How did we get here?

Daniel Rapaport —  July 19, 2014

The glory days of Kobe and Phil may seem like ages ago, but a quick peek at a calendar reminds you that it really was only three years ago that the Lakers sat at top of the NBA pyramid. But my, oh my, how things have changed. The roster doesn’t look good, the future isn’t looking all that bright, and we still don’t have a coach. So, how did we get here? Let’s take a step-by-step look at just how things went so sour so quickly for the Lakers, starting with the end of the Phil era.

End of an Era 

May 8, 2011

The Lakers are blown out of the gym by the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks, 122-86, to complete a four-game sweep. This series was tough to watch for Laker fans, as LAL entered the playoffs at 57-25 and had seemed like legitimate contenders to win their third straight championship. Instead, the Mavs caught fire and stayed on fire for pretty much the whole series (they shot 20-35 from behind the arc in Game 4) to put an ugly end to Phil Jackson’s career. After that Mavs series, the glory days seemed to be in the past. With Kobe nearing the tail end of his prime and Pau inching ever closer to the 30 benchmark, the Lakers needed another young piece to help extend their championship window as Kawhi Leonard has so famously done in San Antonio.

Brown era Begins

May 26, 2011

The team announces that Mike Brown will replace Phil Jackson as head coach, despite a vocal endorsement of Brian Shaw for the job from Kobe Bryant. Brown was coming off being fired by the Cleveland Cavaliers in an unsuccessful attempt to appease LeBron James and held a reputation around the league as a hard-working, defense-first coach. No one was particularly excited by the hire, but I don’t recall it being widely questioned like the hiring of a certain mustached coach with an Italian name.

Basketball Reasons

December 8, 2011

Comissioner David Stern notifies the New Orleans Hornets and Lakers that their agreed-upon trade to send Chris Paul to LA, Pau Gasol to Houston and Lamar Odom to New Orleans would not be allowed due to “basketball reasons.” On the morning of December 8th, the Lakers had their man, their next superstar, the next face of the franchise. But now, we can only wonder What If? And what’s worse, we’re reminded just how damn good CP3 is all the time when he puts on dazzling display after dazzling display in the Lakers’ own building.

This will be torture, but humor me for a minute and play the What Could Have Been Game with me. Say that trade goes through. The Lakers’ core at that point would have been Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, and Andrew Bynum, who, though it’s tough to remember, was once a coveted young all-star center who was widely considered the best offensive center in the League. The (spoiler alert!) 2012 trade for Dwight was centered around Bynum and not Gasol, so that trade likely still happens. Then, the Lakers have a core of Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, and Dwight Howard that would have been Miami’s biggest foe. Side note: I think there’s little chance Dwight walks away from Los Angeles and a backcourt of Kobe and Chris Paul, but I also didn’t think Dwight would walk away from LA and $30 million…

The Promise

July 4, 2012

The purple and gold were reeling from a 4-1 shellacking from the Oklahoma City Thunder that was as poignant as it was lopsided. The Kobe-Pau Laker dynasty was officially dead, and the Thunder series provided Laker fans with an up-close view of the freakish athleticism that would propel the Thunder to a championship contender for years to come. Winning championships means winning the Western Conference and that would require beating younger, faster teams like OKC. The Laker seemed far from capable of doing that. Enter Steve Nash who, despite being 38, had played in the all-star game the previous season and still held elite-status around the league. Basketball heads believed the Lakers had acquired the best point guard they’ve ever had alongside Bryant and ESPN tabbed the trade “an unforeseen twist that could thrust the Los Angeles Lakers straight back into title contention.” Things were looking bright for 2012-2013.

August 11, 2012 

The Lakers close the deal on their multi-year flirtation with Dwight Howard in a deal that sent the Lakers’ best young asset, enigmatic center Andrew Bynum, to the Philadelphia 76ers. The Lakers’ front office was almost unanimously praised for the deal, as Howard, though coming off a serious back surgery, was a consensus top-5 NBA player, and probably one of only two players in the league that GMs believed could be surrounded with literally anyone and drag their team to the playoffs. At only 27, Dwight had at least 6-7 more good years left in him, enough to take the reins from Kobe as head honcho once #24 decides to call it quits. The Lakers were set to compete in the short term and in the long term. All was looking good in Lakerland.

