Divergent Paths Have Celtics' Future Looking Brighter Than Lakers

Bryan Toporek@@btoporekFeatured ColumnistFebruary 5, 2014

The Lakers' and Celtics' handling of their two respective stars speaks to how they're approaching the rebuilding process.
The Lakers' and Celtics' handling of their two respective stars speaks to how they're approaching the rebuilding process.Brian Babineau/Getty Images

Given the longstanding rivalry between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, it's only natural to compare the two franchises.

In most years, those comparisons typically boil down to deciding which team is better positioned to win the NBA championship. The 2013-14 season is not one of those years, however.

For the first time in two decades, both the Lakers and Celtics appear lottery-bound in the same year. They each find themselves in the midst of a painful rebuilding process, although things aren't entirely equal in Los Angeles and Boston.

While the Lakers haven't fully committed to a rebuild, Boston jumped headfirst into the tear-it-down-and-build-it-back-up model. As a result, there's a light at the end of the tunnel for one of these legendary franchises, while the other appears bound for an onslaught of mediocrity in the near future.

Let's take a closer look at the Lakers' and Celtics' divergent rebuilding paths to see what lies ahead for each.

Lakers Tied to Kobe Bryant in Sickness and in Health

DALLAS, TX - JANUARY 7: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers watches his team from the bench against the Dallas Mavericks on January 7, 2014 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
Glenn James/Getty Images

Since drafting Kobe Bryant in 1996, the Lakers have missed the playoffs once.

They've also won five NBA titles in that span.

With that in mind, it's easy to understand why the Lakers rewarded Bryant with a two-year, $48.5 million extension at the end of November. Had they allowed Bryant to become an unrestricted free agent following the 2013-14 season, it would have opened the door for him to end his career with another franchise.

Not extending Kobe meant running the risk of alienating the team's fanbase. The decision to hand him an extension of that size carries its own potentially severe ramifications, however.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

There's inherent risk in giving a 35-year-old fresh off Achilles tendon surgery more than $20 million per year through 2015-16. The Lakers learned that the hard way not long after Kobe signed the extension.

Only six games after making his season debut, the Black Mamba suffered another health-related setback. He fractured the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee on Dec. 17 against the Memphis Grizzlies and might not return until late February, per Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding.

What should L.A. fans expect upon Bryant's return? Legendary coach Phil Jackson, who coached the Lakers for more than a decade, remains optimistic.

In an interview on NBA TV, Jackson professed his faith that Kobe would be fine:

I think he'll be back. I think Kobe is going to be still a scorer. He can score. We saw Michael Jordan at the end of his career still scoring 20 points a game and he was 37-38, I think. Maybe he was 38-39, I can't really remember. But I think Kobe can still post up. I think he can still be a good screen-roll player. He's going to hit shots. He can still shoot the 3-pointer. I think he's really realistic about it. He's really pleased. He felt like, you know, 'I will come back.'

If Jackson's optimism proves misguided and Bryant isn't the same lethal double-team-drawing scorer, his contract will cripple the Lakers for the next two-and-a-half years.

Under the current collective bargaining agreement, franchises that commit $20-plus million to anyone not named LeBron James severely choke off their flexibility. Teams that exceed the luxury tax (set at $71.748 million in 2013-14) have a smaller mid-level exception at their disposal ($3.183 million compared to $5.15 million) and can't receive players in sign-and-trades except in extremely limited circumstances.

With Kobe set to earn $23.5 million in 2014-15 and the salary-cap line currently projected to be $62.9 million, per ESPN.com cap expert Larry Coon, his contract alone will soak up roughly 37 percent of the Lakers' cap space. (The luxury-tax line is projected to come in at $76.7 million, Coon reports.)

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 13:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers plays against Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks  at Madison Square Garden on December 13, 2012 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by d
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

In other words, as noted by Bill Plaschke of The Los Angeles Times, Kobe's extension will "likely prevent [the Lakers] from adding the free agents necessary to win another [championship] with him."

