As a sports fan, there will be many great athletes that you don’t like but ultimately have to respect.
Oftentimes, the star of a rival team will be infuriating enough as you watch him eviscerate your team in the closing minutes of a tight game, but when said player earns your ire off the court, they become harder to respect.
With that said, from an on-the-court perspective, it is hard not to respect Kobe Bryant.
He was the best player in the sport for almost a decade (apologies to Tim Duncan), and won five NBA titles over that span. He is the all-time leading scorer for one of the most historically renowned franchises in the game.
And as a fan of the Boston Celtics growing up, he frustrated the hell out of me.
But, I couldn’t help respecting his ability to score, a talent for which he is unrivaled. In addition, he was a big part of the revival of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry in the late 2000’s for a new generation of fans to marvel at and follow alongside their parents’ generation.
Ultimately, Kobe and crew split the Finals’ match-ups with the Celtics, as the Green Team took home the Larry O’Brien Trophy in 2008 and the Lakers won the rematch in 2010. The Lakers victory gave them their second straight championship, as they beat Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic in 2009, who had upset the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals.
That was the last championship either team would win, and in the 5-year interim the teams have moved in starkly contrasting directions. The Celtics disbanded and rebuilt after the 2013 season saw an aging Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce unable to lead their team past the first round. Head coach Brad Stevens was hired and remaining stars Jeff Green and Rajon Rondo were traded just one year into his tenure.
The Lakers tried to refresh their roster, trading center Andrew Bynum for Dwight Howard and bringing in Steve Nash, but ultimately struggled just as mightily in the 2014 season as the Celtics did after Howard and Pau Gasol each left for brighter pastures. A carousel of coaches has attempted to replace “The Zenmaster” Phil Jackson, but so far, none have inspired confidence.
Now, Bryant prepares for his last game in the TD Garden, against a Celtics team coming off a surprise playoff appearance. The Celtics have expedited their rebuild with smart trading and value free agents, whereas the Lakers will likely need to attract a superstar through free agency to fast forward their own rebuild.
At the point guard position, each team has a youngster brimming with potential. The sixth overall pick in 2014, Marcus Smart came into the league and immediately started thriving for the Celtics as a tenacious defender. Across from him, D’Angelo Russell, the #2 pick in 2015, has been struggling to get playing time for Lakers coach Byron Scott but was heralded as perhaps the best player in his draft.
The Lakers also have the player selected after Smart, Julius Randle, who missed out on his rookie season to an injury. But instead of developing these two young talents, LA is
tanking relying on veteran leadership to right it’s 5-27 start to the season. The Lakers have 3 ball dominant volume shooting guards alongside the prototype of that model Bryant in Nick Young, Jordan Clarkson and Lou Williams. They also brought in former Celtic Brandon Bass (perhaps to mentor Randle) and Roy Hibbert.
The Celtics have a bevy of young good-not-great players taking turns as the star of the show in Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger. They also have role-players Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, Evan Turner, and Tyler Zeller rounding out a team that prioritizes depth. The Celtics bright future is accentuated by youngsters James Young, Terry Rozier, RJ Hunter, and Jordan Mickey developing in the D-League, a slew of draft picks and their biggest advantage of all over the Lakers: Stevens.
But to be fair, even though the Celtics have achieved more success than the Lakers have in the early-going of their rebuild, the Lakers could just as easily be the first team to return to the Finals. All it takes is one big signing, or hitting it big with a star in the draft to return to prominence, and the Celtics are notably lacking a star despite the best efforts of Danny Ainge.
As for the upcoming game, it would take a miracle performance from the elder superstar Bryant to lead the hapless Lakers over a Celtics team that is in the mix as one of the best in the Eastern Conference. With the return of Smart, the Celtics have all the pieces in place to go on a run that would propel them toward the top of the standings. As a consensus top defensive team, the Celtics would be contenders if they could achieve consistent offensive production. But that is not as simple as it sounds, and it has been the C’s Achilles heel all year.
They will need to find their own Bryant (okay, not actually the next Kobe but run with me here) before they are able to achieve the championship heights.