Lakers v Celtics: Two franchises, two different journeys, one more battle
Historically, the L.A. Lakers and the Boston Celtics have had the greatest rivalry in NBA history. They are the great Eastern Conference and Western Conference rivals; if the NBA Finals was not strictly a showdown between those two teams every season, it nevertheless often felt like it would be. It has been a rivalry so strong and profound that there was even a computer game named after it, the clunkily-named “Lakers versus Celtics and the NBA Playoffs”.
Including the era when the Lakers franchise was based in Minneapolis, the two teams have won the NBA title a combined 33 times – the Celtics have 17 titles, the Lakers have 16, and no other team has more than 6. Of the 70 Finals series of all time, 40 have featured at least one of the two, and 12 have featured both. They have been the two best teams in NBA history, and the rest of the field trail by quite some distance.
However, their rivalry on the court is now mostly dead. All rivalries are now mostly dead in the modern NBA – the NBA is bigger, friendlier, and much more evenly balanced than ever before – but this one is currently especially dead in the light of the Lakers’ current struggles. The Lakers have 65 wins combined over the last three seasons, alongside 181 losses; aside from the anomalous 19-63 record of the 1957-58 season, the great powerhouse has fallen to lows never before seen in its seven-decade history.
As recently as 2010, the Lakers and Celtics met in the NBA Finals, with the Lakers triumphing over the aging Celtics in seven grueling games and defending the title that they had won the year before. Since that time, both teams have embarked on a rebuild. But in this respect, their paths have become markedly different. The longstanding rivalry between the two teams when at the top of their game has in no way meant they have followed each other’s strategies when nearer the bottom. In looking at the Lakers versus the Celtics now, we are looking at two very different models of team building, with two very different outcomes.
The Celtics kept together the core of that 2010 NBA Finals team (and 2008 NBA Championship-winning team) for two more years. The ‘Big Four’ of Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce won two more Atlantic Division titles in 2011 and 2012, and recorded regular season win percentages of .683% and .591% in that time. Only a trade of the fifth starter (Kendrick Perkins) and a couple of tweaks to the bench personnel took place, of note, as they mostly kept the band together. But in the summer of 2012, Ray Allen walked to the Miami Heat, thinking that the Celtics’ title window had ended and that the Heat represented his best chances of winning ever again. He was right.
Allen’s departure precipitated the Celtics trade with the Brooklyn Nets. Hungry for some immediate success to usher in the big spending Prokhorov era and concurrent rebranding of the entire franchise, the Nets wanted proven veterans of proven quality in a bid to get near to the top as quickly as they could. Consequently, they outbid everyone, including themselves, giving up three first round picks with little or no protection on them in exchange for Garnett, Pierce, and some other pieces of no great consequence. It was possibly the most lopsided trade of the decade. The Nets got nowhere near the top as they intended, and continue to pay the price for that trade to this day. And it is the Celtics they are paying it to – the #3 pick they received in the 2016 NBA Draft (used on Jaylen Brown) came from the Nets, and a similarly unprotected 2018 first round pick will be on its way in short order as well.
In addition to losing three of the Big Four in that one month span, Danny Ainge moved on other incumbent veteran pieces on his roster. The Perkins trade was particularly successful – in exchange for the recently acquired and eminently replaceable Nate Robinson, and the recently injured soon-to-go-into-the-tank Perkins, Ainge returned a short term rental of the thoroughly useful Nenad Krstic, Jeff Green, and a first round pick. After a couple of seasons of his own unique brand of enigmatic, intriguing and ultimately unproductive basketball, Green himself was moved on for another first round pick. And after a dispute with the Thunder about Green’s medical history (specifically about the foreseeability of a heart ailment causing him to miss the 2011-12 season), Ainge also acquired a 2013 second round pick in compensation for the Thunder.
Even back before the 2012 rebuild began, Ainge had been drafting well, picking Avery Bradley 19th in the 2010 NBA Draft, and although Luke Harangody at #52 in that same draft had only a short NBA career (and little upside), Ainge nonetheless was able to parlay him into the #39 pick the following season. Subsequent picks include Jared Sullinger at #22 in 2012 (who, although he has now left via free agency, represented tremendous value at that slot), Kelly Olynyk and Marcus Smart – via trade, other young pieces include Jae Crowder, acquired in the deal that sent Rondo to the Mavericks, along with a first round draft pick and Brandan Wright, himself later parlayed into another first round draft pick.
The overall theme here is clear to see. Ainge sold relatively high, bought low, utilised the draft (both in terms of his own drafting, and using the value of unused draft picks well in trades), and kept the salary spending down. In doing so, he created a good team and one replete with assets. Sam Hinkie’s term as leader of The Process in Philadelphia over the last three seasons saw them take on even more assets than Ainge’s Celtics, but Hinkie neglected to actually build a good team along the way. Ainge did both.
