LOS ANGELES — Even as the Los Angeles Lakers continued their fade from the playoff picture in the NBA’s Western Conference on Saturday with a 120-107 loss to the Boston Celtics, Staples Center is still an exceedingly pleasant place to watch a game.
The gravitas of Lawrence Tanter’s baritone over the public address, the gold and green jerseys popping under the warm amber stage lights, the classy, minimalist production devoid of all the canned noise and obnoxious stunts that plague so many NBA arenas.
No team in the NBA has lost more games over the past six seasons than the Lakers, but whatever infects the basketball operations has graciously spared game operations, which are still the league’s best. The Lakers have always had a gift for presentation, and that hasn’t changed.
What was scheduled as a marquee basketball matchup carried little basketball import. The announcement that Brandon Ingram is out for the season on Saturday with clotting in his right arm further rendered the showdown between the league’s two most storied franchises an afterthought. Staples Center wasn’t abuzz about postseason potential, or a revival of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, or LeBron James’ 80th career triple-double.
LeBron James records a triple-double, but Kyrie Irving’s 30 points propel the Celtics past the Lakers for a third straight win.
These days, the chatter surrounding the Lakers is about everything except what’s on the court. In this regard, the 2019 Lakers are the perfect representation of today’s NBA’s: machinations, intrigue, chatter about future transactions, parlor games, whom the Lakers can get this offseason, whom the Lakers should get, whom the Lakers will get. At this juncture, the Lakers aren’t a professional sports team so much as a news feed.
The Lakers face numerous organizational challenges. If you take owner Jeanie Buss’ word for it, none greater this season than the media. “The biggest challenge for [us is] the ‘fake news’ about how we were supposedly trading our entire roster for a certain player, which is completely not true,” Buss said at a panel last weekend at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference.
The statement is remarkable when you examine the recent failures of the franchise. It’s particularly astounding when you enumerate the material advantages it enjoys. The team plays in the most appealing market in the league; their local broadcast deal pays them in excess of $150 million per season; they employ LeBron James and have picked second in three of the past four drafts.
And even when the Lakers are miserable, the team still carries a golden mystique — national television dates, A-list celebrities in attendance, the steadfast condition of just being The Lakers.
Can you imagine the state of confusion an owner must live in if she looks at her team that is 156-320 over its past six seasons, one blessed with all of those assets, and concludes that the leading cause for concern is the information swirling on the outside? Despite its falsehood, the statement actually reveals so much about one of the Lakers’ true shortcomings. They’re so devoid of self-reflection that they can’t see something that’s abundantly obvious to anyone paying attention:
The Lakers are so infatuated with the glory of their brand that they forget about the essence of their product.
Rather than assign blame to unfavorable news reports that embarrassed her franchise, Buss could have taken a page from Robert Sarver, the owner of a Suns team with the fifth-most losses over these six seasons. He went on record claiming responsibility for the misery he’s presided over in Phoenix, saying, “The organization hasn’t functioned to the level of mine or our fans’ expectations, and that’s on me to change.”
Accountability and leadership are not exactly hallmark Laker qualities in recent years. They excel at the optics of leadership — President Magic Johnson at Lonzo Ball’s 2017 introductory press conference pointing to the place on the practice facility where he’d like to see Ball’s jersey mounted, general manager Rob Pelinka cracking open “The Alchemist” and reading a hollow aphorism as if that’s an exercise in thought leadership, talking tough to a coach mano-a-mano behind closed doors.
The Lakers will undoubtedly evaluate their coaching staff, but there’s plenty of other inventory to assess, principally for ownership. At some point, the Lakers must recognize that running an NBA team is far more than an exercise in brand management and talent recruitment. A front office is a managerial project like any other business — NBA teams make widgets, only they’re wins (or, more commonly for the Lakers, losses).
A few questions Buss can start with as she performs an autopsy on her very sick patient:
What are we doing wrong here?
Why do so many players play their best basketball after they leave our team?
Why have our recruitment efforts in free agency failed?
Did we hire the right people to make the big decisions?
Is that decision-making process coherent?
Why didn’t our collection of high draft picks, in totality, not translate into a winning team?
Are we empowering our coaching staff or hindering them?
Do those in the organization collectively feel they’re working toward something, feel their work is valued, and have we conveyed what that something is?
Last June, Johnson said, “Next summer, if nobody comes and I’m still sitting here like this, then it’s a failure.” The advanced accountability is admirable, but it’s telling that Johnson sees recruitment of superstars as the entirety of the project, as if running the Lakers is an advanced course with nothing but the July final. This myopia, which partially explains the poor roster surrounding James (the Lakers are now 24-24 when he plays).
The best course forward for the Lakers is to forget they’re the Lakers. Behave like you aren’t the most popular brand in sports, like you don’t reside in the most attractive city, like you haven’t won 16 championships, or like you’re imbued with some rarefied power that can only be administered by people who are part of the Laker tribe.
Stop trying to restore something from the past, and start building something for the future.