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Saturday, 30 November 2013 13:30

The Boston Celtics, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Race to Return to Glory Part II

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So far, so good for the Celtics' rebuilding process. But what about the Lakers?
 

By now you’ve read how awesome the Boston Celtics rebuilding project is, and will be.  You read Paul Flannery.  You read Ian Thomsen.  Most recently, you read Zach Lowe’s kind words.

The Celtics may not be making a run at their 18th World Championship in their illustrious history this year, but it seems inevitable that it is not a matter of if, but when, those days will come again.  Not only that, but it seems likely that the glory days will arrive a lot sooner than what was originally expected.

Way back yonder in May of 2013, the last time this writer sat down at his desktop to churn out a column on the NBA, we analyzed the prospects of the future of the two mainstay franchises of the NBA – the Celtics, and their rival Los Angeles Lakers.  In short, we concluded that although the odds (back then) were that the Lakers would return to glory first (due to circumstances that were set in stone), there’s a more than fair chance that because of the current make-up of the Boston Celtics organization from the top on down – that the Celtics would reach the Promised Land once again before their arch-rivals.

With two recent pivotal transactions, one made by each franchise, each organization made not just a franchise altering decision, but a statement.  And each statement is a clear indicator in where each of these two legendary franchises are heading.

***

In the last few years, everyone in and out of NBA circles heard Danny Ainge reiterate publicly that he would not let his core of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen bring the Celtics down to mediocrity as they aged.

The Celtics unexpectedly came within a quarter of the NBA Finals in 2012.  Because of that, ownership and management re-invested in the current makeup of the team.  But after a lackluster, and quite frankly, boring 41-win campaign in 2013, it was clear that the at-the-time makeup of the Celtics roster was no longer capable of being in the upper echelon of the NBA.

Ainge weighed his options.  Would he go through a firesale of his organization, or would he stay course with his current core?

Contrary to belief, there was some value to both sides.  While most clamored for a firesale along the likes of the 1997 Florida Marlins – there was certainly value in holding onto his aging veterans as they could potentially be used in fostering in a transition era.

The San Antonio Spurs in the late 2000s followed such a path.  After winning the franchise’s fourth championship in 2007, and appearing in the Western Conference Finals in 2008 – the stalwart of the team, Tim Duncan began to decline as a player.  With this, the Spurs slipped into the so-called dreaded “Tier B.”  Which is firmly in the playoffs, but never good enough to compete for a championship, and never bad enough to get one of those franchise-altering players via the draft.  Jeez, you know, like a Tim Duncan.

But the Spurs along the years added solid young players and developed them in their system.  They drafted Gary Neal, George Hill (whom they later traded for Kawhi Leonard), and Tiago Splitter.  They snagged Patty Mills and Danny Green.  The Spurs took a bit of a dip in years like 2009 and 2010, but they still took winning as many basketball games as they could seriously, and the organization benefited mightily from it.  By 2011, the roster was replenished with young, but seasoned, role players who complimented the other veteran players on the Spurs roster.  And for the last three seasons, no team has won more regular season basketball games than San Antonio.

This almost assuredly weighed on Ainge’s mind.  While Ainge stated over the years how the Celtics of the early 1990s made a mistake by riding out their original Big Three, he also wasn’t going to just hand over players like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett on a silver platter to teams just so he could take the Celts into the toilet in an effort to accumulate as many ping pong balls as possible.  If the right deal were there, he’d make it.  If not, having Garnett and Pierce finish their careers in Celtics jerseys certainly held its own value too.  Providing Ainge made the right moves, ala the Spurs, in the coming years.

But sure enough, that dream deal came along.  Ainge’s patience paid off.  While many in the media demanded Ainge abort his ‘Three Year Window’ after the third year, Ainge got his best potential return just last June.  The Brooklyn Nets, desperate to make a splash, desperate for tabloid headlines, desperate for a division championship let alone an NBA championship, handed everything but the Brooklyn Bridge over to the Celtics in exchange for their two aging Hall of Famers.  Three unprotected first round draft selections were headed Boston’s way.  When Boston snagged an extra first round draft selection for the coaching services of Doc Rivers from the Clippers, it was just the cherry on top.  Boston could reboot their franchise, and do so with plenty of ammo.

Since Ainge has the luxury of working for an ownership that puts a premium on organizational stability, it allows him to make basketball transactions that are the most sensible for the organization.  He could make a trade for draft selections that would come years down the line (such as two Brooklyn selections in 2016 and 2018.)  Ainge never had or has to worry about running into the ownership office to show the bosses net profits, sellouts, playoff appearances, and black ink.  He doesn’t have to worry about getting fired like 90% of GMs in the NBA do if the returns are not immediate.  Ownership and management are united on one message, and one message only: Bring another banner back to Boston.

With the acquisition of four future first round selections over the summer of 2013, the Celtics now have plenty of options.  Going back to 1997, those Boston Celtics HAD to win the draft lottery if they were to move forward as a franchise.  They HAD to get Tim Duncan, or everything M.L. Carr did in 1996 and 1997 in his efforts to strip down the Celtics franchise would have been all for naught.  Sure enough, it was.  The Celtics would have to go through a few more rebuilding stages to get back to where they finally wanted to be.

These Celtics don’t have to win the lottery, or even secure a top-five selection.  Oh it would be nice to possibly add an elite young talent to the Celtics roster.  It would be splendid.  But with the excess of draft picks, decent young talent already in place, as well as some established veterans on fair contracts – Boston already possesses the flexibility and assets necessary in being able to one day build a roster worthy of competing for a championship.

