BOSTON — The Los Angeles Lakers once set foot in this city processing a wide spectrum of emotions.
The Lakers experienced endless frustration as the Celtics continuously unveiled championship banners, a ritual the purple and gold couldn't stop for 25 years. Nearly 19 years ago, the Lakers then shed tears of joy after first plucking the Larry O'Brien trophy away from Boston.
The Lakers-Celtics rivalry no longer just rests on ring counts (Boston leads, 17-16). Instead, the Lakers (14-25) and the Celtics (14-26) enter Friday's game at TD Garden with different rebuilding approaches with the desire to jump back quickly into the championship arms race.
“We still believed going into the season that we had a good chance of being a lot higher than at this point,” Lakers forward Pau Gasol said. “Boston didn't go into the season with that mindset.”
Before they played a game, the Celtics essentially wrote this season off. The Celtics traded their Hall of Fame coach (Doc Rivers) to the Clippers for a 2015 first-round pick. Boston shipped two accomplished veterans (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce) to Brooklyn for more draft picks (2014, 2016, 2017, 2018) and youth (Kris Humphires, Gerald Wallace). This week, Boston completed a three-team trade that entailed acquiring two lottery-protected first-round draft picks from Miami while trading MarShon Brooks and Jordan Crawford to Golden State.
The Celtics also hired 33-year-old Brad Stevens in the hope that his Cinderella runs with Butler would translate to the NBA. Four-time NBA All-Star guard Rajon Rondo will make his season debut tonight against the Lakers after rehabbing a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee for the past year.
“Everyone has done it different ways,” Rivers said. “The Lakers have been pretty successful consistently. The Celtics have done the up-and-down thing where they rebuild and then rebuild back up.
“I don't know if there is any right way.”
After losing in the first round of the playoffs and then losing Dwight Howard in the free agency sweepstakes, the Lakers envisioned a healthier Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash and a flurry of role players on one-year contracts keeping them competitive in a bloated Western Conference. They also resisted trading Gasol, even though it could ensure falling under the luxury tax threshold. With everyone but Nash and Robert Sacre off the books after this season, the Lakers then would have plenty of purchasing power to pursue a star-studded free agent class that includes LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.
None of that has materialized.
Bryant (fractured left knee) and Nash (nerve issues in back) have played in only six games. A flurry of other injuries to their backcourt (Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar, Xavier Henry) contributed to the Lakers losing 12 of their past 13 games. Gasol has averaged 16 points on a career-low 45.6 percent shooting. The Lakers re-signed Bryant to a two-year, $48.5 million extension that would enable them only to sign one free agent at the player maximum through the next two years instead of two. The Lakers have a first-round pick this summer for the first time since 2007, but the Nash trade requires them to send first-round selections to Phoenix for 2015 (unprotected after the fifth pick), 2016 (unprotected after the third pick) and 2017 (unprotected after the third pick).
“I thought we had been competitive early on in the season. They were playing fun basketball, were a couple of games above .500 and Kobe and Nash were yet to return,” Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak said in a recent interview. “This is something we planned for three or four years ago with lining up the contracts (to expire after this season) to have flexibility. We have that.
“Nothing is guaranteed. We'll get a player or player we want this year, but we're in a position to do so.”
Others are skeptical.
“Everyone around the Lakers and around the league is waiting to see which direction the team is going to take,” TNT analyst Steve Kerr said. “They're hanging on to their tradition with Kobe and their history. That's understandable. But in the end, it may just delay the inevitable, which is rebuilding.”
“The Celtics will be in much better shape sooner because of the moves they made,” Kerr said. “They accelerated their likelihood of being good again by making moves now.”
This process has happened plenty of times.
After their 24-58 record in the 2006-07 campaign was the NBA's second-worst record, the Celtics used their fifth overall draft pick to acquire Ray Allen from Seattle. The Celtics then made the largest trade for one player in NBA history by acquiring Garnett from Minnesota for Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Theo Ratliff, Gerald Green, Sebastian Telfair and a flurry of draft picks and cash. A season later, the Celtics won the NBA title against the Lakers.
“I had (already) gone through that in Boston,” Rivers said. “We did what they're doing. We were successful doing it.
“The question was 'Can you do it again?' I don't think anyone knows.”
The Lakers have made trades that gave them draft picks that secured championship success. The Lakers sent Gail Goodrich to New Orleans for a draft pick that secured Magic Johnson. The Lakers dealt Butch Lee and Don Ford to Cleveland for a 1982 first-round draft pick, which became James Worthy. The Lakers shipped Vlade Divac to Charlotte for the rights to choose Bryant.
Kupchak's finest move entailed acquiring Gasol from Memphis for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenon, Aaron McKie, two first-round picks and the rights to Pau's brother Marc
This season, Kupchak stressed cost-cutting hardly remains the organization's “driving force,” even if a repeater's tax kicks in this offseason for teams who have spent over the luxury tax for four of the past five seasons. But will the Lakers make a move leading into the Feb. 20 deadline to secure more draft picks?
“It's much harder than it used to be,” Kupchak said. “They are so much more valuable now than they were. I'd love to end with a great pick one day, but we're not used to it. We'll do it the other way if we have to.”
Will the Lakers rewrite the ultimate Hollywood comeback story? Will the Celtics find some luck with their shamrocks and leprechauns? How that outcome turns out will add an extra layer to a rivalry once defined solely by championships.
Mark Medina covers the Lakers and the NBA for Digital First Media at the Los Angeles Daily News. Follow him on Twitter @MarkG_Medina.