You could easily say what separates the Miami Heat from the Celtics is the draft. Two major players for the Heat are mid-first-round picks over the past three years, a draft area where some teams discover gems and in the Celtics' case, busts.
Heat guard Tyler Herro was taken 13th overall in last year’s draft, the same Herro who dropped 37 points on the Celtics in Game 4. Meanwhile, center Bam Adebayo, who has dominated anyone the Celtics have placed in front of him, was the 14th overall pick in 2017.
It’s easy to say the Heat scored big with these picks. Picking players late in the lottery and beyond is a difficult endeavor. The Jazz were able to pluck Donovan Mitchell a pick before Adebayo. The Bulls took Creighton freshman Justin Patton two picks after Adebayo, and he has played in just nine NBA games with four organizations.
While picking mid-round and later is an inexact science, it can determine the fate of an organization. What has frustrated the Celtics even more about Herro’s success is they would have drafted him had he fallen to them at 14.
The Celtics ended up drafting Indiana’s Romeo Langford. Langford entered the league needing wrist surgery, which has started an unfortunate string of injuries that followed him all the way to the bubble. He tore a ligament in the same wrist in a meaningless game against the Wizards and then strained his adductor in Game 2 of the Miami series.
The surgery to repair the wrist ligament could sideline Langford into next season, meaning the Celtics will have to wait months or even a year before making any determination on him. Meanwhile, Herro has turned into a staple in the Miami lineup.
But if you want to ask why the Celtics' bench is so thin and weak, some of the blame has to be placed on several failed draft picks in the past few years in those mid-first round and later areas. While it’s far too early to call Langford a disappointment, he’s light years behind Herro in terms of impact.
In last year’s draft they also passed on a solid defensive player in Matisse Thybulle, whom they took at No. 20 and quickly traded to the 76ers for Purdue’s Carsen Edwards, who has barely played his rookie season.
The Celtics, however, faltered in the draft before last year.
Boston was able to nab a slipping Robert Williams at No. 27 in the 2018 draft, and while he has played more during the playoffs and shown potential, his future with the Celtics is uncertain. The organization is still unsure whether Williams can become a reliable starter, a solid backup, or just a situational player.
The draft mistakes the Celtics are paying for begin in 2016, when they took Jaylen Brown third overall. That worked out well, but the Celtics had two more first-round picks and five second-rounders in that draft. They took Frenchman Guerschon Yabusele with the 16th overall pick, and that was an abject failure.
It’s difficult to see why the Celtics viewed Yabusele as a prospect. Yabusele never developed into the stretch-4 or stretch-3 the Celtics envisioned and he was released after three seasons. No NBA team picked up Yabusele and he returned to play in France.
It was a wasted pick. While the 2016 draft was a minefield for several teams — Marquese Chriss, Thon Maker, Georgios Papagiannis, Wade Baldwin, Henry Ellenson, and Malachi Richardson all went mid-round — it hurt the Celtics to miss so badly on a first-round pick who couldn’t even develop into a rotation player.
Later in the first round, the Celtics took Croatian center Ante Zizic, and it took just a summer league for the organization to find out he really didn’t fit their system. He was thrown into the Kyrie Irving deal and traded to the Cavaliers.
It’s unfair to single out the Celtics for these draft misses, but Pascal Siakam was taken four picks after Zizic, and Malcolm Brogdon fell to the second round. In 2015, the Celtics nabbed Louisville guard Terry Rozier with the first first-round pick but missed with their next two picks — R.J. Hunter (28th overall) and Jordan Mickey (33).
The Celtics hoped Hunter would turn into a shooter and scorer, but he never did. Mickey got off to a sparkling start, signed a four-year deal, but was waived two years later. These are understandable misses. Late first-rounders and second-rounders come with weaknesses. But the Celtics have had a lot of misses if you exclude their lottery picks — Jayson Tatum, Brown, and Marcus Smart.
The Celtics landed a solid rotation player in the 2019 draft with forward Grant Williams, taken 22nd. But he’s an exception.
