If you are a Los Angeles Lakers fan, you are obliged to detest the Boston Celtics.
You do not wear green unless it is St. Patricks Day. Even doing that is uncomfortable. When St. Patty's does arrive, and you embark upon your voyage to get hammered with your friends, it is pertinent to understand that the only green jersey you can even think about donning is a classic Seattle Supersonics jersey. You can rep some Payton or Kemp, but no Celtics, ever.
However, the current Boston Celtics are the only beacon of hope for the current makeup of the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers are coming off of consecutive second round knockouts. The organization that vies for championships, 31 NBA Finals appearances in 65 seasons, is currently stuck in a mire. The Lakers won their 16th title in 2010, but to many, that seems like eons ago.
So, has the window closed on this Lakers' team?
Since the Pau Gasol trade, the Lakers have been to the Finals three times. However, those appearances all came in the first three years of this current five year run. Disappointment has stung LA for the past two years. The Lakers burned out against the Dallas Mavericks last season. Kobe looked old and was constantly getting his knee drained. Pau played the worst basketball of his career. Bynum wasn't a factor. Dallas swept LA and went on to win the championship.
This season, the Lakers' organization underwent a drastic overhaul. Anyone who ever spoke to Phil Jackson was shipped out. Anyone who mentioned the triangle offense was avoided. Even the employees of Staples Center were fired and replaced. Mike Brown was brought in to change the direction and philosophy of the team, yet his hire came without any prior discussion with Kobe Bryant. Seriously, the organization decided to hire a coach that would lead Kobe throughout his final years in the NBA without even discussing the option with the greatest Lakers player of all time. Not exactly the best method to initiate a new direction.
Don't forget about the Chris Paul debacle either. David Stern effectively thwarted the future of Los Angeles Lakers' basketball by vetoing the Chris Paul trade. In doing so, Stern denied the Lakers another decade of excellence with CP3 leading the way. The ramifications of the failed trade ran deep. Lamar Odom instantly felt betrayed and demanded a trade. LA let him go for absolutely nothing. Lamar failed miserably this season in Dallas, but who knows how he would have played in LA. Pau Gasol displayed maturity and came to work every day, but, despite his professionalism, his play really struggled until after the trade deadline. Once the deadline passed, Pau was able to play with confidence and resume his status as an elite big man.
Despite the drastic shifts within the organization, the Lakers entered the playoffs as potential title contenders. Kobe and Mike seemed to get along well as coach Brown earned Kobe's trust and respect with his constant dedication to his craft. Kobe responded with a successful season that nearly led to a scoring championship following his Orthokine surgery in Germany. Mike Brown unleashed Andrew Bynum for the first time by utilizing Bynum in a fashion that Phil Jackson never did. In doing so, Bynum made his first All-Star appearance this season. Bynum's emergence is a direct result of Mike Brown featuring him and trusting him. Phil never trusted Bynum in a big spot. Phil always went with Lamar to close out the fourth quarter. With Kobe still thriving in his prime, Bynum was not expected, or asked, to be a dominant factor during the Jackson tenure. This season, Bynum showed flashes of brilliance. However, he also had many head scratching moments of immaturity, as well as a knack for disappearing in big games. Overall, the Lakers finished the regular season with the third seed and a 41-25 record.
Now the future lies with Andrew Bynum. Such a proposition can strike fear into the heart of every Lakers' fan. We all know how great Bynum is on occasion, but we all understand that the key word is "occasion." Bynum fails to bring his best every single game. He just does. The greatest attribute of Kobe Bryant is that he is a grinder. Kobe grinds out the same game every single night. No matter what, Kobe gets his shots, and his points. Kobe's impact is always tangible. For the Lakers to succeed, Bynum needs to provide consistency.
Despite the doom and gloom of this season's flame out, the reality of the team is that the current construct of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum should have enough skill to carry the Lakers to another deep postseason run. The Lakers came two Kevin Durant shots away from moving into the Western Conference Finals. Despite the series defeat to the heavily favored Thunder, the Lakers should look at this season as a success. LA nearly toppled a foe that will look to contend in the West for the next decade. LA can play with OKC. They came up short, but LA can hang with OKC. Just look at Boston. The Celtics currently are in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat. With the series tied at 2-2, the Celtics are two wins away from making another Finals appearance. Two wins! Even if Boston loses the series, the Celtics should serve as hope and inspiration for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Both the Celtics and the Lakers have enjoyed considerable success since 2008. The Celtics capitalized on the incarnation of the "Big Three" to win the title in '08 over the Lakers. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen led the biggest turnaround in NBA history, as Boston improved by 42 games. In '09, Boston started the season 27-2, however an injury to Kevin Garnett's knee derailed the season. The Celtics finished 62-20, but they lost to the Orlando Magic in the second round of the playoffs. The Lakers would go on to defeat Orlando in the Finals. In '10, the Celtics came out hot once again. Boston started the season 23-5. However, age caught up to Boston, and Doc Rivers limited the minutes of the big three as Boston sputtered to a 27-27 finish. The Celtics finished the season with the fourth seed in the East and a 50-32 record.
