They have defined NBA greatness for the past 50 years. They have won 16 NBA Championships and can claim 26 members in the NBA Hall of Fame. They have had an uncanny ability to reload their roster quickly when their dynastic players move on. Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain gave way to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and James Worthy. They were followed by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, and then Pau Gasol. They have a tradition of premium coaching with Pat Riley and Phil Jackson. Last season, however was the worst Lakers record since moving the franchise from Minneapolis in 1960. The team missed the playoffs for only the second time in the last two decades. Many of the players were unrecognizable to fans without a scorecard. Is this an aberration or the start of a long decline?
The only three players on the Lakers' roster from last season are soon-to-be 36-year-old Kobe Bryant, 40-year-old Steve Nash, and back-up center Robert Sacre. Kobe Bryant missed most of last season with a torn Achilles tendon, and Nash has been plagued by multiple injuries. Bryant is in the argument for the greatest player of all time, but his body has broken down in the last couple years. He has an enormous contract that eats up a large chunk of cap space making it difficult to put together a well-balanced team to contend in the Western Conference.
Deceased owner Jerry Buss was a brilliant, determined owner. His son, Jim, has displayed little of the wisdom or consistency of his father. The team seems rudderless from the top. Mitch Kupchak, Lakers general manager, has a mixed record of good and bad decisions. He is not in the same category as his predecessor, Jerry West. At the beginning of July, there is still no head coach, and the options available are not very compelling. The key to winning in sports is stable, committed ownership combined with shrewd personnel evaluation in the draft, free agency and trades, and great coaching. Rebuilding the Lakers will take astute strategy and judgment. Recently, there has been scant evidence of this capability.
Julius Randle, a forward from Kentucky, selected last week was the Lakers' highest draft pick since James Worthy. Randle, who was once considered to be the potential first pick in the draft, surprisingly fell to the Lakers at number seven. He may end up being a solid player, but few are predicting superstardom. At 19 years of age, he has a lot of developing to do before he can become a legitimate threat in the league.
Can the Lakers attract any of the top free agents available? LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony top the class. The Lakers can afford one maximum contract, not two. LeBron James is at the point in his career where his priority is to win rings. He wants to win NOW. He may have opted-out of his Miami Heat contract to provide that team with room to add players and insure a better shot at the championship. What aspect of playing on Kobe's team with little talent would possibly appeal to him or Carmelo? There is no coach, and they will have to compete in a very young and talented Western Conference. There are not many other transformational free agents available. The Lakers now have to compete for Pau Gasol with other teams, and with him they were 27-55.
Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer obviously felt that the Lakers were not coming out of this crisis soon and paid a massive premium to buy the Clippers. The Lakers have owned the heart of Los Angeles and the Clippers have played a secondary role. It will not take many more seasons like last years to weaken the Lakers' grip. It is sad to see the proud Lakers franchise reduced to this status, but there are no quick fixes here. Can the Lakers pull off some of the same magic we are used to seeing? Only time will tell.