I often ask myself, is it better to be self conscious or delusional? I mean self-conscious in the idea that you have brutally honest self-awareness, and I mean delusional in that you’re a normal guy but you look in the mirror and see Cristiano Ronaldo.1 On one hand you accept your life as it is, and on the other you believe that your circumstances are greater than their appearance.
That conundrum perfectly describes the cosmic force that is Lakers Exceptionalism. This force is followed, believed in, and worshipped by Laker fans, media, players, and maybe even the league itself. The only problem is that there is no exceptionalism.
There was only an exceptional owner, Dr. Jerry Buss, who completely understood LA and how to build a basketball powerhouse. Buss brought in the lights, girls, celebrities, and pretty much all the glitz and glamour that have made LA the envy of the league. Buss not only set a Hollywood atmosphere, he allowed his basketball guys to put together teams that were built to win championships. From ShowTime to Shaq and Kobe the fuel for the myth only grew and grew.
Writing this down it’s not hard to see how Lakers Exceptionalism became a thing. When you have a surplus of anything, after a while you begin to feel an entitlement over that which you have. Like it’s yours and you should always have access to it. It’s the same reason why an only-child has a problem with sharing – they’re not used to it – so it doesn’t make sense to them why you would be asking for what they believe is theirs.
You see where this is going. I believe we all know the story. Dr. Buss passed away and left the franchise to be ran by his children, but particularly Jim and Jeanie. Now Lakers 101 teaches us that Jim is responsible for basketball operations and Jeanie is responsible for business operations; conflict of interest maybe? It gets worst: Jeanie’s been engaged to Phil Jackson (the most winning coach in NBA history) it seems since the dinosaurs walked the planet 2 Right of the bat Jim has pressure to put together a good team immediately or everyone will question why he won’t turn the reigns over to his soon to be brother in law.
That’s just the foundation for what the landscape looked like for the Lakers in the beginning of the post Dr. Buss era. The real nightmare is that what’s good for basketball isn’t always good for business and vice versa.
The best example of this is the new Kobe Bryant contract. It doesn’t take much genius or foresight to know that overpaying a mid-30s coming off a catastrophic injury Kobe Bryant wasn’t a great move. Well that’s just my basketball side talking. It wasn’t a great basketball move. You’re paying mounds of salary cap to a player that won’t produce nearly the results that you should be paying someone who is making that much money. But on the other hand, it’s a genius business move: Kobe + the Los Angeles Lakers is a goldmine partnership; jersey sales, celebrity appearances, endorsements, branding the list goes on and on. While 2 years at 48.5 million is salary cap paralysis for Mitch and Jimmy Buss, it’s great business for Jeanie.
Now I talk to Laker fans, and they seem to believe that this cosmic force will pull their team out of the NBA doldrums. They say things like “people want to come to LA” and “they’ll (Jim and Jeanie) figure it out”. Well here’s some tough love: they never have before. Their father did, but not them. If you’re a Lakers fan, and you think I’m just being negative then just take a look at the below quotes from a Los Angeles Times article on Jeanie Buss talking about the salary cap amongst other things.
Buss said she isn’t worried about Bryant’s contract getting in the way of the Lakers’ plans.
“Too much attention is being paid to salary cap and all that kind of stuff, which is important,” said Buss. “Why can’t we just talk about the players … and how a basketball team comes together and not focus on slotting and cap space?”
“I don’t wear a hat and a T-shirt with ‘cap space’ on it,” said Buss. “I have complete confidence in Jimmy and Mitch to put together the kind of team that Lakers fans are used to.”
Still, Buss said she is the final voice of the team.
“Ultimately the buck stops with me,” she said. “I’m president and governor of the team and I have empowered the basketball operations, the front office, to put together a basketball team, working within the confines of the collective bargaining agreement.”
All that kind of stuff? Not focus on slotting and cap space? Why can’t we just talk about the players? I don’t think I’m taking her out of context when I say “she doesn’t sound like an owner with a clear plan for the future.” Things like salary cap are mightily important when building a sustainable NBA championship contending team. Oh unless you would like to be like the Knicks paying top dollar to Amare Stoudemire, or even worst, be the Orlando Magic still paying Gilbert Arenas top 3 money when he’s playing in China. The scary thing for Laker fans about this article is it makes you wonder how messed up the internal structure of that front office really is.
Everyone talks about the pedigree and world-class championship culture the Lakers have, but when the born from nothing to something rich guy has kids, they usually take much longer if ever to develop the same passion their father had about his business. My dad wanted me to take on his car detailing business; I had no interest. Now car detailing isn’t the Lakers, but you get the point.
Exceptionalism is a thought; it isn’t some magical magnetism that draws free agents, good fortune, championships, or anything that Laker fans believe is inherent to their organization. Great organizational structure, good decisions, having the best players, and a little bit of luck are usually what it takes to consistently win championships in this league. The Clippers had none of the four championship qualities for years, then out of nowhere they had a lot a bit of luck3:
- Stern vetoes Chris Paul to the Lakers.
- Win the Blake Griffin lottery.
Boom! Just like that they’re in the mix every year. The Lakers haven’t hit the lottery (other side of the Chris Paul fiasco), had good organizational structure (internal family conflicts of interest), made good decisions (signing Mike Brown and D’Antoni/Kobe Deal), or have had the best players (old Kobe, Gasol, Nash; injured-Dwight) for years. Tell me what do you see in the next two Kobe-anchored years changing that? Signing some second tier free agent? Kobe’s miracle resurgence?
The expectations that come along with Lakers Exceptionalism makes it so the Lakers don’t have the luxury to be bad for a few years like the Sixers; slowing building through the draft and acquiring assets. No, everyone wants them to win now, but forget the championship; the Western Conference 1–10 can be brutal in itself to get out of. Do you really believe an injury ridden Kobe Bryant and Kevin Love4 would come out champions of that blood bath? Is Lebron going to magically sign in LA and help Kobe win more rings? Of course not and if you said yes to either you’re a fanboy or you need to be strapped to a lie detector test.
Give Jim and Jeanie some time to figure out what it really means to run a franchise. Let them make their mistakes earn some bruises, skin their knees, and they will come out with the foresight to building a true sustainable contender for years to come. Or keep believing that the basketball Gods, Adam Silver, or Kobe will be helping the Lakers win anything anytime soon. Nothing wrong with delusion I suppose if it helps you cope with your team better than reality.
- Brad Pitt is my normal go-to good looking guy example, but since I’m still on this World Cup high CR7 had made an appearance on TGOTW.com. ↩
- I’m not one to rush love or anything, but goodness it seems like forever. Just tie the knot! ↩
- This is a little bit of luck on steroids. ↩
- One of the Lakers dream scenarios. ↩