The Princeton?!

August 16, 2012

Mike Brown successfully recruits Eddie Jordan, who played for the Lakers in the 80’s to join his coaching staff as Associate Head Coach. Jordan brings along with him the Princeton Offense, a complicated read-and-react system that relies heavily on ball movement and is usually used by teams lacking athleticism or talent. The Lakers’ roster seemed ideal to run an pick-and-roll heavy offense with Steve Nash, one of the very best pick-and-rollers to ever play, and Dwight Howard, a freakishly athletic center who could jump like a wide receiver. But Brown insisted that his Princeton-like sets would give the Lakers the best chance to win. Mike Brown was wrong.

Nash Goes Down

November 1, 2012

In only the second game of the season, Steve Nash bumps knees with his younger counter part, Damian Lillard, late in the second quarter of a game against the Blazers in Portland. Nash hobbled off the floor, but the injury was initially thought to be not serious and Nash even attempted playing in the game again before heading to the locker room. It was the first of a series of unfortunate events for Nash, who hasn’t been able to play anywhere near the level in purple and gold that he was at in Phoenix. Nash would fail to return to full strength that season and has yet to be fully healthy since.

Chaos Begins 

The Lakers’ first five games of the 2012-2013 season go as follows: 1. a 99-91 loss on opening night at home to the Dallas Mavericks. 2. a 116-106 loss to the Blazers in the always-difficult Rose Garden 3. a bitter 105-95 loss to the crosstown rival Clippers 4. a blowout 108-79 win over the Pistons at home and 5. a 95-86 loss to the Jazz in Salt Lake City. 1-4 isn’t a good start for any team, but it becomes that much worse when you factor in that this Laker team was predicted by some to challenge Jordan’s Bulls for the best record ever in a regular season. Though talented, this team was particularly old– it was put together to win immediately. There was no time to waste to let the group gel closer as they simply didn’t have the time. Their championship window was too short.

So the Busses came to the conclusion that a change had to happen and it had to happen right then and there.

November 10, 2012

The Lakers announce they’ve fired Mike Brown after five games or roughly 6.1% of the season, equivalent to firing an NFL coach with about 3 minutes to go in the 4th quarter of Week 1. The Lakers were in scramble mode. But when Phil Jackson’s name surfaced as a potential successor to Brown, Lakerland smiled collectively. Though Jackson had pledged that he’d coached his last game, this roster was one of the most talented of all-time, featuring four future likely hall of famers. A report leaked that Jackson was willing to come back to coaching in order to lead this group, and it seemed like only a matter of time before Phil’s return became official.

The Wrong Choice 

November 12, 2012

In one of the most surprising decisions in basketball history, the Lakers decide to hire Mike D’Antoni instead of 11-time NBA Champion Phil Jackson to replace Brown as head coach. Some pointed to the awkward dynamic between Jim Buss and Jackson as the reason why D’Antoni was selected (Phil has been in a relationship with Jim’s sister Jeanie for many years…you can imagine the ‘interesting’ dynamic that would have presented). Others tried to justify the decision from a basketball perspective, salivating at the possibility of reuniting Nash with D’Antoni (under whom he enjoyed his best years) and an offense with Dwight Howard rolling to the basket, Gasol in the high post, and Kobe on the wing. But that offense would require 100% cooperation from the players, and that simply never occurred.

The D’Antoni-Lakers marriage never, ever worked. In 2012-2013, he looked unable to manage the numerous egos that come with a roster so talented and just could not figure out what to do with Pau Gasol. Howard became unhappy with how he was used in D’Antoni’s perimeter-focused offense and Steve Nash was two years past being even a shell of himself. The Nash who perfectly orchestrated the D’Antoni system in Phoenix no longer existed, and D’Antoni seemed unwilling to adapt his system.

Though hindsight is 20/20, one can only wonder how different things might be today if Jim had decided to go with Phil instead of Mike, a choice that seemed so obvious to most of us.

