Lakers Laid Bare
Los Angeles is, above all things, an aspirational city. All across this country, different areas take on different personalities, and in Southern California, one of the most distinguishing characteristics is the extent to which people are striving for something. You come to Los Angeles because you want to make it as an actor, or singer, or maybe the next reality television star. You come because you’ve had enough winter weather, and you want to bask in the sunshine year round. But above everything else, you come to Los Angeles because you can, because the location, and the culture, and the lifestyle, makes it such a desirable place to be, and no matter how old you get, everyone still wants to hang with the "in crowd" and feel like they’re a part of something exclusive, and special, and cool.
That’s why watching, and following the Lakers feels so incredibly strange right now. Believe it or not, it isn’t just the losing. Rare as it has been, the Lakers have lost before. In the 1993-94 season, they lost so much that they asked Magic Johnson to be their Head Coach, but the Laker legend couldn’t turn around a 33-49 season. Ten years ago, a team that got 35 minutes per game from Chucky Atkins, (seriously, go read that last clause again), struggled to a 34-48 record, a season so disappointing they were compelled to bring back a man who had called their marquee star "uncoachable" just a year before.
So yes, the Lakers know losing. But I’m not sure they have ever known the feeling of being a laughingstock. Not like this anyway. Open up your favorite sports site, turn on your favorite NBA program, and chances are you’ll find someone not just observing, not just critiquing, but teeing off on the cherished purple and gold. Here is a brilliantly biting piece by Jim Cavan at The Cauldron breaking down just how mind numbingly insane the Lakers’ game plans have become. Here is Tom Ziller asking if perhaps the Lakers are actually losing on purpose ("tanking", in the parlance of our times), and here is Jason Concepcion at Grantland conducting a very entertaining investigation into that very possibility. Here, and here, and here, are the continuing efforts of the Deadspin crew to put into words just how backwards, just how crazy, just how weirdly satisfying in a truly Dadaist way, this brand of Laker basketball has become. And here, as a perfect coup de grace, is Charles Barkley, on air, openly pleading with anyone who’ll listen, to please remove Kobe Bryant and company from the national television package, because do we really want the cameras rolling when the Mamba finally snaps?
It is truly remarkable, to see this sort of open season on one of sports’ premiere franchises. It’s a bit like watching Martin Scorsese get treated like Michael Bay, or, to use a metaphor that hits a little closer to home, like seeing Jack Nicholson lampooned as if he were Pauly Shore. But once you get past the cheap laughs, and the Schadenfreude felt by everyone who’s ever loathed the Lakers, when you step back, you can also see that there are lessons amidst the chaos. Sometimes, we learn more from watching spectacular failure than we do from success. (That’s certainly what the Democratic Party is banking on this week.) So in the interest of furthering our knowledge, here’s what we can mine so far from the Lake Show’s 0-5 start.
1. Effort is not a plan
When Byron Scott was welcomed at the Lakers new Head Coach, back on July 30th, the press conference was built as a "return to the roots" of sorts for the franchise. Magic, Kareem, and Jamaal Wilkes were all in attendance to welcome Scott back into the fold, gushing about how the Lakers made the right choice by bringing back one of their own. And then, unsurprisingly, Scott was asked how he would transform this Lakers team into something resembling the good old days,
Let’s run that through the coach-speak translator for just a minute:
Seriously, I feel like I’ve seen this sort of motivational speaking in Lakerland before…
Look, it’s easy to pick on poor Byron Scott, and anyone still trapped in the mentality that success in sports is all about effort, and will, and wanting it badly enough. It would be one thing to excuse this sort of thing as the empty nonsense that comes from any introductory press conference, but the problem is, for Scott, the message has failed to evolve. Earlier in the week, when discussing the defense of the much maligned Carlos Boozer, the coach was succinct. "He knows he can play better and I expect him to play better," said Scott, "It starts on the defensive end. He has to do a better job against pick-and-roll defense and has to do a better job on guys who are trying to post him up."
Carlos Boozer just has to play better, says Scott. He just has to improve, says Scott. Just to be clear, Carlos Boozer has been a defensive punchline in the NBA for many years now. Go ask any Bulls fan of recent vintage about Boozer’s defense, as long as you have plenty of tissues at the ready. Telling Carlos Boozer to "just play better" defensively is the rough equivalent of telling your refrigerator to cook you a sandwich, or shouting at your microwave to wash the dishes. That’s just not what it’s built for, and it’s not going to happen.
I suppose, in a certain sense, this is all Byron Scott can do at the moment. This is the hand he was dealt, and George Mikan, Kareem, Shaq… they’re not walking through that door. This Lakers team, as long as it is composed of these players, is going to struggle. But maybe, as the team continues to search for that first win, we can all agree to put to bed the notion that a mantra, a motivational speech, a "change in mentality" is enough to turn a team around. Talent, strategy, and execution wins games. The Lakers can close their eyes and "think about winning" all they want, but when they open them back up, they’re still going to see a young guard blowing right by them on the pick and roll.
