The Los Angeles Lakers are currently traversing the darkest hours in recent memory.
Their best players have been in and out of the lineup with injuries, and as a result, the Lakers have struggled. The Lakers simply do not have the talent to compete with even the average teams in the league, and thus, they look like one of the worst units in basketball.
The Purple and Gold have been through some tough times before, and it’s fair to wonder where this season ranks among them.
The early 1990s
Magic Johnson announced his retirement prior to the start of the 1991-92 season and shook up the basketball world. With arguably the greatest player in franchise history stepping away from the game, the Lakers were in trouble.
The team was not prepared to transition into the new era, and the roster certainly reflected that. The Lakers were built to complement Johnson’s talents, and without him, the players were doomed.
In the first two seasons without Johnson, the Lakers won 43 and 39 games respectively. They were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in both campaigns. The team hit rock bottom in 1993-94.
The Lakers missed the playoffs entirely by virtue of one of the worst records in the division. As bad as things got, Los Angeles recovered fairly quickly.
Indeed, two years after losing the greatest point guard in league history, the Lakers won 48 games and made it to the Western Conference semifinals. The team had a combination of talented young players mixed in with veterans.
Times were difficult for a small stretch, but in true Lakers fashion, they rebounded just like they always have.
Kobe Bryant learns to fly solo
O’Neal’s departure was a clear sign that L.A. was done competing for titles in the immediate future. Gary Payton and Karl Malone both left the franchise, which led to Kobe Bryant being forced to carry the organization on his back.
The Purple and Gold missed the playoffs in the first season without O’Neal and finished with a sub-.500 record. Los Angeles made it back into the postseason in 2005-06 and 2006-07 but was ousted in the opening round on both occasions.
The 2006 playoff elimination was particularly bad for the franchise because many accused Bryant of quitting in Game 7 of the series versus the Phoenix Suns. Bill Plaschke of the L.A. Times has the details:
In the second half, a frustrated Bryant seemingly made this point when he stopped shooting and, some say, stopped playing. He took only three shots in the half, scored but one point, and the Lakers lost the game, 121-90.
Bryant and company were mediocre at best. Frustration with losing and a lack of talent finally created dissension in the 2007 summer. Bryant seemingly had a meltdown when a video of him criticizing the team’s allegiance to Andrew Bynum surfaced.
What’s more, the 2-guard set the basketball world on fire when he publicly stated his desire to be traded. Granted, Bryant was under contract, and therefore, the Lakers were not obligated to acquiesce to the demands of their superstar.
Hence, circumstances might have appeared to be dire, but Los Angeles still held all the cards during this tumultuous time. The Lakers had prospective trades in mind, but ultimately they brought Bryant back into the fold and made him happy once again.
The team started out the season by winning 29 of its first 45 games, and then, it secured the services of Pau Gasol. Los Angeles then went on to participate in three straight NBA Finals and won two of them.
An argument could be made that this period was the darkest in recent Lakers memory, but that is more than likely incorrect. The team was not very successful, but Bryant was a one-man show who captivated all.
The Lakers were a marquee attraction with their best player, and also, his scoring explosions brought a tremendous amount of attention to the team. Bryant scored an astounding 81 points against the Toronto Raptors in what still stands as his best individual offensive performance.
With Bryant in his prime and signed to a long-term deal, the franchise had hope on its side and knew that eventually the team would rise back to prominence.
The Dwight Howard season
The Los Angeles Lakers brought Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to town in 2012 and instantly became championship contenders. It was assumed that they would breeze through the Western Conference and then give the Miami Heat a stiff test in the championship series.
Arash Markazi of ESPNLA offered this take when Howard relocated to California: “Yes, that's right, Miami, there is a new challenger to your throne, and this team has a 'Big Four' to trump your 'Big Three.'"
Instead, the Lakers were average more than anything. They fired their head coach early in the season and then suffered through a multitude of injuries during the course of the year.
