By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
NBA franchises aren’t like Van Halen. You can’t just switch lead singers and expect lightning to strike twice.
Take the Bulls. Last spring’s much-ballyhooed The Last Dance taught us the city of Chicago owes the entirety of its pro hoops pedigree to Michael Jordan. The Spurs have had an incredible run under future Hall of Fame coach Gregg Popovich, but all five of Pop’s title runs closed with Tim Duncan hoisting the trophy. The Warriors owe their franchise status to Steph Curry. And so on.
But following Tuesday’s 102-96 win, the Lakers find themselves on the cusp of a 17th NBA championship with yet another frontman. With a 3-1 series lead, and you can cue the proverbial fat lady. In nearly 75 years of NBA history, only LeBron has been able to burrow out of a hole that deep, and this time, he’s the one holding the shovel.
He’s also on the brink of ushering an era Boston basketball fans have long dreaded.
With another Laker championship win, no longer will the Celtics lay claim to the mantle of the most successful franchise in NBA history. They’ll at least have to share the distinction.
For a fan base and organization that hangs its hat on tradition, it’s a tough pill to swallow.
There’s still that asterisk: five Laker titles came in Minneapolis, before L.A. even had a team for the Celtics to consistently outclass in the Finals for the first decade of its existence. And while I can’t for the life of me think of a single Minnesota tradition embraced by Southern Californians, I know their fans will gladly poach those trophies. At least the organization doesn’t have the audacity to hang a George Mikan jersey in the rafters of the Staples Center.
While that asterisk provides context, its citation is about as relevant as Yankees fans chanting “1918.” Since Bill Russell retired, the Lakers will have collected 12 championships to Boston’s six. And with a win in any one of the next three games, they will have piled up eight of the last nine Larry O’Brien trophies won between Boston and L.A. – from Magic’s “Junior, junior” skyhook in 1987, to the 2010 Boston collapse, to this year.
The Lakers occupy a unique position among NBA teams. While coaches and executives have changed, the Buss family has written the checks since the dying days of disco, and a combination of factors have made L.A. the most consistently attractive destination in league history. They don’t have down periods; in fact, their recent multi-year absence from the playoffs was just the second time in franchise history they’d finished out of the postseason in consecutive campaigns.
And while the Lakers can be credited for drafting and/or developing all-timers like Magic and Kobe, they’ve long had a penchant for landing established future Hall of Famers – as Wilt, Kareem, Shaq, and Pau have given way to LeBron and The Unibrow. Meanwhile, the Celtics have historically been limited to the former approach.
That’s one reason why – even though it was only one title amid multiple local runs for the Patriots and Red Sox – 2008 is so highly regarded by Celtic fans. For once, in landing Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, the Green pulled off something the Lakers do seemingly a couple of times a decade: pilfer high-caliber talent from less stable organizations.
For years, Boston’s standout free agent acquisition had been an over-the-hill Dominique Wilkins, while the Lakers routinely brought in names like Dennis Rodman, Karl Malone, Gary Payton, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. Those guys didn’t even win titles in L.A., but they probably went there thinking they might.
Recently, highly regarded free agents (Al Horford, Gordon Hayward, Kemba Walker) have returned Boston to a short list of destination cities from which it was absent for decades. And while the flurry of activity hasn’t yet resulted in a championship – the Lakers are due to catch them, after all – it’s a credit to the organization, Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens.
For the first time since Reggie Lewis was still alive, tradition isn’t the main selling point. There’s a sense of stability and optimism around the team, particularly for the rising stars Boston should anticipate supporting for the next half-decade or more.
Like Thanos, the Lakers are inevitable. They will own this record in the future. As the Bulls and Spurs have proven, the success of mere mortal organizations like the Celtics will ebb and flow. Fans can keep hanging on to that asterisk. Or, they can calibrate their expectations and appreciate the fact that their team is back in the mix.
This is Boston’s best chance to cash in since the Allen-Garnett-Pierce troika rusted out nearly a decade ago. Their 2020 successes and failures should set the blueprint for what is to come. Do Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have what it takes to push the Celtics back to the top of the NBA heap?
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Talk hoops with him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.