The Los Angeles Lakers really went for it in the summer of 2012, but all they got for bringing in Steve Nash and Dwight Howard was a harsh reminder that things like chemistry, age and attitude matter just as much as talent.
That bold experiment was a failure, and there's plenty of blame to go around.
Blame Howard for acting like a child and butting heads with everybody in Southern California. Blame Kobe Bryant for engaging in his typical alpha-dog routine that alienated D12. Blame Mike Brown for failing to galvanize the roster from the outset. Blame the front office for hastily firing Brown five games into the season and hiring Mike D'Antoni solely because he had a good relationship with Nash.
Hell, heap some on blame D'Antoni's inability to author a consistent system and toss some toward Nash for being 39 years old while you're at it.
Everybody's a little culpable, but it's not very productive to muddle around in the past.
In the end, L.A.'s big plan didn't work out. Critically, though, its failure doesn't mean the scheme was a bad one. The real downfall of the Lakers' designs was the team's inability to forge a contingency plan based on the knowledge acquired from their mistakes.
And now, Los Angeles is in a position that might actually be worse than the one it was in immediately after Howard walked away as a free agent this past July. The Lakers refused to build around Howard and chose not to acquiesce to his demands, so he left. That was probably a smart move by L.A., considering the childishness it had seen from Howard and the overall horrible impression he'd made to that point.
But Los Angeles is in rough shape now and doesn't have a clear way out.
That's because there was never a Plan B in the event the star quartet didn't work. And that's actually fine; putting together a superstar group like that was designed to produce brilliant short-term success. It's OK to push all of your chips into the middle if there's a potential championship trophy within reach.
The failure of the Big Four is acceptable. L.A.'s inability to learn from its mistakes is not.
The Lakers didn't try to change directions in the aftermath of Howard's departure. And although their options were admittedly limited, they still had a couple of them.
Trading Pau Gasol
The Lakers should have traded Pau Gasol a long time ago. They saw what could happen to high-mileage veterans last year: They get hurt. And when they get hurt, their declines accelerate.
Plus, Gasol clashed consistently with D'Antoni, a clear sign that the Spaniard's days of giving maximum effort were numbered. As B/R's Kevin Ding explains:
The clear connotation now is that Gasol is taking the easy way out, just as he has in barely moving on defense and settling for all those jump shots instead of rolling off picks on offense. Gasol’s limitations have been increasingly visible this season, and now it’s easier to hide them than risk further embarrassment at less-than-full strength—especially when he’s looking forward to one last fat contract in free agency this summer.
Gasol's age, declining production and waning interest in playing basketball make him a much less desirable target than he has ever been, even though he's on an expiring deal. Had the Lakers possessed the foresight to move him before the season began, it's hard to know what they would have gotten for him.
But one thing's for sure: They would have at least had a few more options than they do now.
Signing Kobe Bryant
This is the big one, folks.
Again, L.A. lived through the age-related demise of Nash and saw Bryant go down with a catastrophic injury last season. If any team should have known to be careful when dealing with aging stars, you'd have thought it would be the Lakers.
They couldn't have known for certain that Bryant was going to break down again this season, but all the evidence pointed to him being less than a star following his ruptured Achilles.
Yet they still extended his contract, offering an annual salary greater than that of any other player.
Bryant performed horribly in his return and has now broken down again, suffering from a tibial fracture. He's also on the hook for two more seasons and $48.5 million.
That's centerpiece money. That's franchise-altering stud money. That's money Bryant was worth four or five years ago, but not now.
It's easy to say the Bryant extension was a bad one with the benefit of hindsight, but just about everyone with any sense said the same thing the moment it was signed. Apparently, the Lakers are never going to acknowledge it was a catastrophic mistake.
Admittedly, not signing Kobe would only have allowed Los Angeles' eventual rebuild to happen a bit sooner. But it's better to start over in 2014 than it is to wait another two years while Bryant collects checks and struggles to perform at a break-even level.
L.A. didn't have many options, but divesting itself of two aging stars whose usefulness had all but expired was one it should have considered.
The Danger of Exceptionalism
What's most interesting about the Lakers' current situation—and most damning for the future—is the reason they didn't cut ties with Gasol and Bryant. Loyalty played a significant role, but there was something else, something more deep-rooted in Lakers lore, that ultimately kept those two in Purple and Gold.
The Lakers believe they're different from other franchises. They believe they're exceptional.
That belief comes from a history of dominance, a history that is absolutely praiseworthy but isn't serving the organization very well right now. Past success doesn't affect the future, and it certainly shouldn't lead to a misguided sense of exceptionalism.
The Lakers paid Bryant more than anybody else would have because they believed they'd find a way to surround him with talent somehow, despite having less money to do it. They believed this because they'd done it in the past.
L.A. can't go on thinking it's somehow different than the rest of the league. The same rules apply to the Lakers that apply to everyone else. And even though Los Angeles is a better free-agent destination than almost anyplace else, it can't just assume talented players will flock to the Staples Center for less money just because they want to be a part of a winning tradition.
The smart teams are collecting assets, avoiding overpays for past-prime talent, and viewing themselves as business ventures to which the rules of economics and the market apply.
The Lakers view themselves as an empire. Empires are prideful. Empires do things the same way they've always done them. Empires don't have Plan B's, which is pretty much why empires fall.
The Lakers didn't have many options to hedge the bets they made in 2012, and they've compounded their troubles by throwing good money after bad on Bryant. But they can still fix this thing—or at least begin the healing process—if they're willing to admit that they're not special.
L.A. needs to humble itself. It needs to tank. That's Plan B, and it's still on the table.
The Lakers don't have any other way to procure young, valuable assets at a reasonable price. The 2014 draft is loaded, and because Los Angeles has no realistic championship hopes, it might as well position itself to be a part of next June's talent-grab.
Last July, general manager Mitch Kupchak told Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times:
You know (tanking's) not our plan. Our plan was to bring back Dwight Howard and that would have sky-rocketed our payroll. That's never a plan here with our fan base, to throw in the towel before the season begins. We always try to win, and that's what we're going to do this year.
That's a laudable attitude when there's enough talent to legitimately pursue wins. When there's not, it's time to bite the bullet and embrace a new start—to whatever limited extent that's possible.
Pride has dictated many of the Lakers' decisions so far. Here's hoping it doesn't prevent them from making the right one before it's too late.
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