10 things about Modern Celtics-Lakers XX

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There are regular-season games, there are important regular-season games, and then there is Celtics-Lakers. On Sunday the two contenders will meet for the 20th time since the start of the 2007-2008 season, when the rivalry was truly renewed as Andrew Bynum emerged and the Lakers became good enough to justify trading for Pau Gasol, and the Celtics’ Big 3 first took the court together. It is the first meeting since the Celtics walked off the Staples Center floor in June, purple and gold confetti falling on them as the Lakers celebrated their championship after a fierce and ugly Game 7. Now the two will renew their rivalry, and although nothing in January will match the intensity of a Finals meeting, this will be as close as it gets.

So what are the factors in play Sunday? Here’s a rundown of 10 things in play when L.A. and Boston renew their historic rivalry.

1. The Old Gang

The players you know and love in this rivalry will all be on the floor. Kobe Bryant. Ray Allen. Kevin Garnett. Paul Pierce. Pau Gasol. Andrew Bynum. Kendrick Perkins. Lamar Odom. Rajon Rondo. Derek Fisher. All the relevant starters from 2008 and 2010 are starting Sunday, and all are healthy enough to play, which is good news. These players know one another, these players dislike one another, these players enjoy playing against one another. Garnett and Bryant provide fascinating contemporaries, both out of high school and legends on opposite sides of the court. The only players with relevant history in this rivalry who are missing are Sasha Vujacic, so he can get taken off the dribble by Ray Allen, and Tony Allen so he can vanish as the game continues. Part of the draw of this game is that it does feature not only the teams in the rivalry, but the full cast of players who have re-ignited it.

2. The Rondo effect

Rondo was dealing with a back injury in last year’s Finals and did not look full strength. This is no excuse, both sides had injuries to deal with, most notably Bynum playing on a torn knee tendon and Perkins out after tearing a knee up. But Rondo was not at full strength. Rondo also has dealt with injuries this season and has pretty much gone from injured list to playing brilliantly. His assist numbers have been pretty ridiculous this season, averaging 12.5 assists per game, and 50.4 percent of all assists for the Celtics, which is kind of insane.

Rondo’s best regular-season game against the Lakers was last Jan. 31, when he tallied 21 points, 12 assists, five rebounds, and two steals in a painful loss. In the playoffs, Rondo’s best game was in the ’08 series, with 21 points, seven rebounds, eight assists, and six steals in a huge win for the Celtics. He also had a triple-double in the Finals last June. When Rondo plays well, it’s a decided advantage for the Celtics, who cannot guard him with Fisher and have to adjust by putting other players on him and sending doubles. That will open up things. Rondo needs to be huge for the Celtics.

3. The New L.A. Bandstand

While the starters are mostly the same for L.A. and Boston, the reserves are wildly different. L.A. will be missing Matt Barnes for the game, but Steve Blake is in place, and Shannon Brown is a much bigger part than he was when the teams met in 2008. Brown had a nearly mute series against the Celtics in the Finals, but the three games he played the most in were all wins for the Lakers. With Nate Robinson coming off the bench on the other side, the Lakers need Brown to make his mark with his suddenly blistering outside shooting and take the pressure off the rest of the offense. Blake provides a competent backup to run the point and another perimeter shooter. Blake has been erratic this season, brilliant at times and disappointing in others.

4. The New Green Gang

But the biggest changes are on the other bench’s reserve units. The Celtics feature the deepest team they’ve had behind the Big 3. With Shaquille O’Neal, Von Wafer, the aforementioned Nate Robinson and Marquis Daniels healthy, along with Semih Erden and Luke Harangody getting minutes, the Celtics are able to make runs at different times with their bench units. If the Big 3 aren’t having a stellar game, the Celtics can still win with their bench, led in particular, by Davis.

5. The Drunken Seal Show

Davis plays a bigger and better part this season than he ever has. He’s leading the league in charges (estimated). He’s a top-notch defender in all areas, and his offense is as good as ever, hitting 37 percent from mid-range, and a career high 64 percent at the rim. Davis has brought energy and poise off the bench, and is a legit Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Countering the Lakers’ size beneath with his awkward, falling style of scoring and tough defense (as well as spittle) will be a key for the Celtics.

