Everyone knows the Lakers died on July 4th. Its long, proud history and its 16 NBA championship trophies could not save it from its doom. The team has not been a “destination” for a long time, but has now taken more downward step. It has become an “anti-destination”. Not only were the Lakers unable to land a single superstar free agent, they couldn’t a second tier big name like Greg Monroe and Robin Lopez. Even the Knicks are signing more of them than the Lakers. It’s time to admit the bitter truth: The Lakers are dead and it’s time to bury them.
But what really went wrong? An analysis of everything that went wrong can be turned into a book. It would make a must-read for any owner-wannabe as far as what NOT to do.
The list of “what went wrong” is long and disgraceful. The number one reason for the Lakers demise is one word: Arrogance.
Arrogance: The team assumed everyone wanted to play for them and nobody else. They considered themselves an unconditional, permanent “destination” regardless of how poorly they managed the team, how depleted the team was, how overpaid everyone was, and whether the ownership or front office knew anything about basketball. The Lakers wouldn’t have to do anything. They would have to just show the statue of Magic Johnson and the 16 championship trophies and everyone would want to just beg to join the team. You could say arrogance was the mother of all the other wrong steps.
Mismanagement: The team has poorly managed its assets. It gave up four draft picks to Phoenix for the rights of an overpaid Steve Nash at the end of his career who commanded $15 million a year for three years, and played only a handful of games. The team paid nearly $45 million for two years to a Kobe who has played another handful of games. The team paid $14 million to a laughable Jeremy Lin who had a handful of good games in New York before coming down to Earth to be the player he really is: someone who should be playing in Turkey, not in U.S.. Before those players, they were overpaying Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Luke Walton, and Brian Grant and many others. Speaking of Brian Grant, remember him? He was the bum the Lakers got in the Shaq trade. Pat Riley dumped Grant on the Lakers and saddled them with a $45 million, 3 year contract. After one year of miserable non-performance, the Lakers ate the remaining $30 millions and released the bum who lasted 3 more days in NBA before retiring to enjoy his unearned $45 million. I’m sure Nash is keeping his company now. Enjoy your unearned millions, bums!
Poor drafting: Over the years the team largely relied on free agents and trades to get quality players. It stopped using the draft as a main contributor to their roster. Other teams have invested much more in a system the scouts, targets, selects and develops quality players and have reaped the benefits. The Lakers simply do not know how to do it any longer.
Loss of Leadership: Ever since Jerry West was driven out of town in early 2000s despite having a hand in putting together two of the three Lakers dynasties, the Lakers began going downhill because they never replaced Jerry West’s talent and leadership. Their deep pockets and their luck saved them once when they landed Pau Gasol and won the trophy twice more, but their long decline had started prior to that. The Lakers never rebuilt the team, never restocked young talent, never accumulated assets and never prepared for the future. They spent like drunk sailors, squandering both their money and their draft picks. They spent it on what amounts to instant gratification with no future value.
Lack of Vision: Can anyone tell what the Lakers vision of future is? Has the management every laid it out convincingly for you? Do they even have one? Was their vision that they would exhaust all their draft picks and go into mid-2010s with an aging Bryant coming to the end of his career, and then magically out of the thin air they would build a team with no assets? What were they thinking when they hired Mike Brown? What was going to be the direction of the team? What were they thinking when they hired Mike D’Antoni? What kind of a team were they going to build? And why did they stop whatever that thinking was, dumped both coaches and changed directions? What was their thinking when they hired Byron Scott? Did any one of these coaches bring in any new ideas? If not, if these people only had old ideas, what were the Lakers thinking in hiring people with old ideas who had never won a championship? In my previous columns I have been covering this gross lack of vision for years but nobody illustrated that lack of vision better than LaMarcus Aldrige. In early July LaMarcus Aldrige wisely and amazingly embarrassed the Lakers when he went into their meeting, and came out like he was the NBA exec and they were amateurs. He had gone in expecting a technical and vision oriented meeting and the Lakers had treated him like a stupid little kid, trying to entice him with what amounts to candy and ice cream. They had bragged about their beaches, their wild parties, Hollywood, sponsorship opportunities, and… their past. Aldrige was unimpressed and criticized their lack of basketball details. The Lakers insisted on a second meeting to impress him with their basketball savvy, and Aldrige was even less impressed the second time because he realized the team had no vision, no assets, no players and no chance. Why would he take a pay-cut from the Portland offer who have a better and more stable team to play for a lifeless and go-nowhere team? In short, he exposed the fraud that the Lakers front office is.
Lack of Ideas: While other teams were taking the next step in professional sports, experimenting with new ideas, with new coaches with bold approaches to the game, with incorporating scientific methods to the game such as they do in Houston and their analytics as well as Phoenix and their training staff who is famous for prolonging careers and improving physical quality of players… The Lakers still rely on old methods, and even then not in a good way.
