Holding Court – Celtics, Pacers headed in opposite directions

Bert A. Ramirez
Holding Court – Celtics, Pacers headed in opposite directions
2014 was supposed to be the Indiana Pacers' year, but their future is up in the air after a third consecutive dismissal against the Heat. Meanwhile in Boston, the Cs look to shake things up

It was just a couple of years back when the Boston Celtics were the main rivals of the Miami Heat for Eastern Conference supremacy, not the Indiana Pacers. Remember that seven-game barnburner in 2012 where the Heat beat the Celtics to make their second straight NBA finals and subsequently win their first NBA title with the Big Three? Of course, that was until Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce became too old to continue serving as the centerpiece players of the Celtics and Ray Allen bolted Beantown to join the enemy in South Beach.  

In the summer of 2013, Boston traded Pierce and Garnett to Brooklyn in exchange for a handful of first-round picks and unwanted players, starting in earnest the Celts’ rebuilding process. How time flies, doesn’t it?

As the Celtics faded into the background while they attempt to regroup, it’s been the Pacers who have served as the Heat’s main rivals these past two years. Some would say more like foils, however, considering Miami’s rude 117-92 dismissal of Indiana in the clinching Game 6 of their East final series over the weekend. This despite the fact that this is supposed to be the year the Pacers would overtake the Heat. Spurred by their bitter Game 7 loss in the conference finals in Miami last year, the Pacers vowed to get homecourt advantage against the Heat this time, and they did, despite a late-season swoon that saw them limp home with a 10-13 record.

As it turned out, that Game 7 at home didn’t even come close to happening after the merciless drubbing they got in Game 6.

“It’s bitterly disappointing to fall short of our goals, and it’s bitterly disappointing to lose to this team three years in a row,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “But we’re competing against the Michael Jordan of our era, the Chicago Bulls of our era, and you have to tip your hats to them for the way they played this whole series.”

And so, if these Pacers, as currently constituted, can’t beat Miami, shouldn’t somebody else step forward to issue the challenge Indiana so miserably failed to provide at a time it was supposed to?  As Michael Wallace of ESPN.com put it, “the East might as well start taking applications now for a new so-called ‘rival’ for the Heat.  Because these Pacers were officially relieved of their duties after being dismantled and shoved aside.  It’s clearly time to move on.”

The Pacers’ unceremonious exit, presaged as it was by one of the most hideous slides seen in recent memory, has indeed raised questions about this team’s future. These Pacers simply showed they were a mentally fragile bunch and their implosion must have appalled especially the man who put all the pieces together. That, of course, is Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird, one of the most mentally tough competitors in all history but who could hardly do anything but witness the way this team collapsed and went quietly against the Heat. And after three straight years of playoff elimination to the same Heat, even the most optimistic Pacer fan has to have doubts about this team’s ability to overtake its bitter rival, not unless LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh breaks a leg before his time is up.

What will Bird do now considering quite a few of the players he brought in to bring a title to Indiana failed to produce when it most counted? As fellow hoops junkie Allan Leonardo said quite correctly, “This should have been the year they got over the hump. Break it up, Larry!”

Foremost among the question marks confronting the Pacers is Lance Stephenson, the talented but controversial starting big guard who becomes a free agent this July after completing the four-year, $3.3 million deal he signed as a second-round draft pick. Bird has always supported the 6-foot-5 Brooklyn native, the New York State’s all-time leading scorer in high school whom he drafted out of Cincinnati despite his checkered past and numerous red flags. But even Bird’s patience must have worn thin with Stephenson’s antics, which included trash-talking James in the playoffs, talking about making Wade’s supposed shot knees flare up, blowing in James’ ear in one game and touching his face and committing a flagrant foul in the decisive Game 6.

Sources say Stephenson’s erratic behavior began shortly after his snub by Eastern coaches for an All-Star Game berth, which coincided with the Pacers’ late-season slide after posting a league-best 46-13 record in early March. The 23-year-old guard supposedly tried to show up those coaches, in the process taking him out of the flow of his team and making him abandon a previous team-oriented approach in favor of a more selfish game more focused on numbers. Because of that, Stephenson started annoying teammates.  He not only started dominating the ball more and saw his assist numbers drop but he also robbed teammates of their own numbers, “stealing” rebounds from them by jumping in front of them for uncontested caroms. This annoyance came to a head in a blowout loss in Washington in late March, when center Roy Hibbert said “there’s some selfish dudes in the locker room,” putting into focus the Pacers’ already-tenuous chemistry, an area from which the team previously drew strength.

Lance Stephenson's on-court antics may have been a distraction to the Pacers over the second half of the season, leaving his future with the organization uncertain. Photo by Rhona Wise/EPA

It will be interesting to see what Bird will do to his protégé. As he has shown in the Danny Granger trade, he’s not averse to moving his own guys if he feels it will improve the team. In Stephenson’s case, however, he might see the value of re-signing him to a more reasonable contract now that the market has been alerted to his young backcourter’s high-maintenance nature, and will not likely try to give him an outrageous deal because of that. The Pacers will also not have cap space to sign an equal replacement for Stephenson if he goes, making his stay a little more likely.

