Somewhere, in a mountain of frozen envelopes and a cascade of ping-pong balls as loaded as trick dice, David Stern smiled. The Celtics are first. The Lakers are second. And the future of the NBA looks bright.
Oh, Stern and the NBA have heard this all before, no matter whether Stern was the commissioner or it was his successor, Adam Silver: the fix is in. But as the NBA approaches a draft that has been hyped all year — even more than usual — the ping-pong balls conveniently tumbled into place on Tuesday night like tumblers of some sort of time capsule. The most-storied franchises in the NBA landed first and second, as they have for more than a half-century, and there is little doubt as to the real winner.
The Celtics? The Lakers?
Think about it: for years and years we asked a most-obvious question: “Who will be the heir?” Technically speaking, there was no time at all between Michael Jordan and LeBron James, the emperor and the king. The reality is that Jordan had long since faded, retired and returned to play for the Washington Wizards, before LeBron rumbled along with both the keys to the city and the secret password. The NBA had its hero, and the league would be safe for the next 15-20 years.
Don’t look now, folks, but it’s time to ask the question again, albeit in different form: who is the next Michael? Or the next LeBron? That player may not be in this next NBA Draft — and it is likely he is not — but that is hardly the point. The NBA has been here before. The Celtics and Lakers are to the NBA what the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers are to the NFL, and there is no real scenario in which a Finals between Boston and Los Angeles is bad for business.
We have been here before, of course, albeit in a far more desperate time and place. In 1979, the Lakers drafted Magic Johnson No. 1 overall, a year after the Celtics, through a rarely used loophole, had drafted Larry Bird at No. 6. The Celtics were willing to wait an entire year before Bird entered the league, and so Magic and Larry stepped into the league at the very same time, a continent apart. They then won eight of the next nine NBA championships in a roundball clash of superpowers.
The NBA has never been the same, of course, and the truth is that it has never been better.
Last night, appropriately, Magic was sitting there with his trademark grin as the Lakers secured the No. 2 pick. And Magic’s smile might have been even brighter and broader were it not for one small thing: the Celtics got No. 1. Boston owner Wyc Grousbeck represented his team at the lottery last night, and Grousbeck’s charges will square off against James and the Cleveland Cavaliers tonight in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. If the Lakers secured their pick the old-fashioned way — by tanking — Boston got its selection through the kind of organizational guile that Red Auerbach made famous, via a trade with the Brooklyn Nets that already has landed Boston the No. 3 overall selection last year (Jaylen Brown) and the top pick this year. Next year, incredibly, Boston will get another.
All that was missing was Bird, the recently deposed president of the Indiana Pacers. But at least Boston has Danny Ainge, another player from the ’80s who clearly learned, while wearing green, to closely watch Red.
Are Boston and Los Angeles guaranteed contenders for years to come? Again, hell no. But the storyline today is impossible to ignore. The two most-hyped players of this draft are Washington point guard Markelle Fultz, who will likely go No. 1, and UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball, who has said he wants to play for the Lakers. Well so there you go. Fultz goes to Boston, and Ball goes to LA, as if the two most-storied franchises in basketball are choosing sides in the schoolyard, the next chapter in basketball’s version of the Hundred Years’ War.
So whaddaya say, America?
Game to 15 by 1s. Threes count as 2. No possession.
But winners absolutely stay.
Tony Massarotti is an avid Boston sports fan and has covered sports in Boston for more than 15 years for both the Boston Herald and Boston Globe. He now serves as a co-host on afternoon drive on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston. He was a two-time Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year as voted by his peers and has written four books, including “Big Papi,” the New York Times-bestselling memoirs of David Ortiz. You can follow Tony @tonymassarotti.