After 10 years, the Los Angeles Lakers are back on top of the basketball world. The road there was neither a straight one nor did it follow any distinguishable long-term plan. But it did substantiate the special status of the Lakers. Here is a chronology of an odd decade.
“Finally” is a word that was often used in connection with the Los Angeles Lakers’ NBA title in 2020. Such as: “Finally, the Lakers are champions again” or even better: “Finally, they are back where they belong.” As if the 10 years that Los Angeles had to make do without a championship was a long time in NBA standards. But 10 years is not really a long time – well, except for the Lakers.
Every other franchise is used to experiencing ups and downs. Of the 30 current NBA teams, four in the East and nine from the West have never won the title – or seven if you count the 1951 Rochester Royals’ championship for the Sacramento Kings and the Seattle SuperSonics’ 1979 title for the Oklahoma City – though why should they really be considered.
But the point remains. There is an exclusive championship club including the Lakers, the Boston Celtics, the Chicago Bulls and Golden State Warriors in which Los Angeles stand out in a special way. Their titles are not limited to a certain decade or certain players. They win more consistently than any other franchise. There had been 10-year stretches without a ring, but the Lakers were at least regularly in the playoffs, even often reaching the Finals. And that’s what makes the past decade all the more particular.
The Lakers had reached the post-season twice since their last ring in 2010, although they exited unceremoniously both times. After that, the Lakers missed the playoffs six straight years. The longest previous post-season drought had been two years. And year for year, Los Angeles undermined themselves with their record and various embarrassments.
The Lakers now have behind them the worst decade in franchise history – so using the overprivileged word “finally” in the sense of “finally, the world is in order again” seems almost understandable. The road from the 2010 title to the 2020 trophy couldn’t really have been any messier.
Even though the return to the top in the end was logical, it was not the result of a long-term plan but more thanks to a status developed over decades.
Though these 10 years actually were dangerously close to damaging that standing.
The world was last “in order” for the Lakers in 2010. Kobe Bryant won his fifth title in June against the hated Celtics, overtaking Shaquil
le O’Neal and being as much “the Man” as possible in the NBA. The summer also saw a new super team being formed in Miami but most people – definitely Kobe himself – didn’t see the at that point two-time MVP LeBron James as a serious rival to Bryant’s alpha status.
James, after all, had missed giving what NBA fans hoped for the whole season – finally seeing Kobe and LeBron face off in the Finals. Nike even ran a series of commercials with puppets of the league’s two biggest superstars. But Cleveland were eliminated by Boston so the basketball world didn’t get the matchup.
But when it came to the 2011 versions of the duo, it was the Lakers and not LeBron and the Miami Heat who did not reach the Finals. Plenty had gone right and according to plan though for the two-time reigning champs.
In February 2011, Kobe took home his fourth All-Star Game MVP trophy – this time in his living room, the Staples Center. And for the season, Bryant along with Pau Gasol guided Los Angeles to second place in the West with 57 victories.
The Lakers eliminated the New Orleans Hornets in six games in the first round and then met up with Dallas, who then sealed the end of the Kobe era. The Lakers were drowned by the Mavericks’ rain of three-pointers, especially in the fourth and deciding game in which they were brushed aside by 36 points.
Magic Johnson complained during the halftime to ESPN, saying: “This is the worst I’ve seen the Lakers play in a game that they needed.” Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum had already been sent to the locker rooms before the end of the game with ejections for hits to Dallas players, and the shame was clear to see on Phil Jackson’s face.
The game did not just end the Lakers’ attempt to defend the title but it also ended the coaching career of the “Lord of the Rings”. Jackson been diagnosed during the season with prostate cancer and didn’t feel he could deal with the physical stress of the NBA.
With that move, Kobe had lost the coach with whom he had won all five of his titles – and the Lakers lost their stability on the bench. In the next eight years, Los Angeles tried four different coaches – not including interim coach Berne Bickerstaff – until they luckily landed their third option, Frank Vogel, in 2019. But let’s take it in order.
After the playoffs were over the league stumbled into the unknown of the summer of 2011. The Collective Bargaining Agreement was expiring and neither side would budge in negotiations leading to a lockout – fighting over the share of the league’s billions.
