Every hoops fan, one way or another, is well aware of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry. Not only is it the NBA’s fiercest rivalry, but is also one of the most storied rivalries in sports history. Two franchises that invoke extreme emotions from fans and haters alike, have also given the game of basketball some of its greatest players.
The 2010 NBA Finals was an epic seven-game series between the Lakers and the Celtics. As loose as it sounds now, back in the 2010 playoffs, both teams pushed as though it was their last legitimate shot at the gold. The Lakers took game 7 and the NBA title that year.
Every hoops fan, one way or another, is well aware of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry. Not only is it the NBA’s fiercest rivalry, but is also one of the most storied rivalries in sports history. Two franchises that invoke extreme emotions from fans and haters alike, have also given the game of basketball some of its greatest players. Jerry West, Bill Russell, Magic, Bird, McHale, Ainge, Jabbar and other greats made way for great talents of the modern-era. Our generation discusses the rivalry on the basis of names like Shaq, Kobe, Garnett, Allen, Pierce, Rondo, Fisher, Gasol and other accompanying players. The two teams have won a total 33 championships with the Celtics having one more than the Lakers. But it is the Lakers that have dominated the rivalry in the modern era.
Today the two teams are facing times that every fan dreads. It is not something uncommon, every team, every athlete has been, and will continue to be, plagued by low points. But the reason this situation right here demands attention is because, this time and the next few coming years could change the entire face of the rivalry between the C’s and the Lakers. From this point on, I will try to give you a perspective, taking into consideration the past few years and the coming few.
The Lakers have always been a heavy spending franchise. The most glorious days that the modern day Lakers fans were witness to was back in the Shaq-Kobe years. A hungry Bryant and a dominating Shaq combined to form one of the most formidable frontcourt-backcourt duos to have set foot on the hardwood. They were joined by Phil ‘Zen’ Jackson as head coach, and went on to achieve a three-peat (gold in 2000, 2001 and 2002). What a few people tend to overlook is, the Shaq-Kobe era too came as part of the re-building process after a lull during the 90s. It was like that decade of the 90s was specifically tailored by the Lord himself, for Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson to cement their respective places as the greatest player and greatest coach. The years post 1996 were the beginning of the re-ignition, Shaq and Kobe for the Lakers, while Boston got Paul ‘The Truth’ Pierce in 1998. The Celtics team, built around Pierce kept pushing for progress, while the Lakers got the three-peat.
Then came the game-changer in 2004, Big Shaq was traded to Miami Heat. With the big man gone, the Lakers joined the Celtics in a place called ‘mediocrity’. During all this while, it is not that the two teams just vanished, it is just that neither made any spectacular run at the playoffs or to the finals. Then came the year 2008, Boston had made blockbuster trades to bring in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to join Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and coach Doc Rivers. The Lakers had Kobe, joined by the likes of Pau Gasol, Derek Fisher, an injuired Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom. The two teams met at the 2008 NBA Finals, with Boston taking the series 4-2. This was Boston’s first championship since 1986 and 17th overall. This year also paved the way for Boston’s Big-3 (Garnett, Pierce and Allen) and one of the best point guards in the game in Rajon Rondo.
The following year, the Celtics fell to the Orlando Magic in the conference finals. The Magic went on to face the Lakers in the 2009 finals, which saw LA take the gold. The year 2010, brought this rivalry back to its epitome, in a way that even fans of the Bird-Magic era were moved beyond words. Both teams were in the zone and every player with a potential to play to their very best. Kobe was joined by Gasol, Artest (Metta World Peace), Bynum and Fisher, while the Celtics had Garnett, Pierce, Perkins, Allen and Rondo. Practically every fan on the street was in either the purple and gold or the green. With even the Gods as audience, the two teams literally went to war.
Tearing at each other through six games, it all finally came down to a game 7 at the Staples Centre, California. It was what every fan had waited for, for ages – the Laker Show versus the Celtic Pride. In a tough-fought game, the Lakers came on top with Bryant getting his 5th Championship, his 2nd Finals MVP and the Lakers’ 16th title. It was also the first time that the Lakers won a game 7 against the Celtics. For a number of fans like myself, as happy as we were at the display of great basketball, we silently knew that this could probably be the last great franchise battle for at least a while. That series also made another thing clear, one can go ahead and hate Kobe, dis him, not give him due credit, but one just cannot ignore his will to never give up, and try to be king-of-the-mountain.
