I will remember the time the Lakers forgot how to tank. Deep into an abysmal 2016-17 season, the Lakers had a chance to secure the worst record in the league, thus giving them the best odds of getting the first overall pick in that June’s draft. The team even began to send out Metta World Peace as a sort of tanking specialist: After spending most of the season on the bench or else underwhelming in the rare minutes he did play, World Peace started subbing in during the fourth quarter of close games, presumably to attempt critical, must-miss shots. The ploy didn’t work: Los Angeles went on a terribly timed five-game winning streak, ending up with the no. 2 pick. Even that didn’t matter. The Lakers passed over the breakout star of the 2017 draft, eventual no. 3 pick Jayson Tatum.
I will remember the time D’Angelo Russell “snitched” on Nick Young. Or at least, I’ll remember whatever it is he did: Russell filmed a video of Young bragging about cheating on his ex-fiancée, rapper Iggy Azalea, and that video was anonymously tipped to seventh-tier gossip site “Fameolous.” Apparently, Russell was trying to participate in a teamwide prank war, but instead caused a serious rift between the Lakers’ most promising rookie and the rest of the organization, which seemed to unilaterally side with Young. In the long run, this also didn’t matter: Russell’s potential was less important to the team than the clearing of cap space.
I will remember the time Kobe Bryant scored 60 points in the final game of his career. His teammates let him attempt 50 shots in 42 minutes, the most any player had taken in a single contest since Rick Barry in 1967. It was a celebration of basketball meaninglessness—the 101-96 win over the Jazz marked the Lakers’ conference-worst 17th victory of the 2015-16 season, and it came on the same night that the Warriors won their record-setting 73rd regular-season game. Some might’ve complained that L.A. was foolish to allow a 37-year-old Kobe to hijack so much playing time on a 2015-16 roster filled with developing talent. But it’s now clear that it didn’t matter how many shots Kobe took instead of the Lakers’ youth. Not one player who shared the floor with Kobe that night will be on the team when the 2018-19 season tips off and the Lakers usher in a new era of relevance.
These memories are the defining moments of the Lakers’ five-year stretch from 2013 to 2018, a period of prolonged ineptitude in which the franchise went a combined 126-284. They are all but irrelevant now, as the Lakers eye a future led by free-agent prize LeBron James and a confusing batch of veterans: JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson, and Rajon Rondo.
NBA fans have long accepted the premise of rebuilding; the upwardly mobile striving of bad teams as they hope to improve for the future. In recent years, most fans have even come to accept the inevitability of tanking—teams trying to be bad intentionally, for a season or even multiple seasons, knowing that short-term advancements would hamper the team’s long-term goals. We understand that from suffering comes success.
But in the case of the Lakers, this hasn’t been true. While they certainly struggled and are now poised to compete, the two states aren’t necessarily related. The Lakers’ suck was not purposeful. Their losses did not lead to the acquiring of parts that will save them from the gutter; their rare wins did not develop players who are now meaningful to their title chances. Any other franchise would be blighted by a stretch of aimless failure like the Lakers just endured. Yet with a Hollywood smile, the Lakers’ wasted years will be forgotten, a bunch of tales that play no part in the narrative arc of one of the most storied franchises in sports.
Still, I will make sure to remember the aimless, pointless suck of L.A.’s post-Kobe, pre-LeBron existence. Because the ease with which the team recovered from that span explains more about the Lakers than all of the stories that we’ll actually remember.
For the better part of a decade, the famously inept Clippers have been the superior NBA franchise in Los Angeles. After winning the season series against the Lakers just once in the first 28 years that the two teams shared a city, the Clippers have won every season series since 2012-13, going 21-3 with three season sweeps. They bested the Lakers in the standings all six years, recording five 50-win seasons to the Lakers’ none. As the Western Conference blossomed into a perennially loaded juggernaut, the Clippers became a playoff constant, featuring a true superstar in Chris Paul and a pair of homegrown All-Stars in Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. The Lakers, meanwhile, posted the following finishes in the West: 14th place in 2014, 14th place in 2015, 15th place in 2016, and 14th place again in 2017. They spent most of that stretch hanging on to the dying embers of the Kobe era without developing any real plan to replace him. And yet, the Clippers’ brief run of L.A. dominance will be forgotten, as the Lakers have snapped back to relevance simply by being the Lakers.
In their fallow years, the Lakers did not act like a rebuilding team. They made one of the NBA’s most short-sighted trades, dealing away a slew of future picks in exchange for an aging Steve Nash. (The last of those picks conveyed this year, allowing the Suns to land Mikal Bridges.) They signed two of the NBA’s worst contracts, handing a combined $136 million to Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov. They gave up on two top-10 picks as part of their efforts to dump salary, trading Russell to the Nets in 2017 in a package to rid themselves of Mozgov and renouncing the rights to Julius Randle this week in order to accommodate the contracts of James’s new teammates.
Sure, the Lakers front office has made some decent moves, especially since Magic Johnson supplanted Mitch Kupchak as the general manager in 2017. L.A. got a late first-round pick in the Russell trade and used it on Kyle Kuzma. And the team took on Isaiah Thomas’s expiring contract at last season’s trade deadline in a move that sent Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson to Cleveland. Both trades freed up valuable cap space that has now been used to sign James. (Yes, the Cavaliers ultimately helped the Lakers land LeBron.) Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram have also shown flashes of upside, although neither would be considered the best player from their respective draft classes.
But let’s not lose sight of the major takeaway. The primary reason the Lakers should challenge for championships moving forward is because LeBron wanted to play for the Lakers, and he wanted to play for the Lakers primarily because they’re the Lakers. The league’s salary cap might prevent big-market teams from outspending everyone else, but when it came down to it, the Lakers’ money was just worth more to LeBron. And now James should be able to convince other superstars to join him. (Not Paul George, but possibly Kawhi Leonard.)
If any other team in the NBA was as bad as the Lakers for as long as the Lakers while making as many horrible choices as the Lakers, we’d treat them like, well, the Clippers. This isn’t just a big-market thing, either: Think about the Knicks, who get laughed out of the room every time they throw their name in the ring for a prominent free agent. Only the Lakers can be terrible, fail to do anything productive for five years, and then suddenly become great shortly thereafter.
We remember the Lakers for their peaks: Showtime, with Magic, Kareem, and Big Game James; the three-peat, with Shaq, Kobe, and Phil; and now a future with LeBron James, perhaps the greatest player of them all. (They probably won’t beat the Warriors, but hey, they’ve got a shot.) They truly live in a fairy-tale world: Magic has brought them a King to save the day.
So I’d like to make sure we think about the stretch between the Lakers’ appearances on the mountaintop, a time during which Jodie Meeks once led the roster in playing time. A time during which Lou Williams once led the team in scoring by three full points per game, despite finishing eighth in total minutes. A time during which a man who shot 28.5 percent from 3 was allowed to take more than seven 3s per game. A time during which skilless Duke goon Ryan Kelly got significant NBA playing time. A time during which Mike D’Antoni was legitimately considered a bad head coach.
The stories of the Valley of the Lakers are forgettable, and surely, they will be forgotten. They are the hungover half-memories of nights that weren’t as fun as you thought they were. I’ve seen Marcelo Huertas glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate, and it will be lost in time, like tears in a rare Los Angeles rain.