It’s perhaps unfair to pick at old wounds, but the Celtics thought they had a potential cornerstone by taking one-and-done James Young in 2014, 11 picks after Smart at No. 6. Young had helped an unheralded Kentucky team to the national championship game and flourished in the NCAA Tournament.
But he managed just 95 NBA games as the Celtics gave him several chances to contribute until he was finally waived in favor of Hunter. Young played last year for Maccabi Haifa after G-League stints with the Bucks and 76ers.
It’s inconceivable to expect the Celtics to hit on all these picks, but if a few had come through or some different draft night decisions had been made, their roster may be even deeper.
Heat’s Iguodala has been there
One important aspect of Andre Iguodala’s presence on the Heat besides defense and the occasional 3-pointer is veteran leadership. He has served as a mentor to youngsters Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson and become someone even veteran Jimmy Butler can lean on.
Some veterans looking for final title runs are resistant to being leaders. They just want to play and go home. Iguodala embraces the responsibility.
“I’ve seen a lot. I had really good vets, so very appreciative of what it’s like to have a good veteran teammate,” he said. “Just try and do the same thing for my guys. I don’t let people know about that. I like when no one knows, so I try to take no credit at all.”
Iguodala, 36, spent his first eight seasons with the 76ers before a season in Denver. He then was traded to the Warriors, and helped create a dynasty with three championships. The Warriors moved Iguodala to the Grizzlies to clear salary-cap space. He never played for Memphis, and was dealt to the Heat as part of a three-team deal in February.
The Heat have prided themselves on their closeness and Iguodala has blended in perfectly with the culture and team chemistry.
“There’s a human element to it in terms of being a professional athlete that people don’t really grasp, things that you have to go through and the mind goes through, especially when the game is over,” he said. “Just having some success, whatever success that I’ve had, I’ve been able to realize that there’s — it’s like real life, and there’s some other things that go on outside the game of basketball that everyone is going to have to adjust to at some point. So, just trying to get those guys in a good mind space to first and foremost appreciate the time that they have here, try to make the most of it, but at the same time build those relationships because we rely on each other once it’s all over.”
Iguodala has never been one to disguise his emotions, and he acknowledged life in the bubble is not always, well, bubbly. Several players said they have experienced mental fatigue because of the daily grind and repetitiveness.
“You have good days and you have bad days. Luckily for us, or I shouldn’t say for us, but for myself, there’s been more good days, which I really can appreciate,” he said. “Sometimes I have to remind myself to stay positive on those bad days. Understand we really are blessed to be in this position. I’ve got to keep reminding myself of that. But at the same time that’s what’s helping me.”
The Heat’s chemistry cannot be overstated. The players appear to truly enjoy being around each other. Iguodala is signed for an additional year for $15 million, so he’s sticking around.
“My teammates are helping me through those down days. I haven’t had many, honestly,” he said. “When those guys are having down days, I’m there for them. I think that goes to the chemistry thing, just picking each other up. We’re really built for this environment. Kind of puts us at an advantage, and just keep reminding ourselves of that. But that’s brought the team even closer together. We were already a tight-knit team, so we keep telling ourselves that we always planned to play to the end, so that’s been our focus.”
Iguodala entered the NBA 16 years ago, joining a 76ers team that included Allen Iverson, Chris Webber, Aaron McKie, and Kevin Ollie. He said passing his knowledge on has never been an issue, especially since veterans guided him during his early years.
“It’s just something that you’re supposed to do,” he said. “I forgot what book it was I was reading, but I think I’ve seen it multiple times in terms of once you master something it’s your duty to give it back and teach it, so that’s kind of my duty. I’ve seen it at all levels, high levels, and no matter if I’m the main guy, franchise player, or I’m one of the guys coming off the bench, just being a veteran player, being a role player, it’s a different way of being all in."
