Just four years ago they squared off in an epic seven-game NBA Finals, and two years before that tangled for the championship yet again. But right now both teams aren’t even competitive.
The Celtics are 19-36; fourth in the Atlantic Division. They’re on track to miss the playoffs for the first time in six years. The Lakers are 18-36; fourth in the Pacific Division. They’re on track to miss the playoffs for the first time in eight years.
Needless to say, both organizations are rebuilding. But their strategies to hike back up the mountain are distinctly different, and it’ll be interesting to see who reaches the top first.
After they were manhandled by the Knicks in last year's playoffs, the Celtics saw what lay ahead of them: a bunch of old, weary legs that could no longer carry a team through playoff rigors. They responded in the best way possible by trading Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets for Gerald Wallace (arguably the worst contract in basketball), a few short-term deals of little consequence and ALL THE DRAFT PICKS.
(To be more specific: first-round picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018. Boston also has the option to swap first-round picks with Brooklyn in 2017, should they so choose. The pick in 2014 will be the lower option between the Hawks and Nets.)
Under this Collective Bargaining Agreement, unprotected first-round picks are the most valuable asset any team can play with. Nothing offers as much team-wide flexibility, either via a trade or on the cap sheet. Rookie scale contracts are incredible, and striking oil on a talented mid to late first-rounder is an incredible score.
The Celtics also have Rajon Rondo, a franchise pillar in his prime, under contract for another season. It’s uncertain whether Rondo will command the max or merely a big-money four-year deal, but the Celtics have enough cap space to handle either scenario.
The rest of their roster is filled with unfulfilled talent in their early 20s, most notably Jared Sullinger, Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk. Bradley's is a restricted free agent this summer, so his pay grade will rise considerably, but Olynyk and Sullinger are both attractive players on the trade market. (Should Boston choose to stick with Sullinger, the young power forward may have All-Star potential.)
This summer they'll either use one or both of their first-round picks (one of which will be high in the lottery) or see what they can fetch on the trade market. All in all, the Celtics have placed themselves in excellent position to turn things around.
When that'll be hinges on the development of their current youngsters and future draft picks, and whether any superstars around the league become available in a blockbuster trade.
Los Angeles Lakers
As far as renovating a roster goes, the primary difference between Boston and Los Angeles is foresight. Two summers ago, the Lakers went all in on an aging four-man army: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol.
They gave up just about every asset they had to make it happen, including their first and second-round picks in 2013, this season’s second-round pick and their first-round picks in 2015 and 2017. (Kudos for keeping that 2014 first-round pick as rainy day insurance.)
The Lakers couldn’t have predicted last season to be the delirious nightmare it was. Nobody did. But at the time, there was still some risk involved in their dealings.
Nash, Bryant and Gasol weren’t young pups or close to their prime, and Howard entered the season with a player option hanging over his contract. He also underwent back surgery six months before opening night. There was no guarantee Los Angeles would be getting the same dominant player, and they didn’t.
The year began: Nash broke his leg, Gasol grumbled about his role and Bryant had a fantastic season (on offense) before tearing his Achilles right before the postseason. The Lakers were then swiftly humbled by San Antonio in a four game “series.”
They entered the offseason with a three-step plan: 1) re-sign Howard, 2) re-sign Howard, 3) re-sign Howard. The Lakers did not re-sign Howard.
To make a terrible situation worse, Los Angeles recently extended Bryant to a two-year, $48.5 million contract before catching sight of how his body would respond to a devastating Achilles injury suffered just seven months prior.
Bryant returned to action, and, right on cue, fractured the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee. The injury occurred about a week before Christmas, and the initial prognosis set Bryant out roughly six weeks. It’s been over nine weeks, and there’s still no timetable for his return.
Bryant will be 36 next season. His new contract is literally the exact opposite of ideal for a team looking to start over. (Not that the Lakers could trade Bryant if they really wanted to, the deal also includes a full no-trade clause.)
Business is business, and from the standpoint of Los Angeles needing its fan base to stick with them through upcoming chop, keeping Kobe Bryant happy is, well, necessary. But looking at it from a basketball perspective, making him the highest paid player in basketball is completely nonsensical.
The Lakers could have driven a harder bargain here, insisted that Kobe look in the mirror, accept his hoops mortality, and take a salary commensurate with his age and skill level. They could have thrown the cap sheet in his face and pressured him into a larger pay cut for the good of the team. They could have dared him to enter free agency, a move that would have alienated a fan base that adores Kobe as if he were a deity.
This is ultimately about an entire franchise’s outlook—not just Bryant—and predicting how soon before they’ll once again be competitive. To be honest, it’s very difficult to say. Los Angeles has several aforementioned factors working against it, but there are still a few in its favor.
“It’ll work out because they’re the Lakers!” should not be one of them. Many basketball fans in Boston shouted the same thing about their beloved Celtics in 1993, and look how that turned out.
What it all means
They have cap space, though. And a willingness and ability to pay exorbitant luxury tax bills once things begin to look on the up and up. Aside from Bryant’s hippopotamus deal, the team owes a withering Steve Nash $9.7 million next season. Phrasing this nicely, Mitch Kupchak really hopes Warrior Nash retires this summer.
Then there’s Robert Sacre’s league minimum deal, and Nick Young’s league minimum player option (that he’ll opt out of).
If they renounce Gasol, that’s about $35 million on the books next season. Only Bryant’s $25 million stands in 2015, when Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving (restricted), Roy Hibbert, Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rajon Rondo, Paul Millsap and Chandler Parsons enter free agency. Kevin Durant becomes unrestricted the following season, and by then should be the best player in the league.
Armed with sunshine, Bryant, whoever’s taken with their 2014 lottery pick and…that’s it, the Lakers will be fierce buyers in free agency over the next few summers. Short of them making that lottery pick available in a trade (either on draft night or a year from now), the Lakers have no tradable assets. Their future is tied into a game of free agency roulette.
But they aren’t the only one. Several teams are in a healthier boat. The Dallas Mavericks are the closest parallel in that they’re preparing to build around a player in his mid-30s.
The Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks reportedly light suitcases of money on fire during company retreats. Neither has the financial flexibility of L.A. and Dallas, but they definitely have money; they’ll always be lurking.
There's no correct way to rebuild in the NBA, but the one certainty is a need for multiple All-Stars. It doesn't matter how these players are secured, whether they're a draft pick, trade acquisition or high-profile signing in free agency.
The Celtics and Lakers are two proud organizations looking to get back on top. Both will stop at nothing to do so, but only one has kept more than one of those doors propped open. The Celtics will have more than one opportunity to resurrect their winning way because they understand how beneficial draft picks and young talent are.
The Lakers, on the other hand, set themselves back by entering their next era anchored to an aging, injured player. They're at the whim of a free agent choosing to sign in L.A, while Boston has more control of their own destiny.