The Celtics and Lakers are down once again. But are they out?
The cities of Boston and Los Angeles are home to the two preeminent franchises in the National Basketball Association. Their names are forever linked with each other, and are forever symmetrical with professional basketball. The Celtics and Lakers. The Lakers and Celtics. However, for the first time in 20 years, both the Celtics and Lakers are nowhere near a factor in the NBA landscape. More importantly, there is no timeframe on when the Lakers and/or the Celtics ever will be a factor again. Both of these teams entered the 2012-13 campaign with high hopes. Both were considered challengers to regain the NBA throne. For the Celtics, they were considered more of a dark horse contender that could maybe steal one more championship with the core of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. At the very least, and quite frankly, probably even more importantly, it would be a positive transition year. Where some of the young talent on the team like Rajon Rondo, Jared Sullinger, Avery Bradley, and Jeff Green could gain valuable playoff experience, as well as the organization maintaining their winning culture as they transition over to the next generation of Celtics. Unfortunately, it was a bust on all fronts. The Celtics, as mentioned, are in no relevant position and never truly played a meaningful game all year. The team plummeted to mediocrity, finishing a game over .500 and being dispatched in the first round as a seven seed in a bad Eastern Conference. For the Lakers, the season was a colossal failure. And that may even be the understatement of the year. LA entered the season with astronomical expectations. A guaranteed appearance in the NBA Finals and a possible run at the hallowed 70- win mark, the Lakers’ season went into the pits the moment the lights went on. They fired their coach in what seemed like 10 minutes into the season, and it never got better from there. Their four future Hall of Famers (Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Dwight Howard) never really had the chance to play as a unit due to numerous injuries throughout the Laker roster. And even when they did, they never gave any NBA observer reason to feel confident in their preliminary expectations for this particular Laker roster. When Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles in the NBA’s final week, the Lakers had their fate sealed. Not just for this season, (as the Lakers were unceremoniously swept out of the first round by San Antonio), but for the future. The Lakers, like the Celtics, seem to be back at square one. Recently Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News wrote that Celtics fans should take solace in the fact that their bitter rivals from Los Angeles appear to be in worse shape than the Celts are. That’s debatable. And for the sake of this column, we’ll analyze some the key components that are essential to the make-up of a franchise. We’ll see which team, the Lakers or the Celtics, is truly in better shape going forward and has the best chance of getting back on top sooner.
*** Drafting Not much here. By default, this goes to the Celtics. The Lakers owe their first round draft choice this year to Cleveland (Ramon Sessions), and then owe another future first rounder to Phoenix in the Steve Nash sign and trade. They are also even behind the eight ball on some second rounders as well. The Lakers will be handcuffed to an extent when it comes to improving their roster via the draft. They just don’t have the ammo. Even when they do have some first rounders to throw around, LA doesn’t do much with them. Since 2001, only three Laker first rounders are currently on active NBA rosters (Andrew Bynum, Jordan Farmar, and Toney Douglas.) The Celtics on the other hand, (Kendrick Perkins, Al Jefferson, Tony Allen, Delonte West, Gerald Green, Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger) have had far more success. Huge Advantage: Celtics
*** Free Agency While the Celtics have certainly come a long way in making Boston a more desirable place to play (hey, that’s what winning does for you) – fact of the matter is, no franchise, or city for that matter, is more of a destination than the Los Angeles Lakers, whether they are competitive or not (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar named Los Angeles as one of two teams he’d play for even as the Lakers were one of the worst teams in the NBA and did not have much of a championship tradition back in the mid-70s.) After the 2014 season, even if the Lakers re-sign Howard to a max contract this summer – the Lakers will still have the ability to offer another max contract to another free agent during the summer where many big-ticket players hit the market. This writer says that it is doubtful that the Lakers will haul in LeBron James, but I think it’s safe to say that they’ll snag a major piece in that summer via free agency. Hey John Wall: Could this have been a bit of an audition? Huge Advantage: Lakers
*** Franchise player(s) Let’s assume for arguments sake, the Lakers re-sign Dwight Howard this summer. Despite the media seemingly cheering on a Howard defection, there has been no real inkling on Dwight’s part that he can’t wait to get out of Los Angeles. In fact, every sign since he has been traded to Los Angeles points to him being a Laker for a while, (he purchased a home there, the Lakers can offer him the most money, etc.) Even despite the most tumultuous and unproductive season of his career, we never heard from Howard what we heard the last year-and-a-half while he was in Orlando. However, this season has certainly raised questions on whether Howard can be That Guy. His production has dropped drastically since his 2008-2011 peak. While he’s still one of the best centers in the league, he’s no