Finding Excitement in a Season with Diminished Expectations

Daniel Rapaport —  September 12, 2013

A particular moment from last year’s annual Lakers preseason hype sticks out like a sore thumb. The excitement in L.A. was tangible; the Lakers, in typical Laker fashion, had just managed to inject life into the twilight of Kobe’s dwindling career by pulling off one of the best summers in NBA free agency history. Kobe finally had a quality point guard in Nash, and concerns over Dwight’s achy back evaporated with each youtube search of his pre-surgery dominance. Mitch had set up the franchise for the next decade, and LA was going to challenge for the title the very next year before slowly handing over Kobe’s reins to D12.  This prompted the moment: one particularly caught-up fan tweeted the FB&G twitter account to ask, I assume seriously, if it was unreasonable to expect the Lakers to go 82-0 and a perfect 16-0 in the playoffs on the way to the franchise’s 17th championship.

This year, no one is tweeting FB&G to ask if the Lakers are going to go undefeated.

The vibe in Lakerland couldn’t be any further from what it was last season. Or the season before. Or the season before that. It’s a vibe I’m unfamiliar with, really. Consider that I was born on December 18,1994- my very first memories of watching basketball involve alley-oops from Kobe Bryant to Shaquille O’Neal. I spent the prime of my fanhood (2008-2010, ages 14-16. You’re old enough to fully understand the game and the league, yet you’re young enough to where you don’t really have any responsibilities to keep you from watching every second of every game. Rivaled only by ages 60-65, when I’ll hopefully be retired and finally equipped with the funds I’ll need to buy season seats for the 2055-56 season, yet still sane enough to comprehend what’s going on. At 3% inflation, season tickets will cost $144,000 for four seats that year but hey, a man can dream…) enjoying the dominant resurgence brought on by that fateful February, 2008 day when Mitch turned Kwame Brown and a lukewarm pile of poop into everyone’s favorite Spaniard. And while I wasn’t forecasting a perfect season like some of my more dramatic counterparts, at this time last year I was fully expecting the Lakers to compete for a title. If you’d have told me last year that at this time next year the Lakers would be Dwightless and picked by ESPN to finish 12th in the conference, well…I simply wouldn’t have believed you.

When you get into the numbers, the first word that come to mind to describe the Lakers’ success during my fandom is silly. Since the 1999-2000 season (Age 5) until today and leaving out the lockout shortened “season” of 2011-2012, the Lakers have gone 689-377 for a .646 winning percentage, making an average year 53-29. I’ve seen seven finals appearances and witnessed five parades down Figueroa. I’ve seen two MVPs and exactly one missed playoff season. Tough to fathom so much data taken over so long? For perspective, let’s compare this 13-year stretch to that of the Chicago Bulls, a team that has experienced a normal ebb-and-flow, boom-then-bust recent history in their post-Michael years.

Since 1999-2000 and not including 2011-2012, the Bulls are a combined 465-601 for a .436 win pct. They missed the playoffs seven times in that span. You hear the name Bulls and are immediately reminded of D-Rose’s seemingly bi-gamely hammer dunks or MJ hitting a game winner. But what you conveniently forget  are the dog years in-between the glory days, the lottery-bound seasons where win totals are lucky to surpass the teens. That is, unless you are a Bulls fan who had to actually suffer through these long, painful years. Apart from the Spurs and Lakers, every team, including the perennial powers, have chugged through down years- the Celtics went 24-58 in 06-07.Your two-time defending NBA Champions Miami Heat? 6 short years ago, they were the worst team in the NBA at 15-67. The now competitive L.A. Clippers enjoyed their best season in franchise history this year. Problem is, that season ended the same round as the Lakers’ season did, and this was the worst season in recent memory for the purple and gold. I assure you I can go on, but I think the message is clear: it’s nearly impossible to be good every single year.

Look, I’m not saying that I’m expecting the Lakers to be a player in the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes. I’m not even saying that the Lakers will have a losing season or make the playoffs. But something is distinctly different this year. If we’re being honest with ourselves, a best case scenario for the 2013-14 Lakers is squeaking into the playoffs. The West is absolutely stacked 1-7, the T’wolves improved immensely, and Kobe’s Achilles tendon is a gigantic question mark. A Championship simply isn’t in the cards this season.

