LOS ANGELES -- The NBA's old flagships gathered under one roof Wednesday night, the Lakers having lost a piece of their soul, and the Celtics wondering if they will as well. Kobe Bryant strode to center-court with microphone in hand and pointed at the suite traditionally occupied by Lakers owner Jerry Buss, empty except for a single illuminated chair. "We are all -- all -- spoiled by his vision and his drive to win year after year after year," Bryant said. Kevin Garnett stood about 15 feet away, head bowed, clapping slowly.
There is no comparing the Lakers anguish with the Celtics anxiety, except the best organizations are families and the departure of any cherished member leaves a hole. So it was two years ago during a road game in Denver, when the Celtics shipped Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City, and players broke down in the locker room. "We still talk about that trade," Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo said. "It still seems like we're trying to replace Perk."
The NBA salary cap leaves no space for sentiment, which is why the Celtics should probably move Garnett at today's trading deadline, and shed a three-year contract awarded to a 36-year-old power forward. Sure, the Celtics won seven games in a row after Rondo tore his ACL, but they are not a legitimate contender without him, and they're better off plotting for the future. So goes the Moneyball rationale, which can underestimate how much one 36-year-old means to the identity of a basketball team, if that 36-year-old is Garnett and that team is the Celtics.
The video tribute for Buss was jammed with pictures from the 1980s, reminders of a time when the Lakers and Celtics met every June, and the players didn't like each other. You often hear that the new generation has gone soft, but you never hear that about the Celtics. They rarely list anyone as a game-time decision with a minor injury. They don't glad-hand opponents in warm-ups. They don't forgive Ray Allen for signing with Miami.
Before a game in November, the Nets did call the Celtics soft, loud enough to hear through the locker room wall at TD Garden. Rondo responded by shoving Kris Humphries into the seats. There is a pride among the Celtics that trickles down from Garnett. He is the one who buys suits for rookies, cheats off his man when a teammate is getting torched, and declares "I bleed green" when explaining a reluctance to waive his no-trade clause. One former Celtic mused that the club does not need to worry about grooming another leader as long as Garnett remains on the roster.
"He will never roll! He always pops!" Garnett hollered after a practice in December, while watching video of the Bucks pick-and-roll with five young Celtics spread around him. He punctuated every sentence with profanity. He sounded as if he were screaming. "But he wasn't," said Celtics rookie Jared Sullinger. "He was just talking. It only looks like he's yelling because he's so intense." The Celtics adopt his edge, which helps explain their defiant surge after the injury to Rondo. Bryant's sensibilities are similar, but he has been unable to galvanize the Lakers the way Garnett did the Celtics.
I wrote a story about Rondo in this week's magazine, and during a 90-minute lunch before Christmas, he discussed why Garnett is adored by teammates even if he is despised by adversaries. Rondo reminisced about how, when Garnett and Allen joined Paul Pierce in 2007, they shouted at him for the ball and he had to keep track of everybody's shots so no one ever took too many or too few. "But K.G. never did that," he said. Rondo described how, when the Celtics are tiring in the fourth quarter, Garnett's voice lifts them even if his shots don't. "Nobody talks like K.G.," he said. "'Right here on the pick! Get rid of the ball!' It's intimidating." Rondo mentioned that he often struggles to sleep after games, so he watches Celtics replays at 2 a.m., and looks for someone to call at 4. "K.G. is always up," he said.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers insists he doesn't know what the team will do today and cracked that "We're going to trade them all" after a 113-99 loss to the Lakers on Wednesday night. It makes sense to pursue the prospective deal that would send Garnett to the Clippers for Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Jordan -- Garnett would probably even waive his no-trade clause, given that he owns a house in Malibu -- and jettison Pierce as well. But they wouldn't be the Celtics anymore if they made that trade, at least not as they've been defined since '07.
At 3 p.m. ET, the Celtics will know if they are going to keep their aura and their backbone. However difficult it may have been to replace Kendrick Perkins, there is no substitute for Kevin Garnett.