I am a self-proclaimed Laker hater, let’s just get that out of the way now. I have hated the Lakers from the moment they traded Shaq to the Heat (my first basketball love). I felt robbed of the opportunity to live basketball history as I watched the purple and gold dismantle a team that just three years prior surrendered only one game en route to a second of three consecutive NBA titles. From then on it became easy to hate the Lakers, especially when I relocated from the bay (and those awful mid 2000s Warriors teams) to Los Angeles. Rooting against the Lakers in the finals in 2008 – and cheering on family friend Eddie House and the Boston Celtics – was one of the greatest sports experiences of my life. It was also among the last few moments of greatness in a Lakers franchise that has lost its way.
Flashback for a moment to 2012. The Heat have just lost to the Mavericks in the Finals and for the briefest of moments, the league seems to be settling into a moment of extreme parity in the West. This was supposed to be the beginnings of the final act of Kobe Bryant’s career. One last great act of defiance to let the league know that he would demand his right to a sixth ring. What happened next would leave him as an overweight anchor on an already sinking ship.
That August, all-world big man Dwight Howard was traded from his salt-castle in Orlando to the NBA equivalent of the Deathstar in Los Angeles. He was joined by a decaying Steve Nash. This was considered a massive coup, a bit of Buss on Association revenge after the vetoed Chris Paul trade. However, it was exceptionally bad timing. Dwight had just complained his way out of a Magic organization that had dedicated itself to him in hopes that he would deliver what Shaq could not. Despite his impressive 17 point, 12 rebound, 2 block average over his sole year in LA, it was clear that Howard was still not right from the back injury that sidelined him at the end of the previous season. The squad of Dwight, Kobe, and the perennially underrated Pau Gasol turned out to be a complete bust. Steve Nash played just enough to guarantee his contract, but not long enough to make a difference.
November of the same year, the Lakers organization made the single greatest oversight in its entire history: The hire of head coach Mike D’antoni over NBA Legend Phil Jackson. In retrospect it signaled the end of five and a half decades of invulnerability. D’antoni was coming off a disastrous stint in New York, and was following up a listless performance by Mike Brown. He came with his usual promise of scoring aplenty but a dearth of defense. He coached the team to a middling record and a seventh seed. The Lakers spent the entire season bickering with each other, Kobe quickly chafed at Dwight Howard’s indifferent attitude towards losses, Pau hated playing in D’antoni’s system, and all the while their injured point guard played spot minutes. Perhaps no single moment encapsulates the implosion of the Lakers any more than A 17 point post-all star break loss to the Utah Jazz. Nash played just 16 minutes, but guaranteed his remaining contract.
At the end of that season, Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles tendon and the Dwight Howard-led Lakers were swept by San Antonio Spurs in the first round losing each game by double digits. Los Angeles recoiled from the prospect that perhaps they simply were ignoring the glaringly problematic front office decision making. Instead they proceeded to re-sign Kobe at 2 years $48 Million, on top of the $30 Million he would make that year. Even Lakers fans were baffled by the size of the contact and bemoaned Jim Buss’ choice not only to sign Kobe at such a high number, (when guys like Tim Duncan took pay cuts) but also an inability to draw in big time free agents to replace Dwight and eventually Pau. Since signing that contract Kobe has only played 94 games (more than half coming this season) and free agents have consistently chosen other places to play.
What has happened to the Lakers is a prime example of how quickly the NBA is changing and how difficult it can be to keep up. This has made the state of the Lakers so troubling. They possess a larger market than all but New York, but neither has been to the finals in almost a decade. What the Knicks lack in wins they make up for in names, specifically Phil Jackson. A stark contrast to a neutered Mitch Kupchek, a detached Jennie Buss and a power mad Jim Buss. Consider this, Jim has placed his own time limit on himself to get things turned around. This coming season is the final year, but if Byron Scott returns as Head Coach, no player will want to play for the Lakers. Instead they will continue to compile over the hill players, at far too high a price, to maybe one day get their heads above the water. Keep in mind that after Kobe retires, there will be no player on the Lakers with any established history longer than 3 years with the team (Nick Young!). While some see this as a power vacuum waiting to be filled by the eager ego of a young burgeoning superstar, it could just as likely be the sinking ship that free agents stay away from, like the Phoenix SUNS. That is about as close to rock bottom as the Lakers can get this side of the 76ers, who only have five fewer wins.
Lately, it has been no fun rooting against the Los Angeles Lakers. To quote a lifelong friend and Laker fan, the Lakers have nearing the point of “lost in space.” He said this as we watched this year’s rendition of the Lakeshow labor up and down the court to a five point, how-could-it-be-this-bad, loss to the nearly dead Suns who have gone a lowly 5-25 since the calendar flipped to 2016. My friend admitted that at this point he would take anything, even a 10th place finish in the west, as a sign of life from his beloved franchise. Sadly, for his sake as much as my own, I do not believe he will get his wish.
-Chris (Siko) Simmons