Pau Gasol and Steve Nash missed a combined 65 games, which robbed the Lakers of two of their best playmakers. Also, Mike D’Antoni struggled to incorporate the talents of his best players, and it created some uncomfortable situations.
Howard was unhappy, and Gasol was relegated to the second unit. The situation nearly turned into a disaster as the Lakers were four games below .500 by the All-Star break. Despite the discourse, Bryant vowed to get the team to the playoffs and eventually delivered on his promise.
Mind you, he tore his Achilles late in the season and watched the postseason unfold from the sidelines. As bad as 2012-13 was, there was always a feeling that Los Angeles would survive because of Bryant’s exploits.
He had one of the best years of his career, and in addition, there was always a chance (no matter how small it was) that the team would eventually figure out its identity and play to its strengths.
Sadly, that development never occurred because of Bryant’s health. Still, the team presented a semblance of hope despite its long odds. The apocalypse only truly occurred at the conclusion of the campaign.
The 2013-14 season
2013-14 represents the bleakest time the franchise has faced in quite awhile. In previous dark days, the Los Angeles Lakers always had something to bank their future on: young players, the allure of L.A., the sharp mind of general manager Jerry West and perhaps the greatest owner in sports: Jerry Buss.
The Purple and Gold have none of that going for them this time around. Mike D’Antoni’s group seems on its way to finish near the bottom of the Western Conference standings because of injuries and a lack of talent.
In addition, current general manager Mitch Kupchak is hitching his wagon to a broken-down Kobe Bryant, which hardly seems like a great proposition.
There is a chance that Bryant’s days as an elite player are long gone. If such is the case, his $48.5 million extension will handicap the Lakers until it expires in 2016.
Further compounding things for the Lakers, there is a belief that the four-time All-Star Game MVP might scare away potential stars willing to join the franchise when it has roughly $26 million in cap space this summer.
Bryant has consistently offered up to the public that the Lakers begin and end with him. Indeed, have a look at the thoughts he communicated to ESPN.com’s Rick Reilly:
Look, I've played 15 years. I've won world championships. I've done all these things. And people still want to talk about this stupid-a** [stuff]? I'm a scorer first ... I'll try to make the good play, the good pass, kick it out when my teammates are open, but I'm a scorer first. I may shoot 27 times. I may shoot 20 times. Nobody complains when I shoot 10 times. You don't hear ME complaining when I shoot 10 times. It just depends on the game, you know?
Consequently, a high-caliber player might be weary about joining the Lake Show if Bryant is unable to recognize that said athlete is a superior talent at this stage of the Black Mamba's career.
Dwight Howard witnessed this phenomenon and ran away from it. Dan Le Batard of the Miami Herald offered an intriguing take on the matter:
The Van Gundy brothers say the toughest thing to coach in sports is an aging superstar — because confidence is the last thing to go and the mirror is the last thing to know — and Bryant, who has missed more shots than anyone in the history of the game, continues to get more shots up than anyone in the league not named Carmelo while Howard wonders where all his touches went.
The Lakers’ best free-agent pitch might not suffice when it’s time for guys to sign on the dotted line because Bryant may very well serve as an impediment. Keep in mind, the current coach has clashed with superstars before and might also discourage the very best from even looking the way of the Lakers.
In turn, this means that the future is quite possibly on par with the present. The Lakers have nothing glamorous to offer, and in addition, they are no longer the main attraction in town with the rise of the Los Angeles Clippers.
The lone bright spot fans can hang their hats on is the 2014 NBA draft. According to Chad Ford of ESPN.com (insider), it could be the best crop of young players in league history. Hence, if lottery balls bounce in the favor of Mitch Kupchak, the Lakers might quickly turn things around and build a perennial playoff team.
Mind you, that means the Lakers would actually have to rely on a lottery process to bounce back with a short turnaround time. It does not get any darker than that for the most prestigious franchise in the sport.