Why would a max-contract star like Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James commit his future to an aging Bryant and an otherwise uncertain core?

Jackson acknowledged the risks involved in the extension in his NBA TV interview but explained the Lakers' rationale:

They paid him more than I would have gone for, but what he's given to this organization, what he gives back, he brings a certain sense of, 'We're going to win!' You got to have a guy on the team that doesn't settle for second. That's one of the areas where the value of Kobe, even at this age, is terrific.

The value of ensuring that culture sticks around the team can't be underrated. However, because of Kobe's massive extension, the Lakers will be limited in their ability to build their core around him, whether through trades, free agency or the draft.

Over the next four seasons, barring any future trades, the Lakers will have a grand total of four draft picks. What happened to the other four? See below:

YearPickOwed to?Protections
2014Second roundMilwaukeeN/A
2015First roundPhoenixSelections 1-5 in 2015, 1-3 in 2016, 1-3 in 2017, unprotected in 2018
2015Second roundOrlandoSelections 31-40
2017First roundOrlandoSelections 1-5 in 2017, 1-5 in 2018, unprotected in 2019

That means the Lakers will be left to rely largely upon free agents willing to take a discount to play in Los Angeles. Seeing as the team likely won't be anywhere near championship contention for the next three seasons, that's a hard sell.

The Lakers' decision essentially boiled down to deciding what would be worse: infuriating their fans by letting Kobe walk or re-signing him to a bloated, cap-crippling extension. They opted for the latter.

The Celtics, on the other hand, took the former path.

Celtics Bid Adieu to Franchise Legends

Apr 26, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics forward/center Kevin Garnett (5) and small forward Paul Pierce (34) sit on the bench during the fourth quarter of game three of the first round of the 2013 NBA playoffs against the New York Knicks at TD Garden
Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

At the end of the 2012-13 season, the Celtics found themselves at a crossroads.

The team finished 41-40, third in the Atlantic Division, and met a swift demise at the hands of the New York Knicks in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

With Kevin Garnett floating the possibility of retirement and point guard Rajon Rondo on the mend from an ACL tear in January, the Celtics faced two choices. They could ride it out to the bitter end with their current core or ship out their valuable veteran pieces and build toward the future.

Unlike the Lakers, the Celtics chose the latter route, trading Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets on the night of the NBA draft for five mediocre players and three future first-round draft picks. The move drew immediate rancor from their most passionate fans, as evidenced by the reaction from Grantland's Bill Simmons:

"I thought this was 35 cents on the dollar," Simmons said. "There's no guarantee that any of those picks will get in the lottery."

Less than a year later, the trade looks more ingenious by the day.

The Nets appear to have righted the ship after stumbling out of the gate this season, but they're still barely clinging to a playoff spot in the miserable Eastern Conference. Pierce and Garnett have been shells of their former selves for most of the season.

Meanwhile, Boston's acquisition of three future first-round draft picks, along with the right to swap first-round picks with Brooklyn in 2017, sets the Celtics franchise up brilliantly for the next half-decade.

If the regular season ended on the morning of Feb. 5, Boston would receive the No. 19 pick in the 2014 draft from Brooklyn, per TankingForWiggins.com. Barring any lottery tomfoolery, the team would also hold the No. 4 pick (its own).

In the next five drafts, the Celtics could acquire as many as nine extra draft picks. Here's how:

2014First roundPhiladelphiaSelections 1-14 in 2014, 1-14 in 2015; turns into two second-round picks if not conveyed by then
2014First roundBrooklynLess favorable of its 2014 first-round pick and Atlanta's 2014 first-round pick
2015First roundL.A. ClippersN/A
2015Second roundSacramentoSelections 31-55 in 2015
2016First roundBrooklynN/A
2016Second roundMiamiN/A
2017First roundBrooklynBoston has the right to swap its first-round pick for Brooklyn's first-round pick; if Boston does, it must convey its 2017 second-round pick to Brooklyn (protected from 31-45)
2017Second roundSacramentoSelections 31-55 in 2017
2018First roundBrooklynN/A

Over that five-year span, Boston only owes a maximum of three second-round picks to other franchises.