Uncertainty Ahead

April 12, 2013 

After a routine move in the paint, Kobe collapses and immediately starts rubbing his left heel. His face walking off the court gave the impression that he knew this injury was a serious one. Everyone’s worst fear became a reality when it became official that Kobe had ruptured his achilles’ tendon and would require season-ending the surgery. The injury came at a particularly inopportune time for Los Angeles, also. Though few at that point believed that Lakers squad could contend for a championship, they did put together a 27-12 record after the all-star break and seemed to be playing their best basketball of the year heading into the playoffs.

The injury provided Kobe with the most major setback of his career. Kobe had been hurt plenty in the past, but never this serious, and always seemed to be able to muster his superhuman pain tolerance when he really needed to be on the court. But no one could play through a torn achilles. Especially not a 35-year-old.

With Nash and Kobe both injured, the Lakers pieced together a group of misfits to fill the guard positions who were predictably annihilated by the San Antonio Spurs in a tidy four-game sweep. The Lakers were entering the off season without a commitment from Howard to sign a contract extension, and with Kobe’s future a giant question mark, it seemed realistic that Dwight would leave LA for greener pastures.

What now?

July 5, 2013

The once unthinkable becomes reality when the Lakers lose out on a prized free agent. Dwight announces a day after the Fourth of July that he’d sign a 4-year, $88 million and join the Houston Rockets. Mitch’s plan was essentially ruined and a full-rebuild became a distinct reality. A roster centered around what’s left of Steve Nash, an injured Kobe, and Gasol wasn’t going to contend for a championship, so the front-office decided to piece together a roster of mostly one-year rentals to preserve cap space to go after a free agent in the summer of 2014. This resulted in players like Wesley Johnson and Kendall Marshall being able to tell their grandkids one day that they played for the Lakers.

That Contract

November 25, 2013

The Lakers and Kobe Bryant agree to a two-year, $48.5 million contract that ensures Kobe will be a Laker for life. The contract also means that Kobe will continue to be the league’s highest-paid player despite entering his 18th season and having yet to play a game after a ruptured achilles. From a business perspective, the deal was actually a bargain; Kobe is the undoubted face of the Lakers, and the amount of money the team makes from his fame and the buzz he generates is far greater than $24 million annually. However, from a basketball standpoint, committing $24 million dollars to a 35-year-old coming off a catastrophic injury was…well…curious. The contract will/has proven to be a massive obstacle in the Lakers’ rebuilding process.

Injuries, a Lack of Defense, 27-55

The 2013-2014 season was one to forget for Laker fans. The 27-55 mark was the worst the team’s posted since moving to Los Angeles. After a decent start (13-13), the injury bug feasted on the Lakers, and players missed a combined 319 games due to injury on the year. Steve Nash couldn’t stay on the court for more than a few games at a time, and injuries to backup point guards Jordan Farmar and Steve Blake forced guys like Xavier Henry to play out of position and try to run the point. But the worst injury of all happened to Kobe, who broke his patella bone on December 18th and missed the rest of the season.

Things got so bad at one point that the Lakers briefly became a factor in the race (?) for the number one overall pick. But a few late season wins sparked by a certain Swag E. P meant that the Lakers entered the lottery with the sixth-best odds at landing the top pick. Cleveland jumped in front of the Lakers into the top three, so LAL received the seventh pick, who became Julius Randle, a freshman power forward out of Kentucky.

Swing and a Miss

July 18, 2014

Carmelo Anthony announces he’ll re-sign with the New York Knicks, meaning the Lakers came up empty in their long-planned 2014 run at free agents. After also meeting with but failing to land LeBron James, the Lakers look for less prized free agents to fill out their roster. The team re-signs Jordan Hill to a two-year deal worth $18 million, a move that left many scratching their heads, and Nick Young on a contract that will pay him about $5 million per season. The Lakers also help the Houston Rockets clear some cap space by taking on Jeremy Lin’s $8 million tax figure for this season. Then, the team signs veteran power forward Ed Davis and submits the winning bid for maligned former all-star big man Carlos Boozer, who was recently amnestied by the Chicago Bulls. The current Lakers roster reads as follows:

PG: Steve Nash, Jordan Clarkson, Jeremy Lin

SG: Kobe Bryant, Nick Young

SF: Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson

PF: Julius Randle, Carlos Boozer, Ryan Kelly

C: Jordan Hill, Ed Davis, Robert Sacre

Can’t say I’m expecting much. But here we are.

Daniel Rapaport