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How Celtics, Lakers rebuilt themselves – a trade at a time

Can other NBA cities do the same? It's a daunting task, experts say.

By Erik SpanbergCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 19, 2008

Celtics: General Manager Danny Ainge (right) traded for Allen (foreground) and Garnett.

Charles Krupa/AP

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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.

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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.

With their franchises in disarray, general managers Danny Ainge of Boston and Mitch Kupchak of Los Angeles got to work repairing and renovating their shaky foundations.

"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.