All of this has happened before, and will happen again.
The 2013-2014 NBA season is upon us and boy (or girl!) is it ripe with narratives. From Kobe’s Achilles to Lebron’s hairline, David Stern’s last-half hoorah running the world’s fastest-growing league is set to be a doozy of a pickle. But for every Indiana Jones there’s an Allan Quartermain, and this year’s top storylines worth tracking all have another side to them.
I think it all loops around with three things: Greg Oden, Andrea Bargnani, and the Boston Celtics.
Let’s start with Bargnani. In Toronto, we were all but ready to proclaim Masai Ujiri a basketball demigod not just for flipping Hogtown’s mouth-breathing burden, but for somehow squeezing more than Quentin Richardson’s corpse out of New York while doing so. Steve Novak is Il Mago idealized—a shooter that actually can. Bargnani occasionally wowed with his big man ball handling (heh), sometimes following up turnovers with crossovers, but Novak won’t have any of that. He’s better for it. He’ll do what Bargnani can’t or won’t in New York—the bare minimum, but very, very well. In Toronto, Novak will do what do what Melo needed him in New York for; he’ll stand in the corner, catch, shoot, and make it more often than not while boos rain down on Bargnani in New York. Toronto also got draft picks in the deal—two of them! And one’s in the first round! In 2016! Masai Ujiri! Whoop! Whoop!
So, Bargnani. When I say he helps define this season’s incoming narrative, I’m starting a few years back.
The 2006 NBA Draft will be forever remembered for being absolutely fucking terrible. Full stop. Brandon Roy slipped to sixth because of well-earned concerns over his knee, but even after a lack of actual cartilage in his joints led to an early retirement he’ll still likely end up the third-best player in his class behind Rajon Rondo and LaMarcus Aldridge when all is said and done. Toronto famously took Bargnani first, because why the hell not? Aldridge was a possible pick; he knew Chris Bosh and they got along. Unfortunately, they were the exact same player, and incoming GM Bryan Colangelo wasn’t about to play it safe with redundancies. Thanks, Bryan!
Roy was the surest thing with the most talent, but his knees… yikes. Rudy Gay was an option (funny how that worked out!), what with his outstanding athleticism and intangibles and developing skills, but we’re constantly told that good big men are harder to come by. Instead of Aldridge, a Bosh clone, Toronto took Bargnani, who we’ve come to realize is little more than a C-grade Rudy Gay clone. Rondo and Aldridge went onto become All Stars, but can you name the rest of the lottery? Let me help: Adam Morrison, Tyrus Thomas, Shelden Williams, Randy Foye, Patrick O’Bryant, Mouhamed Sene, J.J. Reddick, Hilton Armstrong, Thabo Sefolosha, Ronnie Brewer, and Cedric Simmons.
Of the 15 first players taken in the first round that year, seven are currently out of the league. This summer, fourth overall pick Tyrus Thomas was amnestied by the Charlotte Bobcats, a team that starts Josh McRoberts at Power Forward. Tyrus Thomas remains unsigned at time of publishing.
I’ve mentioned already that the draft was a big boom-or-bust, risk-or-reward sitch, and that’s because it was the first year following the league’s handshake agreement with the NCAA that forced players to play for free so schools could syphon millions of dollars off of their images. Or, in non-crazy speak, players could no longer be drafted straight out of high school. It’s why Brandon Jennings ended up in Italy and Jeremy Tyler in Japan.
The argument at the time was as shitty as it is now: that players’ bodies weren’t mature enough for the big league. Shaun Livingston’s exploding knee was supposed to be the proof. Okay. But what about LeBron? Some players are born frail; some are born beasts. University of South Carolina defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney seemed ready to play with pros straight out of high school, and football’s a fair bit rougher than basketball.
Basketball isn’t baseball, where prospects are forced to rot in Florida, Vegas, or Buffalo for years until they can somehow crack their way into one of their parent club’s 467 regular season games. Not everyone is Shaun Livingston; not everyone is Bo Jackson. The medium is somewhere in between. But because of that new rule, the year Toronto tanked its way to the top of the lottery was met with a draft totally lacking in potential star power. If the 2013 draft is defined by its relatively high common denominator but low superstar ceilings, then 2006 was the opposite, at least when we’re talking about college players. The top two prospects coming out of high school that season?
Greg Oden and Kevin Durant.
Too bad they were a year too young, eh?
Which brings us to Boston. That next year, they executed one of the most poetic tank jobs in professional sports history. Paul Pierce, an NBA ironman who had missed just 19 games in his first 8 seasons ended up missing 35 with a stress reaction in his foot. He was supposed to miss two-to-three weeks; he ended up missing almost half the season. Here’s the thing, though. About a month before the 2000-2001 season, Pierce was stabbed eleven fucking times in the face, neck and back. He had to undergo surgery to repair damage to his lungs. Despite this, Pierce started all 82 games for the Celtics that season. He could have played through a non-fracture in his foot. The Celtics chose to hold him out and they were right to do it.
As we follow what some have called “Riggin’ for Wiggins,” those Celtics are relevant again, and not just because they’re in the race once more. Here’s how their tank panned out:
- Red Auerbach dies three days before the season opener
- January 7th through February 11th, Boston loses 18 straight games.
- The Celtics finish with the second worst record in the league, losing 58 games
- Oh, and Dennis Johnson died
And then it happened… the tank failed. Kind of.
Thing is, these sorts of masterful self-sabotages have ways of working out for iconic sports franchises, and even though the Celtics slid to the fifth pick, which they used to take Georgetown’s Jeff Green, whom they managed to flip it to the Seattle Supersonics (R.I.P.) for Ray Allen, which was pretty integral in getting Celtics legend Kevin McHale (Minnesota’s then-GM) to flip superstar Kevin Garnett to his old team for peanuts. The rest is history: Boston immediately goes onto win the title following a 66 win season, best in the league.
Here’s where things get great.
Before acquiring Garnett and Allen, Kendrick Perkins was somewhat of a mismatched part and a lightening rod for both the team, and fans, discontent. Boston hated him, Doc Rivers hated him, and he might have hated himself. Then, something changed. With Kevin Garnett on his ass, Perkins figured it out and became an integral part of the team’s perennial runs towards the Finals. Then, something changed again. In Game 6 of the 2010 Finals, Perkins tore ligaments in his right knee and Boston decided, “nah, we’re not dealing with this.” Effectively, Perkins’ injury signaled the start of Boston’s rebuilding process. He was traded immediately upon his return the following season to the Thunder for… Jeff Green. For six years, the Boston Celtics had their cake and ate it too, and with Rajon Rondo playing the injured Paul Pierce role this year seem fit to do it again.
This season is the reset button. Seattle’s gone, and Durant’s rendered Oden’s arc irrelevant; now we’re just hoping he’s a role player at best. Bargnani’s coming off the bench in New York (and already being booed) and Toronto ended up with Gay after all.
Of the notable players taken in that 2006 draft, only Rajon Rondo remains on the team that drafted him, and like Paul Pierce before him, he’ll take his time with an injury while the Celtics look to balance building and bombing. Could Jared Sullinger be the next Kendrick Perkins? For his sake, let’s hope not.
 Aldridge is still in Portland, but technically he was Chicago’s pick. Joel Freeland is still in Portland, but who cares. Jordan Farmar is on the Lakers, but he spent time in New Jersey, Atlanta and Maccabi before making it back to the big city this season.