Wednesday, July 6, 2022

NBA Finals 2022: Warriors, Celtics represent rare championship matchup between two largely homegrown teams

About a week ago, I was asked on an Atlanta radio show what the Hawks could learn, from a roster-construction standpoint, from the teams that were still alive in the postseason. At the time, those teams were the Warriors, Mavericks, Celtics and Heat

My answer was that there are general components for which every general manager is searching: shooters, elite creators, two-way wings, versatile bigs, etc., but the methods by which these players are acquired — draft, free agency or trade — are different in every situation. 

The Hawks, as currently constructed, are a largely homegrown team. They drafted Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter, DeAndre Hunter and Onyeka Okongwu. But there’s a reason everyone’s saying they’re a candidate for a consolidation trade. Cashing in some of these young players/future draft picks for a star feels like a necessity to enter the realm of true contention. 

It’s almost always the case. Since the turn of the century, only two championship teams have been lifted by homegrown cores: the Spurs three times, and the Warriors in 2015. 

Other than that, the early 2000s Lakers traded for Shaquille O’Neal and, later, Pau Gasol. The Pistons brought in Rip Hamilton, Chauncey Billups and Ben Wallace from the outside. The Heat traded for Shaq en route to the 2006 title, then signed LeBron James and Chris Bosh for two more in 2011 and 2013. The 2008 Celtics acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. 

You might think the 2011 Mavericks were homegrown because of the Dirk Nowitzki romance, but in fact three of their five starters were drafted elsewhere, and even Jason Kidd, though originally drafted by the Mavericks, was for all intents and purposes a hired hand after making his Hall of Fame name with the New Jersey Nets

The Cavaliers traded for Kevin Love. The Raptors Kawhi Leonard. The 2020 Lakers Anthony Davis. The 2021 Bucks Jrue Holiday. Even the teams that have fallen short are traveling the same road. The Heat were on the doorstep of a second Finals appearance in three seasons because they traded for Jimmy Butler

The 76ers gave up on their homegrown effort and shipped out Ben Simmons for James Harden, to no avail so far. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant joined forces in Brooklyn. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George worked the backchannels to meet up with the Clippers. The Jazz are about to give up on the Rudy Gobert/Donovan Mitchell combo they drafted. The Trail Blazers finally broke up Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum

The Durant-Westbrook-Ibaka-Harden Thunder never got over the hump and eventually turned their franchise into a safety deposit box for future draft picks, which they’ll eventually, if all goes to plan, turn into Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s arranged co-star. The Phoenix Suns, though largely homegrown, went from the lottery to the Finals by bringing in Chris Paul

That’s what makes this 2022 Finals matchup such a rarity. Not one, but both of the teams are here, in large part, because of players they drafted and developed themselves. That hasn’t happened post-Y2K. 

The Celtics, for their part, drafted six of their top eight rotational players — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Grant Williams, Robert Williams III and Payton Pritchard. Only Al Horford and Derrick White qualify as outsiders. 

Certainly both those guys are instrumental in this Celtics run, just as Andrew Wiggins has been for Golden State. No team is 100 percent homegrown. Even the 2015 Warriors were heavily reliant on Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut, both of whom joined the party from somewhere else. 

But the homegrown cores are what matter here. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in San Antonio. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, and now you can add Jordan Poole, in Golden State. For years people were on Danny Ainge to trade either Smart or Brown, but he never did, same as the Warriors have held onto Poole and Jonathan Kuminga when both were seen as potential assets to acquire another star. 

Both the Celtics and Warriors believed in who they drafted, and they stuck with them. Though Brown and Tatum are quite young by the standards of championship duos, they have played with each other longer than many more experienced pairings that have been thrown together in search of a microwaved title. The Celtics have slow cooked this thing through the Brad Stevens era, same as the Warriors did throughout the Mark Jackson years, until they were ready to pop under Steve Kerr and Ime Udoka, both of whom, as a side note, are also coaches who’ve only sat in the head chair for one franchise. 

This doesn’t happen without a lot of luck. The Warriors only got Stephen Curry because the Timberwolves decided to draft Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn with consecutive point-guard picks prior to Golden State’s No. 7 selection in 2009, and from Curry all this becomes possible. Nobody knew that Thompson and Green would turn out to be the players they have become. 

The Celtics, meanwhile, are still riding the 2013 Brooklyn Nets train robbery that brought back the picks that became Brown and Tatum, and even to get Tatum the Sixers and Kings had to pass first. These teams represent origins not likely to be duplicated. It remains to be seen if teams like the Grizzlies (Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Desmond Bane and Brandon Clarke), Nuggets (Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.) and Hawks can hold the line until their largely homegrown rosters turn into a legit title-contending team. 

They might not be far off. One could argue the healthy Nuggets and Grizzlies are already there. Atlanta was in the conference finals last season. But it’s not a common road traveled. These Warriors and Celtics are the exception. Not the rule. It would be a story to have even one of them in the Finals, but to have them playing one another, well, like I said, it hasn’t happened this century. It might night happen again for a long time. 

Unless, of course, these two teams meet up again in future years. Which doesn’t feel like a huge stretch. That’s the thing that can come with homegrown teams. They can have staying power that often eludes the smaller-window creations. These Warriors have been in six of the last eight Finals with their homegrown core. Even if you throw out the Kevin Durant years, that’s still three Finals appearances. And it feels like this could be the first of a few for these Celtics, though in a league this deep you can never assume anything from one year to the next. 

So let’s stop and appreciate this matchup, this season, for this championship, for the rarity that it is. Two homegrown teams going head to head for the top spot in a league whose year-to-year supremacy is largely dictated by the whims of migrating mercenaries. It’s kind of cool, really. A little more “Core Four” Yankees than the Alex Rodriguez years. And who can’t get behind that? 

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