Standing On The Verge Of Getting It Way Off

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Courtesy Sony Computer Entertainment

The idea that Magic Johnson had, I’m guessing, was simply that adding the best player in basketball – whatever that means – to a 35-win team might just be able to push the door open on a Western Conference playoff picture that it has not entered since 2013.

In a vacuum, this makes sense, being that LeBron James had led his various, sometimes-oddball teams to the NBA Finals in each of the prior eight seasons. For what Zach Lowe refers to as “the junior varsity conference,” LeBron was the final boss, and the Finals boss, for longer than erstwhile running mates Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas have been in the league.

In hindsight, what has happened was, or could have been, plain to see. LeBron had interests beyond basketball; the Lakers had interests beyond developing (admittedly big name!) young talent; LaVar Ball had interests beyond Lonzo Ball. These things happen.

Then again, these things do not happen to marquee franchises[1], least of all one with Magic Johnson at the helm. The Lakers – the Los Angeles Lakers, the team with 16 championships and the second-highest win percentage in NBA history – have not made the playoffs at all since 2013, nor have they won a playoff series since 2012. In this time, the team has drafted, among others, Larry Nance Jr., Tony Bradley and 2019 All-Star-with-another-team D’Angelo Russell.

That’s not to say anybody knew what any of these players’ values, Russell included, was prior to right now, with all due respect to both Magic and LeBron. But for all their wherewithal on the court, those presumptive general managers formed an absolute hellscape of a roster, complete with space-averse extremists JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson, and something-like-“expected” to contend in an immensely fierce Western Conference immediately.

The Lakers are, and have been, a legacy franchise by virtue of having experienced the following: George Mikan’s discovery in Minnesota that larger people are great at basketball; stringing along all-time great Elgin Baylor just long enough to break his heart[2]; the contentious-but-brilliant early ’70s; the Kareem/late-Bill Sharman years, which begat success and also the idea that the chosen logo of the league in which he coaches is one in which he is kind of bad at coaching; the Showtime Lakers; the Nick Van Exel Lakers; the Shaq-Kobe Lakers; the Kobe Lakers; the Kobe-plus people who mattered more to his five rings but that you forgot about Lakers; and, finally, the Nick Young Lakers.

All of these Lakers teams withstood scrutiny because the Lakers are a resilient franchise and, more often than not, have churned success out of moribund mundanity. For most of their history, especially post-Minneapolis, the Los Angeles Lakers were built for a lot, but they were not built for this, under these circumstances. The Lakers – again, with italics – have LeBron James, by most accounts one of the two greatest basketball players of all time, and they have collectively failed to even bring their aesthetically-pleasing uniform color combination to national television to a seven-game series in mid-April for the masses.

LeBron, though, also had to know what he was getting into – here were Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and a bunch of would-be clowns whose overall ratings you exploit in trades on NBA2K, and then he ghost-whispered his way into veteran “playmakers” who can capably shoot the distance between me and the computer screen on which I’m typing this right now. It was a little much, even for a guy whose passive-aggressiveness precedes him.

And then the Lakers had an excellent defense, and then LeBron missed eighteen games in the middle of the season, and now Lonzo Ball is injured, and we’re staring at a reality in which the Lakers, armed with, again, probably the greatest basketball player ever[3], will be missing the playoffs for the sixth consecutive year – something that franchise had only done five times in its history prior to this streak.

Ultimately, this is what everyone involved – from Jeanie Buss to Magic to Rob Pelinka to LeBron himself – signed up for. Despite averaging 27 points, eight assists and over eight rebounds per game at age 34 – which, by the way, no one except James himself has done, James is in some kind of decline, but only by his own standards. Independently of what the exact effect of Los Angeles is on high draft picks, something we cannot know no matter the measure, this is an absolute failure on all parts.

Whether the Lakers can straighten themselves out over the next three years of LeBron’s contract remains to be seen, but whatever happens, one question remains: what was anyone’s goal coming into this? It may be rhetorical, but it seems like something everyone involved should have asked themselves were they to simultaneously ask themselves how much they wanted to win, and when.

LeBron’s might be the clearest, and that is charitable, but as for Magic, Jeanie and Rob, let alone the veteran non-shooters who signed on for this unpredictably boring ride, there may well be but a laughing Instagram and an unauthorized short film awaiting. We should all be so lucky for our faults.

*     *     *

[1] Except for the Knicks, who are *whispers to all of my fellow Knicks betrothed* not actually a marquee franchise

[2] Drafted in 1958, Baylor went to the Finals eight times in his career, losing to Bill Russell’s Celtics each time, before giving up the ghost and moving on with his life in the middle of the 1971-’72 season, at the end of which – of course – the Lakers won the title. Bless up to Elgin Baylor, a real one.

[3] Congratulations to LeBron passing MJ on the all-time scoring list Wednesday night, by the way


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