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The Lakers’ and Celtics’ Seasons From Hell Are Just What the NBA Needed

The league’s 24/7 soap-opera nature has been amplified this season by the persistent struggles of the two most successful franchises in NBA history. It’s been outstanding drama.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Of all the things that have been said about the Lakers this season, arguably the most honest and direct statement came from a member of the organization. The Lakers were not in good spirits after a recent loss to the Suns in Phoenix. Not only did the Lakers fall to a team that’s tanking, they were defeated by an organization that reportedly weaponizes goat shit and uses it against its own people. Tough to hold your head high after that kind of indignity.

“Obviously,” Kyle Kuzma said after the loss, “there’s something wrong with this team.”

The preseason hype has given way to late-season disappointment. LeBron James and the Lakers are 30-35. As of Thursday, FiveThirtyEight and ESPN both gave them less than a 1 percent chance of making the playoffs. Vegas bookmakers have them at +600 to make the playoffs, -900 to miss the postseason. Those are not good odds. It would appear that James is headed for an early vacation for the first time since his sophomore season in Cleveland. That has as much to do with LeBron as it does with his lackluster teammates. The Lakers are 24-23 with LeBron this season, but just 4-9 since he returned from a groin injury that kept him out for months. On Wednesday, James passed Michael Jordan to move into fourth place on the all-time scoring list, which was a much-needed distraction from the double-digit drubbing the Lakers suffered that evening on their home floor courtesy of the Nuggets. LeBron recently tried to defend himself against criticisms that he hasn’t been very good defensively of late, but when Kuzma—who has never been known as a good defender, or even an average one—has to push him to play D, things have clearly gone awry for the Lakers.

The same could be said of the Celtics, but for different reasons. Boston will face that same hapless Lakers team at Staples Center on national TV Saturday, but the Celtics have not exactly performed the way they’d hoped, either. They have a winning record and are playoff-bound, but their season-long struggle to boost themselves out of the middle of the Eastern Conference postseason pack isn’t what they or anyone else expected. This is, after all, a super-deep team (on paper) that reached the conference finals a year ago. You would have been hard-pressed to find a preseason prediction that didn’t forecast Boston as the best or second-best team in the East. Instead, they’ve been inconsistent—they showed a heartbeat by stomping the Warriors and Kings on the road this week, but before that they had lost seven of their past 10 games—and have spent much of their time answering questions about their questionable chemistry. The situation has deteriorated to the point where Jaylen Brown admitted on the latest road trip that he’s “not feeling good at all” about the way the Celtics have played. He also called the atmosphere around the team “toxic.” At this late stage of the season, even the most strident Bostonians can’t help but wonder what’s really the matter with the Celtics?

If nothing else, Lakers and Celtics supporters have anger and anxiety in common these days. Lakers fans have grown big mad online, while Celtics fans are big mad back in Boston—and right here in L.A., too.

That’s an understandable impulse, but let’s take it further. There are 28 other teams in the league with 28 other fan bases. In the same way that it makes sense for Celtics fans to delight in the Lakers’ misery, it’s just as natural for pro hoops enthusiasts across the country to enjoy the protracted public struggles of two of the NBA’s flagship franchises. The Celtics had high hopes for this season. Maybe the Lakers’ expectations weren’t quite as lofty as the Celtics’, but no one could’ve predicted there’d be calls for tanking in March with LeBron leading the way. By not performing as well as they anticipated, the two most successful organizations in NBA history have given the rest of us a gift. For those of us who are susceptible to schadenfreude, this season has been way more interesting than it would have been if the Celtics had been dominant rather than dysfunctional and the Lakers had reemerged as contenders.

Kuzma said there’s something wrong with the Lakers, and the same could be said about the Celtics. But that’s the straightforward, earnest way to look at it. From an entertainment and narrative perspective, I would submit to you that those organizations have actually produced wildly successful seasons. I would like to thank them for their service.

In advance of All-Star Weekend, Steve Kerr offered an astute observation. It would be nice, he said, if we could all pay attention to pick-and-roll coverage but “gossip is more interesting sometimes and we’re all part of that.”

TNT’s “We Know Drama” ads were built around shows like The Closer and Claws, but the NBA is every bit as good at delivering the guilty-pleasure fix. To Kerr’s point about being in a soap opera, all the consternation concerning Kyrie has made the Celtics appointment viewing on the court and their interviews can’t-miss when they’re off the floor.

Irving went from declaring in early October that he plans on re-signing with Boston this summer to hedging in February and instructing reporters to “ask me July 1.” He also explained that he doesn’t “owe anybody shit”—a declaration that made his commercial about wanting to have his Celtics number retired all the more hilarious—and even placed a phone call to his ex (teammate) to reminisce about all the good times they once had. No wonder Terry Rozier revealed there’s been tension between “young guys who can play” and “guys who did things in their career.” It’s gotten so bad in Boston that even Celtics legend and longtime analyst Tommy Heinsohn has turned on them.