An agreement was reached in December, thanks in large part to the big market owners such as – and especially – Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss who were willing to share their earnings with the smaller teams. Ironically, the Lakers just days later would once again become the ultimate enemy of the smaller markets.
While the super team that had been formed in Miami was still far from superior, the Lakers came up with a plan for a super team of their own. They were supposed to get two young superstars to help with their ageing team, with the first coming directly after the start of free agency. Chris Paul was on his way to LaLa Land from New Orleans with future success more or less sealed with the best young point guard of the league. But it turned out to last only a few hours.
NBA commissioner David Stern exercised his right to veto the trade in his role as de-facto administrator of the at that time owner-less Pelicans franchise. It is still debated today if Stern actually had the power to nix the trade. Stern, as commissioner of the league, was an employee of the team owners, and they were not amused with thought of a new super duo in Los Angeles.
Stern’s veto was certainly unprecedented and it harmed the Lakers, who not only didn’t get the player they wanted but also had to explain to two ageing stars Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom why they would have been part of the trade package for Paul.
Odom was never able to get over it and the reigning Sixth Man of the Year headed out of town to Dallas. Gasol stayed but needed to be reminded from time to time by Kobe to put on his “big-boy pants” and just accept it.
The karma of the Stern veto eventually evened itself out – especially because the next Pelicans superstar – one Anthony Davis – would be successful in getting himself traded to the Lakers. New Orleans in the end was only able to acquire Davis because they were bad enough in the 2011-12 season be select first in the NBA Draft with the pick they received from the Los Angeles Clippers in the trade for Paul. The lesson apparently is: all roads lead to Rome.
But at the moment, and for the later years of Bryant’s career, the veto was a disaster. And it wouldn’t be the last.
The lockout season was relatively unspectacular. Andrew Bynum became an All-Star and the Lakers played a good season under Jackson’s successor Mike Brown but were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs – this time against Oklahoma City and without all the embarrassments of the previous year, but still without a chance. The Lakers never were able to strengthen their ageing roster, though that was not only on them.
Paul was not the only big fish they had on the hook. Dwight Howard was also supposed to be a Laker, and he opened the short and wild phase after the end of the lockout with the demand to be traded to the Lakers, Nets or Mavericks. After meeting with the Orlando Magic, he was convinced for the moment to withdraw his demand – with “for the moment” being a decisive phrase with Howard.
Howard’s public and internal demeanor during the season changed so often that the question about the future of the best center in the league was considered a “Dwightmare”. The end eventually came in the summer of 2012 when after loads of back and forth, Howard was actually traded to the Lakers, who didn’t even need to give up Gasol. And Los Angeles were even able to bring in Steve Nash and all of a sudden had a team with four future Hall of Famers.
Not even a year after the veto, the Lakers franchise had pulled itself together and was even considered the biggest challenger to LeBron’s Heat. “Now this is going to be fun” read the title of Sports Illustrated in a cover that looking back was one of the more humorous and ironic ones in the magazine’s illustrious career. It showed Nash and Howard in “Come at me bro” poses. And during the 2012-13 season, almost everyone had fun – except the Lakers that is.
Almost everything that could go wrong went wrong – not only from a sports perspective.
Those looking back for the point at which the Lakers had lost their way can find it in the first half of 2013. Two things happened. On February 18, the legendary Dr. Buss passed away after a long fight with cancer, leaving a leadership vacuum at the top of the club which the Lakers would deal with for many years to come.
The ownership of the team was passed onto the six Buss children, who would have equal say on decisions even though the interest in the Lakers varied among the siblings. Still years later, there are rumors that some of them were in favor of selling the franchise and splitting the money – as unrealistic as that may sound.
A real problem was that Buss intended on making his daughter Jeanie his successor as governor of the team while his son Jim had worked for years in the front office of the team and acted as executive vice president of basketball operations since 2005. A power struggled flared up between them – one which also saw blows dealt in both directions in the media.