6. Finally healthy

Bynum has been a beast since coming back from his umpteenth knee surgery. He’s playing well on both sides of the ball and he makes the Lakers a wholly different, and better team, as showcased in the Finals last season. He’s the difference-maker for the Lakers. With him in the lineup, rebounds are a nightmare for L.A. opponents. He’s matched up with Perkins, who is still trying to recover in his fourth game back, and against O’Neal, who’s no spring chicken. If Bynum comes out aggressive, he could bury the Celtics.

7. Tactical artillery

The Celtics have an uncanny ability to free up Ray Allen, a constant threat from the outside, for open three-pointers. They like to run him off multiple screens, often weaving an opponent back across the same screen just to free him up for a minute. Allen’s precision is such that when his stroke is on target, it seems superhuman. He buried the Lakers last year in Game 2 of the Finals, hitting eight threes. That came two years after he nailed seven against L.A. in a clinching Game 6. When the Celtics get Allen the ball in space and he’s hot, he can drive Lakers fans to tear out their hair.

8. Best Big on the Floor?

Gasol is thought by many to be the best big in the NBA. Against the Celtics, his smooth, fancy footwork is offset by the Celtics’ brutal physicality. He has the turnaround every seven-footer dreams of and is thought of by some to be a more important part of the Lakers’ offense than even Bryant. Denying the entry pass needs to be top priority for the Celtics. Fronting Gasol won’t work because lobs lead him to tiny soft lay-ins. The only solution is to challenge on the perimeter, then bring weak-side help to get him trapped. The Celtics can block him if they get him in traffic, where they almost never get called for fouls for some reason. But in the mid-post, Gasol can do serious damage.

9. The Great One

Bryant is having an up-and-down season, at times his same brilliant self and at times looking very much the aging star. Outside of the clutch questions, he’s gone outside the boundaries of the triangle offense significantly at times, going one-on-five and putting his teammates in an offensive coma. But then, it’s still Bryant. Bryant is due for an explosive game, and after a disappointing loss to the Kings, and after the debacle on Christmas, Sunday is right up his alley for a breakout.

10. All in the system

Boston’s greatest asset, even more so than their star power, is their defensive system. They bring help at the right times, challenge all shots inside, foul when appropriate, or available, or fun, and harass their opponent on the perimeter. The triangle offense creates problems for this with quick passing, but it also creates congestion which the Celtics can capitalize on. They like to isolate Lakers and make them go into forced shots, which often the Lakers’ long shooters are primed for. Odom will need to deliver off sharp cuts, and passing has to be at a premium. A lack of ball movement against the C’s, and the Lakers’ offense will drown.

PBT Podcast: Breaking down the Kyrie Irving trade

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Is LeBron James more likely to stay in Cleveland now?

Are the Boston Celtics contenders? Are they better set up for the future?

There are a lot more questions that come out of the surprise Kyrie Irving trade to the Boston Celtics for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the 2018 Brooklyn Nets pick. It’s a deal that is a big win for Cleveland, they got more than they should have expected in return. However, this is in no way a bad deal for the Celtics.

Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports break it all down in this latest PBT Podcast.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunes (just click the button under the podcast), subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out our new PBT podcast homepage and archive at Audioboom.com.

Report: Clippers reach deal with Michael Winger to be new GM

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We knew this was coming, now it’s about to be official.

Former Oklahoma City Thunder assistant GM Michael Winger is about to take over as the general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers. They offered him the job last week, now the sides have agreed to terms, and he will sign a deal soon, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Oklahoma City Thunder executive Michael Winger has reached an agreement in principle to become the general manager of the LA Clippers, league sources told ESPN on Wednesday.

Doc Rivers is no longer the guy with the hammer in Los Angeles, he will just be coaching the Clippers (and still getting $10 million a year paychecks, in case you think he’ll just walk away). The power structure now has Lawrence Frank at the top as the President of Basketball Operations, with Winger doing to work under him. The Clippers are expected to hire Trent Redden, one of David Griffin’s former right hand men in Cleveland, to work under Winger as an assistant GM. The Clippers also are expected to hire another assistant GM soon.

