As Kobe Bryant heads to Boston for the last time in his NBA career to take on the team he twice met in the NBA Finals, it’s worth noting what completely different places the league’s two most historic franchises, the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, are at now and how they’re headed in opposite directions. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that the teams were in very similar places. Both made a fundamental decision that’s still having a ripple effect to today, and may continue having a growing one in the years to come.
It was only five years ago that these two teams were in the NBA Finals, though, it feels like a lifetime ago in NBA terms. Heck, an entire era happened in Miami in the meantime. But at that time the Lakers were the defending champs and the Celtics were the powerhouse in the Eastern Conference.
However, in the 2010-11 season, LeBron James went to Miami, the Chicago Bulls surged to the top of the East and the Celtics became an also-ran. Meanwhile, the Lakers had a stout enough regular season but got swept out of the playoffs by the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks. Such failure was intolerable, and Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak pulled off a trade, that for a few hours anyway, looked like it could launch the Lakers into the next tier of their dynasty in that it would’ve brought Chris Paul into the fold.
David Stern vetoed it for “basketball reasons.” There’s been much made about what that means and whether it was really a veto orchestrated by the jaded Dan Gilbert, the disgruntled owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, still bitter over being dumped by James. There comes with this a presumption of championships that could’ve been if it weren’t for that meddling Stern.
First, there’s a small but very important technicality here. If any team’s front office made a trade that the owner didn’t like, it wouldn’t be a controversy. The NBA was entirely in its rights to veto that trade, and that’s true even if your favorite team is the Lakers. But whatever. That’s moot.
I’m not sure there would’ve been such great success had the Lakers made that move. They would’ve been left with Andrew “Bum Knee” Bynum and no frontcourt other than that, and his career died shortly thereafter.
Both Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol would’ve been gone, and Metta World Peace was well past his prime. So in short, you’d have a backcourt consisting of two ball-dominant guards who need the rock to be successful, and it’s an honest question as to whether both alpha dogs could even coexist on the same team.
But it’s all moot because the trade got vetoed anyway. I bring it up here to illustrate that management was intent on making big moves, regardless of the cost even then. They had a mentality of trying to “win one more for Kobe.” And that direction was set.
In the summer of 2012, they made two monster deals, acquiring Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. And while that seemed like it’d work out great on paper, it never really did work on the court. Howard and Nash both had injuries they were playing through and there were chemistry issues.
There was a debacle where the Lakers fired their head coach, Mike Brown, seemed like they were on the verge of inking Phil Jackson, then decided to go with Mike D’Antoni in his place. He had history with Steve Nash but wasn’t a great fit with Howard.
Again, the Lakers seemed more intent on winning in the present and getting that last ring for Bryant.
That summer, though, charted the Lakers’ future, and the ensuing season dug the trench deeper. They’d mortgaged their future in getting Howard, then gambled it away in hiring D’Antoni. Oh sure, Lakers fans will tell you now that they didn’t want Howard back anyway, but before he said, “Houston,” most sang a different song.
Anyway, the Lakers traded away their 2017 first-round pick to get him. They gave away Josh McRoberts, a quality role player. And they scammed the Sixers by offloading Bynum on them.
Then they traded two more first-round picks to get Nash.
They have nothing left from that summer except the debts they owe.
And they still kept investing in Kobe. They gave him another $48 million. They gave him an old-school coach who’d pander to his every whim in Byron Scott.
In the summer of 2012, the Celtics seemed to be taking their first steps towards realizing their run with their own version of a Big Three was over, letting Ray Allen walk to the Heat. But the next summer they started rebuilding in earnest, rather than try to land players to reinforce their stars. They traded them instead while they still had some value. In doing so, they collected a ridiculous number of draft picks and assets. The Cauldron’s Jared Dubin relays it all, but here’s the synopsis:
After all that maneuvering over the course of two years, Boston turned Rivers, Garnett, Pierce, Rondo, Green and a fake second-round pick into Brad Stevens (hired from Butler to replace Doc), Zeller, Crowder, Thomas, Jerebko, four first-round picks (if we convert the Minnesota pick to two seconds, as is likely to happen), swap rights to three more firsts, and five second-rounders. Asset-wise, that’s a whole lot to work with, and in an age where having a treasure trove of assets is a prerequisite for butting your way into the discussion when superstars become available via trade, it appeared the Celtics were sitting on a gold mine.
They’ve already started building a contender with those assets. They currently own an 18-13 record and are very much a team to contend with in the East. While they don’t have a “superstar” or even a surefire All-Star on their team, they have a cohesive and deep unit that knows how to win games. They’re ready made for a superstar to join them, and they sure do have the assets to land one via trade or just sign one outright with max cap space next summer.
Unlike the Lakers signing a coach who hates three-pointers and is stuck in the past, the Celtics inked one of the brightest young coaching minds in the world in Brad Stevens. Heck, he was an upgrade over Doc Rivers.
But the best part of those deals may still lay ahead. As a result of dealing their esteemed veterans Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn, they own the Nets’ unprotected pick next draft, which could be No. 1 if the ball bounces right. They could also get Dallas’ No. 1 pick (top seven protected) from the Rajon Rondo trade, and they have the Timberwolves’ pick (top 12 protected) too from the Isaiah Thomas trade if the protections aren’t met. They have the right to swap picks with Brooklyn in 2017, and they have the Nets’ pick in 2018. And they have the Memphis Grizzlies’ pick in 2018 (possibly) from the Jeff Green trade.
Whew! That’s a lot of picks.
And they have all their own picks. So, there’s a world where they have all those first-round picks in the next three years and room to add a max contract via free agency. And all of this is on top of a team that might push for 45-50 win team this year.
Meanwhile, the Lakers could be in a scenario where a little bad luck in the lottery this year could land them with just one pick in the next three years. And that’s a team that’s on pace to win 13 games this season.
Sure, they’ll have cap space this year, but they’re not screaming “team of the future” to players looking to spend the prime of their careers there. Let’s be honest, if you’re Kevin Durant and you leave Oklahoma City, where are you going to go? To a team where all they need is “the guy” to become a legitimate championship contender? Or to a team that basically needs everything.
That’s what happens when one team sells out their future for a gamble in the present and another team invests in the present to buy real hope for the future. The Celtics were bad for a year. The Lakers might be bad for a decade. And it’s all because the Celtics made the decision to rebuild while they still had value in their superstars.