Jeff Van Gundy and ABC broadcast partners Mike Breen and Mark Jackson will call Sunday’s Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Celtics and Bucks. But before Van Gundy was an astute and entertaining analyst, he was coach of the Knicks and Rockets.
And he recently coached USA Basketball, where he got a chance to spend extensive time with Celtics coach Ime Udoka, an assistant on the staff. Van Gundy had nothing but compliments for the first-year coach and think his decisions have been key to the Celtics’ resurgence.
“I was with him in the World Cup and the Olympics. I’ve spent quite a lot of time around him and I think what I saw then is the same thing people see how,” Van Gundy said. “He’s very knowledgeable. He’s incredibly poised and he combined poise with intensity, and that’s not easy to do. I just think he’s super smart and that helps you in many different situations.”
Van Gundy credited Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens with reshaping the roster to fit Udoka’s needs for a standout defense.
“What I thought worked so well for Boston this year was Ime’s vision for how they want to play melts perfectly with who Brad went out and fortified their roster with,” Van Gundy said. “I think when you have synergy between management and coach, and how you see players and how you see your team playing, it gives you the best chance to maximize your talent, and that’s exactly what he did.”
Udoka was adamant Marcus Smart would be his starting point guard, a risky move that worked wonders. Smart not only proved capable of leading a high-powered offense but became the first guard in 26 years to be named Defensive Player of the Year.
“What the insertion of Marcus Smart into the starting lineup did is it made them have huge overall size in their group and there’s no weak links defensively, so it gives them a chance to have this area of strength,” Van Gundy said. “Ime has done a great job of instituting his philosophy defensively and he sold it exceptionally well to his team. Offensively, he’s just done a marvelous job. They have [Jayson] Tatum really making terrific plays. I thought he was a good passer before and he’s stepped up to an outstanding passer now.”
Several teams passed on Udoka over the years and likely regret it. Udoka didn’t carry a big name or have a standout NBA career, which perhaps hurt his stock in interviews.
“I think you should be looking for the best fit for your team at that time,” Van Gundy said. “I never thought of Ime as inexperienced. I’m sure there was some frustration the longer he was an assistant. I thought how he went from San Antonio to Philly to Brooklyn, those gave him different experiences along the way. I love how their roster all fits together. They’ve done a fabulous job improving their roster from last year to this year.”
Van Gundy believes the Celtics have the edge over the Bucks, especially with Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton being out indefinitely because of a knee injury.
“Boston, I think, has the advantage to begin with, but without Middleton they have a huge advantage,” Van Gundy said. “I think they’re the best team right now in basketball. They have a great chance to win it. Milwaukee is one of a handful of teams that can win it. If Middleton gets back, it should be an epic series.”
DEAL WITH IT
Trades swung the balance
If you scan NBA playoff rosters, there are standout players, superstars even, who were acquired through lopsided trades, including Celtics All-Star Jayson Tatum and Suns standout Mikal Bridges.
We looked at the most lopsided trades in the past 10 years, and a handful of them involved the Celtics.
Many were made on draft night, when unproven prospects got swapped for each other, with one developing into a star, and the other not.
▪ Bridges to Phoenix: On draft night 2018, the 76ers made the grave mistake of trading Bridges, not only a Villanova alum but the son of a 76ers employee, to the Suns for Zhaire Smith, a one-and-done from Texas Tech. Bridges, a polished player in Jay Wright’s system, has become one of the best defenders in the NBA. Smith played 13 NBA games and was last with the Memphis Hustle in the G-League. The 76ers got another first-round pick in the trade, but they included that in the deal that netted Tobias Harris.
▪ Khris Middleton to the Bucks: In July 2018, the Pistons made what they thought would be a quality deal for point guard Brandon Jennings, and all it required was Middleton, a former second-round pick. Jennings played parts of three seasons for the Pistons, who never advanced past the first round of the playoffs. Middleton blossomed into a three-time All-Star and one of the best shooters in the NBA. Middleton didn’t get much of a chance to show he should stick with the Pistons, playing 27 games as a rookie, but it could be considered one of the most lopsided trades in franchise history.
▪ Celtics, 76ers swap picks: When the Celtics won the draft lottery in 2017, it was perhaps a make-up call for the club missing out on the No. 1 pick 20 years before when Tim Duncan was the prize rookie. President of basketball operations Danny Ainge wanted Tatum but realized he could pick up more draft capital and still get him, So, Ainge called 76ers GM Bryan Colangelo and offered the No. 1 pick, knowing the Sixers were focused on Washington guard Markelle Fultz. The 76ers bit, sending the Celtics another first-round pick, drafting Fultz. The Lakers drafted Lonzo Ball second. How would Tatum have looked in purple and gold? Tatum turned into a three-time All-Star and franchise cornerstone. Fultz dealt with injuries and anxiety issues and eventually was moved to the Magic. He has yet to come close to his vast potential.
▪ Thunder decide to avoid luxury tax: Oklahoma City was coming off a Finals appearance and looked to be the team of the 2010s. But GM Sam Presti had the difficult decision of keeping James Harden and becoming a luxury-tax team or signing valuable defensive forward Serge Ibaka to an extension and moving Harden. Presti chose the latter, sending Harden to the Rockets for a package of young players and picks, with the best being Steven Adams. Harden became an All-Star in all nine of his seasons with Houston. The Thunder have not reached another Finals.
▪ Russell Westbrook heads home: It seemed like such a good idea last summer, with the Lakers looking for more star power and Westbrook looking to come home and chase a championship. The Lakers not only sent younger contributors Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, and Montrezl Harrell to the Wizards but also allowed Alex Caruso to sign with the Bulls because of cap constraints. The Lakers ruined their defense with the trade, Westbrook had a career-worst season, and they missed the playoffs.
▪ The most egregious trade of the past decade was the Nets sending four first-round picks and two pick swaps to the Celtics for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry. The Celtics were able to draft Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The Nets did not advance to the conference finals after taking back those veterans in win-now mode.
▪ Honorable mention: Isaiah Thomas from Suns to Celtics; Kyle Lowry from Rockets to Raptors; Andrew Wiggins from Timberwolves to Warriors; Donovan Mitchell from Nuggets to Jazz; Ibaka from Thunder to Magic for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis.
Some nuggets from Denver
It seems the Nuggets can’t get any good fortune come playoff time. Reigning MVP and 2021-22 finalist Nikola Jokic carried Denver to the postseason and tried pushing the club through the first-round series against the Warriors.
What happened this year has happened in the past. Jokic was brilliant but not good enough to push the Nuggets to a deep playoff run. It was unfortunate in Game 5 because none of the players who surrounded Jokic — Will Barton, Aaron Gordon, Jeff Green, Monte Morris — were willing to take the big shot.
The Nuggets will bank on Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. returning to health along with the aforementioned players. Jokic wants to remain in Denver long term and the franchise can offer a maximum extension — five years, $250 million — this summer.
Jokic has become resigned to playing without injured teammates. It’s become his reality.
“I thought even in the start of the season, we have what we have,” he said. “We cannot think, ‘Oh, this guy is going to come back, this guy is going to come back.’ People forget we lost P.J. [Dozier]. P.J. was injured. I think he was a big part of our basketball. He can handle the ball, guard multiple positions. He knows our system. I think we miss him.
“We miss Mike and Jamal, then Vlatko [Cancar] was having some playing time, he gets injured. Yes, it’s Mike and Jamal the most, but I think we missed him a lot, P.J., in that stretch.”
Jokic said he is committed to Denver, but the Nuggets are going to need to improve to compete with the elite teams in the Western Conference. Their window remains open, but the opportunity is starting to shrink.
“I would like [a max deal], of course, but it’s not something that I’m deciding,” Jokic said. “I think, if offer is on the table, of course I’m going to accept it because I really like the organization, I really like the people who work here. I’m in a really good relationship with everybody from owner to equipment manager.
“I think we have something that we’re building. It actually feels really good.
“We don’t know what we can do because we were not healthy. Do we have some talent? Yes. Can we do something? Probably you can see through the league teams are making super teams and they’re not making any success. I think we have talent. We have players. We have pieces. We have tools. The only thing is are we going to work together? That’s the only thing. That’s the question. You cannot know that until you start playing.”
Jokic, who averaged 31 points, 13.2 rebounds, 5.8 assists, and 1.6 steals in the Golden State series, drew raves from Warriors forward Draymond Green, who gave his on-court adversary a hug following the final game.
“I think he stopped much better offensive players than me through his career,” Jokic said of Green. “I really appreciate whatever he’s doing for them because that’s a tough position. He needs to do everything. He’s really accepting the role and really being the best that he can be in that role. He’s a big part of their rings, their championships. I think that’s really hard to do.
“There is not a lot of people who can do that, a glue guy who is going to do a little bit of everything for them. He’s a great guy. You can hear him talking nonstop in defense. He’s actually their eyes and their ears. Amazing player. I really, really appreciate our matchup.”
Jokic said he looks forward to returning to his native Serbia to see his daughter. He has become one of the more incredible stories in NBA history, a nonathletic second-round pick who turned into a generational player because of his skill set and basketball IQ.
Teammate DeMarcus Cousins said Jokic is disrespected, despite his accolades. One has to watch Jokic intensely to appreciate his impact because his game lacks high-flying dunks and splashy 3-pointers. He is one of the best passing big men in NBA history and just turned 27 in February.
“I respect every player in NBA. I think it’s really hard to get here, especially like how I get here,” Jokic said. “I know how hard it is to do that. So, I respect every person, every player that come here. Not just the players. You can see the coaches coming here and being here 10 years and they improve maybe one or two spots. It’s work. It’s daily work.
“I cannot control if someone respect me or not. Of course I appreciate it.”
There are many questions for the Bulls after their season ended abruptly with three straight losses to the Bucks, who were without Khris Middleton. A season that began with high hopes crashed in the second half with the Bulls limping into the playoffs because of a rash of injuries, including a season-ending knee issue for point guard Lonzo Ball and knee problems for Zach LaVine. LaVine is an unrestricted free agent, perhaps the most desirable player available if Bradley Beal returns to Washington. LaVine will reportedly need surgery. The Bulls are interested in bringing him back, but the question is whether the Bulls should expect different results if they bring back the same team. DeMar DeRozan is signed for two more seasons and Nikola Vucevic is signed through next season. There is cap flexibility with Derrick Jones’s $9 million coming off the payroll, but the Bulls will need to make a serious financial commitment to keep LaVine in Chicago. That may not leave room to upgrade the roster … The Pelicans bowed out with a disappointing Game 6 loss to the Suns, but they may have found stable footing in the Big Easy with a surprisingly positive season. First-year coach Willie Green took the club to the playoffs despite former No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson not playing this season and with several young players on the roster, including rookies Herb Jones and Jose Alvarado. The future is bright if Williamson gets healthy and with other primary players under contract. The Pelicans will have to determine whether to offer the oft-injured Williamson a maximum contract, but he told reporters Friday that he plans to stay in New Orleans for the long term. The NBA really wants the Pelicans to succeed in New Orleans and the Pelicans are heading toward prolonged success … Here’s a suggestion: Bring back the Comeback Player of the Year Award, which the NBA phased out in 1986 after a seven-year run, with the Clippers’ Marques Johnson winning after a serious back surgery. A perfect candidate this season would have been Golden State’s Klay Thompson, who returned after missing two seasons with injuries. With more injured players missing entire seasons, a Comeback Player of the Year would reward their perseverance. One of the reasons why the NBA discontinued the award was many candidates were returning from drug-related suspensions. The NBA did not want to reward players who had been banned for a season for violating its drug policy. Time to bring it back.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.