The Lakers Always Seem to Manage

J.M. Poulard —  December 11, 2011

For years we have heard of the Boston Celtics and their famed Celtics Pride. Bill Russell’s team literally put a stranglehold on the mid-1950s as well as the 1960s, winning 11 titles in 13 seasons. Although many thought Boston would struggle with Russell’s retirement; the team managed to win two more championships during the 1970s with Dave Cowens and John Havlicek leading the way.

And then the 1980s hit and Larry Bird helped revive Celtics Pride with three titles. Boston then went through some dark times as the team struggled to make the playoffs. Fast-forward to 2008 and the team won a title on the strength of their defense and the brilliant play of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.

The franchise has won an unprecedented 17 NBA championships and yet they are not the league’s marquee franchise. That title belongs to none other than…

The Los Angeles Lakers.

The franchise’s prestige, rich history and multiple national television appearances make it oddly enough the easiest team to love but also the easiest team to hate. Indeed, the constant exposure of the Lakers to the public either turns some people off or makes them easier to follow depending on whom you ask.

Thus, when news broke out that Chris Paul would join the Lakers, there was an outcry from fans and owners that the L.A. had once again pulled off the improbable and strong armed another franchise into giving them their goods for almost nothing.

Forget that the trade benefitted all parties involved, but several shared the opinion that the purple and gold had committed highway robbery.

The trade has since been blocked and it seems as though the Lakers have put an end to talks of bringing Paul in to play with Kobe; focusing instead now on bringing in Dwight Howard.

But here’s the undisputable truth (some readers may want to sit down for this one): fans, owners and GMs that are mad at the Lakers should actually be mad at themselves (once again, make sure you are seated).

Believe it or not, there used to be a time that the Los Angeles Lakers were a nearly broke franchise that could barely get decent attendance. Consider this: during the 1960-61 season, the Lakers were next to last in attendance. And that was back when they had Elgin Baylor and Jerry West on the team; you know, just two of the 50 greatest players ever.

Instead of feeling for sorry for themselves and selling one of their stars to the highest bidder, the Lakers got creative. They played numerous exhibition games against the league’s signature team at the time (Boston Celtics) in multiple cities to get exposure, create an intriguing rivalry and also get fans to watch their stars play. In addition, new owner Jack Kent Cooke wanted his team to become the city’s main attraction and thus had a glamorous stadium built that he would name the Forum that opened its doors in 1967 and became the home of the Lakers.

The team would no longer have to worry about attendance figures, and instead could focus on the obvious: winning.

At a time when most teams were afraid of taking on the talented but ego-driven Wilt Chamberlain; the Lakers took the gamble and traded for the Big Dipper to have him play alongside West and Baylor. Although Baylor retired at the start of the 1971-72 season, the move helped the Lakers finally bring an NBA title to the city of Los Angeles.

The team not only won the title but became legendary. One can make the case that Jerry West was the face of the league (he is after all the NBA’s logo) and that Wilt Chamberlain was perhaps the league’s most interesting player. The dynamic made the Lakers a must-see attraction.

Years later, both players would retire, but the franchise would find a way to get history to repeat itself. Indeed, they would bring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the team via trade and then acquire the greatest point guard of all time through the draft.

Many think that drafting Magic Johnson was a no-brainer, but general manager Jerry West actually wanted to draft Sidney Moncrief. Jerry Buss actually made the call on Magic; and never regretted it.

The Lakers consistently made smart basketball transactions to set up the team to be dominant throughout the 1980s.

With the number one overall pick in the 1982 draft, they selected James Worthy instead of a ball dominant Dominique Wilkins, they traded for Byron Scott and also acquired Mychal Thompson. Years prior, they had selected Michael Cooper in the third round of the 1978 draft.

These moves allowed the Lakers to win five world titles during the 1980s.

In the early 1990s, Kareem and Magic had retired and the team was stuck in a rut; looking for the next great superstar.

By the summer of 1996, the Lakers were desperate. Thus, they gutted their roster in an effort to create enough salary cap room to acquire Shaquille O’Neal. It’s worth mentioning that had O’Neal signed elsewhere, the team would have seen some truly dark days since they had no contingency plans set up. Nonetheless, they offered Shaq a mammoth contract (seven years worth $120 million) and stroked his ego to get him the join the team and also acquired the draft rights of a young high school player named Kobe Bryant. By the time the 2000s rolled around, the Lakers had become a dynasty, winning three titles in a row.

O’Neal was eventually traded away in the summer of 2004 and Kobe became a free agent. Although the superstar guard re-signed, things turned ugly for a franchise accustomed to winning. The team missed the playoffs in their first year without the Diesel and then was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in consecutive seasons.

By 2007, Kobe Bryant had grown tired of the losing as well as the blame that was directed at him for O’Neal’s departure. He made it clear that he wanted to get out in the worst way possible. The Lakers had a trade lined up with Chicago, but Bryant felt as though the Bulls team he would be joining would be no better than the Lakers team he would be leaving.

And then, Mitch Kupchak hit a grand slam, acquiring Pau Gasol for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, the rights to Marc Gasol and a few draft picks.

The trade helped the Lakers get to three straight Finals and win back-to-back titles. Make no mistake though, although Gasol’s contributions were certainly a huge part of the Lakers success, Lamar Odom (obtained in O’Neal trade) and Andrew Bynum (drafted by Lakers in 2005) were also a huge part of what made the squad a championship team.

For whatever reason, there seems to be this idea that the Lakers have had it easy for the most part. But the truth is they have not. They have been faced with tough times and have had crucial decisions to make in their rich history; but what sets them apart from most teams is that they have been able to exhibit a tremendous amount of patience and make great management decisions (remember after the Lakers won the 2009 title; Buss refused to overpay Odom and managed to re-sign him).

As a result of these facts, players are much more willing to play for the Lakers as opposed to say the Clippers who play in the exact same building.

The issue isn’t so much the big markets (although that helps) as much as it is the notion of playing for a winner.

The Los Angeles Lakers have won 16 NBA titles, made an appearance in the Finals in every decade, have had three of the five best centers ever play for them and also three of the five best guards of all time wear the Lakers jersey.

Given the Lakers’ excellence in shaping up rosters, why wouldn’t a superstar want to join the team?

J.M. Poulard