On July 31, 2007, something happened that set the course for the next half-decade of American professional basketball: the Boston Celtics traded five players and two draft picks to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Garnett. Then about six months later, the team’s age-old rival from across the country, the Los Angeles Lakers, responded by upping the ante, trading three players and two draft picks to the Memphis Grizzlies for Pau Gasol. The two trades, and the ensuing personnel moves they helped make possible, would fortify the two teams into perennial powerhouses, in the process reviving a feud that had once (twice, even) defined the NBA, and would result in the teams combining to win the next three championships — two of which even featured the clubs squaring off against each other, as they did six times in the ’60s, and three times in the ’80s.
That’s all over now. If one more nail in the coffin of Lakers-Celtics, Mk. III was needed, it was certainly provided in this year’s postseason, when for the first time since the Pau and KG trades, both teams have lost in the first round, in series that neither were expected to win. Both teams are in a state of personnel-related turmoil that they largely managed to avoid over the first five seasons of their resurgence; now, of the many players who have defined the two franchises, it’s unclear if any of them will be back and healthy at the start of next season. The Lakers and Celtics will almost certainly be really good again, possibly at the same time, and possibly even soon, but it won’t be with this same cast of characters, or anything close. It’s time to move on.
Still, upon the death of this latest incarnation of the NBA’s oldest and greatest rivalry, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the significance that Lakers-Celtics III played in re-shaping the NBA over its half-decade of prominence, how it helped revive the league from one of its deeper lulls, and how it now leaves the league in a much better place than where it found it. Not to mention, the many memories it provided, the careers it validated, and the mythology it helped re-perpetuate.
Consider what the league was like just before the Kevin Garnett trade. The reigning powers in the West and East were the Spurs (who won three championships in five seasons) and Pistons (who made five straight conference finals, soon to be six), seemingly because no other franchise had come along that was talented and consistent enough to totally dethrone them. The Pacers once appeared to be building a championship-caliber team, but they were derailed by the Malice at the Palace, and gutted by the ensuing suspensions and trade demands. The Heat and Mavericks both made the Finals in 2006, but fell apart shortly afterwards, neither team winning a single playoff series for another three years. The Suns tried to prove you could do it without defense, and very well might have if not for the basketball gods (and/or the Spurs, and/or David Stern, and/or their own cheapskate owner) constantly getting in their way. And whether or not he was personally ready, it’d take the Cavs another couple of years to realize LeBron James needed more than Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden as “help” to win his first title, though he did manage to drag Cleveland to their first and only Finals appearance in franchise history, anyway.
It might not have been a state of chaos in the NBA, exactly, but it had precious little in the way of order or narrative. Average NBA fans found it tough to muster excitement for history-devoid Finals matchups like Heat-Mavericks or Spurs-Cavaliers, and not even diehard NBA fans could make a whole lot out of the resulting games from the latter, four low-scoring games all won by San Antonio, which produced the lowest ratings in NBA Finals history. Though teams like the Seven Seconds or Less Suns and the We Believe Warriors gained well-deserved followings, there was no big market, powerhouse team to really capture the nation’s imagination the way the Jordan Bulls or Shaq Lakers had — and that’s exactly what the NBA suddenly needed to distract fans from the Tim Donaghy scandal, which broke just about a week before the KG trade and threatened to undermine the integrity of the entire sport. (“After the most damaging NBA season in three decades … we reached the tipping point with Tim Donaghy,” wrote a noted Lakers-Celtics anthologist for ESPN. “Guilty or innocent, we will never watch an NBA game the same way.”)
While all this was going on, Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant were toiling away on subpar Celtics and Lakers teams, either just scraping their way into the playoffs and losing in the first round, or missing the postseason entirely, as Kobe did in ’05 and Pierce did in ’06 and ’07. By summer ’07, both franchise players were growing impatient and gritting their teeth through their team’s lean years. Adrian Wojnarowski reported in June of that year that Paul Pierce would request a trade shortly after draft night were he not paired with “a talented veteran co-star,” and Kobe actually did request a trade, very nearly being sent to Detroit. But both stars were talked off the ledge, with Pierce particularly assuaged by the Celtics’ draft night deal for perennial All-Star Ray Allen, and Bryant eventually comforted by the improvement of big man prospect Andrew Bynum in his third season, a player who Kobe had previously insisted the Lakers deal for veteran help. Soon, of course, both players would get the blockbuster deal to validate their hard-earned patience.