A sticking point was the relationship to Jackson, with whom Jeanie Buss was engaged and who was seen much more positive by Lakers fans than Jim. It’s believed still today that this is the reason why Jackson never took an official role with the Lakers after he stepped down as coach in 2011 and instead served three years in the New York Knicks’ front office.
Jackson’s name came up again at the beginning of the 2012-13 season when the unlucky Brown was fired after just five games and the Lakers were looking for a new coach. After Jackson turned it down, Jim and Jerry Buss, the latter who was already hospitalized at that time, as well as general manager Mitch Kupchak decided to sign Mike D’Antoni even though his up-tempo system did not fit with the styles of Bryant and Gasol.
Years later, Jackson said a “seismic shift” would have to take place within the Lakers organization before he would take any role back with the team, which was connected to his relationship with Jim Buss. The path was opened in 2017 if Jackson actually meant what he said.
Jim Buss promised his siblings in January 2014 that he would turn the Lakers into title favorites within three years or he would step down. That did not happened so Jeanie fired him in February 2017. What resulted was Jim and his brother Johnny Buss – yes, the first names of all six siblings start with the letter J – trying to gain control from Jeanie.
The sister prevailed in the end. “Despite the fact that I gave my brother Jim ample time to prove himself in his role … I could not allow the damage being done to the franchise over the past few years to continue,” the Los Angeles Times quoted Jeanie Buss from a 2017 court document. We will get to that damage soon.
The year of destiny 2013 was not only a gloomy one at the organizational level. The supposed super team was anything but super. Nash was regularly injured, Gasol was trying to find his role and Howard was far from his MVP caliber level after his shoulder surgery and back problems. The center also could not get along with Bryant at all – which was to blame on both sides.
The Lakers were never really formed into a functioning team, even though they did at least reach the playoffs under D’Antoni. That was more because of Bryant, who unnerved by everything going on around him took things into his own hands and bore an incredible burden and barely took any breaks in the spring.
Bryant paid the price for it though as he tore his Achilles tendon on April 12 against the Golden State Warriors. Little did anyone know that the most relevant part of his sports career ended that day – and with it for a time the sporting relevance of his franchise.
Other than the Lakers being swept in the first round of the playoffs, the biggest disgrace came later with the Dwightmare continuing. After weeks of recruiting, including billboards with the word “Stay”, Howard decided to leave the Lakers and head instead to Houston.
Howard had no interest in being second fiddle to the ageing Bryant or the stress of being the star of the Lakers. That actually was the start of a trend that would continue on for years as year after year the Lakers missed out on their first choice of players, many of whom wouldn’t even take a meeting with the Lakers management.
The opening night lineup for the 2013-14 season showed very well the direction in which things were heading. In addition to Nash and Gasol, the other starters were Steve Blake, Nick Young and Shawne Williams in the LA city showdown with the Clippers, which the Lakers actually did still win, 116-103.
In November 2013, the Lakers handed Bryant a contract extension (two years for 48 million dollars) which was seen either as a grave mistake or – from the Lakers’ side – a recognition of his life’s work and a sign for future free agents. Bryant made his comeback in December but just six games later he was forced out with another injury.
It’s the others’ fault
The front office started to look into free agency as LeBron James (again) and Carmelo Anthony were hitting the open market in 2014. Neither showed interest in Los Angeles, nor did among others Chris Bosh and Kyle Lowry. After years of being included in trade rumors, Gasol left and headed for Chicago.
“Any free agent that would be afraid to play with Kobe Bryant is probably a loser and I’m glad they wouldn’t come to the team,” Jeanie Buss told ESPN in October 2014 to demonstrate that it wasn’t the Lakers who were making mistakes.
The following years continued with the same storyline. The Lakers couldn’t get the players they wanted but had to bring in guys like Jeremy Lin and Carlos Boozer. The coach also changed with Byron Scott replacing D’Antoni in 2014. But L.A. just couldn’t win as the Lakers suffered a 1-9 start to the season, the worst beginning of a season in franchise history.
