May 16, 2011

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Why The Lakers and Celtics are Heading in Different Directions

By: Anson Whaley

With the early second-round exits suffered by the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celticsthis past week, much has been made about the shrinking window of opportunity for more championships for each team. The Lakers and Celtics have combined to win the last three NBA Championships and in two of those seasons, have faced off against each other for the title. So why is everyone down on their chances to win more hardware?

Age.

Boston and Los Angeles have two of the oldest rosters in the NBA. Even the 1996-97 Houston Rockets team of aging vets such as Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Kevin Willis, Sedale Threatt, and Eddie Johnson (all of whom had played at least 11 years at the time) think these guys might be over the hill. So are these two franchises, the most storied ones in league history, effectively done winning championships with the same group of players? Well, one of them is.

Last week, I heard plenty of analysts draw parallels to these two teams. But the fact is that they’re both in entirely different situations.

The Celtics are, for all intents and purposes, finished. The team’s triumvirate of stars, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce are all getting up in age. While all three were durable this season, they are also past their prime – and by several seasons. The Celtics have a few nice pieces in guard Rajon Rondo and forward Jeff Green, but (and with all due respect to Rondo who is a very good young point guard) those are supplementary players. Shaquille O’Neal’s absence in the series against the Miami Heatproved that age is catching up to him and without the recently-traded Kendrick Perkins, Boston was extremely light in the frontcourt, needing to rely on Jermaine O’Neal and Nenad Krstic.

Boston simply doesn’t have enough to compete for future rings with this group of players. If they’re to get back to the top, the Celtics will need to reshape their current roster. The greatest need will be to add another skilled rebounder in the middle to complement or even replace Shaq. In the words of Yoda: several mediocre rebounders do not a frontcourt make. Adding a quality guard would also be a good idea as the Celtics are very thin after Rondo and Allen. Boston’s greatest problem lies in the fact that due to their age, the team cannot expect to make it through a full season healthy.

The Lakers, on the other hand, still have enough in the tank for a few more runs. Despite the embarrassing sweep to Dallas, there’s plenty left on this team. Kobe Bryant is still the best closer in the game and one of the NBA’s top players. After Bryant, you’ve got Pau Gasol. I know, I get it – he disappeared against the Mavericks. Fact is that he was dealing with some off-court issues and probably just needed a break from the game. The only problem for the Lakers was that he took it during the most important time in the season.

And here’s the thing about Gasol – even though he vanished faster than Houdini in the Mavericks series, he has a good track record of succeeding in the playoffs. His numbers in the postseason over the past two years actually exceeded those of his regular season stats. Because of that, I don’t expect Pau to shrink again next season and Los Angeles will be a better team for it.

In case the Bryant/Gasol duo isn’t enough, the Lakers also can throw Andrew Bynum, one of the best (and here’s the key) young centers in the game and Lamar Odom, who seems like he’s been in the league forever, but is only 31.

Los Angeles’ key pieces are simply younger than those of Boston’s. Four of the five Celtics starters are at least 33 years old while the only Laker starter that old is Derek Fisher. And while Fisher has been an integral part of the Lakers winning five championships, he’s not relied on nearly as much as any of the Celtics starters. The Lakers would be a better team if they could add a younger point guard in their starting rotation, but they could get by with Fisher for the next season or two if need be.

Not only is Los Angeles younger where it counts, but they’re also better than Boston – which is why a couple more title runs with the same team might not be out of the picture.