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.
Archives For laker History
The current Lakers’ season has been a challenging one. If there was a single year that would have fans longing for a previous era of glory, this one would certainly be it. Well, for those wanting some nostalgia and great insight in one of the great dynasties in league history, you are in luck.
On March 4th, Jeff Pearlman’s SHOWTIME: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s was released for mass consumption. You can get your copy here. The book offers fantastic stories, great memories, and a behind the scenes look into the people who made up one of the most dominant runs the NBA has ever seen. What follows is an excerpt on Pat Riley. Enjoy.
By Jeff Pearlman
I spent about two years working on Showtime, and it was an absolute joy. The book chronicles the Lakers dynasty from 1979-91, and while there were dozens of fascinating characters, few were as riveting as Coach Pat Riley.
When he was hired to replace Paul Westhead, Riley was a casual, easy-going man who was beloved by his players. With success, however, came an ever-growing ego. By the time the Lakers met Detroit in the 1989 NBA Finals, Los Angeles had a real problem.
Pat Riley could have waited. A day. Two days, perhaps. He could have taken some time to think about his players and his team; whether they would be best served by peace and solitude and a light work load; whether a veteran point guard who had endured 2,886 minutes in the regular season and a forty-two-year-old center and a battered roster would, perhaps, benefit from some time away from the court, sitting on a beach or inside a movie theatre or at home with the wife and kids.
He could have. He chose not to. Following the series-clinching win over Phoenix to reach the 1989 NBA Finals, Riley was asked by Mark Zeigler of the San Diego Union-Tribune whether he would allow for a period of rest and relaxation. The coach didn’t pause to consider a reply. “Our players,” he said, “will wish that this series went longer. It will be a very hard week for them. The practices will be tough. Now is no time to relax.”
On the morning of May 31, the Lakers traveled ninety-five miles north to Santa Barbara, where they would spend much of the subsequent three days locked inside the Westmount College gymnasium (aka: the depths of basketball hell). Three hours before the first two p.m. practice, the team bus stopped at the luxurious Biltmore in Montecito, a hotel that charged $500 per night for a room. This was Riley’s little touch—a carrot in front of the wagon. Rich basketball players like fancy accommodations, and the coach surely thought his men would be wooed by the fine linens and a top- shelf room-service menu. He was, however, wrong.
The members of the Los Angeles Lakers were pissed off.
Before there was a LeBron James, a Michael Jordan or a Dr. J, there was Elgin Baylor.
This week LeBron made headlines talking about the NBA’s Mount Rushmore, talking about how one day he’ll have to be up on that mountain as one of the best four players to ever play the game. Whether that ends up being true or not remains to be seen, though LeBron is undoubtedly an all-timer.
What was interesting about LeBron’s comments was how he struggled to come up with his list. He mentioned Jordan, Magic and Bird as his first three, but then paused a long moment and finally mentioned Oscar Robertson has his fourth guy. I won’t knock any of those players as they, like LeBron himself, all deserve the stature they have achieved as some of the game’s greatest players.
What I find interesting, however, is that certain players always seem to be forgotten when these conversations come up. I’ve mentioned in the past that Kareem is one such player. Another is former Celtic great John Havlicek. But there may not be a player who was as great as Baylor who seems to never be mentioned by current players as the former Laker great.
When you watch the video above, you can see the roots of the modern game in his playing style. The athleticism, the fundamentals of going left and right with an ability to finish with both hands, the court vision he possessed and the flair in which he passed. These are all traits of modern wings and we often credit guys like Magic, Bird, or even Robertson as the guys who pioneered this style. But, in reality, Baylor predates them all and built his hall of fame career on these skills.
So enjoy the clip above. Baylor may not be the first guy mentioned as one of the all-timers, but he really should be.
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.
The Lakers have a proud history of employing the best big men the game has ever seen. Just look up into the rafters of the Staples Center and you’ll see the names Mikan, Wilt, Kareem, and Shaq; these are true titans of the game, the players whose size, strength, and skill made the Lakers one of the most winningest franchises in all of sports.
Wilt and Kareem, specifically, represent not only two of the players who greatly shaped the Lakers’ history, but the history of the league. Both are considered all time greats and their contributions and, thus, their names will live on forever when discussing the NBA. If you rewind to the 70’s, there was a time where those two titans squared off against each other. Kareem, the up and coming Buck and Wilt, the aging but still very effective Laker.
In the video below does a great job of capturing some of those battles. A couple of things that stand out are how skilled Kareem was and how fluid his movements were. He moved like a seven foot gazelle, yet still had the ability to throw down the hammer when needed. Wilt, meanwhile, comes off less polished, but much more powerful. Wilt would bulldoze his man, though he too could slither around the baseline and play a finesse game when needed.
That contrast in style made for some epic battles. Hope you enjoy the clip.
Terry Teagle hit a turnaround jumper from the right baseline and became the answer to a trivia question. It was Teagle’s jumper that propelled Magic Johnson past Oscar Robertson as the all-time assist leader at 9,888 total assists. Since that fateful day in 1991, that number has been passed multiple times and Magic no longer holds the all-time record. That honor goes to John Stockton. Magic, meanwhile, sits 5th on the all-time list behind Stock, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash and Mark Jackson.
But where Magic sits on the all time list now doesn’t matter much. He was easily the best passer many people (including me) ever saw. Just as some scorers have every type of shot imaginable in their arsenal, Magic could throw any type of pass. He hit players in stride streaking to the hoop and led them to the open spot. He rocketed one handed bullet passes, scooped underhanded outlet passes, and bounced passes through traffic. He saw things other players didn’t and put the ball into places that didn’t seem possible. He made his teammates better by making the game easier for them.
