As the 2012-13 season rumbles along to its midway point, things seem to be falling into place regarding the pecking order and possible contenders vs. pretenders. The Heat and Thunder are the class of their respective conferences and on course for a finals repeat, with a few legitimate surprise teams poking around the edges (i.e. New York, Boston, Indiana, Chicago in the East; LA (Clippers), Warriors, Grizzlies, Nuggets in the West).
One team, however, that is absent from those aforementioned contenders is the LA Lakers. Indeed, picked by most experts to challenge the Thunder and contend with Miami for the NBA title, the Lakers have been a spectacular crash. After two coaches, a rash of injuries, grumbling superstars, and a record closer to last place than the eighth playoff seed, the Lakers have arguably become the most incredible failure in sports history. A team with a one hundred million dollar payroll, aging players with bloated contracts, a deplorable bench, two top money coaches on their books, and no draft picks upon which to build for the future, the Lakers situation looks bleak now – and later. Their linchpin acquisition, Dwight Howard, is now looking like a bust who will take his act elsewhere at the end of the season, leaving Lakers management with the unenviable task of having to decide whether or not to trade the flaky center before the February 21st deadline or gamble on appeasing him (fire another coach, perhaps?) into signing long term. As with those who root against the Yankees, this season has been a dream for Laker haters everywhere.
Setting aside the ESPN spin machine for a moment, let’s examine the current Lakers team and organization against the other Staples Center tenant, the LA Clippers, through the prism of what each represents in the context of our changing country’s climate and attitudes. Could the Lakers, in general and actual practice, represent the actual decline of championship-or-bust greed? Are Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul representative of two eras of basketball – in professional sports, perhaps – that will require a monumental shift by the Lakers at every fundamental level to remain relevant?
The first place to start is the motivation that drives the Lakers franchise and how they’ve gone about achieving success in this pursuit. For better or worse, the Lakers measure everything – everything – by winning championships. Not playoff berths, not winning records, but titles. In this regard, they’ve been phenomenally successful with 16 titles (notwithstanding 31 finals appearances, and 57 playoff entries out of 67 years of existence). There simply isn’t a comparable run of success in any sport. On the court, from ownership down through management, the personnel have almost always seemed to make the right decisions, especially with regard to players. Here’s just a partial list of Hall of Famers that have played for the Lakers: George Mikan, Jim Pollard, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Gail Goodrich, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kobe Bryant. Only Boston can boast comparable names, and their one additional championship banner reflects a franchise that is at least in the same conversation with Los Angeles; but for consistency and excellence, the Lakers still reign supreme.
With such a record of accomplishment, the Lakers have cultivated a worldwide fan base, stretching all the way across the globe, pushing everything from jersey sales in China to broadcast revenue in Africa. The players haven’t just represented LA basketball – they have been emblematic of the LA image. From their purple and gold uniforms to the allure of their cheerleaders, the team has delivered all the excesses – Hollywood, beaches, endless sunshine, lifestyle, and more – that lives in the fantasies of millions all over the planet. When they fail, conversely, as they did briefly post-Showtime and again after Phil Jackson and Shaquille O’Neal left in the aftermath of losing the 1995 finals to Detroit, it’s as if another earthquake has struck the city. With technology now being driven by social media and instant online feedback, every aspect of the Lakers season is now flooded with fan feedback.
Unlike in earlier days, the Lakers empire no longer has the luxury of “down” seasons without suffering serious consequences, especially revenue-wise. As witnessed by the dysfunction of this year’s team, Lakers fans have been merciless, filling chat rooms, radio phone lines, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages with calls for everything from trading (insert player name here) to firing their latest coach, GM, and even directing their venom at ownership. There is simply no tolerance for non-contention in Lakerland, despite them being three years removed from their last finals appearance and declining post season performances ever since. ESPN, the Lakers flagship station, continues to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of criticizing the team during endless LA Lakers propaganda programming, while simultaneously pushing out hope that (insert solution here) the Lakers can still turn things around. Their commercials are now filled with desperate calls to “Stand by your Lakers,” a marked departure from their pre-season boasting of breaking the Chicago Bulls 72-10 winning record.
Now let’s turn to the Clippers, a team – from top to bottom – that once graced the cover of Sports Illustrated labelled as the “Worst Sports Franchise in History.” Since moving to Los Angeles in 1984, the Clippers have never managed to find a foothold outside of a small fanbase. This following seemed to be more motivated by either, a) hatred for the Lakers, especially among transplanted residents, b) economics allowing more access to the Clippers (lower ticket prices), or c) no real commitment necessary to being a Clippers fan. On that last point, one could easily follow the Clippers at his or her convenience, never really investing too emotionally into winning or (more often than not) losing. Hence, the classic Clippers fan was usually not the one to wear jerseys, hang car flags, or tune into radio shows looking for chatter on the team. Without winning teams, any history to speak of (most Clippers fans didn’t even know they came from Buffalo before this season’s 17 game winning streak), or any star players to attract crowds, the team simply meandered along without much excitement or compelling storylines. Admittedly, this can be attributed to almost any losing enterprise; but popping into a Clippers game at the old Sports Arena was, at best, a casual affair, with no expectations of sustained winning and very little hope that, when success did come (a-la the Larry Brown years, for example) it would be lasting.