If the Celtics hadn’t spent all season undermining one another, we also wouldn’t have the delightful ripple effects. Had they simply held hands and sipped shamrock shakes together, amateur lip-readers everywhere wouldn’t have gotten to break down the All-Star Weekend hallway chitchat between Kyrie and KD.

And without the possibility of Irving and Durant conspiring to team up in New York, the Knicks might not have traded their best player in a long while for what amounts to hope—which is a dangerous thing for Knicks fans but functions as bonus footage in the aforementioned soap opera for the rest of us. Of course, Irving insists that he “just wants to play basketball” and “didn’t really come into this game to be cameras in my face, be famous, be a celebrity.” In what I assure you is a completely unrelated thought, Uncle Drew made more than $46 million at the worldwide box office. On my personal Rotten Tomatoes ranking, I rate this Celtics season 100 percent fresh.

Same goes for the Lakers. Like Kyrie, LeBron made a point of saying basketball comes first after a disappointing loss to the Pelicans in New Orleans in late February. James asked, rhetorically, “Is basketball the most important thing in your life at this time?” Then he said, “If you feel like you’re not giving as much as you can, then you can’t focus on anything else.” In what I assure you is a completely unrelated thought, you can watch LeBron’s show The Shop on HBO; his production company, Uninterrupted, just picked up the third season of his other show Kneading Dough; and Space Jam 2 is set to start filming this summer.

Meanwhile, after declaring how much he likes all the players he put around LeBron, Magic Johnson recently tried to trade pretty much all the players he put around LeBron in an attempt to acquire Anthony Davis. It didn’t work. Fans and the media speculated that that probably made things pretty awkward around the Lakers HQ water cooler, but Magic said his employees could handle it and everyone should stop treating them “like babies.” That is a sentiment that Lakers owner Jeanie Buss totally shares, except for what she said at this year’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference about “damage done to team chemistry when players have to read about [trade rumors].” Otherwise, she and Magic were definitely on the same page. Buss also evidently believes that “rival teams planted stories to hurt the Lakers’ chemistry”—which would give those other organizations a lot in common with the Lakers themselves. Also, Luke Walton is somehow still employed even though stories about the Lakers gearing up to fire him have persisted all season. The only mark against the Lakers’ otherwise stellar drama record is that they never brought Melo into the mix. Pity, that.

As twists and turns and especially stumbles go, the Lakers have been at the top of their game—which is to say their actual game hasn’t been very good at all. This has made celebrity fans like Snoop and Flea super sad on social media, which made excellent content. Honestly, shy of Jack setting fire to his courtside seats during a Players Only broadcast on TNT, what more could the rest of us reasonably ask?

Admittedly, Lakers and Celtics fans probably do not find any of this amusing. As much as I enjoy snark, I am not entirely without sympathy. If you squint at their seasons the right way rather than simply laughing at them, there are potentially some silver linings for the Lakers and Celtics. In L.A., perhaps what has transpired will disabuse Johnson, Rob Pelinka, and the Lakers of the notion that letting LeBron influence roster construction is a good idea. It isn’t. It is, and always has been, a bad idea, as the crater he left behind in Cleveland would indicate. James will be 35 next season, and while he remains a dominant player, maybe even still the best in the world, it’s pretty clear that he can’t do it all himself anymore. Better to let him flirt with new coaching candidates while Johnson and Pelinka independently court players to help LeBron return to the postseason. In Boston, perhaps being good not great will save the Celtics from themselves. Irving has proved to be a bad fit, and giving him a max contract seems like a terrible move at this point. As a wise man pointed out, better to let the Knicks have him. Then the Celtics can turn the team over to Jayson Tatum and/or focus on prying AD away from the Pelicans with some combination of picks and players. (The conventional belief is that Davis wouldn’t re-sign in Boston without Irving in place, but I’m not sure that kind of speculation would or should dissuade Danny Ainge from trying to acquire AD.)

There are lessons for the Lakers and Celtics to learn from all this. As my colleague Dan Devine wrote, maybe it will lead to the “reset-button smash the league could use.” In the interim, the rest of us are free to warm ourselves next to their collective tire fires for the remainder of the season. In the case of the Lakers, that means watching the Clippers clown on them, which has been wild and enjoyable. After the Clippers beat them earlier this week, Patrick Beverley walked past a pack of reporters standing outside the Lakers’ locker room and asked them, “What are you all doing over here? Ain’t nothing to see here.” With respect to Beverley, I couldn’t disagree more.