By the time the buzzer rang at the end of the fourth quarter, the Los Angeles Lakers led the Utah Jazz by 116-108.This extended their record to 51-15 and made them untouchable by their closest challengers and crosstown rivals LA Clippers.
The biggest cause for celebration was that it was the first time in ten years that they had clinched the number one seed but perhaps even more importantly, the Lakers were finally back in the NBA playoffs for the first time in seven years. Not that there was any anxiety that this wouldn’t be the case.
A 49-14 record before the league was suspended due to the Coronavirus pandemic, had put the considerable 5.5 game gap between the Lakers and their closest challengers.None of this was particularly surprising.If anything,it was merely confirmation of what had been widely predicted ahead of the beginning of the season.
A lot of the time, in the analysis of the rise and fall of sports dynasties, it is easy to get carried away by technical details purporting to explain just why a traditional powerhouse is failing to replicate the success of its fans and rivals are accustomed to.
Undue emphasis is devoted to a study of the decline in the ability and overall quality of individual players. With sixteen NBA titles to its name, the LA Lakers largely abysmal performances for the bulk of the last ten years were not just incomprehensible, but downright baffling.
Alright, the great Kobe Bryant’s powers were waning, and replacing him was always bound to be problematic but the Lakers malaise began a long time before the Black Mamba hung up his sneakers in 2016.
The thing about sporting teams being so dependent on the extraordinary talents of an individual is that while the highs are exhilarating when the said player is at their peak, the lows are indescribably frustrating and difficult to take when they enter a decline.
LA Lakers decline preceeded Kobe Bryant deciding it was time to hung up his sneakers in 2016
The lows in Los Angeles begun soon after the ultimate high of winning the sixteenth championship in 2010. The one moment in particular that stands out when analyzing the beginning of the Lakers’ downfall was the ultimately unsuccessful trade for star Point Guard Chris Paul from the then league-owned New Orleans Pelicans in December 2011, which was controversially vetoed by then NBA commissioner David Stern.
It irrevocably wrecked team relations as Pau Gasol and especially Lamar Odom, being the two players supposed to move to the Houston Rockets and the Pelicans (known as the Hornets by then) respectively, were left massively disappointed by the idea that the Lakers considered them so dispensable, despite their contributions to the franchise’s success.
In short, this debacle kicked off the steep descent that followed. The Lakers did make the playoffs in the subsequent three years from that successful 2009/2010 season but were unable to progress past the Conference semifinals, failing to even negotiate the first round on two occasions.
This torrid run included that infamous four-game sweep by San Antonio Spurs in 2013, in what was the Lakers’ last postseason appearance until now. It is easy to see why the Spurs made such a mockery of the Lakers. Away from the injury struggles of Kobe Bryant, who missed the series with an Achilles injury,therew almost zero chemistry in that team to make it work, despite all of the glittering talent it possessed in the form of Dwight Howard, Gasol, and Bryant himself. The abrasiveness of the team’s star players with each other proved to be an insurmountable hurdle as Howard and Bryant bickered.
At the time, siding with Kobe was the easier choice, considering his status as the leader and legend. Three-peat lynchpin. Five-time champion. The face of the franchise. But the fact of the matter is that Kobe was aging and injuries were taking their toll on him as well.
There was almost zero chemistry within the 2013 team to make it work despite all of the glittering talents they possessed
All of this was difficult to believe, both for him and for the team at large and in the end, everybody suffered. His presence in the team, on a gigantic contract, moreover, made the acquisition of marquee players extremely difficult, accelerating the Lakers’ journey to mediocrity.
By the time he finally conceded defeat to his body and retired, there was no other recourse but to break down the whole thing and rebuild from scratch, not just on the court but in the front office as well. And so they did.
Long time General Manager Mitch Kupchak was fired and replaced by former Kobe agent Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson was hired in 2017, only for him to step down just two years later from his role as President of basketball operations, amidst accusations of an ultra-confrontational leadership approach, as well as murmurings of a poor working relationship with Pelinka. Murmurings that would later be confirmed by Johnson himself.
The Lakers also went through managers with uncharacteristic regularity, when you give consideration to the long reign of the legendary Phil Jackson, as Mike Brown, Mike D’Antoni, Byron Scott and Luke Walton all tried, and failed to resuscitate the team’s fortunes.
Of course, their jobs were complicated by having to line up with players who were either unready for the pressure that comes with playing for such a franchise, a long way past their peak, or simply not good enough. The likes of Steve Nash, Lonzo Ball, D’Angelo Russell, and Ron Artest,to mention but a few,came to epitomize the mediocrity of the Lakers throughout the 2010s.
Amidst the flurry of changes, it looked like there was an identity crisis going on at the Staples Center, but head honcho Jeanie Buss, who had taken over after the 2013 death of her father, long-time owner Jerry Buss, which in its own way marked the loss of another pillar in the architectural composition of the Lakers, stuck to her project.
The arrival of LeBron James two years ago was crucial for the restoration of the profile of the second most successful team in the NBA, but even James, without a doubt one of the greatest players of all time, could not rectify the situation all on his own.
This isn’t to say he wasn’t strong enough but rather the quagmire the Lakers were in was too deep to be escaped through the efforts of one man. With Anthony Davis secured in a trade with the New Orleans Pelicans that saw Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Josh Hart move the other way, the Lakers finally had enough star power to return to a place they regard as being routine for them.
It remains to be seen how they perform in the playoffs but it can’t be denied that this has been their best season in seven years, topped off by regaining their throne in the West. It’s been a long and arduous journey but the Lake Show is finally back in the brightest lights of the NBA.
Author: Timothy Ainebyoona
Timothy is a dynamic analyst passionate about news and all things sport.