The Los Angeles Lakers are one of the most storied franchises in basketball and yet they have rapidly joined the rankings of the mediocre.
The 2012-13 season was perhaps one of the most disappointing campaigns the Purple and Gold has faced given the amount of talent on board. The Lakers participated in the 2013 playoffs as a seventh seed and were swept out of the first round by the San Antonio Spurs.
This is the same franchise that celebrated a world title three years prior. However, a series of moves have come back to bite the Lakers and send them into a tailspin.
Kobe Bryant concluded the 2010 postseason with his fifth title and perhaps the best postgame response by a player when pressed on the meaning of that championship. Feel free to relive the moment:
Once the champagne stopped pouring, the offseason took place and the front office made a few transactions that, in hindsight, precipitated the decline of a title team.
Mitch Kupchak selected Derrick Caracter in the June 2010 draft and then allowed Jordan Farmar to depart in free agency. He was replaced with Steve Blake, and then management secured deals with new players in Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff.
Los Angeles' goal in the ensuing season was a fourth straight strip to the finals, which would be a difficult proposition.
The old Lakers teams from the 1980s are the last ones to appear in four straight NBA Finals. They accomplished the feat from the 1981-82 season to the 1984-85 campaign.
The regular season coupled with the playoffs are particular taxing both physically and emotionally. Consequently, teams that keep their core mostly intact simply have not been able to make four consecutive trips to the championship round.
The Purple and Gold made a few tweaks in the 2010 offseason, but they simply were not sufficient. Kupchak traded Sasha Vujacic in December 2010 for the services of Joe Smith, but the new Laker barely got into games.
The Lakers made changes to their second unit based on the development of players such as Shannon Brown. In addition, Andrew Bynum finally demonstrated some semblance of durability. The injury-prone center appeared in 65 games during 2009-10, the most since playing in 82 contests for 2006-07.
Coupled with Lamar Odom emerging as one of the best stretch big men in the league, the Lakers seemingly had it all.
The team’s growth from within was thought to suffice for another title run. Mind you, that proved incorrect. Los Angeles flexed its muscles on a few occasions during the regular season and entered the 2011 postseason as favorites to emerge from the Western Conference.
They struggled early in the first round, but still dispatched the New Orleans Hornets in six games. In the second round, however, they fell at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks. The Lakers struggled with their defensive coverage and saw Dirk Nowitzki perform open-heart surgery on them in four straight games.
The Lakers were swept out of the playoffs and also lost out on head coach Phil Jackson who entered retirement at the conclusion of the series. The 11-time world champion’s departure left the franchise without a headman.
The Laker brass sought to dissociate themselves from the former coach’s influence and essentially jettisoned all members of Jackson’s coaching staff. Brian Shaw was an assistant on Jackson’s coaching staff at the time and shared as much with Sports Illustrated’ Ian Thomsen:
Phil [Jackson] let me know going into the interview [with the Lakers] for me to almost disassociate myself from him, that anything that I said about him or the triangle system would hurt me because of his lack of relationship with Jimmy Buss.
Management no longer wanted any part of the Triangle Offense and consequently set its sights on candidates with a completely different approach.
The Purple and Gold settled on a coach with a strong defensive background in Mike Brown. The new Laker coach had previously enjoyed some success with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the front office felt as though he could steer the team back to its glory days.
Los Angeles faced some complications with their plans because the league faced a work stoppage. After a long and arduous process, a new collective bargaining agreement was signed in December 2011 and the Lakers made a splash on the very same day by acquiring Chris Paul from the New Orleans Hornets via trade.
David Stern famously vetoed the move, and the players involved in the trade essentially remained with their teams. However, Odom was one of the players that would have relocated based on the trade and felt betrayed in some respects.
Amid reports of his unhappiness, the Lakers quickly traded their top reserve player to the Mavericks. Odom’s departure was a huge blow for the team given that he typically logged heavy minutes late in games alongside Pau Gasol.
At the time, Odom was a talented and trusted player on the team. His exit resulted in the upgrade of Bynum’s role. The big man was going to command big minutes and would be frequently called upon to score in the post.
Nothing happens in a vacuum though. Bynum’s promotion caused Gasol to take a backseat. He became relegated to the elbows and the perimeter for the most part and only enjoyed post touches when Bynum was out for a breather.
One of the knocks on Brown during his coaching days in Cleveland was his lack of offensive sophistication. This reared its head during the 2011-12 truncated season (every team played 66 games) with Gasol playing out of position and Bryant assuming far too much control of the offense.
The two-time NBA Finals MVP played the role of facilitator and main scorer simultaneously, which at times meant his teammates were frozen out.
Further exacerbating issues for the Lakers was the lack of incoming talent. The team lost Odom but never truly replaced him. They selected the likes of Andrew Goudelock and Darius Morris in the draft and failed to get any consistent production from them.