Frank, Winger and crew take over a team in transition. Chris Paul is gone, but the Clippers locked up Blake Griffin on a max deal this summer, they got a good veteran point guard in Patrick Beverley from Houston, and they signed Danilo Gallinari. They picked up some good young players in the CP3 trade such as Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker (who they now need to develop). The Clippers should be in the mix for one of the final three playoff slots in the West next season, but that doesn’t answer the bigger picture questions. Are the Clippers a team rebuilding for the future on the fly? Are they looking to stay good and relevant until they can get their new building in Inglewood constructed? Are they a year or two away from a total rebuild?

Steve Ballmer ultimately gets to make that call. It will be up to Winger to execute it.

Kyrie Irving trade doesn’t change LeBron James’ plans. Probably.

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The Kyrie Irving trade to Boston was really about LeBron James.

Irving wanted out of LeBron’s shadow in Cleveland and asked for a trade. Cleveland got in Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder two guys who can help them win next season and chase a ring (and the Warriors) while LeBron is in Cleveland. It also gave the Cavaliers the Brooklyn Nets pick next draft and Ante Zizic, players that could help Cleveland rebuild if LeBron leaves next summer as a free agent.

What this trade doesn’t do is change LeBron’s calculus.

Probably.

LeBron can opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent next summer, and he almost certainly will do that. Even if he wanted to stay in Cleveland, he’d opt out to sign a bigger, longer deal.

What has not changed with this trade is the sense around the league is LeBron has one foot out the door — good luck finding anyone who thinks he’s likely to stay a Cav after next season. He seems ready to move on to the next chapter and challenge, having brought a ring to Cleveland and it looks like this era and team has played itself out.

However, what LeBron has done well is leave his options open, something he has done very intentionally sources tell me. Maybe he wants to go to Los Angeles to enjoy the weather, be close to his business interests, and chase rings with Lonzo Ball and whoever else the Lakers can land in free agency (such as Paul George). Maybe Blake Griffin is on to something and he wants to be a Knick. Maybe a lot of things, the point is LeBron left his options open to make whatever call he wants.

Including staying in Cleveland. Even if it’s a longshot right now, a season is a lifetime in the NBA and attitudes shift.

With this trade, the Cavaliers remain the team to beat in the East, and Crowder gives them the kind of shooter and wing defender the team desperately needed in a matchup with the Warriors (they need more like him). The reality is that if the Warriors are healthy, maybe the series ends in six games instead of five (and that’s a big maybe), but Golden State is still clearly superior. However, the Cavs will be in the Finals, they will get their shot — and stuff happens. We’ve seen it before, a player misses a game (let’s say due to a suspension for kicking) or another has an injury and is not quite 100 percent, and the door opens — then LeBron and Thomas can bust right through it. If the Cavaliers are in the Finals, they have a chance.

Win a ring, or even if the Cavs look like they can legitimately win a ring, LeBron will take it into consideration. That’s where the Brooklyn Nets pick comes in — maybe the Cavs can draft an elite player to add to the mix, or maybe they can trade the pick to get another top veteran player to come to Cleveland to round out the team.

That’s a lot of ifs. LeBron still is more likely to leave then stay next summer. His thoughts, his calculus does not change. What this trade does is give the Cavaliers a slightly better shot at a ring (even though Thomas has some serious defensive issues that can be exposed). With that there’s a chance.

The trade also gives Cleveland options if LeBron looks like he’s leaving. They have a little more flexibility, too.

Winners, losers in the Kyrie Irving trade to Boston

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Here’s the hard thing about coming up with this list: There really weren’t big losers.

Unlike some of the other blockbuster trades this summer — Jimmy Butler to Minnesota, Paul George to Oklahoma City — the trade of Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and Brooklyn’s first-round pick next draft didn’t have a clear loser. The Cavs did well in the short term and got themselves more flexibility, the Celtics may have set themselves up for future banners. So this list is heavy with winners. But here it is.