So, how’s someone like me, who’s seen the Lakers at the peak of the power and little else, supposed to get themselves excited for this season? Why, it’s easy. It’s just different.

Life is about finding beauty in things. The more things you find beauty in, the better life will be. I’ve spent a good amount of time this summer preparing myself for the things in which I’ll need to find beauty to make this upcoming season a great one. In place of 10 game winning streaks, we’ll have Wesley Johnson enjoying the change of scenery he’s so desperately needed and finally cashing in on that lottery-pick potential. In lieu of locking up home-court advantage, we’ll enjoy stealing a road game after catching fire and shooting 55% from three for an entire game. And instead of rooting Kobe on in the MVP race, we’ll appreciate the homecoming of Jordan Farmar.

Last year’s team became the biggest story in the NBA when they simply couldn’t win games early on. All eyes were on LA at all times and every word and action was viewed through a microscope. This year, a younger team with fresher faces will revel in anonymity. Trust me, it’s going to be nice to not have to explain  to non-Laker fan friends why a team with Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, and Pau Gasol just could not string together anything resembling a win streak.  This year, I’m excited to watch my favorite basketball player cement his legacy by coming back from an absolutely devastating injury and playing at an elite level. I’m excited to watch an embattled coach prove that he’s not a dufus and that system offenses still have a place in this league. Long story short, I’m excited for Laker basketball. It’s just not the Laker basketball I’m used to, but that’s fine with me.

The Lakers really could have tanked this year; it would have been easy and financially advantageous to amnesty Kobe in an attempt to clear as much cap space as possible for next summer’s lucrative free agent class. But that’s not the Laker way. There’s simply too much pride to put a poor product on the floor, so Mitch has assembled a cast of essentially rentals that will probably hover around .500 for the entire year. And when those rentals expire, the Lakers will be in position (they’ll have tons of cap space) to make a giant splash in free agency and, barring a repeat of this past year’s snafu, put themselves right back atop the West for years to come. It reminds me a great deal of the 1995-96 season, the year before Jerry West was able to convince the best center in the NBA that LA was the place for Shaq. That squad, led by Nick Van Exel, Cedric Ceballos, Elden Campbell, and Vlade Divac, was in a ‘transitional’ phase just like this year’s team. They finished-you guessed it-53-29. The very next year, Shaq comes to LA and West decides to take a chance on a scrawny 17-year old from Philly. The point here is that the Lakers simply don’t accept anything except excellence. That’ll save LAL from ever having to go through a full reconstruction of the team where top lottery picks are key to the process (see: Thunder, Oklahoma City.)

Very few things are certain in professional sports, but I can assure you one thing. When you’ve made a commitment to excellence and delivered on it for decades, down periods don’t last long. The feeling before next season won’t be like the one before this one. Not one bit.

Daniel Rapaport

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18 responses to Finding Excitement in a Season with Diminished Expectations

  1. One of my highlights from last season was, during midseason, watching Kobe and Pau running the high pick and roll. I loved watching the two of them working together with their passing, penetration, and hitting slashers such as Earl Clark. Of course we will miss have the low post dump target that Howard provided. But I think having those two healthy, along with Nash, will make for some interesting basketball. I am also looking forward to see how the new additions fill in around them.

  2. I think this will be a fun year, with enough frustrations for all of us. JeffT, I think your analysis of Kobe and Pau is apt and we will see a more fluid offense. I also think everyone will have to be trying harder on defense for us to even be average – thank goodness for younger, athletic legs.

    What I know is that the team is more geared for Mike D’Antoni and he is now more geared to what is expected in Los Angeles. He is good at bringing out the best in less talented players and our younger additions are here explicitly to prove they belong in the NBA. The Lakers have a relatively recent history of bringing back the careers of talented players thought to be on their way out of the league. All this is a happy convergence of talent and opportunity.

    This is also why I really doubt the 33win scenario proposed by some people on this blog. With Kobe, Pau, and Nash I expect us to be at least .500 and with any development I think we could better last year’s record.

