A once-dominant franchise looked into the abyss. Then, improbably, it found its way again.
Pau Gasol grabbed the rebound, turned, and quickly tossed the ball to Lamar Odom. Odom, checking the clock, hurled the ball down court to no one in particular as the final seconds of the game ticked away. Kobe Bryant chased the ball down and, making his way slowly and emotionally through a sea of elated teammates and confetti, mounted the scorer’s table to commune with the delirious crowd at Staples Center.
It was June 16, 2010, and the Los Angeles Lakers had just secured their franchise its 16th championship and second in a row, this one over the rival Boston Celtics. The core of Bryant, Gasol, Odom, and Andrew Bynum looked to remain intact for years as Bynum entered his athletic prime. Jeff Van Gundy spoke for much of the basketball world when he said on the broadcast just after that Game 7 victory, “there’s no reason to think this team couldn’t three-peat.”
But they didn’t. That failure, and the team’s increasingly desperate efforts to secure Bryant a championship-caliber team for his final years in the league, set in motion a cascade of misfortunes that saw the Lakers fail to see playoff basketball for six years running – far and away from the longest such streak in franchise history. Now, ten years after Bryant hopped onto that table clinging to the game ball, the Lakers are once again hunting the ultimate prize.
During the 2010 playoff run, there had been signs that the Lakers and Spurs were no longer as far ahead of the Western Conference as they had been for ten years. The Lakers had to endure two bruising series – in the first round against a rising Oklahoma City Thunder team featuring Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden and in the conference finals against Carmelo Anthony and the gritty Denver Nuggets – before even seeing Boston.
The team’s off-season moves in 2010, adding wing defender Matt Barnes and backup guard Steve Blake while re-signing Derek Fisher, were meant to ensure the depth and defensive toughness needed to fend off up-and-coming-teams in the West. The Lakers managed to post a 57-25 regular season in 2010-2011, good for the second seed in the competitive West and identical to the team’s 2009-2010 performance. Odom became the first Laker to win 6th Man of the Year.
Yet, in the second round of the playoffs, the Lakers were dominated by a Dallas Mavericks team playing a surprisingly modern brand of basketball. Combining Dirk Nowitzki‘s smooth jumper and isolation play with Jason Kidd‘s pick and roll dominance and spacing the floor for them with a bench full of shooters, they clinically dissected the vaunted Laker defense in four games.
The Lakers’ frustration with their inability to slow down the Dallas attack boiled over in the 4th quarter of a 30-point blowout in Game 4, when Bynum delivered a forearm shot to an airborne J.J. Barea, ensuring that he would begin the 2011-2012 campaign with a suspension. The ugliness of the hit and the game in which it took place to cast a pall over the Lakers’ off-season. There was a sense that major changes would have to be made.
The first change came immediately after the playoffs, when longtime head coach Phil Jackson, who had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, announced his retirement. Former Cavaliers coach Mike Brown, freshly fired after consecutive 60 win seasons coaching LeBron James, was hired to replace him.
Then the off-season was derailed by a stalemate between the league and the Players’ Association on a new collective bargaining agreement. Training camp, preseason and the month of November passed without a resolution. In the meantime, budding superstar Chris Paul had informed the then-New Orleans Hornets that he did not intend to resign with the team the following year.
Seeking a younger star whose prime – alongside Bynum’s – would prolong the Lakers’ championship window for Bryant, and with one eye on Bryant’s eventual retirement, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak made his move. A three-team deal was arranged that would move Paul to the Lakers and Gasol to the Rockets, with New Orleans being compensated with several rotation players in Odom, Goran Dragic, Luis Scola, and Kevin Martin, along with a first-round pick from Houston.
But the basketball world was to be stunned twice on the same day. Only hours after the trade was reported, Commissioner David Stern announced that he was vetoing it because New Orleans, which was owned by the league at the time, had received what he considered inadequate compensation.
Fury among smaller market owners at the persistent ability of large markets and big-name teams to lure young stars away from their own teams – and still stinging from James’ dramatic departure from Cleveland to Miami the previous year – was rumored to have played a part in the decision to prevent the Lakers from pairing Paul and Bryant. In any case, the deal that sent Paul to the Clippers shortly thereafter was not obviously more advantageous for New Orleans than the one offered by the Rockets and Lakers from a basketball perspective.