Poor Business Skills: In addition to its horrible management, the front office has run the organization with all the business savvy of a baboon in diapers. One would imagine a business that stays in a family ought to do better than most, that children who grow up in the basketball world learn things better because they’re immersed in it, that by not having outside parties involved they can make better decisions. Not so with the Lakers. Jim Buss has now proven to be the worst owner in sports history. You can’t impress big name free agents when the team is run by a dysfunctional family of spoiled know-nothings with little accomplishment to show for all their years. The daughter has been dating Phil Jackson who happens to have kids older than her, who coached the team twice while dating her, who was offered the job of being the coach a third time and then rejected, and who has gone on to run a rival team. It doesn’t help that this daughter hurt her own business creds by having once posed nude for Playboy. The team has gone on to sign a hefty contract with Time Warner which has created its own issues as now they want to have a say in the affairs and they are unhappy with the horrible product they’re stuck with. The Lakers took the money and the money corrupted them further as they took it as a sign of accomplishment.
Too much Kobe: By giving Kobe the keys to the ranch they hitched their wagons to everything that was good and bad about Kobe. Sure, Kobe helped give them championships before, but what have you done for me lately? By never controlling Kobe they risked alienating other players and it came back to haunt them time after time. By their inability to rein in Kobe they ran Shaq (who had his own problems) out of town, they ran Phil Jackson out of town one of the times he left (the last time it was because of Jim Buss), they ran the immature and fragile Dwight Howard out of town, and beyond getting lucky with Pao Gasol they were never again able to sign a major free agent who could play. Big names, including Kobe’s own friend, ‘Melo, learned to stay clear. Furthermore, Kobe has been very greedy. At a time when Wade takes far less than what he’s worth in order to bring in other big players, and Duncan has been playing for the Spurs for practically nothing, Kobe insisted on sucking up every dollar he could out of the Lakers and along with it he helped suck life out of them.
Toxicity: Add all of the above, and the town has become toxic to any big name player who wants a ring and recognition. They all know what they are stepping into if they sign with the Lakers. Out of all the big names in the last three years, not a single one has come close to signing with the Lakers on his own and not through a trade.
The Lakers were once a destination and deservedly so as they were champions and pioneering in their ways. In the ‘80s they revived the NBA and introduced many of what is today practiced. They invented the concept of “showtime”, an incredibly exciting, innovative and entertaining brand of basketball. They brought celebrities and put them in the front row. They made the players feel like they owned the whole town. That’s how they became a destination. Now they are the complete opposite. Now even Phoenix and Sacramento are doing better. All the big names are gravitating to a few teams while excluding the Lakers first and foremost. Even the Knicks with all their problems have been able to sign or retain more big names than the Lakers. In their current state, the only players willing to play for the Lakers are those not in high demand, those rejected by other teams, or those who need a big paycheck with not much responsibility. When the Lakers give up Dwight Howard to Houston and end up taking Houston’s rejects (like the overpaid Jeremy Lin) then the only type of destination they can consider themselves to be is “dumping grounds”.
You look at how San Antonio has been a force for twenty years and counting you realize by comparison how badly the Lakers have run their affairs to be where they are today. San Antonio has consistently picked great talent and been able to retain them, has been able to make incredible deals (like stealing Leonard by trading who for him?), has been able to keep megastars like Duncan and Parker do it at a fraction of the cost, to have the same coaching staff firmly in charge, and continued to win over other teams when wooing big name free agents. When the time comes for free agents they invariably takes San Antonios of the NBA over LAs. At a smaller payroll that team is packed with far more talent than three Lakers teams combined.
The fact of the matter is that at some point the team should have gone through the painful but necessary rebuilding process. It should have built up assets and dumped salary in the process. It should have blown up the team, gotten rid of all the big salaries (yes, that would have meant either Kobe takes a big pay-cut or he’d have to leave too) and started to develop some players without the baggage of old guys on their last legs trying to win another one with nothing left. Those two things are completely incompatible, because the Lakers never fully committed to a rebuilding process and did a half-assed job of it.
Jim Buss has claimed he will step down in two years if he can’t get the Lakers to play-offs. Mind you, not a championship, but just the play-offs! Really? So he wants years of honeymoon to simply take the team to play-offs which was always a given for even the previous Lakers teams, even the mediocre ones? After missing the play-offs only a couple of times in decades, anyone in charge of the team who misses the play-offs even once should be out of a job. Furthermore, seeing the horrendous downward spiral you don’t to wait. You can see the team is going in the wrong direction fast, is overpaying players, is toxic to big name free agents, hasn’t accumulated big assets and is in complete disarray. Any good businessman would see the problem and would immediately move for a profound course-correction. The Lakers have not done that. The team languished in the hands of a bad set of owners, a bad front office, an egomaniacal Kobe and little by little lost its luster and its way. The old, proud and once powerful version of the Lakers died on July 4th, 2015, and a new version of the Lakers was born. The new version is a copy of the old version of the Clippers and destined to permanent mediocrity.
Lakers fans, welcome to the dark ages of your team. If there is ever going to be a revival of the team, it won’t come any time soon. If there is going to be one, it is going to be a long, painful, long, disgraceful, long, miserable ride.