“I think his future is with us,” David West said. “He’s a huge part of the progress that we made. He’s a great young talent, and he fits with this group. Hopefully, we get him back.”

But Stephenson is not the only personnel issue confronting Indiana. The Pacers also have to think hard about Hibbert and how he underachieved especially in the playoffs, where he went scoreless on a number of occasions and was mostly up and down, leading to some salacious rumors that were later proven unfounded.

The 7-2 Hibbert finished with paltry averages of 9.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.37 blocks in this year’s playoffs, a far cry from last year’s postseason norms of 17.0 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.95 blocks. This makes the two years remaining in his $30 million contract a bit steep, both for the Pacers and prospective trade partners.

The Pacers have no first-round pick this year after having sent it to Phoenix last year in the Luis Scola trade, but it’s obvious it will take more than the 6-9 Scola, who has a non-guaranteed $4.8 million deal for next season, to address the Pacers’ lack of scoring from the bench. While Bird brought in C.J. Watson, Chris Copeland, Evan Turner and even Andrew Bynum to help in that regard, none of them was able to help on a consistent basis, and Bird now has to look for options that would necessarily include moving any of those players.

But one big issue that may have to be addressed, despite initial reports that make Vogel safe for now, is the matter of keeping the 40-year-old coach in his job. Bird has reportedly not been happy with Vogel’s player-friendly approach and feels he’s not demanding enough to draw the most out of his players, and the fact that Bird was on a one-year hiatus when Vogel was given an extension up to 2016 makes him more vulnerable. This is particularly true when one considers that a Bird protégé, Mark Jackson, who with Reggie Miller was the leader on those Pacers teams that Bird coached to the NBA finals in 2000, among other accomplishments, is now available after having been eased out in Golden State. Pacers consultant Donnie Walsh is also said to be a huge fan of Jackson.

As Indiana tries to pick up the pieces, the team that it replaced as Miami’s chief rival, the Celtics, appear poised to make a big splash – or create some “fireworks” as principal owner Wyc Grousbeck said – this June as they enter Year 2 of their rebuilding program.

It’s been no secret that the Celtics are among several teams that are eyeing Minnesota star forward Kevin Love, and the Internet and social media sites were agog over the weekend when Love himself showed up in Boston supposedly “to check out the city and see what it’s like.”

Unless Love does the same thing with prospective suitors that include Cleveland, Phoenix and Golden State, his sighting in Boston and seeming good time while posing with local residents, the New England Patriots, a Harvard alumnus and anybody who’d want his picture taken with him could mean something more than a simple visit. In fact, fellow Celtic-phile and hoops buff Anton Ibe shared information coming from a guy who told of a similar development in 2007 (when the Celtics pried another star forward, Kevin Garnett, out of Minnesota). The inside source reportedly said, “Hearing from 3/3 sources Kevin Love is here for basketball reasons. In the past 14 days the Boston Celtics are now emerging as the No. 1 candidate for landing Kevin Love. Love and his agents are actively involved in trade talks, which prompted this trip after determining that Boston was the No. 1 option as of these past 14 days.”

Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders was quick to dismiss reports indicating Love was bound for Boston, saying, “The last I knew Kevin was under contract with us, and I expect him to be playing for us next year. I don’t really dictate where guys go on vacation or what they do. They can go wherever they want to go.”

It should be noted, however, that Saunders has to talk that way to avoid giving away whatever is going on behind closed doors, if indeed there are any, or lose any kind of leverage in whatever potential negotiations may take place, if none have yet to this point. The fact remains that Love’s representatives are believed to have told the T’Wolves that the 6-10, 243-pound forward, who averaged 26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists this past season, intends to opt out of his contract when it expires in 2015. The T’Wolves thus have to work out a trade for Love or risk getting nothing in the event he walks.

But why Boston, not Los Angeles where the Lakers would jump at the opportunity to acquire a native son (Love was born in Santa Monica, California and went to UCLA)? Or perhaps Golden State where Love would also feel at home or perhaps Phoenix, which is nearer the West Coast?

Well, for one, Love has said that he wants to play for an organization in a big market that is steeped in winning. While that won’t necessarily disqualify the Lakers, that would certainly offer a window of opportunity for the Celts. Former Providence coach Tim Welsh of CSN has said that Love would come to Boston if a trade can be worked out between the Wolves and the Celtics. A source close to Love told Welsh that the three-time All-star “wants to play for an organization that’s going to be a winning organization; not necessarily I have to go to a championship team now, but a team that’s going to be built to move in that direction. Maybe it’ll take a couple years. That’s OK. But he needs a change from Minnesota.”