They signed Josh McRoberts and got little from him. Ramon Sessions joined the team midseason via trade and performed admirably in the regular season but disappeared in the playoffs.
In addition, the Lakers traded away Derek Fisher. The point guard was a respected leader in the locker room as well as a clutch performer. The front office finally decided to alter the core.
However, the moves Los Angeles made were downgrades when compared to the previous pieces they had on the roster. The new players simply did not fit.
Sessions replaced Fisher at point guard, but was arguably equally bad defensively. In addition, the postseason seemed a little too big of a stage for him, whereas Fisher embraced big playoff moments.
Put it all together and the Lakers fell in five games before the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2012 Western Conference semifinals. Bryant and company averaged 90.8 points on 41.8 percent field-goal shooting during the five-game series.
The Thunder looked far more talented than their opponent and fresher during the second round head-to-head battle. The Lakers relied on Bryant to create plays, score and defend at high level, which were very tough requests.
The team lacked a secondary perimeter playmaker as well as a reliable offensive scheme, which hurt the squad. The roster had simply been constructed in a manner that did not consistently put its best players in situations where they could be successful.
In an effort to demonstrate they had learned from the mistakes exposed by Oklahoma City in the 2012 playoffs, the Lakers acquired Steve Nash and traded for Dwight Howard in the 2012 offseason, losing Andrew Bynum as part of the swap. The Laker brass finally made huge changes to the core and addressed their biggest areas of concern.
They acquired one of the best ball-handlers and playmakers in NBA history as well as one of the most dominant interior forces in the league. Nash was going to reduce Bryant’s workload while Howard would protect the Laker superstar defensively.
Also, this time around Brown planned on being armed with the Princeton offense. With an actual system in place, freelancing was going to be reduced and players were going to perform in concert instead.
The Lakers’ offseason moves were sensational, but Kupchak erred in the manner in which he constructed the second unit. In previous seasons, management made a plethora of changes to upgrade the bench, but this time around the reserves were not given enough importance.
Howard was coming off back surgery while there was an assumption Nash’s body was subject to breaking down.
The 2012-13 season began with the Lakers losing four of their first five games and the former Phoenix Suns guard suffering a leg injury. Brown was relieved of his services and replaced perhaps with the man least likely to succeed with that roster: Mike D’Antoni.
The new head coach favored a fast-paced offense predicated on the play of his guards. This also meant Gasol would be alienated. His prowess as a scorer and passer were perfectly suited for the new head coach, but D’Antoni struggled with pairing the Spaniard next to Howard.
Gasol had already begun drifting to the perimeter with Brown, but the new coach spent portions of the season parking him at the three-point line. Gasol attempted a career-high 28 shots from long-range by the end of the 2012-13 campaign.
And yet, the Lakers had a perfect opportunity to bring back Jackson as their leader after dismissing Brown. The former Laker coach proved in previous seasons he could play Gasol with another big man and still make him a productive player.
Furthermore, Jackson always did a masterful job of limiting Bryant’s minutes during the regular season, which kept him fresh for the playoffs.
The former New York Knicks coach has routinely relied on his big guns for long minutes during both the regular season and the playoffs. The 2012-13 campaign was no exception.
With the season coming to a close and the Lakers battling for a playoff spot, D’Antoni played Bryant an average of 45.2 minutes per game in the month of April.
The Lakers’ all-time leading scorer ruptured his Achilles and missed the final two regular season games as well as the playoffs. Nash played in the first two postseason contests but was sidelined with a strained right hamstring. He missed the remainder of the short-playoff run.
The starting five physically fell apart during long stretches of the 2012-13 season and the lack of bench production failed to mitigate the loss of the team’s stars.
Although some feel as though the defection of the big man is not a sign of future things to come, the franchise needs a contingency plan. The Lakers went from champions to chumps without actually gutting their roster.
The lack of transactions immediately following the 2010 title are understandable on the surface given that the franchise was coming off three straight finals appearances and back-to-back championships.
The Lakers erred in judgment, but there is room for forgiveness on that front. However, every move after Jackson’s departure precipitated the decline of the league’s glamour team.
Just about a year after Jackson left the Lakers, the team was eliminated in the second round of the playoffs and a proud Bryant defiantly stated his team had merely suffered a setback and that it would be back:
With the Lakers descending into mediocrity, Bryant’s prophecy has not been fulfilled. A franchise accustomed to competing for titles has not sniffed the Western Conference Finals since the 2010 playoffs.
Furthermore, Gasol and company have been eliminated twice in the second round and once in the opening round of postseason during the same timespan.
The harsh reality is that this is who the Lakers are and the future does not project differently.
J.M. Poulard is a featured columnist and be also be found on Twitter under the handle name @ShyneIV.