Let the Lakers Pursue their Superstars

The Lakers have positioned themselves to essentially surrender Andrew Bynum for Dwight Howard in a four-team deal. Bynum will now do his handicap parking in Philadelphia. And Howard has already told the Lakers he will sign a five-year contract extension next summer, standing to make more money while playing out this year."That's what makes this even more exciting and why I said what I did," said Magic, who had a chat with Howard a couple of weeks ago. "We now will have our superstar when Kobe is gone. This is what the Lakers are." 
I have to agree with Magic on this one.

The Lakers are all about "superstars."

The purple couldn't win a title in the 1960s.

Their answer?

Get Wilt Chamberlain, today still arguably the best center of all-time, and, even if he isn't #1, his lingering star power will always keep him in the conversation. Wilt netted the purple one title in the storybook 1971-72 season when Los Angeles won 69 games. Wilt subsequently got old, and moved on to volleyball (or was it boxing?).

The Lakers' response?

Add Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, another pivot man who has a legitimate claim to being the best ever, along with his own amount of star power. The immediate impact on the Lakers' success was minimal. Kareem won a couple of MVPs in the 1970s, but it wasn't until the Lakers added another superstar, Magic Johnson, that their balloon really took off. Shortly thereafter they added James Worthy, who was pretty damn close to a third superstar (Michael Jordan lite?). The Lake Show added five more titles during the 1980s. The purple got old and weary yet again, and we all know what happened this time. Jerry West (another Laker superstar) spotted Kobe Bryant, and then did everything in his power to land him. Soon thereafter came Shaquille O’Neal, and the rest was history. 

For the most part, the Boston Celtics have not adopted the "superstar" approach to building NBA teams. Larry Bird had superstar cache. Beyond that and prior to 2008, I'm not sure what other Celtic was legitimately a superstar. Bill Walton and Tiny Archibald were both past their primes when they joined the green. Ditto for Pete Maravich. Bill Russell and Dave Cowens both won MVPs. Does winning that award alone catapult you into superstar status? I say no. 

Part of being a superstar is scoring points by the boatload. Another part of it is walking the walk. Neither Cowens nor Russell were media celebrities the way Chamberlain, Jabbar, Magic, Kobe, and Shaq were. On the one hand, Bird was an ordinary Joe who shoveled his own snow, mowed his own grass, and drank generic beer to save money. On the other hand, Bird also did commercials, talked trash, did his share of boasting, and enjoyed a cult-like following among NBA fans around the world. So like it or not, Larry, you were a superstar.

Where I'm headed with all this is that from the 1960s through the 1980s, the Lakers-Celtics match-ups were billed as glitz versus hardhats. The blue-collar Celtics against Showtime from Hollywood. I bought into this back then. The more I think about it, however, I like Magic's point better. The Lakers are about building teams around superstars, while the Celtics are about building teams.

The 2007-08 Celtics had three stars, but were all three of them "superstars"? Surely, all three will one day hang their jerseys in the Hall of Fame. Ray Allen and Paul Pierce have scored gobs of points. Both had periods in their careers where they carried their teams deep into the playoffs. So stars they were. Still, I'm not sure either one was a superstar in the way Bird, Magic, Wilt, or Kareem were. KG is another matter, as the Ticket's star power clearly rises above and beyond all but the brightest stars of today and yesterday.

I submit that this is where things get interesting for the Celtics, at least for the purposes of this post.

Even though the lights shined bright on Pierce, Garnett, and Allen during the championship season, Doc Rivers made sure that the season was not about individuals, but instead about team. "Ubuntu" was the concept he relied on to infuse the players with idea of sacrificing individual accomplishments for the better of the team. If you've been a Celtics fan for a while, can you think of a better word to describe the franchise across its entire history? 

The 1960s teams were centered on Bill Russell, but every player had a role that contributed to their consistent success, and many of those so-called "role players" are today sitting in the Hall of Fame. Was KC Jones a superstar? Sam Jones? Bob Cousy was undoubtedly a superstar. But the Cousy-led Celtics were not built around Cousy in the same way the Lakers' teams have been built around Kareem, Shaq, and Kobe. Cousy's star shined bright despite playing team oriented ball, and, perhaps because the Celtics were playing team oriented ball.

Dave Cowens was the heart and soul of the 1970s championship teams, but those teams were not centered on Cowens. Jo Jo White, Charlie Scott, Paul Silas, Paul Westphal, Don Cheney, John Havlicek, and Don Nelson all made significant contributions. Larry Bird stood head-and-shoulders above the entire league for much of the 1980s, but how far would the Celtics have gone without Tiny, the Chief, DJ, Walton, Cornbread, Danny, Wedman, Sichting, and even Gerald Henderson?

So where does this leave us?

I don't think there is one path, and one path only, to an NBA championship. Florida Celts Fan recently made a similar point in observing that the 2004 Piston championship team was lacking a superstar, unless you think Rasheed Wallace qualifies. I don't, because his stats don't rise to the superstar level, and that team relied more on the Ubuntu concept than it did on Rasheed Wallace for its success.

Every Celtics’ coach from Red to Tommy to KC and Doc made sure that the Celtics' best players subordinated their sizeable egos for the betterment of the team. 2008 might be the latest example, but it certainly is not the only one. It will be up to Doc once again this year to figure out a way to make a team of pretty good players into a team that can compete for a championship against other teams filled with "superstars." Other than Red, I'm not sure who else I would trust to do this (a thought echoed by Florida Celts Fan Recently.

And if you absolutely believe that a team needs a superstar to win an NBA championship, what about Old Number9?


FLCeltsFan said...

Excellent post. Celtics have always been about team. Red's approach from the beginning was to give each player a role and they filled those roles to the tune of 11 championships in 13 years. We can add that the Celtics have never had a scoring champion. I'll take team over superstar and a bunch of followers. Or even a couple of superstars and a bunch of followers.

FLCeltsFan said...

I guess that's why I was drawn to the Celtics in the first place. It was their team approach and the heart they played with as a team. And, that's why I'm still a Celtics fan today.

FLCeltsFan said...

The key will be health. If they were healthy last season the Celtics would have beaten Miami. I have no doubt about that.

They are a deep team this season which should help with the health with a little luck as well.

Lex said...

never had a scoring champion.

But we drafted one.

I remember thinking freeman williams would be great.

Shows how much I know!

About like bob mcadoo

Lex said...

heart -- cowens was all heart and guts.

FLCeltsFan said...

Yes he was. I'd love to see him brought in as big man coach.

Lex said...

now there's an idea

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