This new season looked promising when the Lakers were standing at 10-10 after 20 games. Admittedly the definition is a bit different in Tinseltown after a 17-65 meltdown, but the excitement was nonetheless genuine before December arrived. The injury bug that seemingly left with Byron Scott in May returned after Thanksgiving, took down D’Angelo Russell and Nick Young, then the bus crashed. As a rookie head coach Luke Walton is not used to this kind of thing. His time patrolling the sidelines, whiteboard in hand, was spent overseeing a 24 game winning streak…not back-to-back losses where 19-point leads were surrendered. There remains little reason to doubt Walton’s state of mind, even after he was thrown out of a game in Sacramento for barking at officials when they missed an obvious call. He’s let it be known that the Lakers’ record and their place in the standings is not a particular concern; his first season is the beginning of a long-term rebuilding project and Walton knows there are no shortcuts to playoff redemption. I’m not so confident about the lady with season tickets and a seat in Section 117.
In what is the beginning of a post-Kobe Bryant era it would be easy for Jeanie Buss to stay out of basketball by retreating into familiar areas like business and branding, so she deserves credit for her openness. Jeanie is not like Jim, whose relationship with sports media is a bit like Dracula’s with the sun; the hostility has been replaced by ambivalence, but the end result is the same. What’s troublesome is her determination to enforce Jim’s silly pledge to build a contender in three or four years. Mark Cuban may be right that the Lakers’ executive vice president has “everything you look for in a CEO.” The $48 million contract Bryant signed in 2013 was a smart business decision and worth every penny if it sold enough tickets and jerseys, but it left the purple-and-gold treading water on the court. The issue isn’t history like the Buss’ siblings decision to reward Bryant, but when the clock started ticking on Jim’s pledge: it should be the day Luke Walton was hired as head coach.
The view from that bay window overlooking the Lakers’ practice court is a bit different. It can’t be easy to watch this team struggle, then work the next day at an office that is home to 10 championship trophies and once belonged to Jerry Buss, but it has taken years to get here. This newly-assembled group will need time to get clear of the Laker’s recent past and rebuild its culture. All of Jeanie Buss’ laudable dedication to fans, her father’s legacy, and the trademark franchise he and Jerry West created isn’t likely to change that if the focus remains on Jim. Still, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if the disgruntled fans behind a discontinued change.org petition got their way. If they’re looking for quick results that means crossing fingers and trading players, which means packaging some of the draftees gained by losing enough to escape the pull of a 2012 trade for Steve Nash. There could be a winning streak, maybe two, possibly a playoff appearance next season, but then what? The quick rush doesn’t seem worth risking another reset.
The Lakers’ problems right now are on the court: they’ve blown several double-digit leads, cannot close out games, and are quick to go one-on-one when they fall behind. These are common problems for a team with a rookie head coach that’s built around four players who had four seasons of experience on opening day. Byron Scott tried browbeating some of the same players into mediocrity; it didn’t work. There is room for Jeanie to step up and get involved, but a publicly united front that includes Mitch Kupchak and knows what kind of team they’re trying to build is the only bait the Lakers have to offer free agents when negotiations start in June. If the call were my own to make it would be to a guy who can fill the lane, block shots, and grab rebounds. De’Andre Jordan isn’t available, but Serge Ibaka, Greg Monroe, and Udonis Haslem are. Still, it won’t be easy to reach the conference finals in the wild West — if it were the Clippers would have sent their hallway rivals a postcard by now.
photo courtesy of media.nbclosangeles.com