Since the two met in the 2010 Finals, the Celtics and Lakers have taken very different paths. They straddled together the same line between contention and irrelevancy for a few seasons as aging teams clinging to past glories. Los Angeles would make one last gasp at building a super team with Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. Boston would make a valiant run at LeBron James and the Heat, but the team would later make the tough decision of parting with its vets and rebuilding from scratch in 2013. And that's where their fates have split.
Over the last three years, Boston has slowly but surely rebuilt from the ground up. Danny Ainge has made a flurry of savvy moves, including last year's roster turnover that included a franchise-record 27 players to wear Celtic green in one season. Sure, he hasn't delivered the fireworks that everybody expected, and even he says that the team is still looking for that transcendent talent to be the next face of the franchise. But fireworks are fleeting. They can be loud and ostentatious but are often gone in a flash. Ainge has flirted with making a splash but has erred on the side of caution so far.
In lieu of spectacle, Ainge's biggest move has been hiring Brad Stevens. It wasn't flashy at the time, but he deliberately targeted someone that could shepherd a young team through the difficult process of development. Together, they've had laser focus on what Celtics basketball will look like in the future. Stevens has talked about "finding guys that might have a chip on their shoulder," and Ainge has consistently delivered by turning assets, expiring contracts, and draft picks into building blocks. Boston has increased its win total from 25 to 40 to 48 in their tenure together and won their first playoff games since 2013. Think of how far we've come since Ainge and Stevens were introducing Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, and Keith Bogans to Celtics fans. Danny has traded for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, and Jonas Jerebko, signed Amir Johnson and Evan Turner, and drafted Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk.
Los Angeles, on the other hand, has floundered miserably. Whether it's been Mitch Kupchak's inability to flip valuable players like Pau Gasol or Dwight Howard into future commodities, or attract free agents with a PowerPoint presentation on marketing opportunities in LA, or wasting an entire season on the ego of Kobe Bryant, the Lakers have suffered dearly from their own bravado and incompetence. They do deserve some credit for keeping Kobe in the purple and gold for his entire career; it was a tough decision for Ainge to send Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn (and to his credit, a tough call for KG to lift his no-trade clause), and one that many loyal Celtics fans would not have made, but it's paved the way for the future. The Celtics have endured that emotional loss and moved forward, while the once-proud Lakers have turned into professional tankers, and it hasn't been pretty.
Strangely, some have argued that the Lakers are actually ahead of the Celtics in the rebuilding process. The soap opera of their management situation and the tabloid scandal that rocked their locker room aside, they might have something of a future after posting two of the worst seasons in franchise history. With four potential stars (Jordan Clarkson, D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, and this summer's top-3 draft pick), they're well on their way to making the Lakers great again. By firing Byron Scott on Sunday and clearing the deck for a new coach, they can distance themselves from recent failure like nothing happened.
I'm not buying it.
The criticism may seem harsh, but so many of their problems have been self-inflicted. The Lakers of late are an organization that put the cart before the horse, the promise of stardom ahead of actually winning, and entertainment over substance. With Jim Buss's self-imposed timeline of a Lakers' 2017 playoff berth out there, I wouldn't be surprised if he and Kupchak make a few rash decisions over the next couple of weeks and months that could potentially set the franchise back even further. There's no doubt in my mind that they'll spend another summer spinning their wheels and trying to court Kevin Durant and LeBron James without keeping in mind the age profile of their current roster. They'll miss opportunities in signing the next Isaiah Thomas (who wanted to be a Laker) and face another offseason of failure.
The rumors are that Buss is partial to Luke Walton as the Lakers' next head coach, and on the surface, that seems like a great hire. He's got Laker roots as a former player, and at 36, he's young enough to identify with their millennial roster. Walton spearheaded Golden State's early season efforts to reach 73 wins while Steve Kerr recovered from back surgery, and that's an impressive entry on his resume, but let's be clear: this was a championship team that hadn't changed much personnel since lifting the Larry O'Brien. Taking over the Lakers is a monumental task, and with an unstable front office, it could be recipe for disaster.
The Lakers debacle makes me happy that I'm a Celtics fan. This has been one of my favorite seasons, and watching our rival struggle really puts everything into perspective. Like Los Angeles, Boston will have a lot of options going into the draft and free agency. I love this team, but if we're being honest, who knows who will be on the roster in October? But I do know this: the Celtics have an identity. We've seen it in the last two games in the Garden and, hopefully, more tonight and Thursday and maybe even next week against the Cavaliers. As good as Danny Ainge has been about leaving no stone unturned when it comes to asset management, and as skilled as Brad Stevens has been maximizing his talent, they don't get enough credit for establishing the identity of this team. That identity doesn't just win games, but it makes the Celtics an attractive free-agent destination this summer. Depending on if the ping pong balls fall in their favor, the Lakers could land Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram in the draft, and that fortune could speed up their rebuild. In contrast, instead of relying on luck, Ainge and Stevens have rebuilt the culture of the franchise and made Boston a place you want to go to, not have to go to.
It's possible we'll see another Lakers-Celtics showdown down the road, and the last couple of years will just be a prelude to those Finals. The Lakers, with all their glitz and glamor, could take a shortcut in their rebuild and get there just as quick as us, but like the saying goes, getting there is half the fun. The Brad Stevens-Danny Ainge era has been awesome, and I wouldn't trade it for all the first-round picks in the world.
Let's go, Celtics.