In the 1960s it was Bill Russell and John Havlicek vs. Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. Then in the 80’s it was Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson. At the turn of the century it was Paul Pierce vs. Kobe Bryant. Last night it was Avery Bradley vs. Wayne Ellington.
Last night the two teams met in Los Angeles with the Lakers winning 118-110 in overtime. Although this game sparked the interest of the few who watched it, it’s a tough time for the famed Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers’ rivalry. How has the most historical east coast verse west coast match-up fallen so fast from NBA greatness to insignificant competition? It was the highlight of the season for Celtics fans to walk into the Garden cheering “Beat LA!” The Lakers’ faithful would file into the Forum and Staples Center to heckle the ballers in green. Now those who attend the game have to purchase a program book just to study the line-ups. Times have changed in the league and there is no bigger evidence of that than the Celtics-Lakers rivalry.
After Larry Bird’s knees had buckled for the final time and Magic had hung his jersey in the rafters, both franchises went through a rebuilding phase. In the 1990s only the Lakers made a NBA Finals appearance, loosing in 1991 to the Chicago Bulls. Then in middle of the decade the future of the franchises would change for the better. In 1996 L.A. signed center Shaquille O’Neil and traded for Kobe Bryant. Two years later the Celtics signed future captain Paul Pierce, who ironically grew up a Lakers’ fan in Inglewood, California.
The Lakers went on to win three titles from 2000-20002 with O’Neil and Bryant. Across the country the Celtics had made progress but hadn’t returned to the finals since 1986. In 2008 they finally turned the fortune around with the signing of perennial All-Stars and future Hall of Famer’s Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Boston then put together one of the best regular season records in the league’s history. With no surprise to historians, the Celtics and Lakers would meet once again in the NBA Finals. The Celtics won the series 4-2. Two years later they met again in a game 7, this time with the Lakers getting the upper hand and winning the championship. It seemed as if the rivalry was as hot as ever. They met in the Finals two of the last three years with each team winning once. The Lakers then had 16 championships, one short of the Celtics’ record 17.
The rivalry was back. The Celtics were the best in the East, the Lakers the best in West. Old school basketball fans were watching again. Then, the fourth lockout in NBA history happened. The regular season was cut short from 82 to 66 games. The time between those games were shorter as the season started 55 days late. It was a welcomed extended break for the veterans of these two teams who had played two months past the regular season all the way to mid-June in the Finals the season before. It also turned out to have a negative impact on both teams. Veterans had learned over the past three seasons how to coast through the regular season and then turn it up in the playoffs. There was no room for that in a lockout shortened season. It’s hard to go through the motions when you’re playing 66 games in 124 days. There was no time for injuries or shooting slumps. The Lakers would go on to win 41 games and loose in the Western Conference semi-finals and the Celtics would win 39 and loose to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. Neither team has been back to the NBA Finals since the lockout happened.
The next season the Celtics won 40 games and lost in the first round of the playoffs. Ray Allen had left the team and jetted south to the Miami Heat. The Celtics attempted to replace him with Courtney Lee, which was a disaster. The Lakers won 45 games with the help of their All-Star additions Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, who were a bigger impact on the payroll than then court. They were swept in the first round.
That summer of 2014 proved to be a pivotal turning point for both franchises, and their fan bases, as the Boston Celtics traded Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry and head coach Doc Rivers, replacing them with Gerald Wallace, and Kris Humphries. The Lakers lost Dwight Howard in free agency, traded Steve Blake and waived Metta World Peace, formerly known as Ron Artest. Aside from Rajon Rondo and Kobe Bryant, there was no recognizeable figured from those Finals teams.
The Celtics now currently sit 12 games below .500 but only 2 games out from the playoff race while the Lakers are 28 games below the even mark and an embarrassing 17 games out of the post season. It is a superstar’s league and with the exception of the always injured Bryant, both teams have traded away their superstars.
The Boston Celtics entered the 2008 season with three aging veterans, Pierce, Garnett and Allen, knowing it was a small window for championships. They won in 2008 and then the pieces slowly started falling apart. Instead of attracting other big name players, the Celtics tried their hand with mid level players such as Jeff Green to compliment point guard Rajon Rondo. The Lakers have had a similar approach, bringing in the likes of Nick Young and Chris Kaman to play alongside Kobe Bryant. It hasn’t work, nor will it work.
There is no scientific mystery to success in this league. In every season since 1999, the NBA Finals has featured a team led by Shaquille O’Neil, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan or LeBron James. You could make the case those are the four most dynamic players in that 16-year stretch. It’s also important to note that Michael Jordan and the Bulls were in 6 of the 8 NBA Finals from 1991-1998. It’s simple, without a superstar on the roster, a guy who at anytime could be the best player in the NBA, teams cannot win in this sport.
The Celtics and Lakers have the history to attract a premier athlete. Visiting players walk onto the Garden or Staples Center floor and get lost in the sight of so many championship banners. They are intriguing places to place. Who wouldn’t want to have Magic Johnson or JoJo White hanging around the practice facility to ask advice? The franchises have loyal fans and beautiful venues. Why won’t they bring in these players? They simply can’t afford to.
For the Lakers, they’ve tried to work around Kobe Bryant’s contract. This season he is due $23,500,000, the highest salary in the league. The salary cap in the League is $63,065,000. To build a team with the remaining $38,065,000 will certainly be challenging, especially considering Steve Nash is still being paid over $9 million to do physical therapy. Next year the Lakers have $47,810,509 on the books for only 8 players including Nick Young, Ed Davis and Julius Randle. They will have roughly $24 million to spend judging by their recent payrolls with cap hits. What superstar could they bring in play with Kobe, while filling in another six positions, for that price?
The Boston Celtics have a payroll this season of $62,272,570 with the highest paid athlete being Gerald Wallace at $10,105,855 and averaging 0.7 ppg and 1.0 rpg. Next season they have ten players signed for $41,354,122, meaning they will have somewhere around $21 million to spend to fill 6 roster spots. They will have guards Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and James Young on the books for the next four years so the main focus is a superstar center or a forward.
It’s only a rivalry if both sides are at the top of their conference and it might be a long time until they are back there. With management barely having enough money to fill out a roster around Bryant’s enormous contract, the Lakers may need to wait until he retires from the game of basketball and use that money wisely. If this were the Kobe Bryant of the early 2000s, he’d be worth half of the team’s salary cap, but not now. Not even close.
For the Boston Celtics, using a sixth of their payroll on Gerald Wallace, who only gets off the bench to high five teammates, is crippling the ability to spend money on a superstar. Fortunately for them, the four guards mentioned above will be paid combined $20 million dollars. They seem to be in a better position than the Lakers with their payrolls.
Russell and Chamberlain won’t be walking through the door and neither will Bird or Johnson. For the time being we will be forced to watch Bradley and Ellington, Bass and Hill. The names aren’t sexy, the stats are exciting and the teams aren’t winning. A series of overpriced athletes, bad signings and the highest paid athlete in the league have both franchises in a stand still until contracts expire and money is freed up.
Until then, it’s all hoop dreams.
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