Watching the guy selected one pick after the Lakers chose Lonzo Ball second overall in the 2017 NBA Draft lead his team to the NBA Finals is frustrating enough as a fan of the purple and gold. Knowing that he grew up idolizing Kobe, so deeply enamored with the purple and gold that he occasionally accents his already emetic green uniforms with Bryant’s signature armband only makes me sicker.
No longer 19, but still just 24 years old, Jayson Tatum is going to be a fixture in the NBA as one of the NBA’s premier superstars for a very, very long time to come. And if Brad Stevens can in fact walk and chew gum at the same time, he’ll do everything within his power to keep up longtime franchise traditions and make sure that Tatum is a Celtic until the very second he’s no longer useful (even if his athletic degradation comes by way of powering through injury for the good of the franchise, like they did with Kevin McHale, Isaiah Thomas and are doing right now with Robert Williams).
But regardless of whether the Celtics can actually finish the job this time around, Tatum’s ancestry to legitimate superstardom — along with Jaylen Brown’s for that matter — gives Boston a much greater chance of winning their 18th championship before the Lakers do, as currently situated.
Alternatively, prior to July 29, 2021, the Lakers looked again like potential championship favorites so long as their top duo could stay on the court. They had a deep reserve of home-grown talent that fit well around their stars, giving them a defensive infrastructure to keep them in games long enough for LeBron and AD to take over down the stretch — maintaining a top-three net rating during fourth quarters in both 2019-20 and 2020-21 along with a top-three defense in both years.
Instead of licking their wounds and running it back as is after injuries to both LeBron and Anthony Davis undermined their championship chances in 2021-22, the Lakers decided they’d had enough, and opted to do things a different way. Fat from the franchise’s record-tying 17th championship just the season prior, the Lakers’ front office finally caved to LeBron’s perennial demands of increased playmaking to ease his regular-season burden.
In retrospect, purging their entire supporting cast for Russell Westbrook has to be one of the most destructive single transactions in NBA history. Taken in context with LeBron’s public preference to play more off the ball and the franchise’s decision to take the cheaper route towards a shallower roster construction, the Lakers disastrous 2021-22 campaign feels like the result of some organizational complacency. Adding to the collective attitude of entitlement, the Lakers sought out proven veterans looking to add some championship hardware to their trophy cases already stuffed with individual accolades. The Lakers trotted out a cast incapable of doing the little things necessary to win possessions, quarters, and ultimately enough games to even make a play-in appearance, much less an actual postseason berth.
As the team collectively began to understand the immeasurably wide gulf between their aspirations and reality, those vets lacked the night-to-night motivation necessary to keep things competitive. With the NBA’s 24th-ranked defense, but still the 11th-best fourth-quarter net rating, it’s fair to say that the Lakers disengaged from games, only to buckle down after they’d already fallen behind by an insurmountable deficit.
Coming off of what I think is safe to call one of the most disappointing campaigns in professional sports ever, members of the organization seem to be saying all of the right things just as the Celtics are inching closer to another championship. Just before the Celtics earned a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, Lakers owner Jeanie Buss sat down with the LA Times’ Bill Plashke to discuss his heartbreak, frustration, and impatience regarding the team’s steep fall from contention. And as the Celtics left Boston knotted up with the Warriors at two games apiece in the Finals, LeBron posted this Patrick Batemanesque Instagram story to signal his excitement for what will be his 20th NBA season.
Now down three games to two, with Game 6 tonight at TD Garden, the Celtics are on the verge of elimination with the Warriors winning their fourth championship in twice as many years. While any sane Laker fan not ruled by an overwhelming sense of masochism would probably like to see Golden State close the door in the next game of this series (or two, if necessary), it is possible that the shared pain of a Celtics comeback gives the Lakers has greater sense of urgency to go out and sixteen their own 18th championship.
Of course, I’d rather see the Lakers remain tied with the Celtics at 17 championships than fall behind by one, but if another Celtics chip would give the Lakers the requisite fire to get the job done, I’ll take 18-18 over 17-17 any day.
Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can hear him on the Lakers Multiverse Podcast and find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.