History has a funny way of repeating itself at the most unexpected of times. Rarely does anybody see it coming, but when it does, there usually is a moment that we all look back to and say, “that’s where the turning point happened.” As the world breathlessly waits for one of the most highly anticipated could-be Finals match-ups in NBA history—Warriors-Cavaliers III—a separate event, far from the raucous crowd at the Oracle Arena, took place that could shape the future of the NBA and bring us back to a time when the league’s two greatest franchises dominated the basketball landscape. And all it took was for some ping-pong balls to bounce in their favor.
By now, most of you probably know that the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers own the first and second picks, respectively, in the upcoming 2017 NBA Draft. Most of you are also likely aware that barring any Herculean pre-draft workouts from any of the other prospects in this loaded draft, Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball are virtual locks to be the first two names called by Commissioner Adam Silver at the 2017 NBA Draft on June 22.
Neither the Celtics nor the Lakers tipped their hands on who they’re picking, although one of them might as well have judging by the meme-worthy reaction of Magic Johnson when the Lakers landed the second pick of the lottery. Magic knows who he’s taking; he just needs the Celtics, of all teams, to hold serve and take who many consider to be the top prospect of the draft.
And so, if form and rationale hold firm from today until the draft, Markelle Fultz will be a Boston Celtic and Lonzo Ball will be a Los Angeles Laker. Just like that, through all the wheeling and dealing Danny Ainge made five years ago that landed the Celtics this Brooklyn Nets pick to all the shouts thrown to the Almighty from La La Land, the Celtics and the Lakers are once again connected.
Don’t get too excited yet though. As boner-inducing as the draft lottery was for Celtics and Lakers fans, the NBA’s greatest rivalry is no closer to being resuscitated just because both teams landed the top two picks in the draft. The Lake Show, in particular, has a long way to go before it can even dream of lining up a team that can compete for a playoff spot, let alone make it to the Finals. Even the Celtics, as good as they are in their current form—all hail Kelly Olynyk, Larry Bird’s man bun-wearing, fake bastard progeny!—are still on a collision course with the Wall that is LeBron James.
Neither team will be making plans for championship parades anytime soon, but that reality also enhances the significance of having the first two picks of this draft and the subsequent pressure on both Fultz and Ball to live up to all the hype and expectations that’s been placed on their shoulders.
See, there will come a point in time when LeBron James will cede his throne as the best player of this generation. There will also come a point in time when the Golden State Warriors will disband like all great teams do, becoming too damn expensive for their own good. In their place will rise a new generation of NBA superstars. Some, like Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokoumpo, and Karl-Anthony Towns, are already in full stride in the league, galloping like the unicorns that they are.
Others, like Fultz and Ball are next-in-line, should both blossom into the players we all think they can be—Fultz developing into the unstoppable scorer many peg him to be and Ball becoming the long-overdue heir to Magic Johnson’s Showtime Lakers.
We know a lot of this is based on a huge amount of what-ifs and what-could-be’s, but if you’re a fan of either of these teams, that’s probably what you’re already thinking about right now. Sure, the Celtics are in the East Finals and by the time most of you read this, they’ll either be up 1-0 or down 0-1 against LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers. But they’re not beating the Cavs in a seven-game series, and that’s perfectly fine. At this point, they’re playing with house money and the experiences gained by this core will be invaluable in seasons to come.
The Lakers, on the other hand, are in far worse position than the Celtics, a bitter pill for Lakers fans to swallow but true nonetheless. They have two albatross contracts in the books—nice parting gifts from Mitch Kupchack, by the way—and their young core still has a lot of growing up to do. Make no mistake though; this millennial bunch of Ball, DeAngelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, and Jordan Clarkson are potential foundational pieces that have a chance to be special in Los Angeles. Give them time together, and a superstar like Paul George, and we could all be looking at a purple and gold resurgence of champion contender status.
That said, this scenario could all go up in flames if either Fultz or Ball don’t live up to the hype. Who knows, Fultz might not even be a Celtic even if he’s the top pick by the time next season starts. But we don’t care. We’re fans of the NBA as much as any of you and the NBA is a lot more interesting if the Celtics and Lakers are contenders at the same time.
So dream with us, Celtics and Lakers fans. Dream that Markelle Fultz becomes a Celtic and Lonzo Ball becomes a Laker. Better yet, dream bigger! Dream that Fultz and Ball become franchise-altering superstars in the mold of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Dream that they turn into rivals and lead their teams to multiple NBA Finals showdowns in the next decade. Dream that they get a chance to dust off the NBA’s greatest rivalry, bring it out of the basement, and place it back on the marquee where it belongs.
If all these dreams and scenarios come true, we can all fondly look back to May 16, 2017 as the day when “Celtics-Lakers” was reignited, and we have those damn ping pong balls to thank for it.