A few months from now, LeBron James will be entering free agency and NBA teams will be crunching the numbers and preparing elaborate presentations to lure him away from the Cleveland Cavaliers. After all, it’s not every summer that the best player in the game becomes available and any GM would be remiss in his duties if he doesn’t do his due diligence by giving it a shot no matter how slim his chances may be.
Already in his 15th year as a pro, James continues to be the most sought-after player in the league and still arguably the best player in the game today. Given the chance, virtually every team wants him on their team as their championship hopes increase with his mere existence on the roster.
But if there is one franchise in the league that would turn down the chance to secure James’ services, it is the team that they’ll be facing in the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals — the Boston Celtics.
There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is the presence of his former teammate. James’ beef with the Celtics franchise dates back to his early years with the Cavaliers and the rivalry he has with this team has persisted to this day.
Why won’t the Celtics grab the opportunity to pursue James this offseason if they had a chance?
Perhaps the most compelling reason for the Celtics not wanting to pursue James is the fact that their new floor leader wanted out of his shadow. Kyrie Irving’s exit from the Cavs was as controversial and drama-filled as any event last summer.
The exact details of his separation from the team that drafted him came out slowly with many insiders at the time saying that it was purely Irving not being in good terms with James for reasons that were being debated on sports talk shows a nightly basis.
Irving’s first public appearance via First Take after being traded to Boston didn’t reveal anything substantial so it was left up to anonymous sources around the NBA to find out more. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst later revealed the primary reason for the divorce between the star players.
“Irving and his agent, Jeff Wechsler, had voiced concerns to Cavs management for months about Irving’s role and place alongside James. There was discussion of scheduling a sitdown to deal with the growing discontent. Only that meeting never took place. With Griffin’s contract ending and Gilbert taking some time to name a replacement, dealing with Irving’s unhappiness didn’t appear to be a priority.
There weren’t exit meetings with coach Tyronn Lue or management after the season, either; the Cavs elected to skip them after a taxing playoff run. They wanted a cooling-off period. But the result was no chance to try to break down walls. As Popovich was looking in the mirror and getting Aldridge to reconsider, Irving was having conversations with friends and advisers on how to execute the breakup.
After the meeting with Irving, Gilbert kept up a brave public face and said in a news conference he expected to see Irving at training camp. However, he told people afterward that he didn’t think the situation with Irving was reparable and he knew he had to trade him. He and Altman did so without another face-to-face meeting with Irving. And the rest is history.”
So the trade happened and the Cavs received Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and a 2018 lottery pick. The key acquisition, aside from the draft pick, was Thomas who was injured in last year’s playoffs. The 5-foot-9 point guard was sensational last season, when he averaged 28.9 points and led the Celtics to the best record in the East. He was also an MVP candidate for his efforts to bring Boston back to relevance.
An Irving-Thomas swap would have been more equal in value if not for the injury. Thomas played briefly for the Cavs but he was already a shell of himself.
Looking back on the trade now after the Cavs shipped off Thomas and Crowder in separate deals in February, the only way that this deal would be fair for Cleveland is if the Brooklyn pick they received from Boston turns into an All-Star in the near future. Otherwise, the Cavs would be truly kicking themselves for letting go of one of the best guards in the game today.
Because of the failed Thomas experiment, James has had to carry the team on his own for most of the season. It was revealed by Windhorst that James didn’t want Kyrie to be traded as well.
James and Irving are Better Apart
Windhorst wrote an article earlier about James and Irving’s clutch performances this year compared to the time they played together. Since they were both expected to make clutch shots, they would sometimes get in each other’s way in delivering during crunch time.
“The last couple years, Kyrie obviously being as great as he was in the fourth quarter, we kind of pick our games,” James said early this season. “There was games half the time that he had it going and, ‘Hey, go get it.’ There was games half the time where I had it going, and I’d go get it.
“Right now my teammates look at me and they’re like, ‘OK, like, this is your quarter, you’ve done this your whole career. Let’s try to make some things happen.’ It’s very important that I try to come through for them.”
As for Irving, he was 21st in clutch points just slightly behind James. Early this year, Irving was second to James in the clutch until a knee injury kept him from playing further, thus moving him down to fifth place.
Statistics back up the notion that James and Irving are better off playing on different teams.
Paul Pierce and the Celtics
The road to the Finals in the late 2000’s and in the early part of this decade usually led him to Boston.
Boston had the superstar triumvirate of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen aided by 4-time All-Star Rajon Rondo, while James had Mo Williams, Anderson Varejao and Zydrunas Ilgauskas on his side. As good as those teammates were, they were no match for the star power of the Celtics, who had at least three future Hall of Famers team and coached by Doc Rivers.
James and Pierce developed a bitter rivalry of their own, at least they did when the latter was still playing. But even after retirement, it took a while for Pierce to acknowledge James’ greatness. Pierce has been appearing in ESPN shows and giving his take on the league’s latest news and issues. Whenever it came to James, however, his fellow panelists would take note how Pierce rarely took the Cleveland star’s side.
Fellow retired NBA player Chauncey Billups is one of those who would take note of Pierce’s bias against James whenever the two retirees would appear on ESPN.
A lot of this is borne out of the rivalry that these two players had that began during the Celtics’ run toward the 2008 championship. The 2007-08 regular season series was tied 2-2 and the playoffs series sought to determine which of these two juggernauts would come out superior to the other.
The Cavaliers took Boston to a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. James was spectacular, carrying the Cavs on his back with 45 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists. Pierce, for his part, went toe-to-toe with James, matching him shot for shot and finished the game with 41 points, 4 rebounds and 5 assists.
