Celtics Insider

Forsberg: Celtics or Lakers -- who wins Banner 18 first?

Celtics Insider

The Los Angeles Lakers won their 17th title on Sunday, matching the Boston Celtics for the most championships by an NBA franchise.

Protest, if you must, that five of the Lakers' titles were won in Minneapolis, but it feels like this is as good a time as any for Celtics fans to simply come to grips with the fact that the Lakers have evened the race.

The real question now is who wins the sprint to Banner 18?

But before we tackle that, here are three things that should absolutely stick in the craw of Celtics fans in the aftermath of L.A.'s victory:

1) The Celtics should have been on the other side of the 2020 Finals and it would have forced the Lakers to go through Boston to even that championship tally. Boston, of course, did not play nearly well enough in the Eastern Conference finals to deserve that spot. But if the Celtics had been able to hold their double-digit leads early in that series against the Heat, we might've seen the first Celtics-Lakers Finals in a decade.

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And not getting that, particularly in the utter chaos and calamity of 2020, is far more disappointing than the banner accounting.

2) The Lakers won the race to rebuild. And this is what should really aggravate Celtics fans.

Back in 2013, when both teams started to overhaul, the Celtics traded away the remnants of the Big Three era, stockpiled future assets to the point where Danny Ainge should have been on an episode of “Hoarders,” and positioned themselves for the insanely quick return to being competitive.

 

Ainge hit on all his top picks, plucking Marcus Smart at No. 6 in 2014, Jaylen Brown at No. 3 in 2016, and then shuffling back to nab Jayson Tatum at No. 3 in 2017. The Celtics were relentless with roster moves and found a gem wasting away on the Phoenix bench in Isaiah Thomas. Boston’s future brightened so fast that it finally hooked some big-name free agents, first with Al Horford and then Gordon Hayward.

Essentially, the Celtics did just about everything right along the way and yet the team has hit a conference finals roadblock in three of the past four seasons. And twice that road block was named LeBron James.

The same James who took his talents to Los Angeles despite the fact that the Lakers made a whole bunch of missteps during their rebuilding efforts, starting in 2013.

It wasn’t so much that the Lakers drafted bad players, they simply never found the sort of talent that could serve as foundational pieces. All of their first-round picks since 2014 are no longer on the roster, including Julius Randle (7th, 2014), D’Angelo Russell (2nd, 2015), Larry Nance (27th, 2015), Brandon Ingram (2nd, 2016), Lonzo Ball (2nd, 2017), and Mo Wagner (25th, 2018).

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A year ago, the Celtics and Lakers were queueing up for a tug-of-war for Anthony Davis’ services. Boston seemingly had the better assets based on its young core and future assets. And, yet, in the aftermath of LeBron’s relocation, the Lakers were positioned for Davis to powerplay his way there, too.

Which is to say, the Celtics front office made a whole bunch of smart, forward-thinking moves with the goal of constructing a championship roster, and the Lakers did the opposite but still achieved the desired effect quicker because they’re the Lakers. Which brings us to ...

3) The Lakers have absolutely dominated the championship accumulation process this century. This is Los Angeles’ sixth title since 2000, including five during the Kobe Bryant era and now James’ first in L.A.

The Celtics have one title -- though it did come at the expense of the Lakers in 2008 -- over the past 34 years. To some extent, the Celtics have lived off their history while the Lakers have used their clout -- and climate -- to continue making history.

A Tale of Two Cities

The combined NBA titles won by the Celtics (17) and Lakers (17).
34
The combined NBA titles won by the rest of the NBA (37 franchises all-time).
40

Now, about Banner 18.

The Celtics and Lakers will both enter the 2021 season in the mix to represent their conferences. The LeBron cyborg shows little signs of rust and having Davis alongside can certainly slow the aging process. The Lakers mortgaged much of their draft equity -- both past and future -- to land Davis, but they will operate with the luxury of being able to entice championship-chasing talent at cheap rates. For as long as James is operating at or near an MVP level, their championship window is open.

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The Celtics have the talent to compete, but their soon-to-be bloated salary cap will make it tougher to add impact talent around their core. Boston has the luxury of a potentially lengthy title window so long as Tatum continues his ascent among the NBA’s elite and Brown continues to blossom into an All-Star talent.

 

Ainge must work magic with Boston’s available picks and coach Brad Stevens must find a way to better develop some of the non-lottery players on the roster, even as the team operates with championship goals.

The Lakers have the better odds at Banner 18 in the short term; the Celtics likely have a longer window to chase titles. The NBA is more fun when Boston and L.A. are in the mix, and the NBA is at its best when these two teams are jousting with each other for those rings.

But the fact remains, the Celtics built a cushion during the Bill Russell era while stacking up 11 titles after Minneapolis won its five. It took a half century but now the Lakers have pulled even. And it’s the Celtics that have some catching up to do in order to ensure they don’t get left behind.