When the Los Angeles Lakers signed Kobe Bryant to a two-year, $48-million deal that would keep him a highly-paid player through his age-37 season, they showed a commitment not necessarily to the stylistic idea of “Showtime,” but rather to the commitment of staying Hollywood by squeezing every tiny ray of light out of the fading star of Kobe Bryant. And earlier this week when they decided to hire former Laker Byron Scott and his 44% career winning rate, they earned the applause and approval of the Laker legends – not coincidentally, Scott’s former teammates – and Bryant. In the process, Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss revealed that together they’re still serving different gods, each trapped in its own dimension of time. And with a handful of skittish personnel moves, the Lakers spectrum has expanded to include a scattered stretching appeasement to the present and a dyslexic imagining of the future.
Magic Johnson wasn’t just speaking for himself when he talked about Scott’s hiring, but he was speaking to the notion that the key for the Lakers of the future is tapping into the Lakers of the past:
“We came here today to support our brother and our former teammate and champion Byron Scott and also we’re here to support the Laker organization,” Johnson said. “This is a great day for all the former Lakers as well as Lakers fans all over the world. We’re just excited for what Byron will bring to the table and get back to playing Laker basketball. … We wish we could put on a uniform for you and help you, but we’re here supporting you and will support you throughout. Again, congrats to the Laker organization. You chose the right guy.”
I don’t doubt Magic had anything but the best intentions with his comments, but instead of existing in the reality of the current Lakers situation, his words continue to reveal a collective desperate grip on the Lakers past that goes beyond celebrating its great history. Instead of hope for a challenging future, Magic represents the notion that the past will save them, but to paraphrase Rick Pitino: “Magic Johnson ain’t walking through that door …. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ain’t walking through that door …. But Kobe Bryant might hobble through it.”
This idea of getting “back to playing Laker basketball” is confusing in the sense that nothing indicates the current group of Lakers are capable of playing anything resembling any incarnation of successful Lakers basketball. With Shaqtin’ a Fool honoree Nick Young back for another couple seasons, Julius Randle’s obvious, but still very much developing talent, the inevitable return of whatever is left of Linsanity in the country’s largest market for Asian Americans, and the potential to bring on board the entertaining, but perpetually disappointing Michael Beasley, the only links to “Laker basketball” are Scott and Bryant. And however strong the legacy of those links may be, in terms of on court execution and production, they’re in a slow state of decay.
But maybe Magic’s ideas are based more in a familial idea of “Laker basketball.” After all, since Phil left and Dr. Buss passed, the Lakers have been a ship steered blindly by Mike Brown and Mike D’Antoni with Kobe lurking in the shadows as a sneering, limping mutineer. His presence by itself is of such a magnitude that it mandates the front office take him into account with any of its decisions. We saw this with what now feels like a last gasp effort two summers ago when the Lakers traded for Dwight Howard and signed Steve Nash. Instead of thrusting Kobe into a quest for #6, the outcome was severely and bumblingly un-Lakerish. Now we see a nod to Kobe’s refusal to rebuild in the quasi-competitive roster Kupchak has delivered which is littered with rental players, rejects, and oddballs.
And because the Lakers have exhibited a long-term, almost stubborn insistence on refusing to rebuild and making exceptionally loyal financial commitments (see Magic, Kareem, Kobe) to its stars, the possibility of them scrapping the whole operation for a year or two isn’t applicable. Where every other showcase franchise in the league has cleaned house at one time or another, the Lakers have refused since the arrival of Jabbar back in 1976. The string of first-ballot Hall of Famers has been nearly unbroken for the past four decades beginning with Kareem, then Magic, a brief break when Johnson retired prematurely with HIV, then it was on to Shaq, and now Kobe. That’s nearly 40 straight years of one-named icons, a streak that can’t be touched by any franchise in the league. With a legacy like this, there’s a natural potential for a sense of entitlement to creep up for fans and the front office. It’s a sense that the product and the premium label are so damn good that once players see and hear what it’s all about, they’ll show up in droves. And who can blame the Lakers for falling victim to this assumption? After all, it’s been happening since Jimmy Carter was in office.
The front office continues trying to rediscover that starry magnetism that makes the Lakers part of every free agent rumor. It was Kobe’s presence that helped Dwight decide to depart for Houston and it’s now Kobe’s contract and presence that loom darkly over their free agent maneuvers. Melo informed us earlier this week that it was always the Bulls and Knicks despite Bill Simmons’s tease that the Los Angeles Lakers were a real choice. That puff of false hope was the reality that the Lakers as they’re currently constructed are a mid-tier team when it comes to free agent destinations. Did anyone really believe Melo was going to LA or was it just blind hope from the hopelessly disconnected fans among us? The Lakers still have have money, a royal brand, sprawling sandy beaches, and the surface sex appeal and plasticity of a town that advertises botox and plastic surgery the way most cities advertise car washes and plumbing services. But as a basketball destination, the team is inhabiting the unfamiliarity of the underdog.
Kobe and the aging heroes of Lakers past were consulted and gave glowing recommendations for Scott to take over as head coach. Kobe was appeased and the idols were satisfied. Yet what are we to make of the personnel moves which have had all the flavor of a suicide fountain soda? There’s talent among this motley crew, but it’s like drinking coffee while eating chicken wings – a gross amalgamation of mismatching parts. This collection of talented misfits is a dull nod to Kobe’s refusal to rebuild vis-à-vis this quasi-competitive roster Kupchak has delivered which is littered with rental players, rejects, and oddballs.
This is what happens when you’re caught in the vacuous crush of living up to a glorified past (both for the team and for the son who took over for his father) under the intense glare of a living legend while trying to improve and remain attractive in an unknown and hyper competitive future. The savvy moves (getting a first rounder in the Lin deal, drafting Randle, and signing Boozer for $3.25-million) appear to have been made by a completely different person than the defensible, but unnecessary decisions to extend Bryant and hire Scott. Whether it’s Kupchak, or more likely Buss, the Lakers have the appearance of a team that knows these next two years will be in a Western Conference limbo, doing just enough to keep the immortals in the fold while acquiescing to Kobe’s demands and in doing both, satisfying the legions of fans that breathe and bleed Lakers purple and gold while propping the franchise up with gobs and gobs of money.
Kupchak and Buss know their gods and their constituents. They know how the game is played and have positioned themselves to be players in the free agent market for the next three summers. But even with their oscillations between coveting the biggest and baddest (bad meaning good) free agents and plugging holes with spare parts, this can’t be anyone’s idea of “Laker basketball.” If it is, then the gods must be crazy.