Post the 2010 season, both teams made a number of shuffles. Every change made in the 3 years leading up to this season, was a contributing factor to the teams’ current scenario and also the re-building strategy that both teams have employed. Phil Jackson retired after the 2011 season. The Lakers traded away their veteran Derek Fisher and got Jordan Hill from the Houston Rockets, Steve Nash was brought in from the Phoenix Suns in exchange for draft picks and cash. Lamar Odom was traded to Dallas Mavericks. In a four team trade, Andrew Bynum was traded to bring in the best big man in the game today, Dwight Howard. With this trade, the Lakers were expected to become serious title contenders. But alas, unlike Jabbar and Shaq, Howard could never establish his dominance as a big man and ended up getting the sour end of a blockbuster deal. That ‘dwightmare’ ended when Howard ended up at Houston this season. The Celtics on the other hand, after 2010, got Shaq and Jermaine O’Neal to fill in for the injured Perkins and Delonte West came back. Perkins was then traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The C’s made additions in the form of Jeff Green, Carlos Arroyo and Nenad Krstic. Other player movements in and out the Celtic locker room involved Brandon Bass, Marquis Daniels, Mickael Pietrus, Glen Davis, Jason Terry, Von Wafer, etc. What the Celtics did in 2012, was let go of Ray Allen, who chose to move to Miami despite a pay cut. Coach Doc Rivers was then traded to the Clippers in 2013, which made way for the big shocker – few days later Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce along with Jason Terry and D.J.White moved to the Brooklyn Nets. This marked the absolute end of the ‘Big 3’ era. Brad Stevens, the head coach of Butler University, is now Head Coach of the Celtics.
The Lakers’ situation
As much as I would like to avoid it, I cannot overlook the whole ‘Howard gone wrong’ case. If the Lakers’ management would have sensed the slightest possibility of Dwight leaving the very next year, they would never have traded a young potent Bynum for the cause. Well, technically the plan was perfect – use the big wallet, west coast climate and Hollywood dreams to lure a big star to join the eternal megastar of the Lakers, Kobe Bryant. Howard never clicked and dissatisfaction only grew within both parties. Prior to the beginning of the 2013 season, Howard moved to Houston and Bryant was out recovering from an Achilles injury. In an attempt to salvage any remaining chances of making it to the playoffs, the Lakers signed veteran big man Chris Kaman and gifted but inconsistent youngster Nick Young. As of now, the Lakers have spent quite a bit on contracts of Steve Blake, Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman; while there are some other minimum level contracts for the likes of Jordan Farmar, Xavier Henry and Nick Young. For now, Kobe and Nash are still out injured, while Gasol still seems far from a 100 per cent. The Lakers are at the .500 mark owing to vigorous efforts from Blake, Young, Meeks, Hill, Farmar, Henry, etc.
It has now been confirmed that Kobe has signed an extension with the Lakers, for the next two years, worth $48 million. There is also a high possibility that a rehabbing Bryant fast-forwards his return to court. This contract will make Bryant the highest paid athlete in the NBA. A wise move that the Lakers could make in the near future is to let go of Nash for a younger option or a draft pick. Then, a glimpse into the future could see Bryant combining with Farmar/Blake in the backcourt while Young/Henry, Gasol/Hill/Kaman man the front.
Selling off Nash, will not only free some salary cap for the big free agent that LA is looking to sign, but also allow Blake to be first choice for PG which will automatically give the younger Farmar more minutes on rotation, thereby developing a better guard. Both Xavier Henry and Nick Young are already showing promise this season and both have optimum ability to play guard or forward. The lack of Howard in the paint, frees up Gasol and allows gives him the freedom to use his passing ability to feed Hill/Kaman who have better spot-up mid-range ability than Howard.
The Lakers and Mike D’Antoni are going to have to play tough if they are to make any noise this season but if they take wise, calculated decisions in the near future; a well-rounded Laker team is not far away.
Danny Ainge is incharge of operations of the Celtics, and simply put, it’s a ‘youth movement’ down at Boston. It will also be foolish to say that it was unexpected. The average age of the Cs’ starting lineup was slowly but steadily creeping into the unacceptable 30s and it was only a matter of time before the management took steps to reinforce the idea that ‘players come and go, but the franchise lives on’. The only way to fight age and survive long-term mediocrity was to take tough calls, and that they did.
Letting go of Doc to the Clippers gave them a first-round draft pick. The trade with the Nets included not only Gerald Wallace, MarShon Brooks and others but also three first-round draft picks. Now, the Celtics have first-round draft picks in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2018 (can be swapped for 2017).
Also, over the years, Rajon Rondo has come up to be the real ‘heart’ of the Green army. Constant improvement and considerable experience with the ‘Big 3’ has truly made him the General of the current Celtics. When he comes back from his ACL rehab, the team will function with Rondo at its centre. Coach Stevens and the management now need to surround Rondo with the required talent, rotate wisely and make smart choices with the draft picks that they have in the kitty. The draft picks could be potent stars or could be optimally developed to later be traded for bigger names (remember Al Jefferson and Gerald Green who formed part of the Garnett mega deal).
Sometimes it does get easy, to lose focus of the bigger picture, and claim that a team is going down the dreaded rabbit-hole. The only place I see the Celtics and the Lakers going from here on is a place of new possibilities, renewed rivalry and new individual battles. Now that the Mamba is confirmed for the next two years, it will be worth watching what the alpha dog does with the young talents that surround him. On the other hand, the Celtics will have Rondo rallying his team of young upcoming athletes to go up against the established big names of the NBA. More importantly, when these two teams meet in the future, fresh names will strive to revitalize the match-up that once gave us Wilt-Russell and Bird-Magic.