iguodala and Festus Ezeli return — with fresh legs due to their injury-forced layoffs, no less — the champions will be close to whole. They should be fine.

No, the question the Celtics’ victory answered is a question pertinent to the NBA’s future, at least the next several years which will lead the league into the 2020s:

What is the best non-Golden State, non-San Antonio, non-Cleveland destination for free agents who want to win a championship?

Really — would YOU want to go anywhere else if the Dubs, Spurs and Cavs either have too much money committed to their current rosters, or simply feel, “Nah, we good”?

It doesn’t seem very hard to knock down that question in fairly short order.


Isaiah Thomas has played at a star-level height in recent months. Brad Stevens has turned a team without stars into a group which is more likely than not to win one playoff series. If it wins two, that probably means the Celtics will have beaten Toronto or Cleveland, depending on how the East playoff bracket stacks up in a week and a half.

The Clippers remain the Clippers: a hugely talented team, yes, but one saddled with internal points of friction (Blake Griffin did this in 2016, remember) that were supposed to have been expunged after DeAndre Jordan reunited with his teammates in last summer’s extraordinary events.

The Clippers also face this basic limitation, one shared by the Oklahoma City Thunder: They have to go through the Spurs and the Warriors to win the West.

If you can’t join the Warriors or Spurs, and you’re a high-value free agent on the market, do you REALLY want to go to OKC or Los Angeles (non-Laker division) if winning a championship is your goal?

That takes care of the West. See? Not too hard.

In the East, if Cleveland’s off the table, given the money it has poured into LeBron and his supporting cast, it’s a little more difficult.

The Toronto Raptors — with the addition of a star player — could very well become Cleveland’s equal, perhaps able to win an extended series by the slimmest of margins. This is, however, a team whose head coach, Dwane Casey, needs to win two playoff series this spring (making the East Finals) in order to retain the level of trust and confidence the Raptors’ regular season has inspired. Toronto has two star players in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, so the addition of a third could make a big difference. Fair enough.

The Atlanta Hawks are not to be dismissed here. Mike Budenholzer doesn’t have the team he had last season, so the Hawks aren’t going to sniff the 60-win total they achieved in 2015. However, the way the team has rebounded from a late-February low point has to give people in and around the organization the strong belief that Coach Bud is a long-term fit for the organization. In certain ways, Budenholzer has shown more this season, in which his team wasn’t functioning well for prolonged periods of time. Atlanta’s ability to make adjustments marks the Hawks as a team worthy of a top free agent’s services.

The Miami Heat represent a legitimate and compelling alternative — not on a long-term trajectory given Dwyane Wade’s increasing age and his accordingly smaller window in which to win a title, but certainly in a two-year window. The way Erik Spoelstra has cultivated Josh Richardson’s game and made midseason changes to the Heat’s offense has reaffirmed his identity as an upper-tier NBA coach — maybe not top five, but certainly top eight. Pat Riley creates the right culture and an environment in which everyone is held accountable. The Chris Bosh situation is worrisome, though — at least to the extent that one doesn’t fully know what to expect if the Heat become a primary free-agent consideration this summer.

The rest of the East is mediocre enough that the addition of one high-value free-agent doesn’t seem enough to produce a title-contending team in the next two seasons. Whether you’re discussing the diminished Bulls, the rudderless Pacers, or the overachieving Hornets — a great story, but not a mixture which points to championship-level competitiveness on the near horizon — the East’s other playoff-level teams are more “works in progress” than “organizations just needing one piece to become complete teams.”

Except one.

The Celtics’ win in Oracle Arena was achieved on the back end of a road back-to-back, on a Western road swing very late in the season, with Jae Crowder still re-integrating himself into the rhythms of game play following his Thursday-night return in Portland. Boston has Isaiah Thomas — author of an 18-point third quarter which enabled the Celtics to survive a Stephen Curry scoring tsunami — playing at a star level. Yet, one unwritten rule of NBA stardom is that you don’t stamp yourself as a star until you take ownership of your greatness in the playoffs. By that one measurement if not others, Boston is a star-less team.

Yet, there was Brad Stevens on Friday night, exploiting the Warriors’ lack of quality and depth in the low post behind Draymond Green. Stevens has a keen understanding of how specific skills can and should mesh within a team framework. His ability to isolate those skill sets — on his own team, and on his opponent’s roster — is very much a central part of his innate genius.

Andy Glockner, author of an exciting new book on the construction of NBA champions (one I haven’t read, but intend to buy and consume), interviewed Stevens for that book:

Stevens already possesses this grasp of winning basketball before turning 40 (which he’ll do later this year).

One can only join the chorus in expressing this sentiment:

Nothing in life is ever guaranteed.

Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, and John Stockton didn’t win an NBA title. Don Nelson and George Karl, for all the games they won, never claimed a title as coaches. The 1978 Portland Trail Blazers were dominating the league, but then Bill Walton’s body betrayed him, and an organization slowly slid into a series of second-round playoff exits and no bites at the championship apple until 1990, over a decade later.

The theater of sports is the theater of the uncertain — after all, no one was predicting before the season that the Warriors would do what they’ve done, or that two teams would have been a combined 74-0 at home entering the month of April. Everything can — and does — change quickly.

Yet, if you were to digest what Brad Stevens and the Boston Celtics just accomplished — with that roster under those circumstances in the NBA’s toughest road building — it is very hard to identify a better landing spot outside the GSW-SAS-CLE trio if an NBA title is a priority in the next few seasons.

While the Los Angeles Lakers couldn’t be in worse shape, the Boston Celtics couldn’t be in better shape if Kevin Durant turns his eyes to New England.

LeBron’s hold on the Eastern Conference could end, and oh, what a personally shattering development that would be for him, perhaps prompting the flight to another city which has been discussed to no end this year.

The Boston Celtics would haunt Pat Riley again, revisiting 1984.

Mike Budenholzer and Erik Spoelstra could do their best work… and it probably wouldn’t matter.

John Wall, Kemba Walker, and Paul George would stare into the NBA abyss for a few seasons, wondering if their championship windows will ever open wide.


Yes, Friday night showed the NBA that if you’re not in Oakland, San Antonio, or Cleveland, Boston is the most attractive destination on the board if a championship pursuit before the end of this decade is a realistic aspiration.

That’s no small thing, and it’s a testament to what Brad Stevens has already become as an NBA head coach.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |