Lost in the subplots of one of the most highly anticipated NBA Finals in years, is a side-story that stretches from Lake Eerie to the Northwest.
The Seattle SuperSonics no longer exist and the Cleveland Cavaliers were once again irrelevant in 2011-12 despite a promising rookie campaign from Kyrie Irving. None of that matters. Starting Tuesday Night each city will have a team to root for (or like a good political election, fittingly in an election year, a team to root against).
Seattle still despises Oklahoma City for stealing a team that they firmly believe should be theirs. Clevelanders are still rooting for LeBron to fail in that quest for a ring. One city: now adopted Heat fans. The other: Bandwagon Thunder fans.
Most of America loves to root against Miami’s Big 3. But Seattle would much rather watch Clay Bennett’s team hijacked from The Finals. It’s a fascinating contrast from 2 cities that have no horse left in the race, simply an enemy they’d like to send to the burrows of hell.
Seattle lost their team. Cleveland lost their title hopes. This isn’t about them, but well, it kinda is.
In 2010 Cavs owner Dan Gilbert promised Cleveland their title starved sports city would celebrate a Cavs crown before LeBron and the Heat, and he did it in comic sans. In 2006, Bennett said (now infamously) that he would make a true-concerted effort to keep the Sonics in Seattle, where they had been for 41 years. Emails made public, confirmed he had one foot out the door the minute he bought the city’s ‘civic trust.’
Both cities have their targeted enemy, but one city you never hear in the discussion is Boston. Or in particular, Ray Allen. Yes, the veteran star of the Celtics, probably on his way out of Beantown as father time continues to close in, might have more to do with this NBA Finals matchup than any other player.
Confused? Let’s explore.
Sports can be an oddly intertwined confluence of events and a look back ties 4 franchises (Cleveland, Seattle, Boston, and Miami) together in an intriguing way:
2004 – 05
- In the 04 offseason the Miami Heat trade Caron Butler, Brian Grant, and Lamar Odom for Shaquille O’Neal, a mega-deal that transitioned the Heat from a barely above average group to an instant NBA Finals contender. Miami would grab the East’s #1 seed before falling to the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals.
2005 – 06
- That season the Sonics made the NBA playoffs for what would be the final time in their history. That scrappy, over-achieving squad led by Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen won 52 games, the Northwest Division title and didn’t bow-out until the second round to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs. Head Coach Nate McMillan left the team to coach the Trail Blazers shortly after.
- The Boston Celtics go 45-37 to win the Atlantic Division before being eliminated in the first round by Indiana.
- The Cavaliers finish 42-40 and fail to make the playoffs in LeBron’s 2nd season.
- The Miami Heat win the 2006 NBA Finals, defeating the Dallas Mavericks in 6 games. Dywane Wade transforms into a super-star during the 2006 post-season, carrying an aging Heat roster (including a fading Shaq) to the franchise’s first NBA Championship. Wade is named MVP and the series serves as his culmination as an elite talent.
- Behind LeBron James, the Cavs win 50 games and advance within a game of the Eastern Conference Finals before losing to Detroit. One more Cavs win would have set up a Wade-LeBron ECF.
- The Sonics plod to a forgettable 35-47 record, opening the flood-gates for big-time change in the Northwest.
- The Celtics begin their descent into irrelevance with a 33-49 mark that would get far uglier the following season.
- Miami keeps most of their title team intact, struggles with injuries and barely makes it into the post-season in one piece, getting swept by the up-start Bulls in 4 games. So much for a title defense.
- Meanwhile, Cleveland wins 50 games for the 2nd consecutive season, LeBron has one of the all-time great performances in game 5 of the ECF vs Detroit (48 points in 2OT including 25 of his team’s last 29 points) and the Cavs advance to the NBA Finals where the Spurs blow their doors off. Plus the series becomes the lowest-rated NBA Finals ever. Still, it’s a major boon for the rising Cavs, who appear close to ending the city’s brutal title-less drought (since 1964).
- Boston plummets to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings with just 24 wins.
- Meanwhile the Sonics continue to free-fall, winning just 31 games, finishing with the 2nd worst record in the West.
- Before the season, Boston, which had the 2nd best chance to land the #1 pick (either Greg Oden or Kevin Durant), amazingly flames out in the lottery, ending up with the 5th selection.
- Seattle, with the 4th worst record, jumps Boston in the lottery, netting the #2 pick (which would turn out to be Durant). Boston, looking to make a splash, and Seattle, looking to get even younger, agree to a trade that would lay the groundwork for the arrival of Boston’s Big 3. On Draft Night Seattle deals Ray Allen to the C’s for Delonte West, Wally Szcerbiak and the 5th pick (Jeff Green). The Sonics win 20 games the following season as the city’s fight to keep the team gets ugly. Fan support dwindles amongst stadium plans going nowhere, and the franchise makes its intentions of moving to OKC known on November 2, 2007. On March 21, 2008 Bennett makes it clear that the Sonics will indeed be leaving Seattle and that the name, colors, and history would remain in the Emerald City.
- Not too long after the Allen deal, the Celtics swing a deal for Kevin Garnett, basically shipping away their entire 2006-07 team for KG. It would work as Boston follows it up with the best record the following season, meshing beautifully as a cohesive, star-driven team. Eventually the Celtics win the NBA Finals (their 17th banner), defeating the Lakers in a game 6 beatdown.
- Beat up, and maxed out, the Heat scuttle early, Wade and Shaq exchange turns getting hurt, and Miami freefalls from 2006 Champs to the league’s worst record (15 wins) just 2 season later. Shaq is sent out of town for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks, officially ending a very successful, albeit short-lived era.
- LeBron’s Cavs win 45 games, but Cleveland is bounced by Boston in the second round despite an incredible effort from LeBron (45 points in game 7). Still no ring for The King.
- The Zombie Sonics arrive in OKC and rebrand themselves the Thunder. Seattle still seething from having their team stolen. Thunder end up with another top 5 pick, this time the 4th overall selection. With the pick OKC (still Seattle at the time) selects UCLA PG Russell Westbrook to pair with rookie-sensation Kevin Durant. Thrilled to be in OKC after a tumultuous final few seasons in Seattle, the Thunder roar out to a pathetic 3-29 start. Head Coach P.J. Carlesimo is canned after a 1-12 opening and little known assistant Scotty Brooks takes over as interim. Oklahoma City wins just 23 games but begins to slowly turn it around in the season’s 2nd half.
- Dywane Wade wins the scoring title for the Miami Heat who miss out on Derrick Rose after the Bulls jump from 9th to first in the NBA Lottery. The Heat instead wind up with Michael Beasley who never lives up to his lofty billing. Miami makes the playoffs as a 5 seed, but with little more than Wade, Miami is taken out by Atlanta in the first round.
- The Cavs win 66 games, garner the #1 seed, but are bounced by the Orlando Magic in the ECF. Boston has another strong year, but KG’s injury buries them in round 2. Orlando claims the East.
- Oklahoma City lands yet another top 5 pick, tabbing James Harden as the 3rd pick overall. The Thunder improve from 23 wins to 50, and give the eventual champion Lakers a tough 6 game 1st round series. OKC loses, but the plan is in place. OKC would only get better from here.
Summer of 2010
- Wade and Miami win 47 games with a less than stellar cast but Boston blows through the Heat in 5 games in round 1. With his franchise star set to become a free-agent, Pat Riley vows to do his best to keep Wade and upgrade Miami’s less then imposing roster.
- The Cavs win 61 games, once again nab the top seed in the East and are also beat down by Boston, this time in round 2. LeBron looks listless as he comes off the Garden floor following a game 6 loss, and he goes into the off-season as the most highly coveted free agent in sports history. The Celtics advance to the NBA Finals where they fall just short against the Lakers in game 7.
- LeBron makes The Decision, after visiting with 5 different teams, opting to take his talents to South Beach to join Chris Bosh and Wade. The ESPN Special destroys Cleveland in one of the most public break ups in the TV age. LeBron is ridiculed mercilessly the second he announces his intentions. Former players call him a coward, his former owner blasts him in a desperate online letter, and a day later after a wild celebration inside American Airlines Arena, the stage is set (literally) for him to win 7 championships. Miami goes through the most scrutinized season in the history of the instant information age.
- The Cavs freefall from top seed to 2nd worst team in the NBA (literally re-tracing Boston before the Big 3 only in reverse), winning just 19 games. The Cavs new color scheme and simplified look fails to hide a humiliating 25 game losing streak (longest in NBA history).
- Miami wins 58 games in the first year of their Big 3 (put together to combat Boston) and they take out the Celtics in the 2nd round in an electric 5 game series. Miami goes onto win the East before falling to Dallas in a wild NBA Finals.
- The Thunder make their first big deadline deal, trading Green to Boston for Kendrick Perkins. Meanwhile OKC continues their ascent from laughingstock to budding juggernaut as they advance to the West Finals before being knocked out by the Mavs.
In a lockout shortened season, the Heat and Thunder dominate early season headlines, racing out to control of their respective conferences. Both stumble late, but each team locks up the 2nd seed. For Oklahoma City it’s the fourth year in a row they’ve improved, going from 23 wins to 8 seed to 4 seed to 2 seed.
What could have been?
So now, here we are: the Miami Heat and their Big 3 vs Oklahoma City and their Big 3. If it wasn’t for the Ray Allen trade way back when, maybe Seattle doesn’t fade into oblivion, and maybe the fans keep showing up at Key Arena, and maybe, just maybe, Seattle ends up staying. If that trade never happens, because Seattle has an owner that cares, maybe the Celtics continue to remain stuck in no man’s land, and maybe they end up dealing The Truth and KG ends up elsewhere. Who knows? The Ray Allen trade kept Paul Pierce in Boston, and after the C’s added KG, the Big 3 was in place. After Miami free-falled from champion to chumps, the Heat saw how Boston was winning and begin to develop plans to develop their own trifecta. But how history could have changed had the Heat landed the #1 pick and ended up with Rose instead of Beasley. Maybe they’re here, maybe they’re better? Who knows. If LeBron had a better, more consistent supporting cast (ironically Szcerbiak and Delonte West, part of the Allen trade which changed the NBA were part of LeBron’s last few failed efforts in Cleveland) maybe the Cavs win a title or two and LeBron stays in his home state. Maybe Wade leaves Miami for Chicago. Maybe Bosh goes to Houston. And if Portland took Durant instead of Greg Oden, well… maybe the Sonics/Thunder are a good team, but far from a great one.
A lot of events took place (many intertwined between just 4 franchises) to get to this finale.
The Celtics are gone.
Only the Heat and Thunder remain.
The Ray Allen trade pretty much sealed Seattle’s fate and solidified Boston as the model: get 3 stars and you win. OKC did it with homegrown talent and a second Celtic swap. Miami did it through one quick unforgettably daring free agent splash. To each their own.
On Tuesday Seattle and Cleveland will have heavy rooting interests. Both ultimately ruined by of all teams, the Celtics.