A Path Not Taken: the Celts & Lakers rebuilds, in perspective

Southern California, March 2017. The Los Angeles Lakers, envy of the league, sit poised to return to true contention after a record turn-around many have called the model rebuild, having offloaded aging stars Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, and Pau Gasol to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries, and Gerald Wallace plus two first round picks in 2014 and 2016, used to select Julius Randle and Jamal Murray. The deal, widely seen as one of the most lopsided in modern NBA history, did not work out the way General Manager Billy King would have liked, reportedly due to pressure from owner Mikhail Prokhorov to make a big splash in a hurry. 

However, it has been working like a charm in Los Angeles. Under new coach Mike D'Antoni, Williams went off on a league-leading assist tear, unlocking shooting prowess from the team's new, young core of Kent Bazemore, Nick Young, and Wesley Johnson, with Lopez surprising many around the league with a complimentary stroke from the 5 beyond the arc consistent enough that the team, while truly awful on defense, led the league in scoring that first year. It would send a team many thought were destined to at least a year or two in the lottery directly back to a surprise playoff berth and 42-40 record.

Lakers fans rejoiced in their success, to the great consternation of Boston Celtics fans everywhere, who watched their general manager cling to his aging championship core like it was some similarly valuable pile of assets, unwilling to make a move because of the erroneous esteem he held their contracts to possess, even if each year that passed returned a half-dozen fewer wins and an earlier-round playoff exit. The situation, exacerbated by a Dwight Howard desperation signing that just didn't work out, seemed to have no solution in the near-term, and voices were growing for Danny Ainge's ouster. Of course, the price of the success enjoyed by Lakers fans was watching an aging Kobe languish on the east coast, surrounded by a frightfully mismanaged team owned by a billionaire with no concept of team-building, but the sting of his departure was no doubt softened by their current success.

You can wake up from this nightmare of sorts now, but you get my point. Skill in management is crucial, but never discount the impact of both timing and luck - two things you can't control. Ainge is rightfully praised for pulling off what, in retrospect, was one of the best deals ever made in the league for the Celtics, but it could have gone very different. Of course, the scenario I described above is so unlikely it's really only an academic thought experiment, but it's also a realistic counterfactual based on what actually did happen. The Celtics are where they are because they not only operated with a forward-thinking (rather than win-now) mentality, but also because they had an incredibly lucky window of opportunity that came to them from waiting to make the right move when the timing favored their plans, rather than catering to fans and retaining the services of beloved players to keep butts in seats. It didn't have to play out that way, though, by any means.

Loyalty, it seems, is contextual - is your loyalty to the players, the fans, the club's winning tradition, or a balancing act between them all? Clinging to the past even a moment too long could have had devastating effects, and it might have again, if we're talking the recent past. Context matters, and the long view is probably the right move - unless, of course, it's not. Many of us, tantalized with the possibility of Banner 18 flying over our heads, were ready to pull the trigger on a big move at the trade deadline. It's not inconceivable that move could have turned out to be another Bob McAdoo trade, without a Red Auerbach to do the impossible and make it whole again. What if we had sold the farm to bring Paul George to Boston, only to see him walk to the Lakers a year later in free agency? We laugh, but it very well might have happened had Danny had an itchy trigger finger.

The current situation is not without risk, either. Boston is banking on either the draft now, which it has had very average (read: not ideal) results with, or on moving picks and contracts for one of the same high-profile targets (please, not George, knowing what we know now) mentioned in the last year or so, on signing a big name free agent over the summer they aren't even certain they will have room for, or some combination of these strategies. If you stop thinking about banners for a second, you may notice there's a LOT of risk in these potential paths, too.

At this moment, it is the Celtics who are the darling of the league, sitting on the mountain of assets with the story-book turnaround rebuild, sitting firmly in second place in the East, while the Lakers are second worst in the West, hoping they do poorly enough to retain their first round pick, which will convey to the Philadelphia 76ers if it falls below the top-three protection it currently has. Such a loss could potentially aid Boston, if it were able to use what will likely be a higher pick - maybe even first - to trade back to get multiple high lottery picks in a range of players perhaps better suited to its needs (rebounding and shooting).

It's also worth noting Boston's odds suggest very good odds such a pick is outside the top three (39.5%, actually), and that even if it is a top-three pick, you have close to 40% odds such a player may not become a star anyway. Throw in the fact that Brooklyn has new management from one of the best management teams in the league (the San Antonio Spurs), loads of cap room in a league flush with overpriced deals from the cap spike last summer, and two quality starters (Brook Lopez and Jeremy Lin) on multi-year deals to build around (translation: this team will be good enough by next season that it may actually only be the fourth or fifth-worst team in the league, bringing down the value of the 2018 Brooklyn pick).

Add to that fact it's really looking like the Lakers finally have competent-if-not-great management in Rob Pelinka  (the jury is still out on Magic Johnson, though it doesn't look good), a great young coach in Luke Walton, and may actually, realistically not only keep their pick (Lonzo Ball seems destined for the Lakers from a purely narrative perspective), only to see what has actually shaped into a promising young core (despite some bumbling moves by Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak) get free reinforcements in free agency from one of the most promising young talents in the league in one Paul George.

Perhaps Laker exceptionalism isn't dead - just dormant, sith-like, waiting for the right moment to rise again and strike at its old foe. Perhaps the age-old rivalry is about to be reborn - unexpectedly, suddenly - from the ashes, as the basketball gods resume their ancient order across the league a season or two from now as the Lakers complete an equally improbably rebuild. Or perhaps we'll simply see another three years of the Cleveland Cavaliers trying to impede the ascendant Golden State Warriors from becoming a LeBron-tainting dynasty - who knows? Right now, anything seems possible, and only one thing seems unchanged:

Beat L.A.

For more stories about the Los Angeles Lakers on CelticsLife, click here. For more by Justin, click here.

Image via crosko42/Real GM
Data via basketball-reference.com
Thanks to @altonncf for the yellow-tinted glasses loan
Follow Justin at @justinquinnn