No matter which superstars, with relentless and fulfilling suspense, choose new destinations or reconcile with old ones …
No matter how much we appreciate it in an aesthetic and nostalgic way when a new champion (this year’s Spurs) reminds us of that ultimate champion (the 1986 Boston Celtics) …
No matter how compellingly the NBA, currently in its most entertaining condition since the years preceding the first and only true Dream Team, morphs and evolves …
No matter all of that, because there is one truth that never changes, at least around here for fans of a certain age:
We still view the league through the prism of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry.
I’m not talking about the revival a half-decade ago, when Danny Ainge worked a blockbuster with Kevin McHale, constructed a new Big Three, and ultimately split a pair of Finals showdowns with Kobe Bryant’s Lakers.
And I’m not talking about the ancient Russell/Wilt days, though the roots remain eternally strong.
This is about the glorious ’80s, when Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and a decorated supporting cast gave us the most entertaining prolonged NBA rivalry we’ll ever see, one so enduring that the animosity of the participants lingers a quarter-century later.
Oh, I believe Danny Ainge when he says every maneuver he makes as the Celtics basketball boss is done with one purpose: to upgrade the roster, or to put the franchise in a better position to upgrade the roster down the road, even if it helps out a competitor in the interim.
In 2004, he participated in a three-way trade with the Pistons and Hawks that delivered Rasheed Wallace — and a championship that very season — to Detroit, simply because he thought it had a small but meaningful benefit to the Celtics. He got skewered for it at the time, but it did help: the first-round pick acquired in the deal was used on Tony Allen.
(I do love this quote from the linked story: “Danny (Ainge) brought Chucky [Atkins] in here to be the starting point guard,” Boston interim coach John Carroll said. “I don’t think there was a question of if he was going to start.” The Chucky Atkins/John Carroll days were really just a decade ago?)
Of course, Ainge made another I’ll-help-you-if-it-helps-us trade this week, if you actually want to call it a trade. For the price of a second-round pick and a $10.3 million trade exception, Ainge gladly accepted useful big man Tyler Zeller, Marcus Thornton, and a first-round pick in a three-way deal with the Nets and Cavaliers.
The purpose of the deal — or the gift — from the Cavs’ standpoint was suspected then and delightfully fulfilled this afternoon: They were clearing space to bring LeBron James home.
I could not be happier as a sports fan with no particular rooting interest to see James head back to where it all began. This should only enhance his legacy, something that should have been beyond reproach at this point anyway. He gets it. Maybe he didn’t four years ago. He does now.
He brought the Heat four Finals appearances and two championships. It wasn’t four … five .. six … or seven, but those banners hang in the rafters because of him. They will give the remaining Heat fans something to look at when Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger are running pick-and-rolls next season.
And oh yes, and this relates to Celtics-Lakers, too. It’s in an ancillary way, but one that is pretty damn delicious at the moment. Ainge can deny it — and he has — but by making that deal with the Cavs, he played a role in leaving Pat Riley alone holding his bag of rings.
Here’s what Ainge said when asked Thursday whether he took some pleasure in knowing that helping the Cavs clear cap space was causing Riley night sweats.
“No, I don’t take any pleasure in anyone’s pain. I know this is a tough business and free agency and is all part of what we all go through. I certainly don’t take any joy in seeing great players leave organizations that have been good to them.”
Uh-huh. Suuurrre. Empathetic all the way, right? Yeah, and here’s what I suspect Ainge said when he got the news today:
(That’s Robert Wagner playing the role of Wyc Grousbeck, by the way. Not sure why he needs the eye patch.)
I probably should have rattled off the Riley/Ainge history here a little sooner, but it’s probably not even necessary. If you’re a Celtic fans, you require no lengthy rehash. It’s pretty simple: Riley’s ’80s Lakers won five titles. Ainge was a starting guard on the 1984 and ’86 Celtics champions. Riley’s Heat ended the run of the second Big Three. Riley stole Ray Allen. Riley told Ainge to — let’s make sure we have this right — “shut the [expletive] up and manage his own team” after the latter expressed incredulity at LeBron complaining about the officials in March 2013.
Ainge, whose competitiveness is legendary, has been trumped by Riley and his teams enough that he knows the scoreboard isn’t in his favor. His trade with the Cavaliers was done to make the Celtics better. But that it ultimately played a major role in wrecking Riley’s best-orchestrated plans and reducing the Heat to basketball irrelevance.
Yeah, right, I’m sure Ainge empathizes. Hell, no one outside of Miami empathizes. The Heat are in tatters like a shredded Armani, and Ainge helped make it happen.
It’s so enjoyable that it almost feels like … well, a vintage Celtics victory over the Lakers, doesn’t it? Ainge, you magnificent you-know-what, this round belongs to you.
Now excuse me while I cue up the maniacal laughter. If you listen quietly, you might just hear it coming from the Garden, as well.