I've had my fun/if I don't get well no more/my health is failing me/and I'm goin' down slow/please write my mother/tell her the shape I'm in/tell her to pray for me/forgive me for my sin.
Howlin' Wolf, "Goin' Down Slow"
The last time that there was an NFL team in LA, Bill Clinton was still in his first term, no one had ever heard of a tweet, and Moby Dick was still a minnow. In spite of this glaring absence, the city, short of a few entrepreneurs contemplating stadium deals, has really seemed not to care that the NFL brand has had no home in the nation's second largest city. One of the main reasons that this has seemed not to matter is due to the large shadow cast by the Los Angeles Lakers.
There is always a lot of nostalgia around the Dodgers in this town, but beyond that, as far as pro sports are concerned, the Lakers have since the 1980s ruled the LA sports landscape with an iron fist. No pro football team has meant no big deal as the Lakers have continually provided drama and intrigue even when it wasn't basketball season. There is no doubt that LA is a basketball town. To say that LA is a basketball town though is really to say that it's a Laker town, as the purple and gold are synonymous with basketball in this city. Or perhaps I'm speaking in past tense here?
The City of Angles is at a precarious moment in its basketball history. The Lakers are sinking deeper and deeper into irrelevance, in spite of a roster that includes two former league MVPs, two former Defensive Player of the Year award winners, a Sixth Man of the Year award winner, and six current or former All Stars. This precipitous decline would be one thing if it were only that, but as the Lakers have sunk to unforeseen lows, the Los Angeles Clippers, the city's orphaned stepchild of a franchise, has developed into one of the best teams in the league.
The Lakers have been unraveling every since Andrew Bynum pulled off his jersey and walked off the court when he, along with Lamar Odom, were tossed while the team was being swept off the floor during Game 4 of the second round playoff series against Dallas in 2011. When that game ended Phil Jackson drifted into retirement, while the Lakers began their drift into mediocrity. In that series Pau Gasol looked more like the soft Pau who showed up in the 2008 Finals against Boston, than the skilled big man who showed up during successful '09 and '10 championship campaigns. Kobe Bryant was unremarkable in this series also, though many would blame this on a lingering knee injury. The Lakers, a team with three seven footers, who a year earlier had outlasted Boston in seven games to win another NBA title, suddenly looked old and slow. The Dallas Mavericks, the team who went on to win the '11 title, were not a young team, so exposing the Lakers in this way spoke volumes beyond the actual embarrassment of the sweep.
As the summer of 2011 turned into lockout summer, with NBA players barnstorming across the country playing in pick up games, the Lakers made the first of several mistakes when Jim Buss decided to fire a number of important team support personnel, including assistant general manager Ronnie Lester, who had been with the club for 24 years. As Lester was quoted as saying at the time, "You think of the Lakers and you think they are a great organization. But if you work inside the organization, it's only a perception of being a great organization. It's probably not a great organization, because great organizations don't treat their personnel like they've done."
Great franchises not only have great people on the court and in the coach's chair, but they also have top notch support staff who work behind the scenes spread throughout the organization. Well, at least this was the case during the reign of Jerry Buss. Jim Buss, like George Bush 43, seemed as though he was now calling on a "higher power" when making decisions that looked like the undoing of his father's handiwork.
Buss then hired Mike Brown to take over for Phil Jackson. While no one could realistically replace the Zen Master, Brown was always an odd choice to run a franchise with the history and magnitude of the Lakers. Brown never seemed to have the proper disposition to run the Hollywood blockbuster of a franchise that is the Los Angeles Lakers. He only lasted a season and five games into a second before figuring in the third fastest coach change in NBA history. While Brown was never a good fit, he deserved better treatment, especially when one considers his inferior "seven seconds or less" replacement Mike D'Antoni.
Jim Buss fumbled the Brown hire, fumbled the firing, fumbled in the communication with Phil Jackson and then fumbled again with the D'Antoni coaching hire. Excuse me while I mix metaphors here but Jim Buss has put the ball on the ground more times than a Nebraska fumblerooski.
Many Lakers' fans point to the aborted Chris Paul trade last year as reason for the team's struggles. After the protracted lock out where small market franchises were complaining about being at a competitive disadvantage, there was no way the league could allow a trade that would have surely benefited the Lakers immensely, not as long as the league's twenty-nine other owners were subsidizing the New Orleans franchise. Chris Paul, as it turns out, is a powerful man. While the aborted trade helped sink the Lakers, it concurrently made the Clippers a title contender.
The Lakers and their fans have won so much that like the GOP they became entitled, assuming that some new superstar was always going to come along to prolong their dynasty. Yet the long view of sports suggests that every team's fortunes ebb and flow. No one wins forever, nor does any one team enjoy only good fortune. As Kurt Blow once said, "these are the breaks."
Yet the fun doesn't stop with the coaching carousel or the post aborted trade angst. The Lakers, who were again exposed as old and more out of touch than Mitt Romney's failed presidential campaign in losing to OKC in the 2012 playoffs, decided to sign a petulant man-child who was coming off of back surgery and an aging point guard who had seen better days as a way of doubling down on their entitlement. In spite of Kobe's numbers, it should be obvious to any objective onlooker that his production against the better teams in the playoffs is no longer enough to carry his squad. So just adding stars to a spotty roster was never going to make any difference.
When the petulant man-child with his free shooting woes didn't immediately gel with the team's resident Don Diva and the aging point guard struggled to even get on the floor, things went from bad to worse. Recently it is said that the petulant man-child was supposedly confronted by the team's aging superstar and resident grande dame. The petulant man-child demurred. The thought of Kobe Bryant verbally punkin' an NBA player of Dwight's caliber is still hard to imagine, but we are talking about a petulant man-child after all.
The Lakers are done for all intents and purposes. As Kobe piles up stats for the record books on his way to a retirement that certainly is sooner than later at this point, the team faces some dark days ahead. One of the reasons that the Lakers have been so good for so long has been the presence of Jerry Buss. Yet as the son takes over for his father, making one bad decision after another, people shouldn't expect the same success that has defined the Lakers for so long to continue. You can hire and fire coaches, sign, trade, and cut players, but if the man who really calls the shots doesn't know his ass from a hole in the defense then it is all for naught.
During Michael Jordan's reign in the 1990s, Chicago Bulls GM Jerry "Crumbs" Krause was famous for suggesting that players don't championships, organizations do. Considering that the Bulls have nary a title without Michael Jordan, Crumbs was wrong. However when one considers that the Lakers have been the most dominant franchise in the NBA since the 80s, a span that has seen four of the best players in NBA history-Kareem, Magic, Shaq, and Kobe-at the forefront of teams that won titles, Crumbs' assessment celebrating the organization would now seem to apply. Though Lakers' fans have become accustomed to winning, the absence of names like Jerry Buss, Jerry West, and Phil Jackson suggest that it would be wise for these fans to disabuse themselves of such lofty notions going forward.