Paul Pierce, left, Kevin Garnett and the Boston Celtics aren't as… (Winslow Townson, Charles…)
The conflicting messages tug at the Lakers' franchise.
A day before the Lakers were eliminated in a four-game sweep by the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 Western Conference semifinals, Magic Johnson argued owner Jerry Buss needed to "blow this team up" to contend for future championships. Once that early playoff exit became official, Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak expressed confidence that the current roster could win a title.
Once the NBA lockout ended, Kupchak reiterated those sentiments, but later changed his mind after seeing what he called an "opportunity." The Lakers traded Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom in a three-team deal that would've landed them All-Star point guard Chris Paul. The NBA nixed the trade for "basketball reasons," sparking the Lakers to oblige Odom's trade request and Gasol's plea to stay with the team.
Even though Kupchack said a few days after the Odom trade that he "expects" the Lakers' Big Three of Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Gasol to remain intact, no one will know for sure until the trade deadline passes on Thursday.
"It's the toughest decision because you had guys who helped you win championships and helped the franchise become a championship franchise," Johnson said. "The fans love them and adore them. Night in and night out, that team had performed to a level that the fans were accustomed to and a level of winning and consistency."
His comments weren't just about the Lakers. Johnson was also describing the Celtics (21-18), who the Lakers (24-16) host Sunday at Staples Center in a rivalry held in high esteem based on its history rather than recent performances.
The similarities extend nearly everywhere.
Their current standing: The Lakers currently are fifth in the Western Conference while Boston rests in seventh in the East.
The teams' front office philosophies: Kupchak has refused to keep anyone outside of Kobe Bryant protected from trade talks. Danny Ainge, the Celtics' president of basketball operations, said he would consider trading part of his team's aging core if he thought it would help the franchise avoid a return to its dark age of the late 1990s.
The teams' age: The Lakers feature an aging core of Derek Fisher (37), Bryant (33), Gasol (31) and Metta World Peace (31), with only one starter (Andrew Bynum) and two reserves (rookies Andrew Goudelock and Darius Morris) under 30. The Celtics also have fragile parts in Ray Allen (36), Kevin Garnett (35) and Paul Pierce (34).
Still, it remains hard for both teams to just part ways with key personnel. After all, the Lakers and/or Celtics have appeared in three of the last four NBA Finals. It remains to be seen, however, if that recent run marked the tipping point before both organizations fall into a state of decline.
"You don't win games and championships tomorrow," Fisher said. "You win them by doing smart things today. I'm just not one for trying to wave some kind of magic wand and assume you can make all the right moves today that will put you in a position four years from now to win a championship. You either have the pieces you need and you have to go get it."
It appears the Lakers have tried to have it both ways.
The front office's hiring of Mike Brown brought plenty of philosophical changes in offense, work ethic and culture. Yet, the Lakers' personnel remains mostly the same. They tried offsetting that with the Paul trade. But when the NBA nixed that deal, the Lakers hardly addressed their needs. They traded Odom to the Dallas Mavericks and a second-round pick for a $8.9 million trade exception and a first-round selection. So far, they haven't used it. Their free-agent acquisitions in Josh McRoberts, Troy Murphy and Jason Kapono has hardly done much to replace Odom's absence and improve its three-point shooting.
Brown looks at all those circumstances and professes not to get involved with it. "I don't know as a coach," Brown said, "you can think about three, four, five years down the road." Yet, the aging roster has given Brown a challenge, he says, in finding enough rest. Nonetheless, playiing time for Bryant (38.2), Gasol (37.1) and Bynum (35.3) exceed their career averages.
The transition period hardly looks pretty, but Johnson argues it remains necessary.
"You have to go through that to get back to the level of playing championship basketball once again," he said. "What's really sickening is the fact you have to let go of great Celtics or great Lakers. It's not easy to do that."
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