There was great joy last week in Southern California because the Los Angeles Lakers won two straight road games. That made their record... 3-9. When they were 1-9, it was franchise's worst opening season record since they were the Minneapolis Lakers and dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Why are they so non-competitive and will they rebuild quickly?
The Lakers are arguably the most storied franchise in the NBA. Only the Boston Celtics can argue this. They have won sixteen NBA titles. They paired Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain together -- three Hall of Famers -- to fight it out with the Celtics for League primacy. They then reloaded with "Showtime." Three Hall of Fame players -- Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Magic Johnson and James Worthy were coached by Pat Riley to multiple championship teams. They rebuilt again with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neil leading them to more championships. They have the heart and soul of Los Angeles fans, even though the Los Angeles Clippers have Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and a much better team. New Owner Steve Ballmer has a chance to change the balance.
The opening has occurred in the Lakers-Clippers balance because the Lakers are not figured to be competitive for several years. They had a losing season last year. The tickets to the games are incredibly expensive, and as much loyalty as the Lakers have engendered, Los Angeles fans tend to venerate winning and stars. The Lakers have one legend, Bryant, and have made the decision that showing him gratitude for his almost twenty years of excellence is more important than winning now. The contract he is being paid, the most expensive in the NBA at $23.5 million, makes it difficult to add quality free agents.
Why have the Lakers become non-competitive on a regular basis? Historically, they have traded away first-round draft picks and relied on veteran players through trades or free agency. This policy means no superstar college draftees will be available to rebuild for the foreseeable future. The Lakers traded for point guard Steve Nash and gave away first-round picks. Nash has been injured and unproductive for the last two years and will not play at all this season while he collects almost $10 million. The Lakers traded for point guard Jeremy Lin to start this year and he has been a non-factor in most games; he is more of a low-percentage shooting guard than a point guard.
In the offseason, the Lakers let super power forward Pau Gasol escape in free agency to the Chicago Bulls. They attempted to replace him with aging Carlos Boozer. Boozer has played weak defense and barely scored. Boozer was designed to fill that gap while first-round draft pick Julius Randle, a power forward, was brought along. Randle is out for the season after breaking his leg on opening night.
Nick Young, the Lakers' enthusiastic scoring machine and sixth man has been injured and his return coincides with the two recent victories.
And then there's Kobe. Bryant has been taking shot after shot and dominating the offense. When one player wants the ball every play, it is hard to build rhythm and get all the players involved. Bryant took 35 shots against Golden State Warriors last week and the remainder of the players took 34. Reports are that team chemistry, communication and trust have been major problems.
So enjoy the swan song of Bryant. He has moments of greatness that evoke the dominating superstar he has been. But, get used to a Lakers team that is allowing the most points per game in the NBA and has trouble scoring.
For Laker haters like Mark Cuban, this is glorious entertainment. For fans of NBA excellence and Laker greatness, it is sad.