A battle between GMs
June 4, 2008
While basketball fans anxiously await the revival of the NBA’s most historic rivalry, the finals matchup between the Lakers and the Celtics represents a clash of two squads who have traveled this far largely due to recent personnel upgrades.
Between the acquisitions made by Danny Ainge of the Celtics and those of Mitch Kupchak of the Lakers, Boston and Los Angeles have paved their respective ways to play for basketball’s greatest prize.
In Bean Town
After joining the Celtics, Ainge quickly became a controversial figure, trading away the popular All-Star forward Antoine Walker in October 2003. In the following seasons, Ainge traded for notoriously-egotistical players such as Ricky Davis, while also reacquiring and again trading Walker.
His willingness to break up the roster and swap players at will made him a target of criticism among Boston fans, particularly in the 2006 and 2007 seasons, where the Celtics came away with a combined 57 wins.
But on Draft Day 2007, Ainge made a deal that began a remarkable turnaround from the league’s most historic franchise. Team captain and stalwart forward Paul Pierce threatened Ainge to either acquire a veteran of his own caliber or be dealt to a contender. Ainge responded by sending guards Delonte West and Wally Szczerbiak with the fifth-overall pick to Seattle in return for the 35th-overall pick and long time sharpshooter Ray Allen.
Just 33 days later, Ainge pulled off one of the biggest trades in NBA history, shipping five players, two first round picks, and cash considerations to Minnesota for former MVP forward Kevin Garnett. In the next month, Ainge signed guard Eddie House and forward James Posey to the roster. With these moves, Ainge not only acquired four key contributors to aid Boston in its climb to the top of the league, but brought satisfaction to a previously disgruntled star in Pierce.
Garnett would prove to become the heart and soul of the team’s defense, earning the Defensive Player of the Year Award and making the Celtics the league’s second-best defense.
Rejuvenated, Pierce put up another All-Star caliber season, while the scoring of Allen reduced the pressure upon both Pierce and Garnett to work harder on offensive end, allowing for more defensive concentration.
Each of Boston’s new “Big Three” came up with huge performances during the Celtics’ playoff run, guiding them past Atlanta, Cleveland, and Detroit en route to their 20th trip to the NBA Finals.
House offered the presence of an energetic veteran to run the point when starter Rajon Rondo rested, while Posey exhibited tremendous defensive poise down the stretch, making key plays in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals to seal the series. Ainge’s involvement in assembling such a successful roster through complicated deals landed him the NBA Executive of the Year award.
On the Left Coast
On the Lakers’ side, though Kupchak has owned the title of general manager since 2000, many fans would argue that in reality, guard Kobe Bryant assumes the responsibility of this role. Bryant has offered a tremendous amount of criticism to Kupchak over the years, voicing his displeasure when the team struggled and frequently requesting trades to contending teams.
He seemingly single-handedly drove All-Star center Shaquille O’Neal and legendary coach Phil Jackson from Los Angeles, while complaining when Kupchak failed to pull the trigger on possible deals for Minnesota’s Garnett and All-Star New Jersey point guard Jason Kidd.
Despite the unrelenting ridicule however, Kupchak continued to work at assembling a team that could return the Lakers to prominence. From 2005-2006, Kupchak drafted center Andrew Bynum, Ronny Turiaf, and Jordan Farmar. Though Bynum has not played since Jan. 13, each of the three were key contributors during the season in Los Angeles’ run to the top of the Western Conference.
In July 2007, Kupchak brought back a fan and player favorite, who had taken a three-year absence, in point guard Derek Fisher. As an energetic starter, Fisher has buried key shots while running the Lakers’ offense throughout the season.
In Kupchak’s biggest deal during his tenure, the Lakers acquired All-Star center Pau Gasol on Feb. 1 by dealing four players, two first-round picks, and cash to Memphis in a trade that could almost be classified as theft. This deal more than anything demonstrated Kupchak’s value to the team, as he managed to obtain Gasol for little more than two draft picks, while simultaneously ridding Los Angeles of the hopeless Kwame Brown.
Even Bryant supported this deal, commenting to reporters, “(Kupchak) goes from an F to an A-plus.” Gasol fit Jackson’s “Triangle Offense” perfectly and the Lakers finished the regular season at 22-5 with him in the lineup. With his inside presence, the Lakers have breezed through the first three rounds of the playoffs, winning twelve of fifteen games against quality opponents in Denver, Utah, and reigning champion San Antonio.
Kupchak’s role in amassing a roster that conquered the tightest Western Conference in recent memory has been a huge factor in giving the Lakers an opportunity to win their 15th NBA championship. This, along with the bold moves made by Ainge, shall go a long way towards determining whether Boston or Los Angeles triumphs in a rejuvenated clash of storied NBA titans.
Davey DeChant is a senior at Battle Mountain High School.