Two years ago, on the evening of March 6th, the Los Angeles Lakers played a home game against the Los Angeles Clippers and lost by an absurd amount no one would ever have predicted, 48 points. Unbeknowst to almost everyone at the time, that game was the Lakers postcript, their epitaph, their public burial. They died that night and because they died, their glamour and entitlement and privilege was of no use anymore. To make matters worse, they were bad basketball businessmen. They couldn’t identify talent. They overpaid the average (Nick Young), they let the skilled (Ed Davis) walk. They were looking for a star but this is the truth in all of it. A rock withered into a pebble is not a rock anymore but a small piece of nothing you throw into the sea. That is what is left of a hobbled franchise way out of its league.
The subtle irony of March 6, 2014 is only now coming to light. Byron Scott, paid as an analyst in the Time Warner SportsNet studio, commented on the carnage from a position of entitlement. He was the coach on the set with experience and he had disdain for the D’Antoni premise, for how D’Antoni didn’t effort much on defense. how D’Antoni didn’t incentivize the right kind of teamwork, how D’Antoni ruined Pau Gasol. Scott was pretty smug about it all which doesn’t mean his critique wasn’t spot on. The listing of D’Antoni’s sins weren’t new. They followed him from Phoenix to New York to L.A as his own badge of honor. It made good copy because D’Antoni was such an easy mark. His flaws were continually tossed around for theatrical purposes, and even as the Lakers organization, which was barely functioning above D-league level, was humiliated by the Clippers loss, the accountability never reached the right place.
735 days later, another loss by 48 points, this time on the road in Utah. That makes twice in two years, this bloodletting. Different players. Different coaches but the same result and it only means the barbarians are now at the gate and the only one who comes out unscathed is Kobe Bryant who has two weeks left of this and then he can talk a long walk into the rest of his life. But the Lakers who are stuck here have to account for it. Byron Scott, the unwanted coach. D’Angelo Russell, the narcissist scorer. Jordan Clarkson, the free agent to be. Julius Randle, the rebounder who could only grab 1 rebound in 24 minutes. No use mentioning Nick Young who was not there last night; he’s been garbage all season.
This is the Lakers moving forward, but into what exactly?
One of the main criticisms of Mike D’Antoni was that he didn’t respect and lionize the Lakers culture. He didn’t appreciate their history, particularly their evolution of big men impacting the whole game. Thinking about all of that now, it’s hard not to point out the paradox. While it may have been very true of Mike D’Antoni and his Lakers history aversion, it is even more true of the young Lakers who don’t have the capacity to translate their physical game into a mental commitment, as their Lakers peers did once upon a time. Spectacularly, they are fully engaged in social media chatter and life in L.A. They love L.A. in the aggregate. But do they love the Lakers in the specific? Is there any remorse for what’s taken place this year?
Mike D’Antoni and Byron Scott are different men. Their rule of law encompasses both ends of the psychological affection spectrum. Easy love vs. tough love pretty much sums it up in a nutshell. D’Antoni emphasized and embraced freedom of self governance and continual support. He was the self-esteem whisperer. Scott reverts back to anger and punishment and tearing players down with his sharpness, often perceived as cruelty. So, on the one hand, one coach elevated his players psyche, despite the on-court results of mediocrity, while the other coach created anxiety and self-consciousness. One sped up the tempo and the Lakers were a dominant three-point shooting team who passed the ball. The other coach closed down the tempo and didn’t teach his players to screen for each other; it was a lot of iso ball. The end result was the same. Both D’Antoni and Scott are equals which is to say they were bad Lakers coaches. Except, D’Antoni’s style of play is being copied in Golden State, at least on the offensive end. Scott’s style of play is an ode to a generation long past. It was set on fire a long time ago.
Scott loves to blame the Lakers inattentiveness to youth as a way to save himself from accountability. But look around the league; it’s young. Devin Booker is young. No one would accuse him of immaturity. Karl Anthony-Towns is young. Kristaps Porzingis is young. Youth is not the issue here. What Scott is teaching and what he is not teaching is the problem. And the players themselves. They are the problem.
There is no higher meaning to what has happened to the Lakers other than they can no longer buy what they want anymore. And because they have to operate on an equal playing field, their intelligent quotient has suffered. The rich kid can no longer buy cheat sheets to the exam. They have to do the work.
As of yet, they Lakers don’t have the personnel with the accompanying psyche that embraces ball movement. Or, screening. Or, trust. Or, footwork. Or, film work. The Lakers can fire Bryon Scott and hire someone else. But, it only prolongs this merry-go-round of helplessness they have been stuck on since Dr. Buss passed away. It will just be act two with another coach. Or, act three.
There is no conviction on this team; none. Scott can’t make a player care. Thibodeau can’t make a player care. The young kids all have talent and they all have deficiencies and the league is so cut-throat that by the time they make up their mind to get it together and figure it all out, their reputations will already have been set in stone.
Last night’s humiliation in Utah, what Stephen A. Smith called an atrocity, pretty much sealed the deal for talented free-agents. What star, who has sacrificed and committed himself to his craft and his career, wants to play with a bunch of kids who shrug away a near 50 point loss. This slip-shod way of approaching a NBA career is keeping the Lakers the NBA’s best or worst joke, depending on your point of view.
Watch the Lakers for any length of time and you’ll notice the body language borders on apathy, like a NBA career is being forced upon them. They actually seem bored at times. A year ago, they all had such dreams. Jordan Clarkson predicted the playoffs. D’Angelo Russell welcomed being the next Magic Johnson. Julius Randle was anxious to get back on the court.
This season, for the most part, has the feel of driving a car into a wall, and on purpose. You don’t lose by 48 points and not question everything. There is this squalid history that has to be atoned for. What is absolute about the kids the Lakers are turning the franchise over to is their pursuit of fame and stardom and lifestyle. What is not absolute is their pursuit of winning and commitment and sacrifice. Not to mention consistency.
As an organization, the Lakers have been devastated and publicly ridiculed. They have had a tragic cancer death. They have made bad choices. They deflect accountability. They paid people too much money. And yet, they still cling to their magical thinking. They are in a hole they themselves dug that may take them years to get out of. But no one is saying that.
They are saying Ben Simmons is the answer. Or, Brandon Ingram.
photo via llananba