Between 2010 and the present day, it is hard to find any moves Ainge made that could be said to have been bad or unsuccessful. Short of nit-picking his success with a couple of big men selected with late first round draft picks (JaJuan Johnson, dealt in the Courtney Lee package and soon out of the league, and Fab Melo, who suffered the ignominy of being salary dumped and stretched while still on a rookie scale deal), Ainge’s strategy of selling high and buying low has paid dividends. His Celtics now have a lot to envy – a clean future salary picture, youth and depth, athleticism and internal growth, good roster balance, and an elite coaching mind in Brad Stevens.
What they lack for superstar power, they largely make up for with everything else. In contrast, there is Los Angeles, which lacks for most things.
After their 2010 title victory, the Lakers stuck with what they had. They re-signed their veteran guards Derek Fisher and Steve Blake and continued to miss in the draft (the Lakers’ draft record in the last generation is amongst the worst in the league, if not the worst). Whereas the Celtics retained their big four while picking up a few assets further down the depth chart, the Lakers did not do this, nor did they try to. Instead, they spent two years plugging the gaps in the dike.
Los Angeles only began to change its championship core when it traded Lamar Odom to Dallas for a first-round pick at the start of the shortened 2011/12 season. Given Odom’s subsequent descent into substance abuse, this would have been a good deal and one in the Aingeian mould had they not then traded that same pick within a few months for Jordan Hill.
Hill, a fringe starter/quality backup type of player, was a useful stop-gap makeshift five man for two seasons, yet never did his production or his upside merit the kind of cost that the Lakers paid for him in trading a first round pick. And with that, a pick was gone.
Concurrent with this deal, the Lakers traded a separate first round pick for Ramon Sessions, a trade explained by GM Mitch Kupchak as being fuelled by a desire to get ‘younger and more athletic’. Sessions was thought of as being the point guard of the future. He may have been that had he not then walked into free agency four months later. And with that, another pick was gone.
In the offseason immediately after those two deals, the Lakers went all in for one year. They dealt a combined six draft picks in trades for Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, and in trading for Nash, effectively pushed Sessions out as well. The failure of the Nash/Kobe/Gasol/Howard lineup is well-documented, as are the results – Howard left via free agency after one year, Gasol after two years, Nash barely played after that one year, and Kobe also got hurt. And with that, six more picks were gone.
The overall theme is clear to see here, too. Whereas the Celtics traded for the picks, thus allowing them much greater control over the young assets those picks converted into, the Lakers used those picks to trade for veterans and young veterans of some quality, yet over whom they had no control. Those players walked in free agency, and the picks were thus wasted. Picks are not everything when it comes to team building, but the potential they carry has great value, and they must be used or dealt with this in mind. It is not a coincidence that the only good bits of L.A’s current situation were obtained via draft picks.
For the departures of all four of Howard, Nash, Bryant and Gasol, the Lakers got no returning assets. For Pierce and Garnett, Ainge acquired three first round picks; for Rondo, he acquired two first round picks and one quality starter; for Perkins, three picks and two rentals. This is why the two teams are where they are.
Clearly and unequivocally, then, the Celtics’ rebuild has been infinitely more successful. They were already one of the Eastern Conference’s best teams last year, full of talent, youth and depth, and that was before the addition of Brown et al this summer (the Celtics had a massive seven other picks in the 2016 NBA Draft, including first rounders used on Guerschon Yabusele and Ante Zizic, who are significant here).
Both teams are now at impasses, but of very different types. The accidentally terrible period that Los Angeles has been mired in has at least yielded some results via the draft; a core trio of DeAngelo Russell (in post for the future at one of the guard spots - time will tell which - yet coming off a wobbly rookie season) and Julius Randle is a good starting point. But they need a lot of other playing pieces, a coach who can develop them, and a culture that can attract both fans and players back to the Staples Centre. Meanwhile, for all that the Celtics now have, they lack for star power, and star power ultimately does count.
Free agency could, in theory, be a way out of this, but neither franchise has had much luck in free agency prior to now. The Celtics’ best free agency signing in the entire Danny Ainge period up until this offseason was probably Amir Johnson, a fine fourth or fifth starter but never a pivot point for a franchise. [It’s either him or James Posey.] Meanwhile, the Lakers’ strikeouts have been far more prominent. They have resorted in the last few years to spending many a million on Lou Williams, Brandon Bass, Timofey Mozgov and re-signing Nick Young while trading for the unwanted contracts of Jose Calderon and Roy Hibbert. There is only one quality starter amongst that group. That is a lot of money for few assets.
The difference between the two teams’ results in free agency lies in their respective intent. For the longest time, the Lakers thought they could always restock their depleted star talent via free agency splashes, and reconciled it to themselves accordingly. This is the storied franchise that almost never lacked for talent or lustre, and even when they did, they could power out of it via free agency.
Shaquille O’Neal, one of the best players of all time, signed with the Lakers. If you can get Shaq, the thinking went, then you could get anyone.