2. Your brand will not save you
Before we go any further, let’s stop to examine this Wednesday tweet from the previously mentioned Earvin "Magic" Johnson.
Now let us, for a moment, consider the sublime brilliance of this marketing effort, and contemplate how it could have been used throughout history:
That, apparently is the only way to sell the Lakers right now. Not through winning basketball games, which, one would assume, is the main reason one puts together a basketball team. No, instead, the team’s supporters are left to pitch stardom, and nostalgia, and #brand, because after all, these are still "The Lakers", even if they’re not playing like them anymore.
I know the Lakers are 0-5, but they are playing exciting basketball and Kobe is worth the price of admission.
— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) November 5, 2014
And you know what? It may work, if your only measure is tickets sold, merchandise moved, and energy expended on this year’s team. (After all, you haven’t seen that many deep dives into the continuing struggles of the Orlando Magic.) But when it comes to the basketball itself, all the spin in the world isn’t going to help the Los Angeles Lakers play any better.
The scariest thing about what’s unfolding this year is that it’s impossible to figure out where the help is going to come from. Steve Nash and Julius Randle are done for the season. Swaggy P should be back sometime this month, and may provide some playmaking, but he’s unlikely to have any impact on the team’s atrocious interior defense. This Lakers have no major trade assets to speak of, so there’s no Pau Gasol deal on the horizon to pull them out of this malaise. That’s why there’s such a dark energy around this team. Do we know for sure, after five games, that this team will be even worse than last year’s 27 win club? Of course not. But is it possible to see that happening?
Absolutely. And no Magic Johnson tweet is going to change that.
3. There’s nowhere to hide
There was a time, not that long ago, when analyzing a player’s value to his team was a lot simpler. You would simply open up the team’s stats, look over at the "points per game" column, maybe cast an additional glance at rebounds and assists, and then decide where someone ranked in the hoops hierarchy.
We’ve obviously come a long way since then. We’ve learned about efficiency, and PER. We’ve grown to understand True Shooting Percentage, and Usage Rate. We know what an effective shot chart looks like, and with the league’s new SportVU tracking technology, we’re going to further improve our understanding of the game, and how we assess the people who play it.
All of this is to say, we’re really sorry Kobe Bryant. Twenty years ago, we would have looked at your 27.6 points per game, and thought "Wow, Kobe is his usual, lethal scoring self, right back where he was before the injury." But today, we know enough to realize that his shooting is down around 40%, his PER has fallen to 19.9, and that his 39 point effort Tuesday night against the Suns, looks a lot less impressive when you consider that it took him 37 shots to get there. "It’s easy to look at it and say 37 shots," said Bryant after the game, "but you don’t see how hard I was working to get easy opportunities."
Sorry Kobe, but if the opportunities are so easy, you’re going to have to make more of them. Right now, Kobe’s True Shooting Percentage sits at 48.8%, below the mark of Jordan Hill, Wesley Johnson, Jeremy Lin, and Ed Davis. There’s simply no reason why this diminished version of Kobe Bryant should be taking that many opportunities away from his teammates. It may be hard for him to accept, and clearly, it’s not easy for his old coach to wrestle with either, but the reality is that Bryant has to loosen his grip on the offense for the Lakers to become a more efficient unit.
Twenty years ago, the world would have likely deferred to Kobe, given his superstar status and all he’s already accomplished. We would have kept right on assuming that the future Hall of Famer should have free reign to run this team however he saw fit. But that was a different era. Today, basketball, like most sports, has become a lot more transparent. The data is out there for anyone to look at, and slowly but surely, we’re all collaborating and figuring out what to make of it. The harsh reality is that for players like Bryant, it shines a bright light on the limitations that they might not yet be willing to admit, but that discerning observers can see quite clearly.
And what applies to Kobe Bryant also applies to the rest of the team. There’s simply no place to hide your shortcomings in the modern NBA. That’s how we know that Carlos Boozer has become one of the most limited players in the league. That’s why we insist that Byron Scott wake up and embrace the value of the three point shot. And that’s why, more than anything else, we’ve begun to contemplate the idea that this is all part of the Lakers’ plan. It just seems impossible that a roster could be constructed this incongruently, that a coach could be this stubborn, that a once proud franchise could be this clueless. Deep down, we can’t help but believe that this is all about the draft pick, that the Lakers must know what they’re doing. After all, we managed to figure out what’s wrong, so why can’t they?
Things in Lakerland are going to get worse before they get any better. In fact, the most compelling part of their season is going to be waiting to see just how far this team will sink, and what the ramifications will be. Can Byron Scott really go an entire season pretending that the three point line was never added to the game? Will Magic Johnson be able to maintain his always sunny persona in the face of unprecedented losing? What, exactly, will Kobe Bryant do when every fiber of his being wants to flee the wreckage, but there’s not a team in the league that would trade for his contract? And, perhaps most importantly, is there finally a price for which Jack would part with his season tickets?
Stay glued to Staples, not just for what we’ve learned, but for what we’re about to discover. The Lakers were once just as aspirational as the city they call home. They were the sports car that everybody wanted. But now, they’re the car crash that you just can’t look away from.