How Celtics, Lakers rebuilt themselves – a trade at a time
Can other NBA cities do the same? It's a daunting task, experts say.
It's the kind of NBA championship they'll talk about for years: the resumption of the most storied rivalry in basketball – and perhaps in all of American sports; the see-saw scoring streaks; and the redemption of great players whose stars, dimmed by playing on mediocre teams, shined more brightly than ever when they played their version of fierce and unselfish hoops.
But the immediate impact of Boston's clinching its first world championship since 1986 with a Game 6 win over Los Angeles on Tuesday must be a question reverberating among fans in other NBA cities: If they can do it, why not us?
After all, the Celtics capped one of the most remarkable rebounds in NBA history. The Lakers, too, finished the season in a loftier perch than anyone could have forecast a year ago.
The lesson from these 2008 NBA finalists comes down to this: When it comes to surprise turnarounds, bold trades and uncanny timing are key. So are savvy management and willing owners. If anything, experts say, the Celtics and Lakers offer compelling examples of how to build formidable rosters – and of how daunting and improbable that task can be.
"We'll look back years from now on this as an aberration," says Pat Williams, a longtime executive with the Orlando Magic and general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers' 1983 championship club. "Everybody would love to do this, but it's not common."
Williams and other veteran NBA observers point to all of the difficulties both franchises faced last off-season as well as the intersection of skilled executives and coaches with unexpected opportunities to acquire key players in short succession.
"It's rare to make quantum leaps in wins and losses and the image of your team in a short period of time," says John Gabriel, the NBA Executive of the Year in 2000 and a 26-year pro basketball veteran as coach, scout, and executive with several franchises. Ainge and Kupchak "have both done excellent jobs. As general managers, they've chosen to build the car instead of driving it."
Many in Boston wondered aloud whether Ainge and head coach Doc Rivers should be dismissed after the team finished with the league's second-worst record. Although Los Angeles reached the playoffs, the Lakers' 42-40 record and subsequent first-round loss to Phoenix left fans disappointed.
Most jarring, Lakers star Kobe Bryant lashed out at team executives in a series of interviews after the playoff loss. Bryant demanded a trade, recanted, and spent the entire off-season in a will-he-or-won't-he debate on his future with the team.
Talk of a long-rumored trade to Chicago gained momentum several weeks before the 2007-08 season began, fueled by Lakers owner Jerry Buss's public statement that he would not rule out trading his team's biggest star.
Then, in succession, everything went right for both franchises, setting up an unexpected renewal of the NBA's most storied rivalry in the finals.
Ainge rebuilt his club by building around star Paul Pierce, seemingly the only player Boston kept during a whirlwind off-season. First, Ainge dealt Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak, and the No. 5 draft pick (Georgetown's Jeff Green) to Seattle for veteran sharpshooter Ray Allen and the No. 35 draft pick. He followed that move with a blockbuster deal for former MVP Kevin Garnett, dealing two first-round picks, cash, and five players – four of them in their mid-20s or younger – to Minnesota.
The newly anointed Boston Three Party soared from the outset, rolling to the league's best record and an Eastern Conference title.
In Los Angeles, the Lakers decided against dealing Bryant while veteran coach Phil Jackson soothed his star's frayed nerves. Kupchak pulled off the mid-season trade of the year when he acquired all-star Pau Gasol from Memphis just as the Lakers were reeling from a January knee injury suffered by big man Andrew Bynum. If the Celtics' moves were smart, the Lakers' trade looked like a big-time heist.
Los Angeles paid such a small price for Gasol – trading afterthoughts Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, and two draft picks – that other NBA coaches and executives complained publicly. "The L.A. move is great for L.A.," San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "What they were thinking in Memphis is beyond comprehension. There should be a trade committee that can scratch all trades that make no sense."
"This is a classic example of 'timing is everything,' " says TNT analyst Mike Fratello, a former head coach with Atlanta, Cleveland, and Memphis. "Think of all the things that had to happen here for these teams. I don't think it's a model because who else is going to have all the cards to play that hand with?"
Those cards included ownership groups willing to absorb high-dollar contracts, general managers and other front-office executives who were able to pore over salary caps while negotiating major acquisitions, and rosters with enough young players to offer other teams in exchange for significant player trades.
Boston's resurrection validates the strategy Ainge and Rivers laid out last summer, trading away a crop of young players in favor of making a serious championship bid during an expected (and brief) three-year window. Tuesday night, as a raucous Boston crowd made clear, the gambit paid off in a big way.
"A year ago they were fretting over whether they were going to survive with Doc and Danny," says Williams, the Orlando executive. "They were at the bottom of the Back Bay. And now you have to give them an A-plus for what they've done."
That, of course, and an NBA-best 17th championship banner.