While watching the Lakers eke by my Celtics by 3, at home yesterday, it got me thinking about the near futures of both of these teams. Both teams have signature stars (Lakers with Kobe, Celtics with Pierce) who are signed through the 2013-14 season. Both teams may or may not be active before March 15th, as well as in free agency this upcoming year. Both teams are once proud champions, who have seen the current windows of opportunity all but close. The question I have set out to answer is this: What team will have more success over the next 3 seasons in rebuilding on the fly, the Lakers or the Celtics?
To come to an educated conclusion, we looked at the various factors that will come in to play in determining this result.
Continued Strength of their Core Players
Gasol seems likely to be moved either within the next few days or at the conclusion of the season, ideally for a point guard/scoring wing. Bynum has been a relevation this year and will presumably get a large extension after next season, though his health is always a concern. Bryant, while still a top 10 player in the league, will be 34 next season. Though Kobe is unquestionably driven to remain a top player, he has played, including the post-season, 1,351 NBA games. As a point of comparison, Michael Jordan played 1,251 NBA games. The wear and tear adds up, and it is very reasonable to expect that by the conclusion of the 2013-14 season, Kobe Bryant will no longer be a franchise player.
Rondo has a team-friendly contract and, unless traded, will be the leader of this teams offense for the next 3 seasons, at a minimum. Despite his issues and occasional inconsistency, he is an elite distributor that scorers league-wide should want to play with if Boston were to become reliant on free agent talent. Pierce, who is still a borderline All-Star scorer, will be 35 next season, and like Bryant, has logged many tough NBA miles. Including the post-season, Pierce has played in 1,110 NBA games, and a precipitous drop in production, perhaps as early as next season, appears imminent. The Celtics will desperate need to bring in players who can score the basketball in the near future.
Improvement via Free Agency
Unless the Lakers are able to move some players via trade, they will not have the cap space to be big players in free agency next season. Depending on how aggressively they try to free up cap space, they may or may not be active in the 2013 and 2014 off-seasons. It is tough to tell at this point. However, if the Lakers DID have cap space, it can be assumed that they’d be relatively successful luring top talent to LA, though players may not be wowed by the idea of watching an aging Kobe chase the scoring record or playing for the always electric Mike Brown. The Lakers are also a bit hamstrung by having a few bad contracts (Luke Walton, Steve Blake, Ron Artest…not using his silly name) hanging on the roster the next year or two.
Boston will have plenty of cap space, with virtually every player on the roster’s contract is expiring, including significant ones like Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. The only way the Celtics don’t go into free agency this off-season with money to burn will be if they make a move with Garnett and/or Allen’s contracts in the next 4 days, bringing back a player who is paid similarly, but on a longer deal. This appears unlikely to happen, so Boston will be players in a class highlighted by Dwight Howard and Deron Williams, with some expected lesser lights such as Eric Gordon, Nic Batum, Ryan Anderson, Brook Lopez, and JaVale McGee. The Celts would need to come away with both a shooter and a big, with the shooter/scorer probably being the larger priority or that offense will become anemic VERY quickly. While Boston doesn’t have a history of tempting top free agents, the presence of the enormously popular Doc Rivers, as well as an unselfish star in Rajon Rondo, could be selling points for players who want to be on a competitive team and maximize their own production.
Improvement via The Draft
The Lakers own all of their own picks over the next few years, as well as a top 20 protected 1st Rounder from Dallas (which they may not see for a few years, given the Mavs would pick around 16th if the draft were today) and an extra 2nd in 2013. The Lakers would choose around 24th in this year’s draft if it were held today.
The Celtics own all of their own picks over the next few years as well, and will have a 1st Rounder from the Clippers in a loaded 2012 draft (probably between 20-23). They also have an extra 2nd Rounder in both 2013 and 2014. The Celtics would choose around 15th in this year’s draft if it were held today.
Slight Edge: Celtics
Strength of the Coaching Staff
Coach Mike Brown is currently in the 1st year of a 4-year contract, replacing the legendary Phil Jackson this season. Brown has a nice overall record as a head coach (296-154), but has not won a title and picked up most of those wins while enabling arguably the best player in the league (LeBron James) over in Cleveland. Brown’s unwillingness to give superstar players tough love may make things very ugly as Kobe Bryant’s skills begin to erode. However, Brown HAS been a winner thus far in the NBA, so there may be some hope.
Coach Doc Rivers is also locked up for the foreseeable future, but unlike Mike Brown, Rivers is a highly respected and liked coach, not only in Boston, but throughout the league. Rivers also has a championship on his resume, has commanded the respect of future Hall-of-Famers throughout his tenure in Boston, and sports a solid 528-424 record for his career, despite the inclusion of the dreadful 24-58 2007 season when the Celtics were making a run at the lottery balls for Greg Oden or Kevin Durant. Rivers is a player that players league-wide would like to play for, which may very well be the best lure of potential free agents that the Celtics have in their possession. Beyond this, he is at least the equal of Coach Brown as far as actual game preparation and management.
Strength of the Front Office
Seeing that these will be the guys making the big decision (drafting, trading, free agency) it certainly seems worthwhile to take a look at them.
GM Mitch Kupchak has a solid track record running the Lakers, such as the drafting of Andrew Bynum and trading for Pau Gasol. His moves in free agency, while typically not splashy, have been effective in keeping a cohesive team on the floor most of the time. Outside of Bynum, his draft record is unimpressive, though to be fair the Lakers almost always pick low; once again, the exception being Bynum with the 10th overall selection. Despite many opportunities, Kupchak hasn’t really hit with a late 1st Round or 2nd Round pick. Further complicating the situation is the rise of Jim Buss as the de facto decision-maker (and resident Andrew Bynum groupie). To date, the younger Buss has demonstrated neither the charisma or political skill that his father did.
GM Danny Ainge also has an NBA championship on his resume, and his tenure has been bold and active since becoming GM, with some spectacular hits and misses. Ainge HAS hit on some later draft choices (Rondo late in the 1st Round, Glen Davis in the 2nd Round). He also orchestrated the 2 trades to get Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen into town, and oversaw the collecting of the talent needed to acquire those 2 players. His moves in free agency the past few seasons have been uninspiring, and often questionable (Jermaine O’Neal, Shaquille O’Neal, Rasheed Wallace, etc.). While the Allen and Garnett trades were a spectacular success, last year’s Kendrick Perkins trade is regarded as having been relatively disastrous. Ainge also has an excellent rapport with Coach Rivers, making for a cohesive and productive partnership most of the time. The Celtics also have a young, enthusiastic ownership group that is determined to succeed.
Slight Edge: Celtics (Ainge’s past boldness and drafting history make me more comfortable with him making the tough decisions during a rebuilding/retooling phase than Kupchak, who tends to make the safe move and hasn’t drafted all that well)
Despite the presence of a better core of players going forward, the Lakers, in my eyes, will actually be looking up in the standings at the Celtics over the next 3 years. I am relatively confident that the talented folks running the Celtics organization will make wise decisions in pursuing the tremendous opportunity that all of this roster turnover presents. I also believe that a player like Rondo, who makes everyone better, will be key over that time span. While I really like Andrew Bynum’s game, there are legitimate questions as to whether or not he’ll be healthy enough to be a force for the duration of his prime. Finally, Kobe Bryant, in my opinion, is as likely to be a detriment to the Lakers’ goals over the next 3 years as he is a benefit. Things COULD become fairly toxic in LA in the near future, while I like the odds better that this will NOT become the case in Boston.