Last season, two events would take place to completely change the fortunes of both franchises and send them careening in opposite directions. The first, which has been dissected and discussed enough to warrant only a quick mention, was the the acquisition of New Orlean’s Hornet point guard Chris Paul. The second incident, which may be of even greater importance than losing out on Chris Paul, was the Lakers leadership vacuum filled by Kobe Bryant after Phil Jackson left a season earlier. It can be argued that these two factors are directly responsible for both the rise of the Clippers to a winning organization, and also the fall of the Lakers into a sub .500 also ran.
Chris Paul, an undersized guard from a small city in North Carolina drafted out of Wake Forest, has taken a decidedly different path to NBA stardom than Kobe Bryant, who was drafted straight out of high school, groomed by the NBA’s best coaches and staff money could buy, and pegged to be LA’s next big star alongside Shaquille O’Neal. Kobe Bryant, love him or hate him, has delivered on every expectation; he’s hit dramatic shots in the clutch, won five rings to put him alongside other Lakers greats, and continues to function at a high level on the court even after 17 seasons. Paul, by contrast, joined a losing franchise with almost no name players, no history of high achievement, and very little opportunity for big market endorsements that cities like LA and New York can offer. In Paul’s years with New Orleans, he transformed them into playoff spoilers season after season with whomever he was paired. As for Paul and Bryant as players, the two are almost complete opposites in their approaches to their sport and winning. In every area of not only their skill sets, but their beliefs in what their respective teams should be, Paul and Bryant take different paths to achieving their ultimate shared goal, which is winning NBA titles. Bryant is relatively new to being “his’ team’s leader, having always had the benefit of a steady Phil Jackson (and veteran players surrounding him) to steer the ship through rough seas and navigate a path to victory. Paul, whose position on the court requires leadership at its core, was honed by his years in college and New Orleans, a team with limited resources from which to build a contender, a revolving door of players and coaches, to be resourceful in a variety of ways to guide the Hornets to winning ways. It’s no wonder the Lakers brain trust had pursued Paul so aggressively; in looking back Paul may have been the only player in the entire league who could prevent Kobe from taking the leadership role for which he’s so obviously ill suited.
In watching the two teams today, the Lakers almost look ancient next to the Clippers, whether it be the ages of their players or their feeble attempt to recapture the “Showtime” magic of their most glorious period. Their darkened arena and over pumped PA system feels like a dingy nightclub mixed with a bad rock concert, as one LA Times columnist opined recently. The Clippers, on the other hand, play an uptempo, fun style of basketball in a bright atmosphere that has participants feeling engaged and upbeat. While the Lakers plod along with an aging roster, surly leader, and angry fan base, the Clippers fans talk about maybe winning a couple of playoff series and seeing Chris Paul continue as a member of the Clippers for years to come. The locker room is like family (literally, with actual families invited in pre and post game). Losing isn’t the end of the world, nor is winning the only thing that matters. When you see the Clippers evolution, you see a team that embraces today’s NBA reality in the salary cap era; winning teams built on solid chemistry, bonding, and fundamentally sound principles. You see it in the Thunder, Warriors, Spurs, Grizzlies, Bulls, and even the Heat. Kobe and Paul are on opposite sides of history, with Paul taking the lead and preaching sacrifice for ALL, with Kobe preaching sacrifice for HIM.
In wider context, the Clippers, Thunder, Grizzlies, and Heat (yes, the HEAT) are almost the epitome of Barack Obama’s “shared sacrifice” theme during the last election. One could certainly imagine Chris Paul following the lead of LeBron James and signing for less money if it means keeping the necessary players on the roster who give the team the best chances of winning. Can one say the same for Kobe Bryant and his 27 million dollars a year? After an economic downturn not seen since the Great Depression, it is only fitting that players, owners, and management attempt to work together for the greater good of the league than continue to see large market teams benefit from bottomless pits of money to build super teams without penalty. The Lakers are now looking more and more like Violet Beauregarde as they continue to try to circumvent the ideal that any team can find their way to the top. The NFL seems to grasp this concept and it is logical that the sport of football continues to grow and dominate all professional sports by billions of dollars and millions of fans. “On any given Sunday,” is a reality and has small market teams succeeding and prospering alongside large market teams. Even if they had achieved their goal of an NBA title, their spoils would ring hollow to all but the ardent fans at the trough.
Alas, the Lakers are the last dynasty resisting the tides of change, barely standing with their checkbooks ready to hurl more millions to save this sinking ship. Already have eight million committed to two coaches? Bring back Phil Jackson at twelve million, fire D’Antoni, and pay Dwight Howard the maximum contract. Pau Gasol, the one player who has shown the most dedication to the team through trade rumors, benching, and roles changes? Trade him! It seems the Lakers madness knows no end, the rationality of owning up to Kobe’s failure to lead, a group of players unfit to play together, and an aging roster grossly overpaid be damned. Perhaps as it crumbles, this cautionary tale will put them on a new course, their fans enjoying the game, regardless. But that, alas, would mean sacrifice, and with this team, that word is beyond their comprehension.
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