That was then, though. This is now. Free agency is not what it was. Free agency used to be rare – in 2008, three teams had cap room above and beyond the value of the mid-level exception, and free agency was an annual MLE showdown. Nowadays, however, free agency and cap room are abundant. Teams are rich, cap space is plentiful (while this particular offseason is an anomaly born out of a one-off cap spike, the prevalence for cap space has trended upwards throughout this CBA and will continue barring drastic changes in the next one), and the NBA deals in a much stronger line of parity than ever before.
The Lakers have always felt they could use free agency to their advantage. They are the Lakers, after all. This is Los Angeles. This is 16 titles. This is Kareem, Magic, Worthy, Kobe. This is Hollywood. This is Jack Nicholson. But, no. It hasn’t happened. And nor should they assume it will suddenly begin again. The Lakers need to find a new way to build a team outside of trying to land stars via free agency because anyone can do that now. And those who have done so, most notably the Warriors with Kevin Durant this month, did so because they had some kind of foundation for that player to come to. Be it fortuitous home ties, or a culture cultivated through productive and well thought out team building, they had something beyond legacy to deal on. Unless the Russell/Ingram/Randle trio becomes something of note, the Lakers have only the latter.
Both went head-to-head this summer, not on the court, but in the front offices, via free agency. The Lakers signed Mozgov; the Celtics signed Al Horford. Even in the one area of team building that the Lakers are supposed to have an advantage in, the Celtics won the day.
Very soon, the Celtics and Lakers may go head-to-head once again. Once again not on the court, but in the front office. And not via free agency, but via trade. The two may be at very different stages in their rebuild and may have embarked on two very different strategies, but they are united by one common goal – both want that one superstar.
Every team wants a superstar, so this aim alone is not especially insightful. But few teams have them. Few are ever available by any means other than the draft. And right now, one might be. With Kevin Durant having used that leveled the free agency playing field to sign with the Golden State Warriors, Russell Westbrook looks awfully lonely on the Thunder roster. And with his free agency coming up, the Thunder might want to anticipate that, do an Ainge, and sell relatively high. Once bitten, twice shy.
The Lakers and Celtics are both said to be interested in Westbrook. Because of course they are. But common interest does not mean equal opportunity. As ever, the Celtics have the driver’s seat.
In trade, the Celtics can offer a lot. They can offer Brown, they can offer Isaiah Thomas, and they can offer all their own picks. They can offer Yabusele, they can offer Zizic, and they can offer both. They can offer the salary relief from Enes Kanter, should that be needed, and they can offer the many draft picks of other teams that they still own via trade (the eight picks of this past draft was not an anomaly; there are more in the chamber). They can offer Crowder, Smart, any player, and any combination thereof. They are replete with assets, all while coming off of a 48-win season last year and with an average age of players under contract of only 25.
”Trader Dan”, as Ainge was once known, has yet to convert this pile of riches into that big deal for that one star. But such a star has never been available. If one were to be now, the Celtics are as ready to buy as anyone is. In comparison, the Lakers are not. In comparison, the Lakers offer only 17 wins, a legacy that could be more daunting than enticing to the wrong person, and, most pertinently, little to offer in trade.
With specific regards to Westbrook, the Thunder, and their general manager Sam Presti, we can interpret what Presti will likely prioritise in trades by looking at what he has prioritised before in his tenure, most notably with the trade of James Harden. In that exchange, the Thunder landed Kevin Martin (a large expiring contract and a fringe star at the time), recent first-round pick Jeremy Lamb, two future first round picks (later used on Steven Adams and Mitch McGary), and a future second round pick (which later became the one given to Boston as the compensation for Jeff Green’s heart condition).
These are things that the Lakers do not have unless they are willing to break up the hoped-for next Big Three. Presti will surely ask for two of the three because he can. If they ask for such, can the Lakers afford it?
A few seasons of striking out in free agency and hoping players better than Lou Williams would want to join Kobe in his twilight years and assume his greatness via some weird form of basketball osmosis have seen the team come up very short in terms of basketball assets. They have money, but it is the same money everyone else now has. The Lakers still owe two future first-round draft picks via various trades, and although they are doing better for second round picks, they have a very poor track record when it comes to using them. Russell and Randle are talents, but both are coming off spluttering rookie campaigns in which they were not used effectively, progressed little, and did not seem to even enjoy being Laker players. And yet somehow into that breach, they want Russell Westbrook to step.
Per reports, the Lakers feel they can sign Westbrook in the summer of 2017, and need not bother trading for him. It would make much more sense from their point of view to do so. But per reports, the Lakers feel they can sign anyone. And it has not gone down like that. It is not impossible that this could happen, certainly, but it relies upon Westbrook feeling the lustre and the lure of the storied franchise in a way that no one except Williams has felt for a while now.
As for what Westbrook and what he should want? Well, there’s always a third way….