The Los Angeles Lakers are coming off of the worst season since they moved to California. How can one of the most storied teams in professional sports rebuild?
Losing is a funny thing, really. It often brings out the worst in humanity, in places, in us. Winning is equally funny. When we succeed, the feeling—intense and overwhelming, like standing up on your first wave or winning your first spelling bee—becomes addictive. The sensation is so powerful that many are pulled as if by some biological imperative to replicate it, to improve upon it. Elation, though, always subsides.
In contemporary sports, anticipation and expectation are the next feelings channeled.
There are few places in the world where losing is less acceptable than Los Angeles, at least when it comes to basketball. Since 1948, the Lakers have missed the playoffs just six times. If Red Auerbach and Bill Russell hadn’t systematically dismantled the entire country from 1957-1966, the Lake Show would unarguably be the greatest franchise in the history of basketball. Not just professional basketball, not just international basketball, but basketball. Claim all you want that the UCLA Bruins have eight million championships (11); they never won any of them in Staples Center or against the purple and gold.
There’s a Rolodex of Laker all-stars and hall-of-famers so extensive you could stretch the Pacific Ocean with it. There are nine jerseys and 16 championship banners hanging in the rafters of their arena to prove it. If that doesn’t suffice, check just about any all-time metrics.
Last season, to be candid, was dreadful for Laker fans. They watched the former dumpster fire of the NBA known as the Clippers slaughter their team three out of four matchups last season. The exclamation point came on March 7, when the Clippers handed them a 48-point annihilation—the worst loss in franchise history.
Mike D’Antoni’s club gave up a franchise-worst 109.2 points per game, and a league-worst 4,018 opponent rebounds. In short: They have some serious needs.
Next year, they’ll play a backcourt more decrepit than a Rolling Stones international tour. And they paid all of King Midas’ silver for it. Bryant and Nash are raking in so much dough next season ($33.2 million) that Los Angeles is crippled this free agency period. It’s a good thing they had one of the smarter picks in the 2014 NBA Draft, because they literally don’t have any power forwards. Pau Gasol, Jordan Hill, Chris Kaman, Wesley Johnson, and Ryan Kelly are all free agents, and Gasol is the only one they’ve even remotely discussed re-signing.
Bryant’s $48.5-million contract extension is a headshot to Laker chances. All of the auxiliary signings in the world couldn’t save this burning city that so desperately yearns for silver-linings. Bill Plaschke brilliantly alluded to it this week:
“It was the wrong move at the worst time. In trying to honor Bryant, they dishonored their fans. In attempting to saying thank you to one of their greatest players, they actually scripted his painful farewell.”
If Los Angeles were to re-sign Gasol and his 17.4 points, 9.7 rebounds, a Nash-Bryant-Randle-Gasol quartet would, at the very least, be an improvement. The Lakers do have the luxury of having no long-term salary obligations, which does allow them to chase one prized free agent. But a team removed of a head coach for more than 60 days is no more a resort than the prospect of playing with an aging Bryant.
This isn’t the first time doubt has found itself in Los Angeles. When the 1993-94 Lakers missed the playoffs for the first time in 18 seasons, marquee players Vlade Divac and Nick Van Exel received their share of criticism. Some newspaper publications even clamored for Magic Johnson to return to the court. Kobe’s first shot at governing his own team in the wake of Phil Jackson retiring and Shaquille O’Neil leaving on a sign-and-trade ended at the bottom of the Pacific division in 2004-05. But last season felt different, even without Bryant captaining the ship. Last season felt as though the Lakers couldn’t even find the boat to cling to, as if marooned on the very coast they used to hold championship parades on.
For a city accustomed to seeing their team reach the NBA Finals most years, last season’s 27 victories sat stale. Los Angeles appears poised for yet another season that’ll feel like the NBA’s version of Oregon Trail, where even the most ardent fan would probably be overjoyed with a playoff spot in 2014-15. Here’s to hoping Bryant’s back is strong enough to support the entire city.