    Polyanna, maybe, but I plan to enjoy the ups and downs of the 2013/14 season.

  3. For me this will be a very interesting year. While all eyes are on 2014, I believe this is the first year of the rebuilding. This is the year where the 1st pieces are put in place for the future. There are so many guys to watch, so many guys trying to redeem themselves that win or lose the effort will be there. There are some many questions to find answers to.

    1 Can Wes Johnson build on the break out he had over the last half of last year.

    2. Will Nick Young finally find the discipline to become the player he is capable of being? If not whats the over under on Kobe death stares he will receive.

    3. Jordan Farmar finally finds the system that is a perfect fit for his skill set. Will he capitalize?

    4. For the first time in 2 1/2 years Pau should be utilized correctly. Will he have a rebound year?

    5 Can Jordan Hill become the player he has shown he is capable of in a larger role?

    these are just a few of the things I am the most interested in this year. And if the answer is yes to most of these we could have a better year then expected.

  4. Great article. At this point it seems like the Lakers need to sign a top 5 player in the free agent class to be relevant. Maybe sign Carmelo, and let him Kobe and Pau absolutely gun, and try to add another elite player somehow soon after, once D’antoni is fired!

  5. Holy crud. Born in 1994! That year I Just divorced my 2nd wife (Raiderette Cheerleader) sold my 2nd business and had watched over 2000 Laker games. I have shoes older then you and they still fit! Feeling very old today.

    Nice writing regardless.

  6. lol @ Keno

    And one cannot mention the Lake Show of those mid-90’s without mentioning Eddie Jones (who was my personal favourite back then). And yes, I do miss that starting 5. All of them (including Ceballos). That being said, I don’t have the same vibe this year as I had back then. Remember that before that 53-win season we actually missed the playoffs, there wasn’t a superstar in the team and things didn’t look good at all. This season will be about Kobe’s and Gasol’s redemption act, if you can call it that, which just isn’t the same. Everyone has low expectations and is actually enjoying it, but it simply isn’t the same vibe…

  7. Renato,

    That team was awesome. It’s one of my favorites.

  8. Renato Afonso,
    I think your comment is a reminder that there is joy in simply seeing players develop and a team come together. Since Shaq came here – yes in those days we didn’t understand how great Kobe would be – the Laker expectation has always been to compete for a title. Well, perhaps after Shaq left the team was so bad we weren’t able to enjoy anything until Pau arrived. While now may not be the same, there is a feeling of change and and entering the unknown that gets the juices flowing. I have some optimism and a real curiosity as to who will develop and how.

    I grant you that this attitude may make us like a lot of teams, but I will enjoy it as long as it isn’t a long-term habit.

  9. Remember that before that 53-win season we actually missed the playoffs, there wasn’t a superstar in the team and things didn’t look good at all

    Two years before, yes. But the team before the 53-win team won 48 games (they beat their PYTHAG projection by 8 games, which is pretty unusual).

    And you are correct–whether the Lakers will be competitive this year depends almost entirely on what Pau, Kobe and Nash can do. The 1993-95 teams’ best players were all in their 20s.

  10. I, too, am looking forward to this season. However, I don’t recall any Laker season in which there were so many (major) question marks at the outset:

    1) When and at what level will Kobe return?
    2) Will Pau be fully healed? Will he hold up?
    3) Will Nash be fully healed? Will he hold up?
    4) Will Jordan Hill have the break out year that many are hoping for and even predicting?
    5) Will Jordan Farmar have matured to the point where he is capable of running an offense?
    6 Will Wes Johnson break out of his shell and justify, at least to a degree, his having been a #4 draft pick?
    7) Will Nick Young, playing along side no-nonsense players like Kobe and Nash, show greater maturity and wisdom in his shot selection?
    8) Will the Lakers’ chemistry be restored? Will the offense flow smoother? Will they talk on defense (unlike last year)?
    9) Will Wes Johnson and Jordan Farmar be able to defend the perimeter to a degree that no Laker has done in recent memory?
    10) Will Jordan Hill be our defensive anchor down low (the Lakers’ equivalent of Serge Ibaka)?
    11) Will anyone be able to stetch the floor consistently?
    12) Will MDA figure out how to get the most out of this group?
    13) Will one of the young players (Elias Harris, Ryan Kelly, Xavier Henry) surprise us?
    14) Will Kurt Rambis be able to build a respectable team defense out of what seems to be a relatively rag-tag defensive group?
    15) Will the Lakers be able to stay more or less healthy (unlike last year’s nightmarish turn of events)?
    16) And so forth.