Bryant worked frantically on numerous comebacks but never really was successful. During the 2014-15 season, in which the Lakers won only 21 games, Bryant was limited to 35 games due to a shoulder injury. Especially memorable at this time was a Bryant appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel Show, where the host showed Kobe a video of the Lakers and how they celebrated a victory over the similarly hapless Celtics as if it was a win in the NBA Finals. Bryant’s shame was written all over his face and he remained speechless.
An even better version of such a Bryant reaction happened about a year later when Larry Nance threw down a spectacular dunk and D’Angelo Russell showed off a celebration dance at the Lakers bench – with Kobe standing still behind him. It was a good summary of the Lakers during those years. Another was the report that Russell later that season was not allowed to have breakfast with the team on road trips after he had filmed Nick Young admitting to cheating on his fiancee.
Because of the miserable performances, the team did get younger and the Lakers picked young talent in the Lottery, such as Russell. But Bryant could not really wait for their development since he himself was nearing the end of his own top play. And there were no other reinforcements. In the summer of 2015, media-shy LaMarcus Aldridge turned down the Lakers’ offer because the meetings were reportedly more focused on off-court activities than on things such as analytics.
In November 2015, Kobe had decided enough is enough and announced he would be retiring after the season – one in which the Lakers would win only 17 games, the last one being Kobe’s 60-point farewell. It was a negative record for the Lakers though it did open up a chance to rebuild, which the Lakers really didn’t do.
A major increase in the salary cap in 2016 caught nearly the entire league off guard. All of a sudden, entirely new resources were available, which caused salaries to shoot through the roof as everyone thought the growth would just keep on going. “Overpaid” became the “new norm” as every deal resulted in entirely new standards being set.
The Lakers became one of the faces of this craziness, this overestimation of the financial situation. The best players in 2016 once again ignored the Lakers. Kevin Durant did not put the Lakers on his list, a deliberate affront according to reporters close to the Lakers.
But the Lakers invested big money anyway. At the beginning of free agency, they just shovelled money to Timofey Mozgov (4 years, 64 million) and Luol Deng (4 years, 72 million) because they … well, it’s still unclear to this day why they did that. In addition, Luke Walton joined the team as head coach, once again someone who was with the organization during his playing days.
This represented the next major turning point. The rejuvenated Lakers at times showed potential, especially the No. 2 overall draft pick Brandon Ingram and Russell. But the team was also blown out at times, including by 49 points against Dallas on January 22, 2017, the worst defeat in franchise history.
Almost exactly a month later, Jeanie Buss fired Kupchak and stripped her brother Jim of all basketball powers, replacing them with franchise legend Magic Johnson and Kobe’s former agent Rob Pelinka, neither of whom had any front office experience. Johnson relied primarily on his charm but he behaved liked a bull in a china shop.
Johnson and Pelinka were both accused of tampering with other teams’ players and were fined for their actions while also not making any friends in the league. There are still articles written today in which anonymous sources say the Lakers’ front office has no understanding of the salary cap.
It didn’t help that Johnson and Pelinka really didn’t have a good relationship with one another either. The anonymous sources did not always come from rivalling teams – and they were not always anonymous. When Johnson abruptly and unexpectedly stepped down in April 2019, Pelinka said Magic had betrayed him. From the outside, the Lakers under this duo seemed like pure chaos. Yet, things somehow got better with them – more than thanks to them.
More by luck than judgement?
If one considers Magic less the great strategist and more the mascot then his arrival in the front office had an effect. For example, the 2017 Lottery. The Lakers didn’t even have a 50 percent chance of keeping their own pick, which was only protected as a top-three pick. Not only did they not lose it but they jumped up (for the third time in a row) to the second spot in the draft – a stroke of luck.
Instead of using the pick on for example Jayson Tatum, the Lakers selected Lonzo Ball, who still was much better than the alternative of getting nothing. The pick also allowed Magic and Pelinka to package Russell, who was altogether a disappointment in two turbulent years with the Lakers, and the disastrous Mozgov contract to Brooklyn.
It was a major price to pay to unload past dead wood but the Lakers long had their eyes on other big fish and needed the financial leeway. The 27th pick, which came in return from Brooklyn, turned into Kyle Kuzma – a solid find at that stage in the draft. But the player Los Angeles was really focused on in 2017 went by the name of James.