Meanwhile, the cancellation of the trade put the Lakers in an extremely awkward position relative to Odom and Gasol, who had been made painfully aware that they were considered expendable. Odom voiced his displeasure openly and was speedily dealt with Dallas to prevent further unpleasantness.
Gasol clearly wasn’t pleased with the idea of being moved but took a philosophical approach. “I understand (Lamar’s) response, and I understand how he felt about it and how you could feel that way. But you have to look at it from a different perspective and not try to take it so personally.”
After serving his suspension when the season finally began in late December, Andrew Bynum played like a potential franchise cornerstone. Putting up career numbers in both points and rebounds at 18.7ppg and 11.6rpg, he peppered the season with several exceptional individual performances. Alongside Bryant and Gasol, he helped lead the team to a 41-25 record in the lockout-shortened season, good for third in the west.
Yet again, however, the second round and eventual Western Conference champion proved too much for the Lakers. This time, it was Durant, Westbrook, and the Thunder who sent them off in a one-sided 4-1 series. The Thunder were big enough to compete with the Lakers’ elite size but did so on younger legs and with superior athleticism. Durant put on a scoring display against his former idol Bryant, and once again a Laker team with title aspirations found itself at home watching the Conference Finals.
At this point, the Lakers and Bryant himself began to grow desperate to build a roster that was capable of championship contention. It was increasingly clear that the roster as it was, two years older since their last real playoff run and missing major contributors from that year, was simply not able to beat elite teams in the postseason anymore. Rumors pointedly connecting the Lakers to Dwight Howard began to circulate.
The first domino to fall in the fateful summer of 2013 was not Howard, but Steve Nash. Nash and the Phoenix Suns had mutually agreed to part ways, and executed a sign-and-trade that involved the Lakers sending two first and two second-round draft picks for his services. An all-time great facilitator and shooter, Nash remained widely respected around the league but faced questions about his health and advanced age at 38.
Then a month later the larger shoe – both literally and figuratively – dropped. In a ludicrously complicated deal involving four teams, the Lakers gave up Bynum and two more lightly protected draft picks and received as compensation Howard, Earl Clark, and Chris Duhon. With the addition of bona fide superstars in Howard and Nash to pair with Bryant and Gasol, the Lakers seemed poised to return to the top of NBA basketball.
The combined Nash and Howard trades were recognized at the time to represent a colossal risk, but with a potentially colossal payoff. The talent level alone provided championship potential if everything went right. There were, however, a disconcerting preponderance of things that could go wrong.
First among worries about the new team was health. Howard was coming into the year in recovery from back surgery, and Nash had back concerns as well as his age to contend with.
The second was the scheme. Coach Mike Brown had made the decision to utilize a Princeton offense. He made the decision well before the Nash and Howard trades and may have done well to reconsider. The offense, which emphasized screening and passing reads over post isolation for bigs, was more suited to the combination of Bynum and Gasol than Howard, who expected to be a focal point of the Lakers offense from the low post.
Perhaps most importantly of all, Howard’s free agency at the end of the season loomed over everyone.
Things began to go wrong very quickly. The team lost all 8 of its pre-season games and first three of the regular season as they struggled to integrate both new players and a new scheme. Nash suffered a non-displaced leg fracture in the second game of the year and missed almost two months. Howard, looking to make a point, played from the beginning of the year in spite of expectations that his surgery could keep him out until January. He was never 100%.
Coach Brown finally won a game with his new team against Detroit on November 4 and was promptly fired. The front office was very impatient to see a team with so much talent come together, and quickly reached a judgment that Brown wasn’t the man for the job. After a brief flirtation with bringing back Phil Jackson, who requested time to consider, the Lakers instead brought in former Nash coach and offensive mind Mike D’Antoni.
Injuries and a lack of clear roles continued to hurt the Laker’s record and their chemistry. Nash and Bryant were frequently at odds with Howard, who continued to push for post-up opportunities instead of embracing the more active role prescribed for bigs in D’Antoni’s fast-paced offense.
“It’s been difficult really to get him into that game – running into pick and rolls, diving hard, looking for the ball,” Nash told local media in February. “We really haven’t found that rhythm from him yet.” The Lakers limped into the All-Star break at 25-29, sitting several games out of the playoff picture.
