The Los Angeles Lakers appear to be a dysfunctional mess of an NBA team. No, check that. They are a dysfunctional mess of an NBA team.
That probably makes many of you good New England folks quite happy. But not me. No schadenfreude here.
First of all, it makes me wrong. I had always believed the Lakers would perpetually be good, would always be somebody, would always be a contendah (sorry, Marlon).
It just seemed to be in the natural order of things. After the franchise was relocated from Minneapolis to Los Angeles for the 1960-61 season, the Lakers made the playoffs 49 out of the next 53 years. They won 11 championships. They won 50-plus games 31 times. They won 60-plus 11 times. They were certified NBA royalty. They were the team of Elgin, Jerry, Wilt, Gail, Kareem, Magic, Worthy, Wilkes, Kobe, Shaq, and Pau, not to mention Armani Riles and the Zen Master. They were “Showtime.”
And I thought it would never end. I figured they’d always be able to attract top-notch free agents. Who wouldn’t want to play there?
The Los Angeles Lakers last won a playoff game on May 18, 2012. They defeated the Oklahoma Thunder by a score of 99-96. Kobe Bryant had 36. They did make the playoffs in 2012-13, but they were swept by the San Antonio Spurs. Since then?
Since then the Lakers have spent the playoffs as televiewers. They have compiled victory totals of 27, 21, 17, 26, 35, and 37. No playoffs for you!
Things reached a nadir, image-wise, last Tuesday night when team president Magic Johnson announced his resignation in a bizarre pregame news conference. Why, you may ask? Well, he said, he wanted to go back to “having fun” in his life and this job was getting in the way. Put this explanation down as another first in the history of American resignation announcements. I can’t speak for the rest of the world.
I can’t imagine that anyone who has followed the saga of Earvin “Magic” Johnson over the years was surprised he was stepping away. The question from the beginning was whether or not a man of many interests, both business and otherwise, was prepared to put in the necessary legwork to fulfill his duties. The Danny Ainges of the world are out there in search of talent. I don’t think Magic was ever seen in the Zagreb Airport. Danny knows where to have a nice meal in Belgrade or Barcelona. Many of us asked the same question when Phil Jackson was put in charge of the Knicks. While in New York, he was seldom seen farther away from his office than Central Park. My over/under for him remaining on the job was 24 months. I lost, but not by much.
The difference between Jackson in New York and Magic in LA was that Phil was happy to sit in either New York or in his retreat out West and do his job by remote control, whereas Magic just had too many things going on to spend much time in the office or at a dusty gym somewhere, anywhere. But you can sum them both up as follows: Neither was, as they say, “all in.”
There is something of an asterisk concerning the 2018-19 Lakers. When they were done putting a thorough stomping of the Warriors on Christmas Day, they were standing at 20-14, and had the playoffs begun that evening they would have been hosting a first-round game. But in that game LeBron James sustained a groin injury while reaching for a loose ball.
That might not have been a big deal a decade ago. But on that day LeBron was five days shy of his 34th birthday. He was not going to be a speedy healer. He missed the next 17 games, during which time his team went 6-11. Concurrent with that was a ludicrous non-event; namely the wooing of disgruntled New Orleans Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis, who just happens to share an agent with LeBron. Before the mess was cleaned up, it came to light that the Lakers were said to be willing to part with anyone on the roster not named LeBron if they had a chance to assemble a Davis trade package. The young’uns on the Lakers apparently were moved to tears with the knowledge that they were not exactly indispensable to the cause. The rest of the season was a death march.
Presiding over the demise of a once-proud franchise is Jeanie Buss, daughter of Dr. Jerry Buss (1933-2013). To get this far she had to win a power struggle with her brother, Jim. If this sounds strange, well, it was. And this: Way back when, she was supposedly engaged to Phil Jackson, even after he went 3,000 miles away to run a rival team. You know what they say. You can’t make this stuff up. Now I’m not sure where that romance has gone, but you must admit it was always a juicy subplot.
Where were we? Oh, yes. She brought team icon Magic Johnson back into the Laker fold. I’m not sure if this meant he had to renounce any financial ties he had to the Dodgers. Yes, more you-can’t-make-up-this-stuff stuff. On one level, it made sense. Who doesn’t love Magic in LA? On another level, it made no sense. Who doesn’t know that Magic is, um, distracted?
On the subject of any instant Laker revival, there is a new twist to the plot. What was once clearly unthinkable is now an open question. And that it is whether or not any major free agents wish to play with LeBron. Was Kyrie Irving actually onto something? This would have been an unimaginable concept only a year ago. Six months even. But that idea is out there.
I’m fascinated. I’m intrigued. But I’m not gloating. The Celtics and Lakers have too much shared history. They’re like the West Coast Us. The Celtics and Lakers (Minneapolis and LA) have combined for 33 of the 72 NBA championships. Some of the greatest basketball ever played has featured these two teams.
I want more. I want the Lakers to get back on their feet. Can’t hate ’em if you have to pity ’em.
Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com.