It’s unusual, but it happens: The Los Angeles Lakers are susceptible to mediocrity.
The league’s golden franchise has won five NBA titles since 2000 and has finished with a losing record just once during that same period.
Dating back to 1980, the Lakers have won 10 championships and have finished with a losing record just three times. That's 34 years with just three seasons under .500. Incredible.
But while it’s rare the Lakers have a losing season, it’s not so uncommon for Los Angeles to dwell in mediocrity during transitions from championship era to championship era.
Los Angeles has either not advanced to the playoffs or past the first round in four of its last nine seasons, coinciding with the departure of Shaquille O'Neal following the 2003-04 season.
Now, it appears the Lakers are headed back to average.
The team moves into a transition season following the departure of free agent Dwight Howard to the Houston Rockets, the likely amnesty of Metta World Peace—reported by Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register—and an aging roster with no salary flexibility.
Even the return of the Lakers’ all-time superstar Kobe Bryant from a torn Achilles tear won’t be enough to lift the Lakers above anything greater than a fringe playoff team.
Here’s the current Lakers salary situation, courtesy of Hoopsworld:
There’s always a chance injuries don’t strike against the Lakers with the same force as they did last season. However, the aging roster of the Lakers, coupled with the team’s desire to enter the 2014 offseason with only the salary of Steve Nash, makes this season an 82-game transitional period.
The biggest signal of a lost season comes via the reported eventual amnesty of World Peace, a move that will save the team roughly $30 million in luxury tax fees. It’s a money saver and certainly not a move that makes them a better team for the 2013-14 season.
The unimaginable is happening again, just as it did after Magic Johnson’s retirement in the early '90s and O’Neal’s departure in the mid-2000s.
Tough years following Magic’s retirement
Following Johnson's first retirement after the 1990-91 season, the Lakers went from 58 wins and an NBA Finals loss to Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls to a 43-win team and a first-round playoff loss to the Phoenix Suns in 1991-92.
The following season in 1992-93, the Lakers had a losing record but still grabbed the No. 8 seed. The year after that, they failed to make the playoffs for the first time in 18 seasons with a 33-49 record led by Vlade Divac, Nick Van Exel, Elden Campbell and a fading James Worthy.
The Lakers traded a 1995 first-round pick (which ended up being Michael Finley) to the Suns for Cedric Ceballos prior to the 1994-95 season. The forward averaged a team-high 21.7 points per game on 50.9 percent shooting to help lead the Lakers through the first round of the playoffs. That season also featured the emergence of shooting guard Eddie Jones.
It wasn’t title town, but Los Angeles once again became one of the league’s contenders through the remainder of the 1990s.
The Lakers won 53 games with that same core in 1995-96, also with the brief return of Johnson out of retirement, but they lost in the first round to the Houston Rockets.
Then came O’Neal and Bryant
The Lakers began to shift back toward elite when O’Neal signed with the Lakers as a free agent in the summer of 1996. That same summer, Bryant was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets and forced himself to the Lakers through a trade.
Championship success wasn’t instant, but the Lakers won 56 games in the duo's first season though Bryant was just a year out of high school and playing as a backup.
After a 56-win season and a second round loss in 1996-97, the Lakers won 61 games before being swept in the conference finals to the Utah Jazz in 1997-98 (missing out on a chance of Kobe-Shaq vs. Jordan in the finals).
Following a second-round loss to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, the Lakers went on to win three consecutive titles from 1999-00 to 2001-02.
Then O’Neal left
The trade came as a result of O’Neal desiring more money than the Lakers could pay and an ongoing feud with Bryant and the direction of ownership. The trade brought back Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and a first-round pick that became Jordan Farmar.
In their first season without O'Neal, with new coach Rudy Tomjanovich and new center Chris Mihm, the Lakers finished 34-48.
The Lakers talent had dropped again, but the return of Phil Jackson brought improvements to 45-win and 42-win seasons in 2005-06 and 2006-07.
The big shift came when the Lakers made a blockbuster deal to receive Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies in February 2008. The trade returned Gasol in exchange for Kwame Brown, Marc Gasol, Javaris Crittenton and first-round picks in 2008 and 2010.
In the first season of Bryant and Gasol, the Lakers reached the finals before losing to the Boston Celtics. The Lakers then went on to win back-to-back titles. Bryant earned his only Most Valuable Player award in 2008.
Bringing it back to now
Since their last title, the Lakers have lost twice in the second round of the postseason and last year were swept in the first round.
The Lakers success has been a constant for decades, but there are short windows of transition. That's where the franchise is now.
Los Angeles could be headed toward a string of down years, or perhaps the franchise is simply taking another short break before remodeling itself into another title contender.
In that case, it’s just history repeating itself.