The day after the All-Star game, Dr. Buss died after a long fight with cancer, leaving the running of the team to his six children, principally Jeanie and Jim. It appeared to be symbolic: the man who had turned the Lakers into “Showtime” and seen them win 10 championships in his 33 years of ownership passing away just as his team seemed to be unraveling in slow motion.
After the break, as the team fought through injuries and continued friction in the locker room, it was Bryant who began to simply take over. Securing game after game with exceptional individual performances for a player in his 17th season, Bryant leads the Lakers to a league-best 20-8 mark following the All-Star game. He was himself fighting through a host of small injuries, and his minutes and intensity were so high during this stretch that Kupchak reportedly spoke to Bryant about preserving his body. Bryant replied that his efforts were needed to secure a playoff spot.
He paid the price with three games to go in the season. Making a move late in a game against the Golden State Warriors, Bryant hit the floor on a foul call, reaching immediately for his ankle. After hitting his free throws, he went to the locker room and did not return. After the game, the team confirmed that Bryant had torn his Achilles tendon. The injury, everyone knew, effectively ended the Lakers season. Bryant had dragged them into the playoffs, but without him, the Lakers had no chance against Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs in the first round.
With Nash out from a lingering back issue that came attached with nerve damage and Bryant out for the better part of a year, the Lakers blitzed Howard with over-the-top shows of affection in an attempt to convince him to re-sign after a dumpster fire of a season. They did not work. Howard chose to leave the pressure of Los Angeles – reportedly after ownership refused to part ways with Bryant – and team up instead with James Harden in Houston.
Howard’s departure, while not entirely unforeseen, still came as a gut punch to the organization. For the second time in a decade – along with Shaquille O’Neal‘s trade request after the 2004 season – a star center had decided to leave Los Angeles rather than continue playing with Bryant. Howard was gone, Nash was approaching 40 with chronic back issues, and Bryant had just had his 17th NBA season ended by one of the most devastating injuries in sports. Adding insult to injury, the Lakers had given up a slew of draft picks to acquire Nash and Howard, limiting their ability to make additional moves to stop the bleeding.
The Lakers were out of options, forced to acknowledge something that they had avoided for decades. For the next several years, the last of Bryant’s career, they were going to be a bad team.
With little expectation that Bryant would be available for much if any of the 2013-2014 season, the team put together what amounted to a discount roster. They realized they weren’t likely to see playoff basketball and decided to plan for the following year instead, padding the roster with light contracts while moving their long term commitments. They could use the draft picks remaining to them to draft or trade for promising talent and pair that talent with Bryant and Nash to attract free agents when the season was over, or so the front office reasoned.
Yet, astonishingly given his injury status and age, early in the season the Lakers made Bryant the highest-paid player in basketball with a two-year contract extension. The team framed the widely-criticized contract as a loyalty move, rewarding Bryant for sticking with the team and delivering with such regularity. The unavoidable fact, however, was that giving so much money to Bryant limited the team’s ability to put together a title-caliber roster, even if a star free agent chose to join them.
After a surprising 13-13 start, the season regressed to expectations. Bryant miraculously returned from his Achilles injury in December only to go down a week later with a broken bone in his knee, once again out for the season. Nash, constantly struggling with back issues, played only 15 games and was unable to make an impact even when playing. The Lakers finished 27-55, losing the most games in franchise history. The leading scorer for the season was Nick Young at just over 17ppg, edging out an aging Gasol.
Over the summer of 2014, the Lakers drafted promising Kentucky forward Julius Randle and little-known guard Jordan Clarkson from Missouri. They also parted ways with Coach D’Antoni and replaced him with Showtime-era Laker, Kobe Bryant mentor, and former NBA Coach of the Year Byron Scott. Looking to pair a max-contract caliber player with Bryant and Nash, the Lakers and Gasol parted in free agency after 6 years and 2 title runs.
After making concerted efforts to sign Carmelo Anthony or Kyle Lowry in free agency and even making a long-shot pitch to LeBron James, the Lakers found themselves empty-handed. No elite player wanted to attach themselves to a roster with two injured, aging stars and a collection of unproven youths and mediocre role players surrounding them. Bryant’s contract had predictably become an albatross, helping to keep elite free agents away because market-savvy players knew the team wouldn’t have the money left over for a high-level supporting cast.
