The torches are raised, the moat has been crossed, and the rebels are at the castle gates ready to storm.
The Lakers are again home watching the Finals rather than participating. For fans, this is a special type of anguish as they expect the Lakers to be where the Thunder and Heat are year after year. The fact that they were just there two seasons ago can actually make this harder, as being that close and then receding to a lesser position can be worse than attempting to climb the mountain in the first place.
Expectations, though, aren’t always rational – especially when we’re talking about sports. And now is the time for expectations to be slotted correctly.
The Lakers are in the midst of a transition and have been since being swept by the Mavericks a bit over a year ago. That defeat sent Phil Jackson into retirement and set off a string of events both in and out of the Lakers control:
- Rather than hiring Brian Shaw, the Lakers decided Mike Brown was the better fit. Bringing in Brown meant the Lakers would have new schemes on both sides of the ball. For the key, long time Lakers (Kobe, Pau, Bynum, Fisher) this would be a radical shift from the ones they’d grown accustomed to running.
- The lockout wiped out any pre-season teaching opportunities and drastically affected the learning curve for the team.
- In the pre-season the Lakers – likely recognizing the need for roster change in accordance with their new systems – pulled off a trade for a franchise altering talent. However, that trade was then vetoed and the Lakers were back to square one.
- The fallout from that trade, however, was that one of their key players who would have been dealt felt his position with the team was untenable and asked to be traded. The result was him being dealt.
- In season, the Lakers again recognizing the need to shift their roster, performed two other significant trades. One brought in a point guard and the other brought in a serviceable back up big man (that also saw the departure of another key leader). Both players had to adjust on the fly to new roles with new teammates and had an up and down stretch run with the team. Meanwhile the team that remained had to adjust to not having one of “their guys” in the bunker with them.
To summarize, in the past year the Lakers have: changed coaches, traded key players, and added key players to “replace” the ones lost. The result was mish-mashed year that provided flashes of ability to contend for a title and flashes of a team that may have trouble escaping the first round. What ended up happening was the Lakers getting to the 2nd round (in a hard fought series) and then winning one more game than they did last year in the playoffs.
This was, pretty much, a failure. The fans wanted better, the players wanted better, and the executives in the front office wanted better. In the face of that, there’s a need to look in the mirror and see how better can be achieved.
This will likely mean more change. In fact, it’s already started. Ettore Messina has left after his lone season as an assistant coach/consultant to Mike Brown, heading back to Europe to coach CSKA Moscow. Quinn Snyder is still in house but is one of the final 3 candidates to land the head coaching job with the Charlotte Bobcats.
Beyond the coaches though, there will surely be changes on the roster. Gasol’s name will be floated heavily (after all, he was already traded once last pre-season). One can only assume Andrew Bynum’s name will also come up as a potential piece to be moved for a player (or players) of better quality and/or fit. Free agency will be explored and there have been hints that the Lakers may even look to get into a higher slot of the draft to add another young player.
These are all options the fans want to see happen. Two straight flameouts require change. However, as the landscape of the roster shifts more adjustments will follow. Players will need to get used to playing with each other. Coaches will need to learn the strengths and weaknesses of those players and learn how to get the most out of them. Players will need to adjust to what it means to play for the Lakers and the distractions that come with. These are things that take time.
So, as we all sit back and wonder what the next move will be; how the Lakers’ brass will fix this team it’s best we also acknowledge the fact that whatever changes are made they will not be ones that instantly make anything better. What we’ll see are surface changes. But to win at the level the Lakers want to win, surface changes are only the beginning. It’s the changes that happen deeper; the changes that happen after real connections are made that make the real difference and lead to long lasting success.
We’ve seen this before in 2008 when the Lakers were transformed via the rise of Bynum, the acquisition of Gasol, the return of Fisher, and the proper slotting of Odom that all combined to change the DNA of the team. But even that year saw a terrible defeat in the Finals before they took that next step to be champion. It’s important that we remember this when we get the change we seek. It’s a long and rocky journey to get where the Lakers want to get back to. Best be prepared for it.