    Because of all these questions, it’s almost impossible to predict what kind of season these Lakers will actually have. I think that’s what accounts for the wide range of predictions that we’ve seen from commenters on this site (23 wins on the low end; 50 wins on the high end).

    These questions, furthermore, may not be answered until 30 or so games have been played. In any event, this should not be a boring season. Last year (for my purposes) WAS boring. It was drudgery. It was interminable. This one will be different.

    We’ll see how the basketball gods treat this most recent version of the Lakers. Let the season begin.

  11. The sad part of this period, is that Kobe is gaining a reputation as a guy who doesn’t defend. The fact is that he has been a lock down defender throughout most of his carrer when he was playing along side reasonably athletic guys who played very good team defense and who hustled and made cuts on the offensive end so that he did not have to expend so much energy on that end. True Howard was a good defender last year, but he and MDA didn’t let the ball run through the better post player on offense and he was not enthusiastically making cuts on the P & R. On paper, the offense looked good, but because of the lack of buy in from all the players, Kobe is stuck playing point guard and did not have much energy left for defense. The Lakers were not blessed with a lot of natural defenders, but some of these guys if not tired could D up fine. This is on Dwight, because he never wanted to be here in the first place. I hope the history books don’t blame Kobe for this.

  12. daniel: nice write up, young man. just had to say that. seems like just yesterday, 1994.

    for those who missed this:

    http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1771479-why-la-lakers-rebuild-around-kobe-bryant-will-define-jim-buss-legacy

    Go Lakers !

  13. Man, I wish we had a Eddie Jones type player, very fun player to watch.

  14. Mid-Wilshire,which I like to visit when the traffic eases off,has said it all. The Kobe update is the next big ? Has the team ever had so many new players,and so many coming off surgery and injuries?

  15. Great write-up. It’s good to read the contributions of the next generation along with all of us old-timers.

  16. hey darius: how’s baby #2 and mama doing? it’s been about two weeks and thought we might get some buzz on what’s up and what’s going on in your busy life for a change.

    we welcome as many laker fans as possible.

    Happy Friday.

    Go Lakers !!!!

  17. Even if Kobe is 85% of what he has been physically, He’s still better than the average NBA player he has made his career doing what the Lakers needed him to do. I think his decision process on the court is like a coach he sees the little things that his teammates can take advantage of to be successful. both defensively and offensively. As a leader he demands toughness and effort from his teammates that was an apparent problem for Dwight who seemed to loose interest and effort if the ball didn’t bounce his way. Dwight became a cancer for last years team, they really couldn’t count on him during crunch time, Dwight is a gifted athlete but does not have personal fortitude to see past himself for the good of the team he sulked and the Lakers babied him to the point of miss-using Pau and hampering the whole offense. the Lakers would feed Dwight the ball and when the defense would collapse he would either turn the ball over or get fouled and miss his free throws, Shaq missed a lot of free throws but when the game was on the line he made them an Shaq was fouled every play of every game but he showed the character needed to be come a championship center. So without Dwight the Lakers will have the freedom to play fluid team basketball where ball movement creates better shots, If Nash, Kobe and Pau can stay healthy that will translate into wide open opportunities for the likes of Farmar , Young and Blake to shoot the 3 and if any of the potential develops from the other youngsters it will be a good season, the team attitude should be very positive because regardless of being a possible 500 team they all feel fortunate to be Lakers.
    Go!! Lakers!

  18. great article. While a youngster somebody obviously taught this kid to write.

    For me the most interesting question is what the franchise will do to revitalize over the next few years, post-Kobe. LA is still LA — the premier locale for this generation of players, with only Miami coming close to competing. Who’s got next? LeBron? Is the next Kobe out there somewhere? Love to hear your views on that, along with any intelligence you’ve gathered