Having the flexibility of numerous draft choices is something that dynasties, not just in basketball, but in all of sports were built upon.  While some criticize Danny Ainge for not adhering to Paul Pierce’s request of retiring a Celtic because “it’s the right thing to do and that’s what the Celtics are known for” – this is simply not true.

Red Auerbach saw the 1970s Celtics declining and jettisoned the championship backcourt of Charlie Scott and JoJo White for two future first round draft choices.  He (foolishly) refused to re-sign Paul Silas because he was seeking more money than the Celtics were willing to pay him.

While the Celtics dealt with an ownership mess in the late 1970s as the franchise spiraled out of control, the one thing going for them was they had numerous draft choices in two pivotal drafts.  In 1978, the Celtics had two draft selections in the top eight.  Because of this, that made the decision easier for selecting a player whom the Celtics would have to wait a year before he donned their jersey.  This player was Larry Bird.  In 1980, the Celtics held the top pick in the draft as well as their own.  Instead of taking Kevin McHale at #1 (which they would have done), they traded down in the draft while sending their own selection with it to Golden State to pick up another player.  That player was Robert Parish, and the Celtics still nabbed McHale in the draft anyways.  A dynasty was born.

In the NFL, the Niners of the 1980s, the Cowboys of the 1990s, and the Patriots of the early 2000s always had a plethora of draft choices to work with.  They could always wheel-and-deal and build a balanced team that was capable of winning not just one, but multiple Super Bowl championships in a short period of time in a sport where it is hardest to accomplish such a feat.

When Jerry Jones took over the Dallas Cowboys in the late 1980s, he fired Tom Landry, the longstanding and legendary coach.  Jones replaced him with the young, but unproven on the professional ranks, college coach Jimmy Johnson.  They traded their star running back Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings for a boatload of draft selections, which Dallas would either use in draft day trades and/or select pivotal pieces towards their coming dynasty.  The Cowboys stunk it up for one season, but added a franchise quarterback in Troy Aikman in the draft, and went from there.  The rest, as we say, is history.

While Ainge may not have the Dallas Cowboys blueprint stashed on a .PDF somewhere in his flashcard, the similarities are startling.

And most are beginning to see it.  Notice how as the Celtics are floundering through the early stages of this 2014 NBA campaign, there are no “How the mighty have fallen” columns anywhere to be seen? These columns were a dime-a-dozen throughout the 1990s and early 2000s in newspapers across the country whenever the Celtics would come to town (Mark Heisler of the LA Times, I am looking straight at you.)  You won’t see them this year, or maybe even next.  Because they know it is not a matter of if, but when Danny Ainge, Brad Stevens, Wyc Grousbeck et all have the Boston Celtics as the beacon of light in the NBA once again.

***

Just this past week, the Los Angeles Lakers re-signed their aging Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant so he can finish his career in a Laker uniform while remaining the highest paid player in the league even in the twilight of his career.

They did it because…well…it was the right thing to do.  Kobe had given so much to the franchise, and yes, even though this all but assures mediocrity from the Lakers for the next three years – the Lakers just owe it to Kobe for all he had done for the organization and city.  The Lakers are a loyal organization.  That is what they are all about.  That is why they’ve sustained excellence for so long.

Or not.

In 1974 as Jerry West was winding down his career, he wanted another contract from the Lakers.  By then, the glory days of Wilt, Happy, Gail, and Coach Sharman had faded and all that remained was West and his band of incredibly average Lakers.  The Lakers did not pay West his money despite ‘all he had done for the franchise,’ and West subsequently walked away from the organization before returning as a coach in the late 1970s.  The Lakers then fell to the bottom of the league for one season, nabbed some high quality picks, proceeded to package those picks with some players on the team and then – poof – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a Laker right in the prime of his career and a new Laker era had begun.

But that was years ago.  The Lakers are a different organization with the Buss family.  They’d never do anyth--…oh, hello there Shaquille O’Neal.

The Lakers have always been very favorable to their star players at the peak of their careers.  But they would never be consumed by them.  The Lakers always came first, see: West, O’Neal.  No great organizations could let any one player elevate themselves above the organization.  As we just documented, while it would have been heart warming for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to finish their careers as Celtics, there was more value in a different direction the organization could take.

However, as soon as Kobe scribbled his signature on that contract just a few days ago, he didn’t just score another payday – he pulled a coup d'état on the Lakers franchise.  Forget the Michael Jordan comparisons.  Kobe Bryant is now a Caesar, a Napoleon, a Lenin, and a Castro all rolled into one.

Clearly, the Lakers were more concerned with the fallout of a potential contentious negotiation.  While the Lakers may have the largest fan base for any American professional sports franchise, the dirty little secret is much of it is made up of just Kobe fans.  With the signing of a historical television rights contract with Time Warner Cable, the Lakers became even more petrified about alienating these fans.

Thus it was open season for Kobe in his bloodless revolution.  He could run roughshod over the organization and ask for anything he wanted from the team.  As he stated to Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski, all it took was “one meeting.”  There was no pushback.  The Lakers completely gave in.

And there you have it.  While the Celtics seem clearly committed to the goal of winning another championship, the Lakers have let that aspiration slip behind the almighty dollar, their adherence to Kobe Bryant and his fans, as well as trying to preserve their public image in the media (see this Ramona Shelburne mouthpiece column – there are so many factual things wrong with it, I could write a whole other column on it.)

A great man once said that winning comes first after breathing.  In this tale of two franchises, one seems to feel that way whereas the other one doesn’t.

It’s only a matter of time before the results start to show.

 

Larry H. Russell

Senior editor and featured columnist for CLNS Radio. Celtics Beat Podcast Executive Producer. Celtics writer and historian. E-mail: LHRussell@clnsradio.com