Despite the unfavorable seeding, the Celtics knocked out Miami in five, upset the top seeded LeBron-led Cavaliers in six, and then dethroned the returning Eastern Conference Champion Magic in six games. Boston took the Lakers to seven games in the Finals, but LA eked out the victory for the '10 championship. In 2011, the Celtics revamped their roster and traded away their defensive stalwart, Kendrick Perkins. The Perkins trade crippled the season. Boston was 41-14 before the trade, but they finished the season 15-12. Boston entered the playoffs as a third seed with a 56-26 record. Boston swept the Knicks, but were bounced out by the new "Big Three" of Miami in five games. This season, Boston finished with the fourth seed and a 39-27 record. Despite struggling with age and injuries, Boston defeated the Hawks in six, eked out the series against the Sixers in seven, and are currently tied up with Miami at two games apiece.
After KG got hurt in '09, many analysts and critics felt that the big three era in Boston was over almost as quickly as it began. KG's knee injury, coupled with Ray Allen's tricky ankles, Paul Pierce's evolution into molasses, and Rajon Rondo's immaturity spelled doom. Yet, here they are. Boston snuck into the Finals in '10 and came one Ron Artest 3-pointer away from winning the whole thing. The '11 season should have solidified their demise. Boston was bounced, easily, by the Miami Heat in five games. The Heat absolutely dominated Boston. Pierce, Allen, and Garnett looked a step slower on everything when compared to LeBron, Wade, and Bosh. Yet, Danny Ainge, the general manager, kept the core together. Now Boston has a chance to sneak back into the Finals in '12. Maybe this time a three pointer from the most inconsistent shooter on the court won't drown out their title hopes.
Boston and LA's past five seasons have run a parallel path. Both made repeated trips to the Finals in their first three seasons together. Both struggled mightily in their fourth season, 2011. Both have pondered blowing up the whole operation, with LA making the CP3 deal, and Danny Ainge stating that everyone on his roster was available for trade. Both have seen the emergence of young stars, with Andrew Bynum and Rajon Rondo moving into star status, and Rondo currently knocking down the door for superstar status due to his stellar playoff play. Both are worried about the maturity of their young stars, with Bynum and Rondo each making boneheaded mistakes that make you wonder if they will ever be able to be carry the team as the focal point. Both are battling the eventual slowdown of their older stars coupled with the emergence of their young studs. Both have looked awful recently. Both have looked like champions recently. Both are battling younger big threes, with Miami and the Thunder looking to gobble up rings. Both are uncertain about their future.
Throughout it all, Boston's success this season should ease the anxiety of the Lakers' organization and fans. Boston is proving that hard work and effort can carry a veteran, championship savvy team. Boston has not looked dominant by any means, yet here they are. Boston sticks to the game plan and plays tough defense. Talent alone does not win them any ball games. Boston grinds away and keeps getting closer to the ultimate prize. Boston struggled against the young, athletic Hawks, but they kept at it and closed the series out. Boston struggled even more against the even younger and more athletic Sixers, but Boston walked away with a game seven victory. Now Boston is battling the uber talented Heat, aka LeBron James and Dwayne Wade. Whatever happens to close out the series, Boston has shown that a commitment to excellence can drive a team to unexpected heights. No one thought Boston would be here right now. Nobody.
After 2009, many thought the Celtics would be a distant memory. Well, it's 2012 and the Celtics are still vying for a championship. The Celtics should serve as a blueprint for the Lakers. After LA's disappointing exit this season, many clamored for reconstruction. However, maybe the best play for another championship is to just stick with it. If the goal is to maximize the career of Kobe Bryant, then LA may be better served to ride the trio of Bryant, Gasol, and Bynum for another championship run. I believe that Kobe has two great seasons left in him. After that point, Kobe will no longer be a focal point that can carry a team to a championship. It's now or never for Kobe and the Lakers. Although it may be tempting to trade Gasol or Bynum for something flashy, would that move lead the Lakers anywhere closer to a championship in the next two seasons? If the returning player isn't Dwight Howard, then probably not.
The Lakers have something that no other team has, two extremely talented seven footers. Such an advantage should only be superseded by an all-world talent. The Lakers only have four guys remaining from their last title, do they truly want to whittle that number down to three, two, or possible even one? Unless the Lakers can secure Dwight Howard or Deron Williams, I say ride it out. Boston has exceeded their mileage with unexpected returns, why can't LA?
Boston should prove to LA that the window for a championship has not closed. Give Mike Brown a full season to figure out how to effectively utilize Kobe, Pau, and Drew. The current incarnation of the Lakers can contend for a championship, but the organization needs to believe in them and keep them together. Danny Ainge put his whole team on the trading block this season, yet I'm pretty sure he is relieved that he didn't make any moves. Now Boston has a very realistic chance to win it all this year. Even if they don't, Ainge looks pretty intelligent for keeping the core of Boston together for another title run.
Will the Lakers' organization have the same faith in their team? Will the brass believe that Kobe Bryant can capture that sixth ring? Will the brass believe that Pau Gasol can be the best player on the court any given night? Will the brass believe that Andrew Bynum can dominate the paint every single night? Each scenario is possible. Each scenario is questionable. Ultimately, the decision of the front office will directly impact the title run. LA can trade away their size for youth and athleticism. Or LA can stick with it and fight for another title in the next year or two. One is not independent of the other, but each is full of questions.
If Boston has shown us anything, it's that consistent effort from star players, despite age or mileage, can lead to success. Bryant, Gasol, and Bynum have enough talent to get it done. But that talent needs to shine every single game. If inconsistency and passivity infects the 2013 Lakers like it did this season, then the Lakers will be stuck in early postseason exits without a viable option to improve. That's the problem. The Lakers have a roster that can deliver a championship, or cripple the future of the franchise. Both could happen. Just one could happen. Either way, Los Angeles expects championships.