With 33 championships between them, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics are without a doubt the cream of the NBA crop. But after decades of consistent dominance, both franchises have fallen on hard times.
How hard, you ask? Last season saw the Lakers and Celtics miss the playoffs in the same year for just the second time ever. With both teams on the rebuilding path, that got us wondering: Which of the two has the best chance of nabbing its next championship?
Two of Bleacher Report's NBA columnists, Dan Favale and Jim Cavan (neither of whom are Lakers or Celtics loyalists), took up the debate. What follows are the fruits of the two's three-day email exchange.
This, to me, is really a case of what's going to be more effective: the Celtics' core or the Lakers' free-agent ambitions. By conventional rebuilding standards, Julius Randle is really L.A.’s only cornerstone. Perhaps Ed Davis sneaks his way in there, but even if he does that's rather unimpressive.
The Lakers' ability to effectively rebuild hinges on their ability to recruit free agents. Restructuring through free agency has its incentives—see the 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers—but at what point do the Lakers become appealing enough? It took LeBron James to render the Cavaliers real free-agency threats. The Lakers are in a similar situation.
Kobe Bryant isn't a selling point at this stage. That realistically means it could take until summer 2017 for the Lakers to land a big fish and start playing for something other than draft-pick retention.
This gives the Celtics a head start. They have a younger star in Rajon Rondo and an actual core to build around. To be sure, we don't know who Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk really are yet. But at its heart, having plenty of overlapping and unproven youngsters beats having nearly none at all.
Question is, do they actually believe in this core?
Investing a max contract in Rondo, given how the roster is currently structured, would be a huge mistake. And if they lose him—however justified his departure is—they lose all their star power.
They also lack the immediate financial flexibility to replace him; they could have close to $50 million on the books in 2015-16 even without him, per ShamSports. Jeff Green's and Gerald Wallace's contracts constrict them in ways the Lakers don't have to worry about.
They'll eventually reach a point where they have to make Bradley-like decisions with Sullinger, Olynyk and even Smart. Are any of them potential stars, or do the Celtics risk dooming themselves to mediocrity?
At first glance, the Lakers' blank slate is better than the Celtics' semi-full plate. Kevin Love's trade to the Cavaliers certainly hurt them, but Los Angeles' market mystique—with and without Bryant—is going to help more than most people realize.
Superstars win NBA championships. Armed with cap space, free from the worry of having to overpay an incumbent star for the next four to five years (Rondo), the Lakers are on a faster track to getting that star than the Celtics and, effectively, completing their rebuild.
If you're talking about the sheer pull of mystique, the Lakers and Celtics are on a plane apart from the rest of their peers. On this, my friend and I agree. But where Dan misses the mark is in assuming that L.A.'s superstar pull and cap space are more important than something in which Boston clearly has the edge: front-office competence.
Ever since the passing of longtime owner Jerry Buss, the Lakers have been something of a rudderless vessel—Kobe Bean Bryant’s $48.5 extension being exhibit A in the case.
Perhaps Jim Buss will eventually find his front-office voice. Perhaps last season—and the painful few in front of it—will help L.A.'s brain trust better identify the direction they want to go. But here's the thing: Boston, while outwardly haphazard, actually has a plan in place.
Like the Lakers, it starts with cap space. Lots of it, per ShamSports. In fact, as things stand right now, Boston only has $16 million committed for the 2015-16 season. And while the team is sure to exercise a number of its options (Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger being the most likely candidates), merely having that bounty of options puts them on a much sounder footing than their L.A. nemeses.
As for Rondo, I agree the Celtics see him as having one foot out the door. They drafted Marcus Smart for a reason, after all, and no matter what Ainge and head coach Brad Stevens might have you believe, they aren’t playing them in the same backcourt long-term.
Unless Rondo's willing to come back at a steep discount, my guess is Boston bids adieu to its mercurial floor general next summer. Even if Smart doesn't quite pan out, the C's will have more than enough cap space to chase an elite-level point guard if and when the time comes.
Boston might not boast Tinseltown’s Hollywood nightlife or SoCal sunshine. What they do have, now that the Lakers have lost their philosophical North Star in Jerry Buss, is a decided front-office advantage—from Danny Ainge down to Brad Stevens.
If teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat have taught us anything these past few years, it's that having talent in the boardroom is just as important as having it on the hardwood.
That a Celtics proponent like Jim (rightfully) points out the importance of cap space is what worries me most.
Kobe Bryant won't appeal to free agents interested in playing for the Lakers. His imminent departure is perhaps the team's greatest weapon. But the Celtics don't offer much more.
I, too, see Rajon Rondo leaving Boston. But without him, what are the Celtics selling prospective free agents on? Jared Sullinger? Avery Bradley? Smart himself? That's not much different than the Lakers using Julius Randle's potential ceiling to attract available superstars.
Often overlooked, too, is how flexible the Lakers really are. Next summer, or the summer after, the Celtics should be able to afford one first-rate addition if they play their cards right. However, the Lakers will have the ability to pursue two between 2015 and 2016 if they spend accordingly. They could sell LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul Millsap, Marc Gasol or Rondo himself on the prospect of teaming up with Kevin Durant is one year's time.
That's going to mean something.
The Celtics don't have that kind of flexibility. Sullinger will be eligible for an extension soon. Before you know it, so will Olynyk. The Celtics have to worry about paying those guys in addition to whatever star they might acquire.
It usually takes superstars to get superstars. Few all-world talents want to be the only all-world talent, left with only the hope another one arrives soon. If we're to assume neither the Lakers nor the Celtics will have that incumbent star to sell, which team is more likely to reel in new superstars: the Lakers, who will have the flexibility to add a second rather quickly, or the Celtics, who will be waiting for one of their up-and-comers to maybe, quite possibly, develop into that second star?
This rebuild Ainge is staging remains, at its core, unproven. He's done well acquiring draft picks, but he hasn't turned those selections into anyone substantial yet. Of all the prospects the Celtics have now, not one of them appear on the cusp of significantly turning Boston's fortunes around.
If this, in fact, comes down to both teams promising the delivery of something or someone not yet in their possession, I'm rolling with the party that has more immediate flexibility and, therefore, the means to turn things around in a more timely fashion: the Lakers.
I don't disagree that the Lakers stand to have more cap space—and thus an ability to attract more top-tier free agents—sooner than the Celtics. I just think they stand a much better chance of making the wrong decision about who they reel in.
This isn't about who can "turn it around" more quickly; it's about who can win a title first. While it might take years, and while the Lakers might well skyrocket back to relevance more quickly, I worry that said relevance will have been built on a faulty front-office foundation. For all the banners, this team has made terrible free-agent decisions before (Dwight Howard, anyone?).
Even if Boston’s youngsters don’t turn into stars overnight, they’ll boast more than enough in the way of redemptive promise to make for attractive trade pieces—perhaps in a deal to land a legitimate, proven star.
Pieces. Assets. Call them what you will, but Boston has recognized the best path forward lies in flexibility. And while cap space is certainly necessary to that equation, it isn't by itself sufficient.
We're obviously still waiting to see what the prospect crop will look like, but suffice it to say Boston—with five picks in next year's draft, per RealGM—should have even more intriguing prospects by the time training camp rolls around in 2015.
That's not simply collecting assets for the sake of itself; that's keeping with what's proven to be the most effective path to competitive relevance. Add Boston's fabled mystique to that equation, and you have a destination most should immediately recognize as easily the more promising and viable of the two.
In the end, Dan's biggest arguments in L.A.'s favor are 1) the bullion, and 2) the beaches. We've already discussed the first, but let's deal with No. 2 for a moment, shall we?
It's 2014. Kevin Love—a West Coast kid through and through—just forced his way to what looks to be a long-term deal to play in Cleveland, Ohio. Do you know what they used to call Cleveland? "The Mistake on the Lake." The Cuyahoga River once caught on fire, for crying out loud! It is not what we call a "destination city." And yet, here he is. Why? Because Cleveland is built to win.
Make no mistake: L.A. will always be an attractive destination, both for its tremendous basketball legacy and its quality of life off the court. Considered in the full context of how the modern NBA team should operate, L.A. is still far too dependent on cultural clout and cap space alone magically saving the day.
Drafting Smart reeks of uncertainty to me. While Rondo seems good as gone, why select his, for lack of a better word, clone to rebuild around? If the Celtics let Rondo walk, it will be because they don't believe he can effectively headline their pool of assets. What makes Smart so different?