WNBA series back on track
All was going smooth health-wise in the wubble, the WNBA’s version of the NBA bubble. Anyway, all was well until Game 1 of the semifinal series between the Storm and Lynx was postponed because of inconclusive COVID-19 tests for three Seattle players.
These tests weren’t positive, so there was no panic, but it was an alert that the league should postpone Game 1 until it could gain further information. The series resumed two days later.
Three inconclusive tests was a concern, but commissioner Cathy Engelbert said none of the previous inconclusive tests resulted in a positive.
“We did not have many [inconclusive tests]; we would get them periodically one-off,” she said.
Most of the COVID-19 issues the NBA has dealt with have been through players breaking quarantine (Sacramento’s Richaun Holmes) or missing a test (Oklahoma City’s Nerlens Noel), but it has not reported any inconclusive tests.
The NBA and WNBA are using the same testing methods. They require players to test daily, as well as taking temperatures, and oxygen saturation tests that must be at certain levels before entering any arena. But it’s remarkable that each league played through the summer with few glitches.
“As for a theory on why this happened, I think you all know that COVID-19 testing is complex,” Engelbert said. “Every test is different. Day after day, you reset to zero. You get a new round of tests with new data.''
The league investigated whether any Storm players had had contact with someone who had exposure outside the bubble. Some employees from Walt Disney and IMG Academy, where the NBA and WNBA players are staying, respectively, are allowed to leave the premises to go home. They are also tested, but players and coaches are supposed to stay socially distant from those employees at all times.
What’s more, on buses that take players and media members to practice facilities and arenas, a sign is posted in back of the bus driver’s seat that reads, “I get tested every day,” to offer riders peace of mind.
“Seattle hadn’t played since the prior Sunday,” Engelbert said. "They hadn’t gone off campus. They hadn’t gone anywhere. So, as we did the contact tracing, we were trying to figure out, was there a reason why the virus was at least presenting itself in an inconclusive way in some of these tests? The good news was there was nothing that we could point to to say there’s an outsider, or there was something that permeated the bubble or didn’t uphold the integrity of the bubble. So, that’s good news.
“Contact tracing is really important when you have these things. Obviously, the additional testing and the extensive testing we did thereafter was important, as well. But theories with COVID, I’m never going to speculate. Based on the information we had at the time on Sunday, I think we made the right decision to postpone.”
The coaching carousel is beginning to spin with the Bulls hiring former Thunder coach Billy Donovan, offering some stability to an organization that has failed to become a factor in the Eastern Conference despite several lottery picks and trades to rejuvenate the roster. That leaves the 76ers, Rockets and Pacers with openings, with the 76ers talking to Clippers assistant coach Tyronn Lue and ex-Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni. They seem like the closest team to making a decision. Some owners are inclined to take their time to make a decision because there is no pressing need to hire a coach with next season not expected to begin until February or March … The 76ers are also trying to determine if Elton Brand needs additional help in the front office. Brand will make the decision on a coach, but there may be additional hires to supplement the executive staff. The Pacers are expected to take their time but are considering Spurs assistant Becky Hammon. Another hot candidate is Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr., who developed the defensive plan to beat the Clippers in the Western Conference semifinals. Philadelphia assistant Ime Udoka and ex-Brooklyn and Milwaukee head coach Jason Kidd are also interested in jobs. Kidd, an assistant with the Lakers, led both of his previous teams to the playoffs but was fired by the Bucks because they couldn’t reach the next level. He was replaced by Mike Budenholzer, who has now received criticism after the Bucks were eliminated in the postseason the past two years despite holding the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference … The eight teams who were not invited to the bubble are allowed to hold training camps and workout sessions this coming week, allowing for veterans and free agents to get training since those teams had not played since March. One player to watch in these workouts is Warriors guard Klay Thompson, who is about 15 months removed from tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament and appears to be back in form. The Warriors fully expect to contend next season with a healthy Stephen Curry and Draymond Green and also the No. 2 overall pick to join Thompson. The Warriors also have their mid-level exception to add a quality free agent.