The front office entered a holding pattern, repeating its process from the previous year by padding out the roster with cheap, short-term contracts and waiting out the season.
The Lakers’ 2014-2015 season was aptly summarized on opening night when Randle went down with a broken leg that ended his rookie season in an 18-point home loss to Houston. Clarkson played very well throughout the season in a role enlarged by injuries, but he was the lone bright spot in another lost year.
Bryant, returning from his second consecutive season-ending injury at 37, was a shell of himself and only able to play 35 games. Nash never saw the court, choosing to retire instead of continuing injuring his back. The team finished 21-61, breaking the previous year’s record for most losses in Laker history.
Armed with the second overall pick in 2015, the Lakers selected lefty point guard D’Angelo Russell and supplemented him late in the first round with a freak athlete in Larry Nance, Jr. As in the previous two years, however, the Lakers struck out on top-flight free agents. They made runs at LaMarcus Aldridge and Marc Gasol, but with the state of their roster never merited serious consideration. Embarrassingly, the Lakers asked a bemused Aldridge for a second free agency meeting after media reports surfaced that he had been unimpressed with their first attempt. He chose the Spurs. The Lakers instead added Roy Hibbert, Lou Williams, and Brandon Bass.
The 2015-2016 season was widely expected to be Bryant’s last, and he confirmed that shortly after the season began. With that announcement and the acknowledgment that the preponderance of youth on the team made playoff contention unlikely, the season became the Kobe Bryant Farewell Tour. Crowds everywhere he went cheered him wildly while their teams beat up on the Lakers on the court. He did his best to perform, but as he said, he no longer had much left to give.
During the season, the team suffered from chemistry issues as Russell struggled with his maturity and the old-school, tough love mentality of Coach Scott. Navigating the locker room and coach while playing in the shadow of Bryant’s last year, all while finding his role alongside similarly ball-dominant guards in Bryant and Clarkson, made Russell’s rookie year a difficult one.
The Lakers’ 17-65 record was, for the third year running, the worst in their history. Kobe Bryant provided fans with one final show, dropping 60 in his final game and leading an improbable last-minute comeback on his way out. That game and another second overall pick for the upcoming 2016 draft were bittersweet compensation for Laker fans watching their franchise cornerstone retire with no obvious heir. The team remained in shambles.
Given his fraught relationship with both Russell and the three-point line, Scott was fired after the season and replaced with the highly-sought-after Warriors assistant coach Luke Walton. The Lakers used their second overall pick to draft a lanky wing with elite two-way potential in Brandon Ingram. He created with Randle and Russell a core of young players with complementary skill-sets to develop in Bryant’s absence. Walton, known as a player-friendly coach, was considered (at the time) an excellent choice to execute that development.
Jim Buss, in charge of basketball operations, and Kupchak, then made a pair of very bad decisions. The NBA salary cap was given an unexpectedly large boost in 2016 based on an extremely lucrative television deal just signed by the league. As a result, several players that summer received absurdly large contracts from cash-drunk teams. Two of the worst contracts of the summer though were given out by Buss and Kupchak.
Shortly after the beginning of free agency, apparently resigned to the reality that they still had no significant interest from high-level free agents, they announced the signings of center Timofey Mozgov and wing, Luol Deng, to 4-year contracts worth $64 and $72 million, respectively. Even in the irrationally exuberant summer of 2016, the length and size of the contracts for aging role players were widely mocked across the league.
Buss and Kupchak had shackled the young Laker players to Deng and Mozgov for their formative years, and by overpaying the two veterans so extravagantly had made it essentially impossible for the Lakers to sign a max-level player without moving one of them.
Additionally, as a consequence of the Howard trade years earlier, unless the Lakers draft pick for 2017 fell in the top 3, they would lose their first-round picks for 2017 and 2018. If the young Lakers proved to be good and the team won, their rebuild might be strangled by the loss of draft picks. If the team was bad enough to keep its draft picks, it would probably mean that the young players weren’t as valuable as expected. The Lakers, rival executives began to say more and more loudly, were now just another team.
For part 2, click here.
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