GARY WASHBURN | ON BASKETBALL
Firstly, the Celtics-Lakers rivalry didn’t resemble yesteryear with the Celtics wearing their road greens and the Lakers wearing their Forum gold uniforms at TD Garden Wednesday night, a 107-96 win for Boston. That sight should have nauseated longtime fans of both teams.
Secondly, this rivalry is a ways from being restored, with the Lakers, who had won a combined 91 games over the past four seasons, experiencing roster shakeups, coaching changes, and ownership infighting.
Finally, after leaving the organization because of owner Jim Buss, Magic Johnson returned as president when Buss was fired by his sister, and he hired former super agent Rob Pelinka as the new GM.
The Lakers then had UCLA star and Southern California native Lonzo Ball fall into their hands with the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA Draft in June. But the deal that may help cement a resurgence is the trade that sent disgruntled D’Angelo Russell and the bloated contract of Timofey Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets for Brook Lopez and the rights to swingman Kyle Kuzma.
Kuzma, the 27th selection out of Utah, has turned into the steal of the draft, averaging 15 points per game entering Wednesday. And Lopez, in the final year of his contract, has turned into the stabilizing veteran center the team desperately needed.
“It’s probably one of the best rivalries in sports,” Kuzma said. “We don’t really like them, so it’s going to be a good rivalry going forward.”
The Lakers also brought back Brandon Ingram, Larry Nance Jr., Julius Randle, and Jordan Clarkson and the team is off to a solid start in the treacherous Western Conference. Johnson and Pelinka didn’t inherit coach Luke Walton, but they’ve been patient with the team’s growth and the philosophy for this once-proud organization is development first.
“To me that’s what I have been saying all year, winning games isn’t the most important thing for us right now,” Walton said. “Building habits, building an identity, which our guys are doing a great job of. They’re way further along in this early season than I thought we would be at this point. They have been giving a consistent effort on the defensive end, which is our No. 1 priority. Our guys have been great at that.”
On Wednesday, however, the Lakers appeared flat.
“[The Celtics] were ready for the fight and we weren’t,” Walton said. “We felt like the first quarter they punked us. They were bigger than us; they were stronger than us. We played hard enough from the second quarter to win, but we didn’t play smart enough — and against a good team, it’s near impossible that’s the type of game that you have.”
It’s rather difficult to hear the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers saying winning is not the No. 1 priority. But the franchise is building for long-term success in a conference filled with All-Stars and juggernauts. So this season may serve as more of a learning experience than an actual positive step forward measured in wins and losses.
“It’s nice, we want to win every game we play in, but that’s not the most important thing,” Walton said. “So we’ll make mistakes. We’ll learn from them on and off the court. This is our first road trip as a group. We’ve had nothing but one-day road trips so far. So by the end of this week I’d expect they’d learn more about the NBA and that process that we’re in right now.”
Process is a popular word among rebuilding teams — especially since the Philadelphia 76ers are beginning to reap the benefits of their five-year program of patience. The Lakers are an improved team but they won’t just wait until these youngsters develop into cornerstones, they are planning to make a big free agent splash next summer.
The Lakers have $53 million coming off their books in 2018 with a free-agent class that includes LeBron James, DeMarcus Cousins, and Paul George. The Lakers expect to get better quickly.
The NBA is unquestionably better when the Celtics, Lakers, and Knicks are in the title mix, and that trio hasn’t been significant at the same time in quite some time. What the Lakers are doing is quite similar to the Celtics’ plan of a few years ago: load lottery picks, sign selective free agents who can still play and understand their responsibility is to lead as well as win. and then wait for free agency.
Over the past three years, the Celtics were able to acquire Al Horford, Gordon Hayward, and Kyrie Irving to join a young, talented core. Los Angeles has always felt it was a premium free-agent destination but the Lakers have been spurned by top players over the past few years because of a lack of leadership and poor play.
Johnson brings instant credibility, much the way Larry Bird did in Indiana. Johnson understands that tossing dollars at free agents — such as predecessor Mitch Kupchak did in signing Mozgov and Luol Deng — was useless if there is no core built around them.
Magic is building that core and has made some astute decisions over the past few months to bring the Lakers back to respectability.
“It’s really fun for the simple fact that it’s a new era,” Kuzma said. “It’s been a couple of rough years in LA but Magic and Rob Pelinka came in and turned a lot of things around, it’s more vibrant around here from what I can tell. [It was tough] just from the outside looking in last year, a lot of young guys and it’s really optimistic. It’s always fun to be in that type of workplace.”
The rivalry isn’t restored yet, but it’s definitely on its way to being Magic again.
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