If the Celtics add, say, Dante Exum and Willie Cauley-Stein to the core of Rondo, Jeff Green, Avery Bradley and Jared Sullinger, they'd soon be back on the path to title contention once more. Throw in three extra first-round picks over the next four seasons and things look even brighter in Boston.

Danny Ainge can't just kick back and watch a championship contender materialize out of thin air, however. With Rondo set to reach unrestricted free agency following the 2014-15 season, the Celtics could be less than a year-and-a-half away from losing the last core member of their 2007-08 title squad.

For his part, Ainge is toeing the line between expressing his admiration for Rondo and keeping a level head. On Jan. 23, he told a Boston radio station that the Celtics had offered Rondo a contract extension:

Rondo turned down the extension, per Baxter Holmes of the Boston Globe, but not necessarily because he wants out of Boston. The league's current collective bargaining agreement limits the length and value of extensions, which means it makes little sense for Rondo to ink a new deal before his current contract expires.

Per Coon, "veteran extensions are limited to four seasons, including the seasons remaining on the current contract." In other words, if Rondo signed an extension before the end of this season, it would only last an additional two years. The Celtics can also only offer him 107.5 percent of his current salary, which is likely far less than what he'd receive on the open market.

The mercurial point guard claims not to have thought much about the prospect of free agency, per Bleacher Report's Brian Robb, but told reporters at the end of January that he "may want to go through it."

To Ainge's credit, he doesn't sound all that panicked about that prospect.

"Nobody is 'the future of the franchise,' " Ainge told Holmes back in January. "A franchise is bigger than any one individual. But we love him. That's what [the extension offer] explains."

Steven Senne/Associated Press

The Rondo situation will dominate the headlines in Boston until it reaches a resolution, one way or the other. Ainge's quote about a franchise being "bigger than any one individual" is certainly telling, though.

While the Celtics sound ready to fight tooth-and-nail to retain Rondo, it also appears as though the team has a contingency plan in place if he decides to leave. The Celtics also wield the power between now and the 2015 trade deadline, as they could decide to move him in hopes of receiving a hefty return.

Depending on what happens with Rondo, the Celtics' books could clear up significantly following the 2014-15 season. Per Spotrac.com, Boston would have $31.2 million in cap space committed to Gerald Wallace, Keith Bogans, Vitor Faverani, Kelly Olynyk, Green and Sullinger, along with the yet-to-be-determined salaries for its 2014 draft picks.

It's far too early to know exactly where the 2015-16 salary cap will be set at this point. However, given the projections for the 2014-15 cap—$62.9 million is the most recent estimate, according to Coon—Boston could easily have $25-30 million in cap space heading into the 2015 offseason.

Between that potential cap room and their plethora of extra draft picks, the Celtics could be in the midst of a rebuild-on-steroids.

Looking Ahead

BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 17: Rajon Rondo #9 of the Boston Celtics looks on against the Los Angeles Lakers on January 17, 2014 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using th
Brian Babineau/Getty Images

Give the Celtics credit: Trading away two beloved superstars is never an easy decision, even if they're both well past their primes.

The Lakers couldn't bring themselves to do the same with Kobe. Hell, they're not even willing to part with Pau Gasol, whose contract expires following the 2013-14 season, without getting a king's ransom in return.

If the Lakers' ultimate goal is return to championship contention in the next few years, those decisions could easily come back to haunt them. Failing to get any assets in return for Gasol, in particular, would be an egregious mistake.

Both franchises are sorting their way through the unpleasantness of transitioning eras. The Celtics are simply doing a far superior job compared to their rivals in Los Angeles.



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