Winner: Cleveland Cavaliers. Once it became public knowledge that Irving wanted out of Cleveland their leverage was gone. They went looking for a potential young star player in a deal — Devin Booker, Jayson Tatum — and were shot down at each turn. It looked like they would have to settle for a lesser package or bring Irving back to training camp and tell him to get along with LeBron James.

Then this deal came through, and it’s a clear “A+” for the Cavaliers. Cleveland lands an All-NBA point guard whose production next season will be close to what Irving provided, and Thomas plays with more of a chip on his shoulder. Also, the Cavaliers added what they desperately needed — a quality “3&D” wing in Crowder, a guy who can knock down jumpers and cover Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant (as much as anyone can cover them). On top of it, the Cavaliers get what will be a high draft pick — Brooklyn may be better but this is still no worse than the 5-6 pick — in a draft deep with quality big men.

Cleveland is still the best team, the team to beat in the East, and they got a key pick to help add youth and athleticism to the roster.

Winner: Boston in a couple of years. Boston’s argument it won the trade is simple — it got the best player in the trade. Thomas and Irving put up comparable numbers last season, but Irving is capable of defending (even though he rarely does, not even in the Finals last season). Irving is a couple of years younger, and because of his height will likely age better than Thomas. However, in giving up Crowder and the Brooklyn pick, the Celtics surrendered their best trade assets.

Cleveland is going to be a better team than Boston next season, but the Irving/Hayward combo with good role players around them has Boston poised to be even better in a couple of years, once guys like Jayson Tatum and Jalen Brown develop. Boston is set to be next (providing they can re-sign Irving).

Winner: Kyrie Irving. He wanted out of the immense shadow of LeBron and he got it — and he still landed on a contender. In Boston, he is the most marketable player and while the team has other stars — Gordon Hayward, Al Horford — none are the kind of dominant force of nature that LeBron is. Kyrie will get plenty of time in the sun, he will get great opportunities in Brad Stevens offense (better sets than he was running in Cleveland), and he will continue to win.

Irving may have wanted to be the star, but he didn’t want to be the one-man show on a bad team. Now he’s in a good place.

Loser: The Los Angeles Lakers (maybe, or any other team with dreams of signing LeBron next summer). LeBron James still more than likely bolts Cleveland next year. But Cleveland got a little closer to keeping them with this trade, and as our own Dan Feldman noted on the PBT podcast that is not good for teams dreaming of signing LeBron. Isaiah Thomas brings buckets at the point guard spot plus he plays with a chip on his shoulder that this team could use (the Cavaliers coast too much during the season). In Crowder the Cavaliers land the kind of wing player they need to match up better with Golden State. If they want to pick up a role player at the trade deadline, Ante Zizic could be part of that package. More importantly, that Brooklyn pick could be used to bring in a high draft pick player LeBron likes, or it could be traded to get a veteran that LeBron wants to play with.

LeBron wants to add rings to his legacy. If this trade helps him think Cleveland is where he can best do that, he could stay. I wouldn’t bet on it as likely, but the odds LeBron stays in Cleveland after next season got just a little more likely. Which makes the Lakers potential losers.

Winner: Koby Altman. I couldn’t bring myself to put Dan Gilbert here, it was still a stupid decision to show David Griffin the door. But give due credit to the man who replaced Gilbert, Kobe Altman. He just orchestrated a brilliant trade that keeps the Cavaliers as the favorites in the East next season and gives them more flexibility going forward. It was a master stroke, getting a guy in Danny Ainge known for hoarding assets to give up two of his best shows Altman knows how to do his job.

Winner: NBA Fans. Opening night, Oct. 17, the first game of the NBA season is the Boston Celtics visiting the Cleveland Cavaliers. Kyrie Irving is going to get booed mercilessly. Isaiah Thomas (if his hip is healthy) will be looking to put on a show for the new home fans. It’s going to be glorious.

It may not have tilted the balance of power in the East, but it made the conference far more entertaining to watch this season.