By: Kenny Doyle
The Lakers and Celtics will play tonight in a game that will matter far more than a game between a top Eastern Conference team and a low-end Western Conference ever normally would. For the Celtics, the importance is more clear. The Celtics are looking to stretch their win streak out to double digits and hold onto the best record in the NBA, but perhaps what’s more important to the Celtics tonight is that the Lakers lose.
As most Celtics and Lakers fans know, the Celtics own the Lakers pick this year, but only if it falls between selections 2-5 and If that doesn’t happen the Celtics will instead get the Kings 2019 pick (protected for selection #1 overall). The problem with that the Celtics would much rather have the pick this year than in 2019. Considering the fact that former 2019 #1 prospect Marvin Bagley III has already reclassified to be eligible for next year’s draft, it’s clear the 2019 draft is only getting weaker and the 2018 draft is getting stronger.
The Lakers are 5-5 and have had a promising start to the season despite being a very new and young team and a heavily criticized star point guard learning the ropes of their offense which sounds pretty similar to the Celtics situation. Although the most optimistic of projections expected the Lakers to compete for the 8 seed in the West, it seemed very unlikely that the Lakers would outplay teams like the Jazz, Clippers, Pelicans, and all the other Western Conference teams fighting for the final playoff spots that are built much more to win now than the youthful Lakers. Nevertheless, the Lakers are tied for 9th in the conference right now and a win tonight benefits them in ways other than just their spot in the standings.
A national TV win against the 9-2 Celtics for Lonzo Ball and the Lakers would be sure to catch the eye of one LeBron James. LeBron has been speculated to have had his eyes fixed on what Kyrie Irving and the Celtics are doing this season after an angry Instagram post just 5 minutes after the Celtics 9th straight win against a lowly Atlanta Hawks team with only two wins, one of which came against the Cavs just one night before. LeBron denied the post having anything to do with the Celtics, responding to reporters by saying “I just like Arthur”.
LeBron’s frivolous and petty social media games aside, many have predicted a flea to Los Angeles come season’s end for James, but moving to an LA team that finishes 13th in the brutal Western Conference like many expect the Lakers to do doesn’t feel like a good plan to try and win a championship. But if the Lakers can somehow sneak into the playoffs this year, it makes LeBron’s arrival all the more likely. A win over the Celtics on ESPN to get to 6-5 would only add to the appeal of the Lakers for James.
Even if LeBron doesn’t take his talents to long beach, the Lakers and Celtics rivalry is already being rekindled with their youth. For 3 of the last 4 drafts, the Lakers and Celtics have had back to back picks. Marcus Smart was selected 6th in 2014 and Julius Randle 7th. Brandon Ingram was selected 2nd in 2016, Jaylen Brown 3rd. And then this past year, when the Celtics had the #1 pick and the Lakers had #2, the Celtics instead opted to trade back to #3 and let the Lakers take their pick of the crop before making their pick all to gain an extra future draft selection which very well could be the Lakers pick next year. The Lakers selected Lonzo Ball with the 2nd pick and the Celtics followed that by selecting Tatum 3rd overall.
Draft selections are always revisited years later and teams are bashed if there is a player they could have taken and didn’t that turns into a superstar, but the stakes are even higher when the teams that selected those players are the Celtics and Lakers. If the Celtics allowed a superstar to slip to the Lakers and drafted a player that’s not as good, or vice versa, the teams won’t just have missed out on a franchise changing player, but they will have allowed their bitter rivals since the 1960s to be the ones to get him. It hurts anytime you take a bust over a superstar, but the situation these teams are in just adds fuel to the fire. These players will be forever linked together for the rest of their careers.
The Lakers and Celtics rivalry isn’t what it once was, but it has a chance to get back to that place now. Whether you like him or not, there’s something there with Lonzo Ball. He’s 6’6” and has great vision and court awareness. It’s not just that Ball is a Laker, he wasn’t a Laker last year and had just as much buzz around him. It’s his dad, it’s his brand, it’s his contrasting style of play to every other NBA player. NBA players want stats. In the age of triple doubles and 50 point games, a player like Lonzo who would rather have his teammate score 50 than do anything himself is intriguing. Whether that will translate to winning games and Lakers success is something that we won’t know for sure for a long time, but right now you have to accept that Lonzo Ball is going to be around for a while. But while the Lakers have been winning, Ball hasn’t been playing well.
Even if it can be argued that Ball’s unselfish effect on the Lakers has led to their decent record and that Lonzo’s game isn’t about scoring, shooting 29% and 23% from three is an embarrassing mark for any NBA player, nevermind the #2 pick. No matter what kind of player Lonzo is, you can’t get away with shooting that poorly in the NBA. Ball’s form was widely criticized in college, but since it was going in it didn’t matter much. Now that it’s not, the criticism is warranted and Ball might actually have to change his shot at some point, which isn’t good for a player who’s been shooting that way for as long as Lonzo has.
Meanwhile the #3 pick Jayson Tatum has started every game for the Celtics, something no one expected coming into the season, and is playing at an unreal level. Tatum is shooting 50% from the field and an absolutely absurd 53% from three. One of those three’s came against the Atlanta Hawks on Monday with the Celtics up 1 with seconds remaining to seal the Celtics win. While Tatum is hitting clutch baskets for the seas, Lonzo is having one of the worst shooting stretches in NBA history. The case can’t be closed on Tatum vs Ball yet, but the early returns heavily favor the Celtics.
Meanwhile, Jaylen Brown is having a career year and as the #2 option on the East’s best team is dead even in scoring with Brandon Ingram as the Lakers #1 scoring option. Coming into the 2016 draft, Brown was projected to go much lower than #3 and Ingram was the consensus 2nd overall pick, but now it appears to be a toss up between the two. While Ingram has put up some nice stats on defense this season, Brown is still the better defender, even if Ingram has progressed to be pretty solid on that end. Brown-Ingram. Tatum-Ball. These debates could go on for years, but early on the fact that the Celtics are competing for a championship and their young players are playing better than the Lakers top picks has to bother LA fans.
These young players and the draft selection debates will surely respark the Celtics and Lakers rivalry, but LeBron James going to the Lakers is what will change this matchup back into the great rivalry that it once was. Now on top of the young players growing up and facing off, you’ll have LeBron James, who’s hated the Celtics ever since the days where Pierce and Garnett tormented him year after year and forced him to form his superteam in Miami, vs Kyrie Irving, who left LeBron after 3 straight NBA Finals appearances and formed his own superteam with the Celtics.
The rivalry between the two is already huge. One being on the Celtics and the other being on the Lakers only makes it even bigger. Just imagine LeBron James and Kyrie Irving facing off in the Finals in a Celtics vs Lakers matchup. Tonight, we’ll have to settle for the Ball vs Irving.
Even with Horford out, the Celtics will be expected to win. This is a huge game. It may end up being the most important game the Celtics play. This win or loss could end up defining the Lakers season and the Celtics need to shut it down before they get rolling. If the Lakers get to 6-5 tonight, it’s not only going to hurt the Celtics chances at getting the Lakers pick, but it could help their biggest rival’s chances of becoming viable again and landing the best player in the NBA.