People around me who know I’m a Lakers fan have been razzing me for years about the team’s malaise. Once in a while they’ll suggest I become a Clippers or Warriors fan since they win more games, but I stubbornly refused. The reward was a team whose seasons ended with anxiety over the draft that led to a lottery pick and another Summer of high hope. Fear not, I heard, the purple-and-gold has a new coach or a new commitment to defense; this time they’ll finally turn it around. Whether mindful or cautious, the front office team avoided making big promises that would raise expectations. This began to change when Jeanie Buss deposed her brother then handed the team over to Ervin Johnson and Rob Pelinka. The new management started slow and shrewd, described what they found in February as unacceptable, then started making bold promises. The former agent gushed about coach Luke Walton’s “genuine honesty and coolness” and found a way to attach the word “championship” to every aspect of the team’s culture. Continue reading
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By the time staffers at Staples Center started removing the Clippers’ logo from its hardwood floor and pulling down banners writers and pundits like Bill Plaschke and Jim Rome made it clear what management should do: break up a struggling team. The former San Diego franchise has been maddeningly inconsistent — they’ve lost five straight playoff series while giving up a one, or two, game lead and seen their star forward go home injured twice. But the Clippers also won 50 games in each of the past five seasons. They can handle challenges, like a seven game series against the Spurs in 2015, won on a last-second shot in a San Antonio by Chris Paul. The Clippers’ first round loss to the Jazz did more than remind fans and reporters of their weaknesses, it’s inviting speculation about how many players will leave Los Angeles via free agency and what management will do next. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
After years of clouds and rain in Laker-land evinced by repeated injuries, echoes of “we want Phil” chants, an extended playoff drought, lottery picks, and the ongoing duel with Philadelphia’s 76’ers over annual losses the purple-and-gold finally have a chance to climb out of the Pacific Division’s cellar this season. The franchise still does not have enough money to buy back its former glory, despite Jim Buss’ determined pursuit of that ghost while he gently eased Kobe Bryant and that $48 million contract out of the gym. At this point I’m not watching from an overcast city expecting to see playoff glory, even the kind Clippers’ fans are so heartbreakingly familiar with, just a few signs that the meandering string of 60-loss seasons is over, and it looks like there will be some. Continue reading
When Colin Kaepernick’s teammates stood for “The Star Spangled Banner” on that late August afternoon the 49’ers player must have known what his decision to take a seat would bring. “There’s a lot of consequences that come along with this,” Kaepernick said later. “Those are things I’m prepared to handle.” The fur started flying within days: fans described him as spoiled and ungrateful, a few burned replica jerseys, and his ongoing protest has been fodder for cable news talkers and presidential candidates. Initially I had a hard time believing the effort was much more than a publicity stunt; the pig socks and Castro t-shirt brought more attention to the quarterback than his cause. He talked, kneeled, and did little else. That changed when the former Nevada University reserve agreed to donate $1 million to a pair of bay area organizations dedicated to “the cause of improving racial and economic inequality” according to a statement released by franchise owner Jed York on the heels of his own $1 million dollar donation. Continue reading
At this point it’s tough to know how to describe the Lakers’ decision to part ways with their former coach. When the season starts in October the Buss faction’s move may look like a favor, the rough equivalent of handing a life vest to Byron before throwing him over the side of a sinking ship. It may be unfair to the Buss siblings to describe this move that way, but John Kennedy was right: victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan. Byron cannot claim all the credit for the failure these last two seasons represent. The story goes back further, and includes other factors — like Kobe’s injuries, including a left achilles tear earned while he was trying to will the Lakers into the 2013 playoffs. There was little doubt he would be back, but nobody knew what to expect. The Buss siblings still rewarded Kobe with a $48.5 million, two-year contract that stranded the purple-and-gold in a forest it’s only now wandering out of.
Why does it matter? The contract tied up resources that could have been spent pursuing more mid-level talent. Kobe’s contract, when mixed with management’s insistence on chasing the most expensive, highest profile free agents left little room for alternatives when Carmelo, Lebron, and LaMarcus left the Lakers at the altar. Mitch found that money won’t lure top flight talent to a lousy team. Neither will a rich nightlife, multi-million dollar endorsement deals, or celebrity friends. Eventually word got around that the Lakers lost out in the LaMarcus sweepstakes because the Buss faction put Hollywood perks ahead of basketball in their first meeting. D’oh. When Greg went to Milwaukee and DeAndre eventually rejoined their hallway rivals the improv show was back in business to cobble together the 2015 edition Byron would have to lead.
When Mike was still running the show in 2013, the Lakers were consistently beaten on the boards, rated 28th out of 30 teams on defense — as measured by points-per-game surrendered — and finished 27-55. After Byron’s two years, the same team was still consistently out-rebounded, rated 27th on defense, and finished 17-65. It went from bad to worse; but what were the odds of anything better? The 2014 squad was a patchwork, their lotto pick went down with a broken knee on opening night, and Kobe was out half the season with a shoulder injury. This season’s team was a better organized patchwork, but still featured four rookies and a retiring superstar who spent more time with the trainer than on the practice court. Byron’s job was all the more difficult because Kobe’s status was unknown from game-to-game. It was like giving Byron the keys to a ’93 Ford Escort and wondering why his driver can’t outrun those zippy Acuras.
But enough about the past, the guy Bill Plaschke called a “good soldier” for taking on a thankless task has left the stage. The future will belong to the Buss siblings, but Jim’s outsized expectations of a return to glory set the stage for a sibling rivalry that could lead to a palace revolt. Jeanie is apparently serious about holding Jim to his 2014 promise that he would step aside if the Lakers are not in the hunt for a western conference championship in “three to four years.” The team does live in the land of make-believe, but this is hardly the time for a badly-written “Hamlet” makeover. Nevertheless, something is rotten in the Center of Staples. The franchise is facing its biggest summer in years; it has a new coach, a three-man core, $60 million in spending money, and a potential top-three draft pick. The “Showtime” days when championship-or-bust was the modus operandi left the building. If Mitch is right, and Luke is going to “going to start an outstanding coaching career” he’s going to need time and talent to pull it off. As a fan I want to see them get there, but I can’t trust that the people in the wheelhouse know what they’re doing.