Thursday, October 18, 2018

Shifting Gears - The Lakers Are Trying (Something) Again


I dedicate significant time and energy to the suppression of a nihilist whose company I rather enjoy.

Over the past decade, Laker fandom has taken on something of a shapeshifting quality, the team’s objectives and philosophy seemingly in a constant state of flux. From top-level contention, to a creaky foundation, crisis management (such as it was), to full-blown rebuild, powered by a multi-year tanking campaign. We watched Kobe, fresh off two glorious, maniacal seasons providing all the proof of concept that Russ Westbrook could ever require, demand a trade, which precipitated the arrival of Pau Gasol and a return to the top tier. This flowed into a whirlwind, on-the-fly retool that produced perhaps the worst superteam in NBA history (quick aside: that’s a gamble worth taking every time – only in hindsight is the Nash-Dwight gambit a terrible idea), and accelerated the swift and blinding slap of reality. As it turned out, somewhere along the line, NBA mortality developed an immunity to Laker Exceptionalism.

Of course, the descent largely stemmed from factors within the organization’s control. The late Dr. Buss’s succession plan that bestowed the top spot to Jimmy over the eminently competent Jeanie? A (since reversed) failure to prioritize the development of young talent – either by through the expenditure of draft capital on the acquisition of veterans, or stunting the development of whatever youth was on the roster through a combination of antagonistic coaching, inconsistent playing time and Kobe’s farewell tour? A run in free agency that we, rather charitably, will deem “lackluster”? This wasn’t random. The cards didn’t just go cold.

I’ve chimed in with some idle thoughts on the institution of Laker fandom in the (now somewhat distant) past, with an eye toward a future, this future, in which the Lakers bear little resemblance to the versions to which we’d grown accustomed. The era since the Lakers’ last playoff series victory – over a Nuggets team that was dishing out big minutes to Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo and Nene – and subsequent disposal at the hands of the Thunder has been defined by that snakebitten foray into the superteam arms race that spawned a four-year run in which success was measured almost exclusively in lottery odds. The New Laker Fandom one could have called it. Suffice it to say that the past few seasons have been trying, if not a fair tax on the three glorious decades that preceded them.

Recent years, it must be said, have been more than a little rough. We endured the pilot program of post-Orlando Dwight Howard – and the thankfully failed abomination that was the billboard campaign begging the stunted oaf to stick around. “Basketball Reasons”. Kobe popped his Achilles, busted his ass to get back, and fucking break his knee six games in, securing the title of “most depressing in Laker history” for the 2013-14 season. This, of course, led to the Lakers’ first lottery pick since 2005, Julius Randle, selected seventh overall, a genuine, real life, good young player, who… proceeded to break his leg in his second NBA game and effectively miss his entire rookie season. And Jeannie Buss had to take to the courts to finally, rightfully assume control – though not before Mitch Kupchak and her brother blacked out and gifted $136 million to Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov.

Let’s be real, the recent indignities have been myriad – we’ve not even given a moment’s thought to the treatment given to Mike D’Antoni, the free agent “courting” of LaMarcus Aldridge, D’Angelo Russell’s Instagram own goal, or his subsequent sacrifice in the name of purging the commitment to Timmy Moz. You get the picture. Shit, if you’ve sought out this remote outpost, you already had the picture.

Over the past couple of years, the worm’s begun to turn, on several fronts. On all fronts, really. Jeannie’s in charge, with Magic Johnson and ex-Fab Five extra and Kobe agent, Rob Pelinka, running the show. The new braintrust eluded the Ghost of Trading Past, dodging bullets at the Draft Lottery to select second overall for another couple of years, adding Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball to the mix. Dumping Moz and D’Angelo yielded a solid year of Brook Lopez (that he’s not still around on a bargain deal is baffling) and perhaps the steal of 2017’s draft, Kyle Kuzma. They’ve extended the run of draft sleeper success that began way back when with Jordan Clarkson, and extended to Larry Nance, Jr., 2018 Vegas Summer League MVP (also perhaps the steal of the 2017 draft), Josh Hart, and Summer League People's Champion, Svi Mykhailiuk.

That enough of a preamble.

So, LeBron James is a Laker. It’s been a bit more than three months since the news broke, and a good bit longer than that since the Lakers became the betting favorites to secure his services. Frankly, I put so much time and effort over the last couple of years into actively avoiding any emotional investment in the LeBron-to-the-Lakers hype that, even upon seeing him decked out in purple gold, I’ve had no fucking clue what to do with the reality.

On the one hand, the arrival of the best player since either Michael Jordan or James Naismith signals the return of the Lakers to their rightful place as the flagship organization. Beyond that, LeBron’s arrival kickstarts a new era in which seasons will once again be viewed through the championship-or-bust prism – in so far as anyone can claim such a prism during this Warriors run. However, that the squad was immediately rounded out with a shopping spree at the island of dystopian toys will alleviate much of that win-now pressure, because, if we’re being honest, late(ish)-period LeBron, attempting to integrate Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley into a roster consisting of a bunch of kids and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, with Magic and Kobe observing from the sideline feels more like an avant garde satirical docu-series than a plan to upend Steph and Co.

To which I say…

Fuggit. Count me all in on every of these games feeling like a hazy recollection from a whiskey-soaked night.

Let’s get weird.

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