Banking on the Celtics' ability to flip Smart—along with their other assets—into a cornerstone also feels counterintuitive. The time to do that is early, before ceilings are realized. Trading Smart three years down the line because of uneven performances equates to the Celtics slinging leftovers as five-star meals.
None of which means Smart, or any of his compadres, will go bust. Jim's argument that the Celtics have more developing assets is fair and, frankly, correct. But while the Lakers—and the entire NBA—witnessed firsthand how less-desirable markets can turn assets into a position of power (into Love), look at what the Celtics are now up against.
LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Love may not figure it out all at once, but assuming James is sincere in guaranteeing he'll retire in Cleveland, the Cavs—like the Miami Heat before them—are a team that will remain perched atop the conference totem pole for the next six-plus years.
The Western Conference is more wide-open. It's deeper, and thus harder to win, but it's also approaching a new dawn. The San Antonio Spurs will wind down sooner rather than later. Kevin Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder—thanks to shallow pockets—may have peaked; Durant himself could leave in 2016 if he hasn't won a title by then. That's going to matter.
It also, in a way, gives the Lakers more time to build from the ground up. Their draft-pick situation is in limbo these next few years, but once out of the commitment doldrums, the Celtics will still be chasing the uncatchable Cavaliers.
Finally, the Lakers have options outside cap space and historical awe. Their next two seasons may be largely fruitless, but the Celtics aren't looking at anything different—especially with James' Cavaliers' primed for lasting dominance.
Even if Boston executes its nebulous rebuild more quickly, the Lakers’ conference hierarchy—which, unlike that of their rivals, isn’t set in marble—makes their championship chances far more likely than Boston’s.
Regarding Cleveland: While its prolonged dominance feels like a foregone conclusion, there's a reason James opted for a two-year contract—he wants to keep his options open.
Point being, if Miami's Big Three taught us anything, it's that nothing in the NBA is permanent. If James wins a pair of titles for Cleveland, who's to say he won't take on an altogether different challenge?
Moreover, I don't think you're giving nearly enough credit to just how deep the West really is. As you stated earlier, stars go to play with other stars, and the Western Conference is loaded with them. To my mind, I don't see the West relinquishing hemispheric hegemony anytime soon. That is bad news for the Forum Blue and Gold.
Getting back to Boston's rebuilding efforts, allow me to flip my own logic on its head for a moment and assume Rondo actually stays. By all accounts, his recovery from injury has gone pretty smoothly. Unlike Derrick Rose, Rondo has never been a point guard who relies almost exclusively on explosive athleticism.
If you're a top-tier NBA talent staring down the barrel of free agency, who would you rather team up with: Another alpha-dog scorer or a player proven to make everyone around him better? Even if you're getting a Rondo at 85 percent, that's basically the Rondo we saw in the 2008 Finals, before he really rose up the league ranks.
Now, I still think there's a good chance Rondo bolts. But if Ainge is hammering away at the phones the way I think he is, gauging the temperatures of every first- and second-tier free-agent star from now until 2020, Rondo has to entertain the possibility of sticking around.
With as many assets as Boston has, all Ainge would have to do is orchestrate a trade for a disgruntled star (say, DeMarcus Cousins), and use the resulting Rondo-Player X core to entice a third star—Durant, for instance—to join the fray in free agency.
Who will win an NBA championship first, the Celtics or the Lakers?
Easier said than done? Sure. But unlike Jim Buss, Ainge has proven he can strike the game-changing deal while the iron is hot.
Is L.A. just as hell-bent on pulling themselves up by their basketball bootstraps? Absolutely. I fully expect the Lakers to reel in a star or two at some point in the next two or three years.
Rather, it's in giving up what little the Lakers already have in order to attract those stars and—more importantly—what the Lakers will have left to surround them, that makes L.A., to my mind, much further from nabbing banner No. 17 than the Celtics are from No. 18.
So, where do you stand? Does L.A.'s impending cap space make it more likely to reel in title-ready talent? Or will Boston's more coherent rebuilding plan prove the sounder path to a championship?
Feel free to continue the discussion down in the comments section. But as always, please be respectful.