In 2010, the Cavs and Celts renewed their postseason acquaintance by meeting once again in the eastern semis. No one knew it at the time, but this series would redefine James’ career.
With the series tied at 2-2, the Cavs had the chance to take the lead in Game 5 until James uncharacteristically played one of his worst playoff games ever. He scored 15 points and shot a horrible 3-of-14 from the field as the Celtics dismantled the Cavs 120-88 on Cleveland’s home court. Boston eliminated them in Game 6 despite James delivering a triple-double and Pierce scoring only 13 points on 4-of-13 shooting.
This led to the summer of “The Decision” and James’ subsequent move to South Beach.
James in a Miami Heat uniform only added to the rivalry with the Celtics in 2011. Finally, the Akron native had the talent surrounding him to help him win against Boston now that he was surrounded by Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
The Heat won the series handily 4-1. Unfortunately, despite getting through Boston, James couldn’t finish the job in the Finals, as the Heat lost to Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks 4-2. This was the notorious series that gave James a reputation as un-clutch and someone who shrinks in the moment.
The following year, James reinvented himself during an MVP year in the 2011-12 season and the Heat faced the Celtics for the second consecutive year, but this time in the Eastern Conference Finals. After going down 3-2 in the series with Game 6 at Boston, James seemingly would fold once again and miss out on winning his first championship.
But James took over the game with 45 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists to silence the naysayers and the Celtics once and for all. The Heat took care of business at home and eliminated the Celtics in Game 7 on their home floor.
It wasn’t until this postseason that Pierce has acknowledged James’ greatness as a player especially after he nailed the game-winning three versus the Toronto Raptors in Game 3 of their series.
“He’s been nothing short of spectacular this whole postseason,” Pierce said in an interview on ESPN. “It’s almost like it’s scripted.”
“He’s taken his game to another level which we didn’t know he can do at this age,” he continued. “It just seems like he’s perfecting the game. I’m seeing no weaknesses in his game.”
The All-New Celtics
The Celtics would soon break up. James wouldn’t face them in the postseason again until 2015, during his first year as a returnee to Cleveland, this time with Irving and Kevin Love as his All-Star teammates.
The Cavs would make short work of the 7th-seeded Celtics by sweeping them 4-0, but not without ruining his chances at winning a championship. In Game 4, forward Kelly Olynyk would dislocate Love’s shoulder, keeping him from participating further in the postseason all the way to the Finals. The Cavs lost to the Golden State Warriors after Irving also went down with an injury in Game 1.
They would meet again in 2017 with a better Boston team led by Thomas, the diminutive but feisty MVP candidate who became the face of the new-look Celtics. But the Celtics lost once more 4-1 with Thomas missing the last two games because of injury.
Michael Jordan and the Pistons
The rivalry between James and the Celtics is similar to the one that the Chicago Bulls great Michael Jordan had with the Detroit Pistons. Jordan found his path to the championship blocked by the Pistons three straight years until he finally broke free from their death grip in the fourth year.
Since then, Jordan claimed six championships and never let go of the title whenever he played a full season during his Bulls career.
James has had a similar path with his epic battles against the Celtics. The major difference is that the Cavaliers star has mostly owned the east only with seven straight Eastern Conference titles rather than a dynasty of NBA titles (of which he has three). The seven straight Finals appearances is an NBA record.
Renewing the Rivalry
Despite vanquishing the Celtics years ago, Gang Green continues to get in his way, albeit not too successfully of late. But with Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford and a bunch of young and talented players such as Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier in the lineup, James should expect to see the Celtics in the playoffs annually if he stays in the east for the next few years.
James’ quest for a fourth championship this season is once again being blocked by the Celtics in the East Finals after they dismantled the Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid-led Philadelphia 76ers with a 4-1 series win. The Celtics and Coach Brad Stevens’ vaunted system will be tested by James’ dominance and the Cavs’ strengthened resolve. The 4-time MVP is currently averaging 34.3 points, 9.4 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.0 blocks per game.
This best-of-seven series could have been a better match-up had Irving and Hayward been healthy this year. Nevertheless, the Cavs and the Celtics take the court with the understanding that they are measuring themselves against the best in their conference with the team winning the series representing the East in the Finals.
Just as the Pistons’ Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer wouldn’t have considered teaming up with Jordan in Detroit, even if such a possibility existed back then, it’s practically a foregone conclusion that the Celtics won’t try to recruit James in free agency this summer.
There’s been too much bad blood created over the years and Irving would never acquiesce to having James on his team. Not anymore. They’ve chosen different paths now and both players have become better after the separation.
Time and time again, Boston has stood in his way to winning one championship after another. It’s almost as if James needs the Celtics to keep challenging him so he can elevate his game further.
The same is true for the Celtics, and the rest of the Eastern Conference for that matter. If they want to win a championship, the Celts need a LeBron-sized challenge to determine their worthiness.
Each one needs the other to be on the opposite end of the spectrum to present a challenge. James is better not playing for the Celtics and Boston is better off not having LeBron on its roster.
President of Basketball Operations and general manager Danny Ainge knows this instinctively, and if he is to build another championship team, it’s not going to be by taking the easy way out by acquiring James. No, he needs James to test the team he created and the coach that he hired to know if they are good enough to be champions.
No matter how tempting it would be, Ainge will not be pursuing James in the offseason, even if he has the assets to pull off a sign-and-trade with the Cavaliers. That’s the Celtic Pride in him and he wouldn’t want to win a championship any other way.
This rivalry between James and the Celtics has become one of the most intriguing reality TV stories over the past decade for the NBA. There’s no point in ending it any time soon.