The Celtics and the Lakers are the bookends of NBA basketball. The league’s history is dipped in Red and the Celtic green. The league’s logo is a silhouette of Lakers legend Jerry West. The flagship franchises have combined to win half of the league’s 66 championships. They have an aggregate 52 NBA Finals appearances.
Eternal NBA rivals? Unquestionably. NBA equals? Not in the eyes of today’s superstars, who are more consumed with geography than history.
The Parishioners of the Parquet were once again reminded of the Celtics’ disadvantage relative to their Southern California archenemies last Friday, when the reigning best big man on the planet, Dwight Howard, was reeled in by the Lakers in a four-team trade. (Is it considered reeling in a big fish if the fish desperately wants out of the water, ignores its previous pledge to remain there for another season, and just jumps into the best-looking boat?)
In the dizzying deal that saw Howard follow the Shaquille O’Neal Trail from Orlando to Los Angeles, the Lakers gave up Andrew Bynum, Josh McRoberts, Christian Eyenga, a 2015 second-round pick, and a 2017 first-round pick. In return, they now have a core of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, and a 26-year-old Howard. It was the type of deal that wouldn’t pass muster in your fantasy league, but it is the harsh reality of the NBA, which is now broken down into can-have-it-alls, haves, have-no-shots, and have-no-clue (New York Knicks).
It’s also the type of deal for an in-his-prime NBA megastar that the Celtics aren’t able to make, despite their tradition and presence in a sports-obsessed major metropolitan market. LeBron James, Howard, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, and Blake Griffin aren’t walking through that door.
Boston is not an NBA destination. Howard would have had just as good a chance of lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy here as in Lakerland, but he would have rather donned his cape for Brooklyn than Boston. That’s all you need to know.
Traditionally inept and incompetent franchises such as the Nets and Clippers are regarded as more desirable “destinations” for today’s NBA superstar shopping for a new home than the sport’s all-time winningest franchise.
Players love the idea of playing for coach Doc Rivers, but they love warm weather, low taxes, glitz, glamour, models, and iconic rapper owners more than dear old Doc. Those players don’t see the Celtics in the same (spot) light as the Lakers, the Miami Heat, the Knicks, or the Dallas Mavericks.
This is more a reflection of the state of the NBA than it is the state of the Celtics, who have been a well-run, first-class organization under the leadership of Rivers, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, and owners Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca.
Ainge has had a brilliant offseason. Yes, Ray Allen absconded to Miami, but Ainge re-signed Kevin Garnett, Jeff Green, and Brandon Bass, signed veteran guard Jason Terry, and made a shrewd sign-and-trade for guard Courtney Lee to expand The Plan to season No. 6.
But Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak looks as smart as Stephen Hawking after he added Nash without giving up anything of substance and then swapped the petulant and mercurial second-best center in the game for the petulant and mercurial best center in the game, all while keeping his two best players from his two most recent title teams.
It’s not a fair fight. The Celtics, who lead the championship chase, 17-16, over the Lakers, can’t reload at the same rate and in the same way Los Angeles can, drawing stars to their organization like tourists to the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
If the NFL thrives on parsing out its talent across the league in the name of parity, the NBA thrives on hoarding it in a few player-preordained places in the name of monopoly.
The NBA lockout was supposed to fix all that. Remind me again what exactly was accomplished by the labor strife last fall, other than the loss of two months of basketball?
For all the tough talk from NBA owners, particularly the smaller-market faction that includes irascible Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, about fiscal responsibility and limiting the power of impetuous superstars to dictate the direction of the league, nothing has changed.
Howard left the Magic franchise at the altar, dictated whom he would date next, and there was nothing Orlando could do about it.
Don’t get me wrong. Players have a right to play where they want to, but if all the best players only want to play in a select few places, you can’t have a 30-team league.
Truthfully, basketball fans settled for a 66-game season not so balance could be restored to the league, but so that NBA owners had better balance sheets. The distribution of revenue shifted from 57 percent going to the players to between 49 and 51.
One could argue the Celtics are responsible for the trend of conglomerating talent. It was the union of Allen, Garnett, and Paul Pierce in 2007 that kicked off the era of the superteam. Perhaps they’re now paying the price with first Miami and now the Lakers standing in the way of Banner No. 18.
But the idea of the Lakers luring in-their-prime superstars out West predates both the New Big Three and the original.
Howard’s Laker landing continued a long history of Hollywood big-man heists, going back to Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaq (via free agency), and Gasol.
Back in 1975, Abdul-Jabbar forced his way out of Milwaukee and into Los Angeles. With the Lakers, tradition is served up like fast food — ready to order.
When the Celtics and Lakers meet Feb. 7 at TD Garden, they’ll be on the same court, but they’re not playing the same game.