For another, Love and former Boston captain Paul Pierce have the same agent, Jeff Schwartz, and Schwartz has had a good history with Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, who worked out a trade last year to a team, Brooklyn, where Pierce would be happy because of its contending status. One should not also forget that Saunders himself was an adviser to the Celtics two years ago and traveled with the team throughout their playoff run that ended in a Game 7 loss in the East finals in Miami.  As such, he and Ainge have that invaluable link necessary to discuss more intimately stuff like trades.

Third, the Celtics have a big cache of assets, including as many as 10 first-round picks over the next five years, as well as young players that Minnesota can use in its own rebuilding, and which other teams, like the Lakers, are not in the position to provide.

“I’ve got confidence that with all these picks and these young guys and our willingness to spend money that we can get there,” Grousbeck said last March as he looked at what his team intends to do this offseason. “We’re a patient group. We will take a multiyear plan if that’s what it takes. But I think this June there could be some fireworks. I think this June we’ve got so many pieces to this puzzle that we might be able to shake loose a real piece or two for this team going forward. So, I’m hoping it’s sooner rather than later.”

Love’s sighting in Boston over the weekend has undoubtedly spawned a lot of intrigue among hoops denizens.  One source, for example, has said that the Boston deal is “pretty much done,” and that the Celtics really intend to pair off Love and Celtics captain Rajon Rondo with New York’s Carmelo Anthony, an impending free agent himself, to form a lethal triumvirate that would rival the Heat’s own Big Three. 

The source, an insider at RealGM.com, said, “The Love deal is pretty much done. I think the fact that Kevin Love is so out and about in Boston is something that Danny wants out there so he can show someone like Melo that he means business. The Melo thing is the one that is on the hush. Melo is the primary target. They need a scorer from the wing position. Cs need to get Love first in order to work one (with) Melo. That’s why Kevin Love is in town, he knows he is headed to Boston. Love is a done deal, the focus now is Melo. He was the primary target. Love opting in on his final year allows the Cs to sign Melo to a long-term deal first. Then work on a team-friendly deal with Rondo and then take care of Kevin. Also, could Tyson Chandler be dealt to Boston?”

The same source revealed that the Boston trip is, in fact, something that was planned with Rondo.  “Hearing Rondo and Love talked 11 days ago regarding this trip, on the phone, and that Rondo and him have maintained regular correspondence for the past 27 days,” the source said.

And while many Boston sports fans and Rondo have already begun to roll out the welcome wagon for Love, even the Red Sox’s 2013 World Series MVP David Ortiz has also gotten into the act, saying in his Twitter account, “Yo, Kevin Love, if you need advice on moving from Minnesota to Boston just let me know. – City of Champ.” Of course, Big Papi knows a thing or two about coming to Boston from Minnesota, having played for the Twins before arriving in Fenway and helping the Red Sox win three World Series in the last decade.

It’s not as if Love doesn’t have any inkling of what’s up in Boston anyway. As a youngster, he learned Celtics history quite early as one of his favorite tapes growing up was a VHS copy of “Winning Basketball” with Larry Bird and Red Auerbach. Love in fact once told Sports Illustrated, “My dad likes to say when other kids were watching Big Bird, I was watching Larry Bird, and he was totally right.”

Bill Fairweather, a former ESPN producer and radio co-host who co-owns The Greatest Bar just across the TD Garden where Love dropped unannounced during his Boston visit, found Love to be so interested in Celtics history that he gave him a 90-minute DVD that details the team’s illustrious past. Fairweather said Love was very appreciative of the gift.

Fairweather added that Love showed such reverence for Bird that Love at one point pointed out how he believes that Bird’s No. 33 ought to be retired by every team in the NBA. Love told his host he planned on talking to fellow UCLA alumnus Bill Walton about what it was like playing for the Celtics.

 “It went great,” Fairweather told The Boston Globe of his weekend conversation with Love.  “The kid is a real gentleman.  I think he has a real appreciation with the Celtics’ history and tradition.”

Fairweather said he told Love that he could be the Celtics’ Tom Brady, the New England Patriots’ superstar quarterback.  “You could be a rock star here,” Fairweather said he told him.

Earlier this year, Love expressed what he felt about the city he’s being wooed to when he said, “Boston is a great city. I’m sure free agents would love to go there, especially with (Brad) Stevens as a coach. He’s a guy that can win basketball games. He gets guys to play for him. They’ve been having good success there, even in his first year, and he has a lot of young players. The coach has a lot to do with it, but yeah, Boston is a great place.”

Told on his weekend trip by a Celtics fan that he should come to Boston, Love responded, “It’s a strong possibility.”

Indeed, whatever happens to the Pacers might not necessarily deprive Miami of a worthy challenger in the East in the coming years. The Celtics are trying their darnedest best to speed up their rebuilding and provide that challenge. Bringing over Kevin Love would be a pretty good start. – Rappler.com

Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the ’80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008.  He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash, Sports World, Basketball Weekly and the FIBA’s International Basketball, and currently writes a fortnightly column for QC Life and a weekly blog for BostonSports Desk.  A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drunk and slept sports most of his life.

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