Rumors that LeBron James would move to Hollywood as a free agent in 2018 started a year in advance. The Lakers played the game, giving a wink and signing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on an excessive one-year contract for 18 million dollars. Caldwell-Pope was a client with Klutch Sports, the agency of Rich Paul, James’ best friend. The stars had been aligned that one year later LeBron and Paul George would come to the Lakers.
Johnson made clear the team’s intention on the Jimmy Kimmel Show when he was asked about George. The Lakers would end up being fined 500,000 dollars for tampering. George stayed one year longer with Oklahoma City but the chaos seemed to be worth it all when James actually arrived to the Lakers in the summer of 2018.
Magic was praised after meeting with LeBron though many believe James had already made his decision. Regardless, the NBA’s biggest star was once again wearing a Lakers jersey. The world was starting to return to normal. But there was still one chaotic year to come.
Magic against everyone
LeBron arrived without a second star and he still led the Lakers to a very solid 20-14 start to the 2018-19 season. A groin injury on Christmas Day took him out of commission for a while and exposed the flawed quality of the roster. Of course the Lakers knew how they wanted to fix that – and once again they were anything but subtle about it.
After changing his representation to Klutch Sports, Pelicans star Anthony Davis demanded a trade early in the season and handed a list of teams that – realistically – only included the Lakers. The whole thing seemed questionable due to the public connections and that led to the Pelicans being an unwilling trading partner with the Lakers.
Updates came almost daily leading up to the trade deadline in February but a trade ended up not happening. Johnson charged that the Pelicans didn’t act in good faith because they didn’t accept the Lakers’ offers.
Magic also said the young Lakers who were seeing their names come up in trading rumors almost every day should not be treated like “babies” in the media. The season ran its course and the Lakers missed the playoffs for the sixth straight season. Then all hell broke loose.
On April 9, Magic announced in the media that he was quitting without previously informing Jeanie Buss or anyone else. As a reason, he said he wanted to be able to just use Twitter normally again – something which he was asked to avoid doing when he was given the job. But behind closed doors, once again there was a turf battle. Magic was aggravated that he couldn’t fire Walton, who of course was fired only three days later.
The job of hiring a new coach now rested alone in Pelinka’s hands. After hearing a no from Monty Williams and Tyronn Lue, the Lakers ended up with their third option of Frank Vogel in combination with Jason Kidd as assistant coach. On the day Vogel was announced – May 13, 2019 – Johnson went on the “First Take” show and unloaded on the Lakers, especially Pelinka, who he accused of going behind his back and talking bad about him.
A day later, the Lakers jumped in the NBA Draft Lottery from the projected 11th pick to fourth. This pick ended up a month later on June 15 part of a huge trade package the Lakers gave up to finally get Davis from the Pelicans. And the rest, as they say in Hollywood, is history.
Almost all right
It’s 2020 now and the Lakers are champions and at least order has been restored. But it’s still difficult to see this whole thing as a great plan or even just excellent work. The Lakers without a doubt did many things right in the last couple of years. The front office found some hidden gems in undrafted Alex Caruso, Kuzma and Josh Hart, who was part of the Davis trade. Pelinka also seemed to nail it in the free agency period after bringing in Davis.
But still … the Lakers rarely looked like a competent franchise in the past decade. Luck in the Lottery definitely played an essential role as did the fact that two of the best players in the world – including the best player on the globe – wanted to play for the Lakers.
That was more because of the perks of living in Los Angeles and the glorious history of the franchise, not necessarily due to the good work by management over the last few years. Enough mistakes had been made since even just 2016 that would have set back for years other franchises with fewer resources and fewer locational advantages. But they didn’t really matter for the Lakers.
But, all that should not take away the performance of the 2020 Lakers team. The title is not worth any less. It counts just as much as any other – even the five championships from the Minneapolis era. But it is part of the team’s history. No other team in the league could replicate the way the Lakers won their 17th ring in franchise history.
But that’s why the Lakers are the Lakers.
by FIVE Magazine #173 – LA Lakers – Text: Ole Frerks