longer one of the best players in the NBA (19.4 PER, and even more startling, 4.8 defensive win shares.) Worse, as most NBA observers have witnessed over the last year-and-a-half, there are serious questions of Howard’s makeup. His ejection while the Lakers were getting blown out in their final game of the season summed up who Dwight Howard has been these last 18 months. It was so appalling that it would’ve made Roger Clemens blush. Worse, there was no Terry Cooney in sight. The Lakers are hoping, and even banking, that this season was a down year for Howard, due to possibly from recovering from back surgery. He does, after all, have an impressive track record. He’s still just 27, has had an extended period of time as one of the league’s best players, and has already proven he can carry a franchise deep into the NBA Playoffs. In regards to him being perceived as mentally weak, well, hey, maybe being apart of an organization like the Lakers will only help him in that aspect. That’s the Lakers hope. That’s more than what you can say for the Celtics. Because at least with the Lakers, there is hope. Right now with the Celtics, there is none. At least not currently. There’s not a franchise savior anywhere on the map for the Green Team. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are on their way out the door that Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish could never walk back through. Guys like Jared Sullinger, Jeff Green, and Avery Bradley are nothing more than complimentary pieces at best. And, oh yeah, how many times has this writer laid forth the facts that Rajon Rondo is anything but a franchise player? This category is another one where the winner is all but declared by default. Pretty Big Advantage: Lakers
*** Assets and roster flexibility While the Lakers may have The Guy, or the better shot at attaining The Guy, the Celtics seem to hold an edge in overall roster flexibility. Indeed, there are more attractive pieces on the Celtics roster than there are on the Lakers. After Howard, LA’s roster is barren. The Lakers don’t possess one plus athlete under the age of 27. And with the lack of draft picks in the near future, the Lakers don’t have any chance in adding one to its core either, (unless, of course, with free agency during 2014 which is very plausible.) The Celtics, meanwhile, have a nice mix of good, but not great young players. As mentioned above, while Rondo, Green, Bradley, and Sullinger are not stars – they have proven to be very capable players. Most importantly, they are working on reasonable contracts. Therefore, they can be moved at any time for a viable piece, or viable pieces, that could (hopefully) upgrade the roster. What both teams have going for them is neither of them are tied down into long contracts and pricey contracts with mediocre players. Even a guy like Courtney Lee could be moved. However, while the Lakers may have an advantage in acquiring their next potential game changer via free agency, the Celtics have a better shot at acquiring theirs through trade – much like they did with Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett six years ago. Advantage: Celtics
*** Organizational Stability Mitch Kupchak and Danny Ainge are two of the best general managers in the league. Both have their strengths and weaknesses as roster-assemblers. For Ainge, he’s one of the best in the league in maximizing the value of draft picks. For Kupchak, he’s arguably the league’s best poker player; seemingly always getting the upper hand in trades. Most importantly, their presences ease the nerves of the fan bases of the two respective franchises. Both already have the track record as back in the middle of the 2000s, both GMs built championship teams out of mediocrity. Danny Ainge and Mitch Kupchak are far from question marks. What is a question mark however is the Lakers new (or is it old?) ownership. With the passing of one of professional sports’ great owners last February, the keys of the franchise are left in the hands of this guy. And so far, he hasn’t exactly gotten rave reviews out of Los Angeles. Case in point: The Lakers coaching carousel over the last year-and-a-half, which is something that is expected to continue. For the Celtics organization, from the ownership, down to the GM, and down to the coaching staff is set in place. And it is as solid as a rock. Advantage: Celtics *** As stated, the last time these two teams were in this precarious position was 1993. The Lakers got back to the top quickly, and did so with a brilliant plan. While many feel that “you have to be bad to get good in the NBA” – this wasn’t the case with the Lakers in the early ‘90s. The Lakers were saddled with aging, overpaid players after Magic Johnson retired in 1991. They were never bad enough to acquire a top talent in the draft, nor did they have enough cap room to lure a big name player to Los Angeles. However, slowly but surely, Jerry West began rebuilding the team by nailing virtually every draft pick (Anthony Peeler, George Lynch, Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones – all in just a three year stretch), and shrewdly picking up the likes of Cedric Ceballos and Sedale Threat. Out of nowhere, the Lakers became a 50-win team with a young roster and were a very attractive landing spot for a game-changing free agent. Sure enough, in the summer of 1996, the Lakers signed Shaquille O’Neal and the rest, as we say, is history. The Celtics? Well, we know what happened to them, and how long it took for the organization to get back on track. But what happens now? Will the Lakers make all the right turns once again? Will the Celtics engine sputter as it did back in the 1990s? Only time will tell. However, from what we see right in front of us, the Celtics may very well beat their rivals back to the Promised Land.