Commentary

Not better with age

After five years of renewed rivalry, Celtics and Lakers in transition

Updated: January 30, 2013, 4:39 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

Throughout an unattractive season, there is something beautiful in watching the Boston Celtics. The beauty lies in their haunting, collective mortality, of watching great players struggling to reach a level they once did routinely. The result has been a season of frustration and mediocrity, and bittersweet finality that has included their Hall of Fame-destined captain barely being able to dribble in the clutch twice in the past week, blowing a 27-point lead to Atlanta, and needing overtime at home to beat -- yes -- Washington earlier this year. Yet the Celtics have still produced brief periods of excellence and heart, fueled by pride, as evidenced Sunday in a double-overtime win over Miami.

[+] EnlargePaul Pierce
Jim Davis/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesPaul Pierce isn't just feeling Rajon Rondo's pain; he's feeling the weight of the Celtics settling back on him.

Doc Rivers does not have a great team. He does not have, at present, even a very good one. He does not have a young team. He cannot be secure as he once was that his parts are routinely better than those of his opponents. What the Celtics do have is professionalism, players capable of providing a performance in an important moment. Perhaps the only reason they defeated the Heat was because it was a game against this opponent, on national television, with Ray Allen returning to Boston. There is a beauty in players who take pride in not being embarrassed. Pride will not, in all likelihood, save them this season. Pride won't be enough. Rajon Rondo, their best player, is gone for the season with a torn right ACL, and the remaining Hall of Fame-level pieces, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett cannot fight long enough or hard enough to defeat their true enemy: the grueling length of the regular season that devours old legs long before a two-month long playoff season picks the meat off of their collective tired bones. A championship effort against Miami does not erase the fact that their next opponent, woeful 17-29 Sacramento, beat them by 22 a month ago.

For the last five years, professional basketball was returned to its best, natural state: The game's two most successful franchises, the Celtics and the Lakers, having combined for 52 Finals appearances and 33 championships, were annually in the championship conversation. It wasn't the 1960s or the 1980s, when they or Philadelphia were the favorites almost every year, but both were good enough and talented enough and compelling enough to create anticipation of another Celtics-Lakers meeting come June.

This year, the Celtics and Lakers have decayed. Both began the season believing they could squeeze another year out of their cores while reinventing themselves with a new top player, the trade for Dwight Howard in L.A. and the continued maturation of Rondo in Boston.

The problem for both is a curious structural one: In the NBA, a team's best player must also be its best offensive player. Wilt was the best player, so Wilt got the ball. Ditto for Kareem, Bird, Jordan, Isiah, Kobe, LeBron and Durant. While it might be debated that James Worthy was a better offensive player than Magic Johnson, it was Johnson with the Hall of Fame reel of buzzer-beaters. The best player scores and the best player wins. It is the nature of the NBA.

In transition both the Celtics and Lakers tried to defy this historical fact, and it is why both teams are in deep trouble. Rondo is the Celtics' best player. He is their future, their most marketable piece, their most valuable asset. For all his quickness and speed and court presence and vision and electricity, Rondo is not a natural scorer; he is a dreadful free throw shooter and he possesses a frightening outside shot that every team in the league loves to see him take.

Rondo is the natural on-court leadership transition from Pierce, but Rondo cannot carry a team in the fourth quarter, or at all if it requires scoring without the use of floaters, runners and layups. Thus the onus falls back to Pierce to close out quarters and games, and at 35, Pierce can no longer carry this heavy burden consistently. He is shooting 41.9 percent from the field; can be guarded by younger, fresher players; and has never had top-level ball-handling skills. The Pierce Doomsday Scenario -- watching him double-teamed into a crunch-time turnover -- has become too painful to watch, because when he was younger and terrific, he just might have been the most dangerous scorer in Boston history. He does, however, take being a Celtic seriously, and that valiance provides compelling moments of a competitor who has more desire than remaining ability. It is good for periodic one-night theater, bad for 82 meat-grinding games.

In Los Angeles, the dynamic is the same. Pride matters, and the win Sunday over defending conference champ Oklahoma City was the team's best this season. Howard is the big man, the supposedly rare franchise player that the Lakers have always been able to acquire. Like Rondo and Pierce, Howard is supposed to handle the transition from dependence on Kobe Bryant as he ages, just as Bryant transitioned the Lakers from Shaquille O'Neal, and Tim Duncan transitioned the Spurs from David Robinson.

Like Rondo, Howard can be many terrific things, but a smooth offensive scorer who breaks down defenses and has plays drawn for him as the air thins is not one of them. He does many commercials and fills off-court roles well with a big personality, but his offensive game has not improved in several seasons. Injuries make him less a force now than when the Lakers beat his Orlando Magic in the Finals four years ago. Howard still doesn't have a signature offensive move, is an even more dreadful foul shooter than Rondo (he's in Shaq territory), and cannot stay healthy.

In terms of polish, Howard is the Lakers' third-best scorer at best, behind Bryant and Pau Gasol and the Lakers have been reduced to returning to the comfort of Bryant and their .700 winning percentage when he scores 40 or more points. Howard, who only averages five made shots per game, might even be the fourth-best option behind Steve Nash.

The difference is that the Lakers are in a better position than the Celtics. Bryant -- always a superior player to Pierce -- can still carry a club, just not as convincingly as a few years ago. They are, after all, the Lakers; the team, with the exception of a few brief stretches, has had a top-three talent since the end of the Korean War, from Mikan to West to Baylor to Chamberlain to Abdul-Jabbar to Magic to Shaq to Kobe. If the Howard situation doesn't work out, the Lakers always find free-agent players who want to play in Los Angeles. It is the marquee franchise virtually every player in the league aspires to join with its unbeatable geography, history and finances. The Lakers are rarely down for long.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesKobe Bryant remains the Lakers' best offensive option.

The Celtics, meanwhile, appear to be in more dire territory. The Celtics curse remains the same: No A-list free-agent player in his prime has chosen to sign with Boston. Thus, the Celtics have historically rebounded via trade and draft: Robert Parish and the draft pick used for Kevin McHale arrived in exchange for the picks that ended up being Joe Barry Carroll and Rickey Brown; Dennis Johnson for Rick Robey (picks were also exchanged); and, most recently, the two trades that brought in Allen and Kevin Garnett and resuscitated the franchise. The Celtics, once haunted by having two lottery picks and still failing to land Duncan, may be haunted by two more events: not winning the title in 2010 (thanks to an oddly lackluster Game 3, Kendrick Perkins' injury in Game 6 and an inability to close a double-digit second-half lead that signaled the clearest signs that Pierce could no longer close as he did in 2008) and Chris Paul's refusal to play in Boston.

Had Paul chosen the Celtics over the Clippers, the rebuilding process might not seem so daunting. Their best player would again be their best scorer, a transcendent player to build around. Paul, however, rejected Boston because he was wary of the aging core of the team and didn't want to return to what he was in New Orleans and what Pierce was before him in Boston: the best player on a bad team.

For the Celtics, the rest of the year will be an exercise in toughness. The Lakers come to town next week, and the Heat and Knicks also return to Boston later in the season. Boston is currently the eighth seed in the East, which would mean a rematch with Miami, this time in the first round rather than the conference finals. The Celtics are at the mercy of age and injury. The rigors of the season will attack and erode them while they use heart and professionalism and pride to conjure up performances like they did against Miami, if nothing else than a reminder that they intend not to go away quietly. There will be awful nights to come, and it likely won't produce a championship, but their professionalism is still worth watching.