The Lakers are done for the season, and the Celtics could follow shortly. These traditional NBA kingpins have always been linked in the good times, so why should now be any different?
The league is about to learn how to live without either team making the conference finals, something that has happened only once since 2007. And way back in the stone ages -- think before ESPN blew up -- the Lakers and Celtics made a habit of reaching the Finals, sometimes together, epically so.
What's it all mean? Well, the good news is the NBA won't collapse from the shock. Maybe 20 or 25 years ago this would be a red alert, probably followed by an investigation, but the league is in a different age. It's more than just Boston and L.A. Games are no longer restricted to Sunday afternoons on network TV and focused on the big markets. Stars are winding up in the strangest of places: San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Miami, Indiana. And as long as LeBron James is healthy -- given the rate in which players are dropping, don't take that for granted -- will anyone truly miss seeing the green and the purple?
The bad news, at least for those two proud franchises, is they might be down for a 10-count. The Lakers and Celtics are in bad shape, from a contending standpoint. There's no quick fix coming as far as we can see. Age and heavy contracts and salary cap restrictions could handcuff them to different degrees -- and anyway, it's a Miami Heat world until LeBron says it isn't.
The Celtics survived elimination Sunday against the Knicks and will live to see another two days. They should enjoy the reprieve, because if they rally from 3-0 down, that'll be a first. We all know how this is gonna end. All signals point to an early exit for the Celtics and perhaps the beginning of the end for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
Hours later, the Lakers went out with a whimper and a starting backcourt of Andrew Goudelock and Chris Duhon against the Spurs. Imagine the irony of that. The Lakers came into the season with a lineup of Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, four players whose next get-together will probably be in Springfield, Mass. But along with Metta World Peace, that unit played only seven games together. Injuries, a panicky coaching change, tough competition in the West and an inability to mesh on the fly all caused an embarrassing struggle this season and led to the first round broom.
Again, the league will be OK. Just look around. Even without Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City will be watchable because of Kevin Durant, and the Spurs are jelling for another title run, and the Knicks have finally energized New York after going missing for a decade, and of course there's the Heat.
That said, how will the Lakers and Celtics survive the stretch of uncertainty that's coming their way? With the help of a longtime NBA scout who lent his two cents, here's a look at where they stand, what they need to do, and what they're able to do. Reader caution: It's not a pretty picture.
The only real question about 2013-14 is whether the Celtics throw a farewell party for Pierce and KG, which essentially means throwing away the season, or do they start rebuilding ASAP?
The Celtics' best players are either old and fading or coming off injury. Their younger players, with the possible exception of Jeff Green, are role players with a low ceiling. There's no rhyme or reason to the roster. The sensible thing to do is break it down and start over, although it's complicated.
If they stay put, next season has 42-40 and the No. 8 seed written all over it. Essentially, the Celtics as constituted are a mediocre bunch, not strong enough to be a contender, not weak enough to sink to the bottom and get a high draft pick for their misery. They'd be stuck in the middle, exactly where you don't want to be in the NBA. There's nothing to be gained by being average. It's a worse fate than being the Bobcats.
"They're in a tough spot," said the scout, "because their current players, for different reasons, don't hold much trade value."
Well, one player does: Rajon Rondo. But not only is he coming off surgery, which could reduce the demand for him, he's supposed to be the building block for the next Celtics era. Hard to imagine them trading him, for those reasons. That leaves Pierce as the most attractive bargaining chip. Yes, he turns 36 next season -- but he's still very productive for his age and with only one year remaining on his deal (plus a small buyout), he won't put another team in a financial bind. In that situation, the Celtics must ask themselves if Pierce is more valuable to them on another team -- meaning, getting a good return on a trade -- or more valuable to keep, in the sentimental sense?
Ainge is on record as saying he isn't big on sentiment, that if he were the GM 25 years ago, he would've traded Larry Bird and Kevin McHale in their golden years. But again, the issue is compensation. Why would another team surrender a quality veteran for Pierce? Doesn't make much sense, unless that player has issues.
Therefore, the Celtics really have little choice. Here's the best option for next season:
Swallow hard and keep the group together. Welcome Rondo back. Ride it out. Let 2013-14 serve as a farewell. Play that angle up big with the fans and hope they can see the big picture. And then hope that Garnett, due $12 million the following season, decides to retire. That would leave the Celtics on the hook for $40 million in salary, giving them roughly $15 million to use in free agency in the summer of '14.
Either way you look at it, the Celtics are looking at two years of irrelevancy. Their goal: Don't extend it to three.
It's very simple: As long as Kobe is breathing, the Lakers can't rebuild. They must go for it.
"It sounds strange," said the scout, "but Kobe is holding them back in terms of an honest rebuilding effort, if that's the way they want to go."
But that's the point. The Lakers don't really rebuild. Even their history says that much. The Lakers don't go through four or five years of hard labor and repeated trips to the draft lottery. That's not how they roll. They find a franchise player and move on to the next era. In that regard, they've been blessed. Look how they've managed to keep contending, save for a few down years, after Showtime:
Summer, 1996: Jerry Buss writes a $126 million check to get Shaquille O'Neal from Orlando. Jerry West swings a trade with the Hornets to get a 17-year-old straight out of high school. Kobe.
February, 2008: After trading Shaq a few years earlier, Lakers ship players and picks to Memphis for Gasol.
Essentially, those two events gave the Lakers a 17-year stretch of mostly good times. But now, Kobe is coming off Achilles surgery and isn't signed beyond next season. Same for Gasol. Their era together is almost coming to an end.
Because of contracts and the pending free agency of Howard, whom they must sign, the Lakers really aren't in position to make a left or right turn. The circumstances say they must keep forging ahead and hope for the best next season. Which mostly means, hope for good health. That's always iffy when the most important players have all dealt with injuries that required surgery. In a best-case scenario, the Lakers make it through next season healthy. But does that make them a serious contender for a title? Maybe they come close. Most likely, they don't.
In 2014-15, the Lakers should only be committed to Howard (presuming he signs this summer) and Nash, roughly $30 million combined, and that's when they'll have a big decision to make. Do they bring back Kobe at market value, which would prevent them from adding another, younger A-list player? Or do they thank Kobe for the memories and make a run at LeBron and/or some other top free agent to start another era?
You also must wonder how much longer the Lakers are willing to flirt with luxury tax issues. Jerry Buss didn't mind as long as the Lakers had a reasonable shot at a championship. Jim Buss, we're not so sure. The tax is more punitive than ever, and owners aren't willing to shell out an extra $30 million unless they can get that money back in ticket sales and media revenue.
The Lakers will always be a destination team for players because of their history, the charms of the city and an organization that always places winning above everything else. The only way this changes is if Jim Buss mismanages the team and tarnishes the franchise's reputation, which would seem to be very hard to do.
So that's the immediate outlook for two teams whose history is all about winning and championships. The Lakers and Celtics are in need of repair and could use some smart front-office maneuvering and a measure of good luck. They have history on their side, but not necessarily the future in their favor. That looks iffy.
It's not a problem for the NBA at large. This isn't the 1980s. The league will survive, although we can hardly say the same for the two teams that owned that decade.