LOS ANGELES — The root of the Lakers’ popularity is not simply their collection of NBA championship trophies. It is driven by something more: the star-studded rosters, the front-row celebrities and the palace intrigue that follows the Buss family and its quirky characters have long created a rock star aura that is rare even in professional sports.
At its heart, there is a romanticism about the Lakers, a sort of Camelot in hightops and bright yellow jerseys, where the world turns like a soap opera — but it always seems to turn out all right.
How else, beside astute management, to explain Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol mysteriously landing with the Lakers? Or Phil Jackson rebuilding the bridge back to them? Or the bouncing ball ending up in Robert Horry’s hands?
But that myth of the preordained, happy-ever-after-ending has been steadily chipped away over the past 10 months, and the latest pulling back of the curtain arrived Thursday with the trade of Derek Fisher to the Houston Rockets.
The deal makes perfect sense on many levels. The Lakers, no longer running the triangle offense, have badly needed an upgrade at point guard now that they run an offense that requires the point guard to initiate the attack, which was never one of Fisher’s strengths, even in his prime.
A deal earlier in the day to acquire point guard Ramon Sessions from Cleveland not only legitimized the Lakers as Western Conference contenders, it also made the 37-year-old Fisher superfluous.
But along with those reasons, general manager Mitch Kupchak cited another factor in the decision to deal Fisher: the team’s uncertainty about whether the longtime leader of the locker room could handle being demoted.
“You kind of have to look at it as one big deal,” Kupchak told reporters at the Lakers’ facility. “One deal was designed to bring a player here and the other deal was designed to make it easier for the player you’re bringing to succeed, and on some level make it easier on the player that he’s replacing.”
Translation: They were concerned Fisher — the president of the players association, who once served as a peacemaker between Bryant and O’Neal and is largely viewed as the quintessential team player — might use his considerable political skills to create an uncomfortable environment for Sessions.
No wonder Kupchak said he hadn’t yet spoken with Fisher — or Bryant, who canceled a scheduled radio appearance after the trade was announced.
It is the latest in a string of unseemly moments for the franchise that began with Jackson ending his tenure last May after being swept from the playoffs by Dallas, the final loss punctuated with the ejections of Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum.
The rise in power of Jim Buss, Jerry’s son, was marked by the dismissal of assistant general manager Ronnie Lester, physical therapists Alex McKechnie and Chip Schaefer, equipment manager Rudy Garciduenas and several scouts. And in a repudiation of Jackson, Jim Buss eschewed Jackson’s top assistant, Brian Shaw, and hired Mike Brown — without soliciting input or even informing Bryant, which perturbed him.
Then there was the Lakers’ attempted trade of Odom and Gasol for Chris Paul, which so insulted Odom that he asked for a trade (he was sent to Dallas) and so wounded Gasol that he has played in a funk much of the season, unsure if he would be dealt before Thursday’s deadline.
In the trade for Sessions, the Lakers jettisoned Luke Walton, who had a year left on his five-year, $30 million contract that has largely been an albatross thanks to injuries and poor performance. As with Fisher, it is easy to understand the terms of Walton’s departure, but not to be underestimated is that Walton, Fisher and Odom were three prominent and welcome voices in the Lakers’ locker room — Fisher the respected elder, Odom the teammate who lightened everyone’s mood, and Walton a calming voice.
And all were links to the team that reached three consecutive NBA Finals with Jackson, winning two titles.
The Lakers’ chances of winning another improved Thursday. Under Brown, they have become a truly formidable defensive team, thanks to the unique tandem of Bynum and Gasol, and the singular talents of Bryant are enough to drive an offense. Perhaps Sessions can give a spark to what is often a plodding attack, but these Lakers no longer look like the Lakers of the past.
It is too early to say these moves have been a failure or a success, but there is a feeling about them that mirrors the uncertainty about the direction of the franchise.
Once it would be easy for Lakers fans to watch teams like the dysfunctional Knicks make the wrong choice in a power struggle — yet again — and be amused, knowing that their franchise’s course was not being charted by a buffoon.