That April night started with Magic needing 9 assists to overtake the Big O. Magic got to 9 before the first half was over and did so in classic Magic form. He ran the break, directed the half court offense, accepted double teams, and just continued to hit the open man. He made the complex play just as easy as the simple one and blended the spectacular with the routine.
Some players are once in a generation talents. Magic, though, was a once in a lifetime one. I simply don’t believe we’ll ever see another like him.
In the annals of NBA history, no franchise has more persistently, or more successfully, taken a Babe Ruthian approach to personnel decisions than the Lakers. Sure, Mikan, West, Baylor, Goodrich, Magic, Worthy, Cooper, A.C. Green and, for all intents and purposes, Byron Scott and Kobe Bryant, head a mind-blowing assembly of talent for whom every meaningful NBA moment has unfolded in Laker garb, but every era of Laker glory has hinged upon management’s ability to swing for the fences.
In 1968, with Elgin Baylor and Jerry West approaching their still-ringless twilights, the most dominant big man in NBA history was added to the mix. Three conference titles and Los Angeles’ first banner later, and the legendary trio having departed the Association, the Lakers’ brass once again took to the market and returned with, get this, the NBA’s most dominant big man. Despite kicking off with a few (by Lakers standards) lean years, it’s probably fair to state that Kareem’s tenure in forum blue and gold was a relative success. In the 90s, what ought to have been a smooth transition out of Showtime and into Magic Johnson’s twilight was preempted, when the HIV virus forced the GLoAT from the game. A few more “lean” years (the worst of times still saw the Lakers nearly become the first #8 seed to upset a #1, the selections of Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones and a playoff series victory over Payton-Kemp Sonics), and…
Blah, blah, blah, most dominant big man of his (and perhaps all-) time, yeah, yeah.
ALL of that, and there is a case to be made that last summer’s (Seriously. How. The. Hell. has it not even been a year?) additions of Steve Nash and (at least at the time) the NBA’s most dominant big man represented the most euphoric offseason Lakerland has ever seen.
The Los Angeles Lakers haven’t had much luck in the NBA Draft throughout the last several years. Though, it could be said that the draft really isn’t much of a priority for a team that has ‘championship’ on its mind every single year. This is evidenced by some of the transactions they’ve made over the past seven years, most notably trading away first round draft picks for superstars.
To say that the “win now” mentality didn’t work for the Lakers would be foolish. The team won two championships by trading for Pau Gasol and mortgaging two first round draft picks in 2008 and 2010. However, other than that gargantuan front office victory, the Lakers inability to attain first round draft picks and consistent misses in the second round are part of the reason why the team struggled last year and could continue to falter this year. The team’s core is old and slow and running a fast paced Mike D’Antoni offense with old and slow guys doesn’t seem ideal.
Let’s not blame the Lakers front office on whiffing at the draft completely, though. The Lakers aren’t exactly a lottery team and the first round draft picks that they’ve traded away have generally been late picks in the first round. That said, none of their first round draft pick trades, other than the Gasol one in 2008, have been beneficial for the Lakers.
The team traded Toney Douglas, their 2009 pick, for a second round pick in 2011 which turned out to be Andrew Goudelock. They shipped their 2011 first rounder along with Sasha Vujacic for Joe Smith and a pair of second rounders. They lost their 2012 first rounder in the Ramon Sessions deal last year and their 2013 and 2015 picks in the Steve Nash trade, which is still a work in progress.
Looking at the Lakers recent draft history will make one think that the team has acquired a phobia for first round draft picks over the last six seasons. Other than drafting and immediately trading Douglas to the New York Knicks at 29th overall in 2009, the Lakers have not had a first round draft pick. In the fact the last first rounder to even suit up in purple and gold since 2007 when they selected Javaris Crittenton, who currently faces bigger problems than basketball in his life right now. They will not have a first round draft pick again this year.
The Lakers have been limited to just second round draft picks ever since 2008 – 11 of them to be exact. From those 11, five never played for the Lakers (Joe Crawford, Patrick Beverley, Chinemelu Elonu, Chukwudiebere Maduabum, and Ater Majok), two played but are no longer in the NBA (Sun Yue and Derrick Caracter), and four were on the roster this past year (Devin Ebanks, Andrew Goudelock, Darius Morris, and Robert Sacre).
While it’s nice that the team still employs and gets occasional contributions from the latter four players, they are marginal at best and have many limitations in their games. In fact, these 11 players have combined to play 254 games for the Lakers, averaging 3.0 points, 1.2 rebounds, and 0.6 assits per game.
It’s difficult to ask any team to find the next diamond in the rough in the second round like Danny Green or Manu Ginobili. The team should be grateful that they at least receive some contribution from Ebanks, Goudelock, Morris, and Sacre. That said, not having a single first round draft pick suit up for your team since 2007 is inexcusable. The Lakers completely sold off their future and it’s beginning to hurt them now as they face lack of quality in terms of depth.
When one looks at the powerful Laker teams from 2008 thru 2010, they can see that team had several key homegrown Lakers first round picks. Andrew Bynum, Sasha Vujacic, and Jordan Farmar all played instrumental roles in the Lakers back-to-back run. Even in the three-peat, Devean George and Mark Madsen were important role players that were taken in the first round and contributed to the Lakers run.
With only one second round draft pick this year and not much flexibility to sign free agents, the Lakers could be in trouble for the future in terms of depth. That said, they have tradable assets they can use to prepare for the 2014 draft, which is one of the deepest in recent memory. The Lakers, for once, have a first round draft pick for next year, but having another one in a deep draft class would most definitely not hurt.