Coming into Thursday night's Celtics-Lakers game at TD Garden, the natural question to ask was which of the two great franchises was in better shape. Both teams had underachieved and suffered major injuries. Both teams came into the game hot, the Lakers having won 7 of 8 and the Celtics five straight. At the end of the night, with a decisive 116-95 win, the Celtics proved they're in a better place right now than their reeling rivals.
But the question of if you'd rather be the Celtics or Lakers takes a back seat when looking toward the future. Going forward, the question should be whether or not the Celtics would rather be who they are at this moment or a team that has already started rebuilding. The Pacers, Warriors, Cavaliers, and Pistons all have young talent and are at varying stages of developing it. Each offers a potential blueprint if the Celtics decide to make major changes before the Feb. 21 NBA trade deadline.
Before examining that potential future, let's look at where the Celtics are now. They've won six straight games since a season-ending injury to All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo. They also recently lost standout rookie Jared Sullinger for the year to a back injury. Recent performance aside, the injuries are assumed to take the Celtics out of serious contention for the NBA title this season. That mirrors the situation of the Lakers, who lost Pau Gasol for most of the rest of this season and have been dealing with injuries to center Dwight Howard.
"It seems like [the Celtics] have a renewed type of energy, a desperation like we're in," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said before the game.
While the Lakers coach doesn't see either team as a serious contender, it would be unfair to totally dismiss Boston's latest run. The Celtics have played inspired basketball without Rondo, with no game more inspiring than Thursday night's. With Avery Bradley, Courtney Lee, and Jeff Green wreaking havoc on defense and booking it up the court for dunks, Paul Pierce displaying masterful shot-making, and Kevin Garnett waxing poetic after scoring his 25,000th NBA point, the on-court product was sensational. The Celtics held a 21-point lead late in the third quarter and it seemed like every fan in TD Garden chanted "de-fense," urging the home team to keep it going. It was as fun an atmosphere as there has been in six years in that building.
"I don't know what Danny [Ainge] and upper management has up their sleeves as far as making this team better," said Garnett. "We as players can only control us. Right now we're in a rhythm. We're moving the ball well. It sounds like a broken record, but we are."
Said Pierce, "I don't know if it's sending a message, but we're going to be a team that's going to compete every night. ... We're fine with flying under the radar."
Flying under the radar is unlikely to sway Ainge to keep things the status quo. The Celtics locker room has been a happy place of late, but the team has been winning. If the Celtics suffer a three or four-game losing streak, they would once again be faced with the serious question of who they want to be.
Neither Boston or Los Angeles is an easy place in which to rebuild. The drama and expectations surrounding both teams magnify every decision. The Lakers had more embedded media covering D'Antoni's press conference Thursday night than the Celtics had covering Doc Rivers, who was coaching the home team. Celtics fans endured 18 straight losses during the 2006-07 season just six years ago. Is the fan base really ready to go through that again?
Teams like Indiana and Golden State provide one kind of model going forward. Both are solid playoff teams at the moment, but neither has gotten anywhere significant with a youth movement. It's one thing to assemble young talent and make the playoffs. It's another to get that team over the hump. Neither team has a proven player anywhere near the caliber of a Garnett or Pierce. Both could be a Garnett or Pierce away from serious contention. As a Celtics fan, would you trade places with those teams right now? Are they closer to their next title than Boston is?
What about Cleveland and Detroit? Both are decidedly not playoff teams, but they each have a core of young talent. Detroit has two big men in Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond who could be inside forces for the next 10 seasons. Guard Brandon Knight still has a chance to live up to his draft status. Meanwhile in Cleveland, Kyrie Irving could be the best guard in the NBA in two or three years. He and rookie Dion Waiters could form a lethal backcourt, with rookie big man Tyler Zeller growing up alongside the relentless Anderson Varejao.
What those teams have in common is a collection of pieces that haven't come together yet. They may never. The Celtics have pieces, too. A healthy Rondo and Sullinger would join Bradley and Green next season as a young core. Lee, Terry, and Bass could fill the roles they do now. Fab Melo is a wild card for the future. The question is whether or not Ainge wants to let Garnett and Pierce, who are carrying the team now, retire as Celtics in a couple seasons or bring back more pieces in a trade. Each could bring a draft pick or young talent in return. Any deal risks making the team worse now for a gamble in the long term.
Garnett said Thursday if it were up to him he'd spend the rest of his career in Boston and retire a Celtic. He has a no-trade clause, so it very well could be his choice. Both he and Pierce clearly have a preference to stay and produce a few more of those magical nights at the Garden, though it's doubtful either wants to be part of a rebuilding process. Pierce has one more season left on his contract, Garnett two. Whether they like it or not, the Celtics will need to rebuild sooner rather than later. We should know within the next couple of weeks just how soon that process is going to start.