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Lakers, Celtics Renewing Historic Rivalry with Battle for Prospects at NBA Draft

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Lakers, Celtics Renewing Historic Rivalry with Battle for Prospects at NBA Draft
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LOS ANGELES—Amid the backdrop of a Celtics-Lakers rivalry that has fallen into disrepair on the court, Thursday night will have to serve as the latest showdown.

After Green won the 2008 NBA Finals and Gold bounced back for consecutive titles in 2009 and 2010, it's now 2014…and Boston and L.A. have both had to sit out the entire playoffs and wait for the NBA draft to get back some of the spotlight.

The Celtics pick sixth and the Lakers seventh, meaning it's entirely possible that the C's will take the prospect whom the Lakers would prefermaybe even potential future star Joel Embiid.

It's also possible that a prospect such as longtime Lakers fan Julius Randle would rather play for the Lakers (for whom he had a sensational workout) than the Celtics—and perhaps to that end he decided not to work out for the Celtics a second time Tuesday. (ESPN's Chad Ford tweeted that Randle skipped Boston on Tuesday to meet with GQ Magazine in New York. Randle told Kentucky Sports Radio he skipped it because he'd already worked out for the Celtics, not because of GQ.). It's also possible, just speculating, that Randle has already been told the Utah Jazz have promised to take him at No. 5.

The Celtics and Lakers have been working out many of the same playersmost prominently, point guard Marcus Smart and forwards Noah Vonleh, Aaron Gordon and Randlewith both clubs highly intrigued by the possibility that potential No. 1 overall pick Embiid, stock falling with his foot fracture, might be worth the gamble anyway as a future superstar center.

They both are also eyeing one of the few current superstar big men who is looking for a future home—Kevin Love—and trying to figure out how to get him. The Celtics' efforts appear focused on constructing a trade this offseason while the Lakers more likely are waiting for 2015 free agency.

It remains to be seen whether Celtics president Danny Ainge, who played on Boston's championship teams in 1984 and '86, or Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, who was on the Lakers' title team in '85, gets his team back to an elite level fastest.

What is there for Ainge and Kupchak to do Thursday hinges on what Cleveland, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Orlando and Utah do ahead of them—and what trades do or don't go down.

The Lakers also just might like Randle more than the Celtics, and the Celtics might like Smart (widely reported to have impressed them) a little more than the Lakers. Vonleh has long been on both clubs' radar, with Gordon impressing in recent workouts in which the Lakers and Celtics both asked him to guard NCAA leading scorer Doug McDermott.

Rob Foldy/Getty Images
Julius Randle has demonstrated a more expansive offensive game in predraft workouts than the low-post work he was known for at Kentucky.

For the Lakers, the focus has been on who has the upside to be star in this league, not just a good player.

It's not a science, but here's a personal projection of upside (in order) of all guys besides Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, among the top eight the Lakers really liked as far as back as the draft lottery: Embiid, Dante Exum, Vonleh, Randle, Smart, Gordon.

The idea that the 6'9” Randle doesn't have the upside of the others has faded with the realization that he can do a lot more than the banging and close-in shooting he did at Kentucky. Randle is more athletic than many realize, and he might have NBA three-point range already.

Smart impressed with his intensity in the Lakers' two workouts with him, and the same went for his workouts elsewhere, including Boston. The question for a GM is whether you can depend on a guard who has definite leadership qualities but a shaky shot. Smart acknowledged he has to improve his jumper to keep every defense from going under on screens.

Smart's "competitive level," which he called his greatest strength, is so strong that Boston is interested in him despite already having poor-shooting Rajon Rondo at point guard. Of course, Rondo is also set to become a free agent next year.

Gone from Boston already are the leaders Rondo shared the floor with in those NBA Finals against the Lakers—with the Celtics jettisoning Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett (and losing Ray Allen in free agency to the Miami Heat) and embracing the total rebuild more than the Lakers have with Kobe Bryant.

Both clubs already learned in the 1990s that it's tough to be perennial powers, but they're approaching things differently now. The Lakers don't have the 10 first-round picks in five years that Boston does, including the sixth and 17th this season, as precious rebuilding tools or trade chips. But the Lakers, who gave up future picks to invest in the failed Dwight Howard-Steve Nash partnership, do have salary-cap space and the intention of overhauling via free agency.

It wasn't that long ago that the rivals were going head to head as they tried to get into the NBA Finals.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
Marcus Smart impressed scouts in both L.A. and Boston with his intensity in predraft workouts.

Their front-office duel then centered on Kevin Garnett, whom both teams wanted to acquire from Minnesota. While the Lakers felt they had a superior offer of Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom, L.A. was snubbed as Timberwolves vice president Kevin McHale chose to deal with his old Celtics teammate Ainge for Al Jefferson.

(Side note: From the cutting-room floor of my column on Bryant's legendary 1996 predraft workout for the Lakers: then-Lakers assistant coach Larry Drew said when it was over: "That guy's the truth!" Ironic, considering the Bryant workout was being held at Pierce's home gym at Inglewood High school—but Pierce wouldn't be nicknamed "The Truth" by Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal until 2001.)

Now the Celtics and Lakers are lining up back-to-back in the draft, and if something happens like Embiid dropping to Boston and going on to stardom, or Ainge using his higher pick to land Love in a trade and lock him into Boston long term, it'll be another memorable footnote in the historic rivalry.

Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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