Over the centuries, throughout the history of civilization, there have been many renaissance periods for different kingdoms. The Roman Empire, the Zulu Nation, and the Ming Dynasty stood tall for many years. However, there would always come a point in time where those empires would come crashing down, having to rebuild what was once fortified and figuring out how to return to its former prominence. Most never did, and the Los Angeles Lakers are certainly flirting with that notion.
The Lakers organization is one of the most storied franchises in NBA history. Having won the second-most titles in league history with sixteen, and remaining relevant in the playoff chase in each decade since their inaugural season way back in 1948 when they played in Minneapolis, the Lakers have built up an aura about them that screams out supremacy. With that however, brings a certain level of cockiness, but who could blame them, especially when they’ve had great players carry the mantle such as George Mikan, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul Jabar, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, and of course Kobe Bryant. That same gift ended up being a curse for them, as well as a myriad of different reasons. In this article, we’ll break down exactly where the Lakers have gone wrong over the recent years and why they are no longer the league’s powerhouse.
The death of Jerry Buss
Jerry Buss bought the Lakers in 1979, and was one of the architects behind “The Showtime Era”, as he was responsible for some of their most prominent pickups during that time period, such as James Worthy and of course Irvin “Magic” Johnson. It was also a key move on his part making then-assistant coach Pat Riley the head coach after firing former head coach Paul Westhead, due to multiple complaints from players in the organization. With all of the pieces in place, the Lakers arguably dominated that decade, winning five titles, including winning back-to-back titles in ’87 and ’88. In the 90s the team would take a step back, but returned to championship form in the early and later portions of the 00s, winning five titles during that span.
Shortly after their fifth title, Jerry Buss passed away, and that’s when things began to unravel. With Jerry gone, his son Jim Buss, became the new president of the club. Instead of sticking to the script that his father had laid out for him, Jim took it upon himself to go against the grain. In what was quite possibly the most controversial misstep of his current tenure, he contacted Phil Jackson for a meeting to discuss a possible signing of the Zen Master to coach the team once again, but instead to opt for Mike D’antoni, whose brand of all offense/no defense coaching was inferior in comparison. Many speculated that he decided not to sign Jackson because of the romantic relationship that he has with his sister Jeanie Buss, and the potential of Jackson claiming a stake in ownership if he had rejoined the organization.
Another blunder during his time is when he authorized the re-signing of Kobe Bryant to a two-year $48.5million deal, which ate up a significant portion of their cap, leaving very little room to sign any high caliber free agents to a max deal. Whether Bryant deserved that much or not is often debated, however the fact that he’s been injured during the first year of that contract makes the deal look poor to say the least.
As mentioned earlier, because of the wealth of NBA greats that have come to tinsel town and suited up in the purple and gold, the culture of the organization has manifested itself into a community that only the elite are expected to play for. Almost as if to say that if you dare not sign to the Lakers, or show no interest in joining the team, then it turns out you aren’t made of “Lakers stuff”.
Proof of this bourgeois mindset is when Dwight Howard ended his tumultuous tenure in L.A. and was criticized left and right when he decided to leave when his contract was up, thus becoming a free agent. Of course, many of Laker nation’s privileged fans lampooned him for the move, and even Laker legends like Abdul-Jabar chastised him for the move overall, stating in an interview on the October 13, 2013 episode of ESPN First Take, that “Dwight Howard is a perfect example of the fact that ‘potential has a shelf life’”.
Now I don’t know about the rest of you readers, but this writer would like to think that those comments would have been kept on his mental shelf had Howard decided not to leave. But that’s just the type of attitude that many of the Lakers fans/personnel will have of you, if you as an all-star player are looking to leave for greener pastures.
What should be taken into consideration is the fact that the Lakers have built a reputation since the league’s inception, that they’ve facilitated some of the greatest big men to touch the hardwood. Legends like George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Shaquille O’Neal, and a possible future legend in Pau Gasol (who played alongside Howard) have been a part of this tradition, and many saw Howard as the next great dominant big man to fill that role. The only mistake they made, was trying to steer Howard in that path, instead of forging his own. This is also tied into the type of mentality that they will have for other big-name players who choose not to suit up in a Laker uniform, because of the presence of Bryant, which brings us to our final point . . .
Kobe has had a chip on his shoulder ever since he entered the league almost two decades ago, and who could blame him? He was traded on draft day, he was a second generation talent, and came off the bench in his early years. Nothing however, was more telling than the growing tension between himself and rightful leader of the team, Shaq. Shaq always likened him as the Robin to his Batman, and that was something that did not sit well with Kobe. It’s hard to believe that these two won three straight titles with one another, but once Shaq left on the merit of distancing himself from Kobe, that’s when it became apparent that Kobe may have been the problem in the equation.
Despite that hypothesis, Lakers management have time and time again ignored that due to the level of talent that Kobe possesses. However, his ability to lead a team is questionable to say the least. Since Kobe took the reigns as the floor general, many have pointed out his lack of leadership. It’s his duty to instill trust and confidence in his teammates, but instead strikes fear and intimidation.
Despite the lack of interpersonal skills, the organization has seemed to ignore it altogether, simply because he is their main attraction. He’s the reason high profile celebrities come to watch the games, and as long as he’s doing that, then how he conducts himself on the court is of no concern to them. They have even enabled him to the point that they scoff at the players who choose not to sign with the team during free agency, as noted earlier. To add to that previous point however, partial owner Jeanie Buss, stated in an interview with ESPN in October of 2014, that “Any free agent that would be afraid to play with Kobe Bryant is probably a loser.” That statement alone further proves their elitism and the coddling of their superstar talent.
Further proof of Kobe’s lack of relationship building is the fact that new free agent signings Lou Williams, Roy Hibbert and Brandon Bass were caught speechless (literally) at a press conference when a reporter asked if any of them had heard from Kobe, following their signing with the team. Building a relationship with your teammates off the court, may not be a prerequisite for on-court activity, but it pays dividends in the long run and that is what Kobe (not that he will anyway) needs to work on.
The Bottom Line
So there you have it. I haven’t even gone into detail about how the organization refuses to start from scratch and attempt to build from the draft (as proven by their recent attempt to sign LaMarcus Aldridge), but given their large market status and their ability to use it in the past, it’s self-explanatory at this point. If this team wants to return to its glory, then the overall culture of the team needs to change. They need to let go of the past and create a new path to walk into, Jim Buss needs to put his personal feelings aside and do what’s best for the team, they need to shed this cloak of elitism off of their backs and be humble enough to start from the ground up, and with season-ending injuries in recent years, Kobe needs to retire. It’s as simple as that. But until any of this transpires, not everything that glitters, is purple and gold.