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.