Let’s be clear: There are certain markets in which the NBA will always thrive, regardless of how well the teams in that market are doing. Boston is one of those cities. So is Los Angeles.
If the teams are doing poorly, people in our cities still pay attention, they just hate on their local teams and become experts on how to fix what ails them.
But the league as a whole is far stronger when the Celtics and the Lakers are relevant together.
Need data-driven evidence that this was good for the league? In 2008, the NBA Finals averaged 14.94 million viewers over six games, up more than five million from the previous year. In 2010, when the teams most recently met, the average was 18.14 million, up 4 million from the previous season, which included the Lakers, but not the Celts. Only two NBA Finals — 2016 and 2017 — have outdrawn it since.
What makes the latest potential* reincarnation of this rivalry more fun is that the respective team architects are direct throwbacks to the era of Showtime. (*Potential, because unless the Lakers go out and get LeBron some help, that team isn’t going to sniff the playoffs in the Western Conference.)
It’s probably not fair to judge what Earvin Johnson has done yet in his tenure with the Lakers; there hasn’t been much time for him to do much beyond attract and sign the best player on the planet. But there is plenty to grade about what Danny Ainge has done with the Celtics. And so far, it’s straight As, from fleecing the Nets in 2013, to making sure those draft picks turned into blue-chippers, to luring the right players (Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford) to complement the stable of young stars.
Even with Magic in the fold, Phil Jackson isn’t walking through that L.A. locker room door anytime soon. Well, not that any of us know, anyway. LeBron being in town will help drive popularity, and will presumably help recruit the next wave of free agents.
But the Celtics pulled their rebuild off more quickly, and did so using a handful of draft picks. For now, at least, it’s the Celtics who have beaten L.A. to the punch on the rebuild and have a far better chance to challenge for a title immediately.