While only a little more than a third of the NBA season is behind us, it seems like the Lakers and we, their fans, have endured several years’ worth of plot twists. It began with the borderline-deranged intensity of trade speculation over the summer. It continued through a preseason that gave cause for both hope and concern. The hope we had built up during the preseason was then cruelly snatched away by a putrid 2-10 start, during which the roster looked incapable of collectively playing NBA-level basketball for 48 minutes.
The emotional roller-coaster ride continued when tweaks to the rotation, most especially the rejuvenation of Russell Westbrook as the leader of the second unit, led to a solid 10-6 stretch which included signature wins against Denver and Milwaukee. But the pendulum would swing yet again, and Anthony Davis, who had been playing some of the most inspired basketball of his career as the Lakers clawed their way back into the playoff race, was injured in the Denver game. In the time since, it has become increasingly clear that the injury may be serious. All we really know is that he will be out for (at least) a month, though the lack of forthcoming details from the team suggests a potential debate over the timing of future surgery.
I Recognize That Tree
All of this is depressingly familiar to a fanbase that struggled through many of the same issues last year. Subpar roster construction leads to difficult coaching decisions which frequently backfire. A razor-thin margin for error that means every setback is a potential catastrophe. The supporting cast has to be supported by the stars during the regular season, while championship-caliber teams are winning games with their own middle-of-the-roster players. It’s as though, like my wife, we are watching a new season of Grey’s Anatomy: an identical drama repeating itself with a brand new set of characters.*
Make no mistake, these problems can be laid squarely at the door of the ownership and front office. Frank Vogel was not the man to coach last year’s squad, but Pat Riley and Phil Jackson together with the full blessing of Jesus Christ could not have dragged that roster to a conference final. And the poor roster construction during the last two seasons is due in turn to the team’s reluctance to either trade draft picks or take on intermediate-term salary.
The front office and ownership have demonstrated a tendency to run the team the way Adam Dunn used to take an at-bat for the Cincinnati Reds: swinging for the fences but content to strike out when they don’t make contact. The Anthony Davis trade and a healthy season in 2020 led to a magical championship run, and Rob Pelinka and Jeanie Buss were able to trot around the bases while the crowd went wild.
But injuries to LeBron James and later Davis torpedoed the repeat attempt in 2021. Strike one. Then the team’s inability to fill out a suitable roster after making the trade for Russell Westbrook that summer meant that they would have to stay healthy and have exceptional play from all three stars to contend. That did not occur. Strike two. Now here we are again this season, looking at a roster that was filled in a la carte struggle to compete in the face of adversity.
It is an unavoidable fact that, for the last half-decade at minimum, the Lakers have too often made poor moves on the margins. They have neglected the little things, selling useful assets for a short-term gain that rarely materialized. Ivica Zubac went to the Clippers for Mike Muscala, who was with the team for the average length of one of my college romantic relationships. Alex Caruso was permitted to walk with no return. Kyle Kuzma was shipped out in the Westbrook trade.
These moves were made on the unspoken premise that, if a third high-level player were paired with James and Davis, then the rest of the roster was a secondary consideration. In the last two years, the flaws in that mindset have been ruthlessly exposed. That is what makes front office’s insistence on guarding draft picks like newborn children (while refusing to take on salary in any deal) so frustrating. Because the basis for a very good basketball team is here, but building it requires upgrading across two or three significant skill sets. Those kinds of upgrades in the NBA are not cheap. If management and ownership insist on improving this team only if the improvement costs next to nothing, then the team will not improve. Banking on the best case scenario is not a winning strategy.
The ancient Greeks had a name for just this kind of arrogant self-assertion in the face of limits imposed by reality. They called it hubris. And they had a goddess, Nemesis, whose purpose was to bring low those who were so confident in their destiny to succeed that they tempted fate. It is difficult to look at the Lakers’ failures in the last two seasons and not see in them the inevitable result of poor planning. The basketball gods will have their due.
What is needed, at bottom, is for the Lakers organization to pick a long-term strategy and develop the discipline to stick to it. A team with a superstar in his prime and the GOAT, aging though he may be, should be in championship contention every year. The fact that the Lakers are not contenders this season, and that no one seriously expected them to be, is damning for a team with a $47 million expiring contract and two first-round draft picks available as tradeable assets.
The ingredients for a dominant team are not present on every team in every season. The FO’s unwillingness to pull the trigger on some deal to improve this team indicates that they either don’t have faith in the stars or they are exaggerating their commitment to put an elite squad on the floor. If they don’t think there is a way for this team to compete regardless of whatever moves they make, they ought to rebuild immediately. If they do think such moves exist, they should try to make one before these stars’ championship window closes completely. Standing and waiting while the roster collapses under the weight of poor construction and high expectations will only put the team in a hole that will take years to climb out of.
*If you’re reading this, Karmen, I’m sorry. I know you love the show.
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