There will be a new NBA Champion this year.
This is something that the Lakers players, coaches, executives, and fans face today. Sometime in June there will be a final buzzer with confetti, tears of joy, and champagne spraying and the guys we root for will be missing from the celebration. They’ll be on vacation somewhere while we watch from our couches (at least I’ll be watching).
The league moves on quickly and those teams that fall behind in the wake of those that advance are capsized and forgotten. Such is the way of sports. We haven’t felt this way in some time, but we confront these feelings today as fans of this team.
There is anger, disappointment, grief, and frustration. It’s hard to watch this team go out the way that it did and not be upset and second guess; to point to all the errors and feel that things could have been so different. This team was pounded into submission and its players didn’t respond as we’d hoped and when they did respond it was in frustration and dirty play. This is not the team that we’ve come to expect or root for.
There’s also perspective and pride. This team – or at least its core – has achieved so much over the past three seasons. They went from a team on the brink of being disbanded at the beginning of the 2008 season to one that reached three straight Finals with two Larry O’Brien trophies to show for their efforts. Yesterday’s victimization doesn’t erase those achievements – nothing can or will. The fall from the mountain top is a hard one but the fact that the top of the mountain was reached at all is something to be cherished.
But in balancing these feelings and as the reality of what’s occurred settles in, I’m stuck thinking about where to go from here. After all, change will occur, to what extent is the question. But in even exploring that question, another question arises in which the answer will define what you think should come next.
How do you view this team?
Today, many will view this group within a vacuum. As the reasoning goes, the Phil Jackson lost this team. The offense stopped working. Discipline was short and freelancing ruled. Players failed to live up to their abilities, playing sub par basketball for extended stretches. Pau Gasol disappeared, Kobe took on the burden of doing too much and the chemistry of a champion crumbled. Lamar Odom, Ron Artest, and Derek Fisher all came up short when their team needed them the most and the bench did little to support them in this time of need. There are varying degrees of truth to all of this and I would not blame people for taking this approach. After all, we do live in a world judged on wins and losses and instant-critiques.
This mindset naturally lends itself to the Magic Johnson school of thought: blow up the team. They are too old, not athletic enough, and obviously are no longer built to succeed (that 2nd round sweep being the proof). With a new coach coming in, now is the time to reshape this team in the mold of its new leader; emphasizing a new style to match the new voice.
The long view offers a different shaded lens. This team needs not a new core of players but trims around the edges. Younger more athletic players are needed but not at the expense of the size and big man play that’s been so successful up to this point. A bad playoffs isn’t an indictment of the approach, it’s the result of so many long and arduous battles. As Phil Jackson said after the game yesterday, continuing to respond to the nightly assaults of hungry teams is exhausting mentally and physically over the course of multiple seasons. This team doesn’t need to be completely torn apart, it needs rest to reset their minds and bodies and prepare for a new push next season.
For me, I’m much more aligned with the latter point of view. An influx of youth, perimeter defense, and shooting is needed. But, the Laker big men and Kobe are still quite capable of leading this team to a championship. The players that surround them need to be looked at closely in order to maximize the results from the entire team. This isn’t to scapegoat the bench (though they did perform poorly) but rather to look at the overall weaknesses of this group and try to improve them. The problem with this approach is improving the team without giving up a core player will be difficult.
Ultimately, the future begins today but how the team approaches that future will depend on what they think of their core, who they think their core is, and what an evaluation of the mental make up of the roster produces (not to mention who the next coach is). Patience will be key, but practicing patience after early playoff exits is quite difficult. I trust this team to make the right decisions but defining what’s “right” will probably depend on your perspective after this loss.