We were so close to watching another chapter of the storied Lakers-Celtics championship saga. The Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics have played each other in the NBA Finals a record 12 times. Most recently, we saw the two teams face off in 2010. There was a chance that could have happened again 10 years later, but instead, the Celtics were not able to make it past the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Celtics have made the Eastern Conference Finals three of the last four seasons, but have yet to play in the NBA Finals. The Lakers marched through the league to win it all. The 2020-21 NBA season just began, could the Celtics get over the hump and repeat history? If that darling date happens, who would win?
Batmans vs. Robins
A down year for Anthony Davis was 26.1 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.5 steals, and 2.3 blocks. However, one major improvement was that Davis shot a career-high 84.6% from the free-throw line. Davis could be the next Laker to get his uniform retired. He isn't going anywhere after signing a five-year max contract extension either. Davis will be in the running for MVP and Defensive Player of the Year this season.
On the other side of the court, LeBron James is still in the conversation as the league’s best player. LeBron’s 10.2 assists donned him as the only player to finish with an average of double-digit assists in a season. According to the advanced stats, LeBron assisted on a league-leading 49.1% of the team’s offensive plays. Even while serving as the main point guard, LeBron still managed to average 25.3 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 1.6 steals. There is no denying that LeBron can do it all and that is still the best player in the world.
While the Lakers have two patented superstars, the Celtics have a group of players that find themselves on the outside of the top-10 players in the league. While having two players in Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker, who would be in anyone’s top-25 rankings, it’s clear that the Lakers have the far superior alphas on their team.
The Lakers were a top-5 team in defensive efficiency last season. That will start with the center Marc Gasol. The 35-year old can serve as a veteran voice and as a role player for Davis at power forward. Also, Gasol is a former Defensive Player of the Year. He only will make the defense better. We already know about what the seven-time All-Star Davis can produce offensively and defensively. For those reasons, the Lakers own one of the better frontcourts in the league.
Former Sixth Man of the Year Runner-Up Dennis Schroder averaged more than 18 points a game last season. He will get the start at shooting guard. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope shot over 38% from three-point range last season and will play at small forward. With LeBron as the team’s point guards, we could see similar numbers from both players. Even at the age of 35, LeBron can still handle playing one-on-one.
As for the Celtics, the team has a much more balanced starting lineup. That starts with point guard Kemba Walker, but he will miss the opening part of the season due to recovering from a knee procedure. Walker finished last season with a line of 20.4 points, 4.8 assists, and shot over 80% from the free-throw line. Jeff Teague will fill in his place for now. Alongside Walker or Teague in the backcourt will be Marcus Smart. Smart had his best offensive season last year with 12.9 points, as well as career-highs in rebounds (3.8) and assists (4.9). He is also a lockdown defender that averaged just 3.0 fouls per game.
Jaylon Brown will play the small forward and brings someone who can be a 20-point game scorer that also throws in 6.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.1 steals per game. At power forward, Jayson Tatum has top-10 player potential after what he showed off last season. His line of 23.4 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.4 steals are solid. At the center, Tristan Thompson will get the start.
All in all, the Celtics feature four players that would likely be “Robins'' on other teams. However, since there is such an abundance of them, their pooled skills players outweigh the likes of Caldwell-Pope and Matthews. At Gasol’s age, Thies can play toe-to-toe with him, so the starting lineup edge can be given to Boston assuming that Walker comes back healthy.
Lakers Bench: Alex Caruso, Quinn Cook, Wes Matthews, Talen Horton-Tucker, Markieff Morris, Kyle Kuzma, Alfonso McKinnie, Kostas Antetokounmpo, Jared Dudley, Montrezl Harrell
Celtics Bench: Jeff Teague, Carsen Edwards, Tremont Waters, Javonte Green, Payton Pritchard, Romeo Langford, Aaron Nesmith, Semi Ojeleye, Grant Williams, Robert Williams, Daniel Thies, Tacko Fall
The Lakers boast one of the top options off the bench. The Lakers signed former Clippers big man and 2020 Sixth Man of the Year power forward Montrezl Harrell. The 26-year old is coming off a season where he averaged 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. If Schroder returns to the bench, it could be the best 1-2 punch that we have seen since Harrell teamed up with Lou Williams the last two seasons.
Among others, Markieff Morris will bring a tenacious defender and can serve as the team’s power forward if Davis ever gets in foul trouble. You can’t forget Kyle Kuzma, who once started for this team and averaged nearly 19 points a game. Alex Caruso was the team’s starting point guard in the NBA Finals, while Wes Matthews can be a streaky scorer from outside the arc. Talen Horton-Tucker is also a very intriguing prospect that scores in limited minutes.
For the Celtics, if Jeff Teague has to start, that is going to limit the team’s depth coming off the bench. In reality, the Celtics don’t have a single player on their bench that would be in the top-100 player’s rankings. The Lakers have at least two, and there is a strong argument for three.
Carsen Edwards, Romeo Langford, and Robert Williams were all solid players in college, but have no proven worth in the NBA. While these guys might have a great upside, there’s no definitive data to support these players can compete with the likes of what the Lakers have. Daniel is the only proven player outside of Teague, but he has never scored more than 9.2 points per season.
Coach: Frank Vogel vs. Brad Stevens
This is a very tough discussion. When the Lakers hired Frank Vogel, the franchise was a national laughing stock. Instead, Vogel changed the identity of this team by getting everyone to believe in team defense. As a defensive unit, the Lakers allowed the fourth-fewest points (107.6) per game, allowed the seventh-best three-point shot percentage (34.9%), and held opposing teams to the second-fewest rebounds per game (42.2). Nobody can take away the fact that Vogel is a championship coach, which is something that Stevens has yet to win.
Stevens has led the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals three of the last four seasons. He has lost to Ty Lue and the Cavaliers twice, both LeBron James led teams, as well as Erik Spoelstra and the Heat this past season. Stevens is 318-246 overall in seven seasons, as well as 37-36 in the playoffs with three trips to the conference finals.
Is it fair to say that Stevens is not as good as a coach as Vogel, or is it that Stevens can’t get past LeBron-led teams? Without last season, Vogel was 302-291 in eight seasons with the Magic and Pacers, including a 31-30 mark in the playoffs. While Vogel did some impressive things with the Lakers last year, Stevens gets more out of teams that do not have superstars.
The Lakers would easily defeat the Celtics in the NBA Finals right now. It would be a five-game series, or potentially a sweep. The moves for Harrell and Schroder give the Lakers the best bench headliners in the league. LeBron and Davis are two of the top-5 players in the NBA right now. Without even bringing legacy into it, the Lakers just have the better team.
The Celtics do not have much past their starting five. Boston is going to realize that losing Gordon Hayward is going to hurt more than they realized. Unless the third-year projects sitting on their bench turn into players like Brown or Tatum, this team has a few holes. There’s a real argument that the Celtics might have missed out on their championship window.