In January 2014, in this very space, I wrote a column entitled, “Dr. Buss Must Be Spinning in His Grave.” Buss had passed away in January 2013. As a Lakers fan since 1959 (would you believe my parents took me in an infant seat?) I could foresee the team’s future was not exactly bright. Via emails and texts I was besieged with criticisms that I was “spoiled,” “impatient” and a “Debbie Downer.” (“Dave Downer” I could see, assuming my name were Dave.)
Turns out the Lakers’ future would be worse than I had ever imagined. In fact, on Wednesday night at the Staples Center, the 2014-15 Lakers completed the worse season in the 67-year history of the once illustrious franchise. (Is that all?)
Yes, gang, the Lakers this year went a stunning 21-61, which I admit is a unique use of the word stunning. They broke the existing franchise-low mark set in the 1957-58 campaign, when the team was in Minneapolis.
So what has gone so wrong? Unfortunately, I only have 800 words. (Or fortunately, depending on your point of view.) But I believe there was a crucial moment in time that may have foreshadowed the Lakers’ doom.
The team had just fired Coach Mike Brown and were looking for a replacement. Dr. Buss was still alive but likely knew he was gravely ill. The Lakers opened negotiations with former coach Phil Jackson, owner of 11 NBA championship rings. (Meaning that if he were to wear them all at the same time, one who would have to go on a toe.)
Remarkably, with two talented 7-footers on the squad in Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, the Lakers eschewed Jackson and hired Mike D’Antoni, who guided them to an atrocious 27-55 season. (Compared to this year, that seems like the good old days.)
D’Antoni was known for fast-break basketball with emphasis on speed, not size. Given the Lakers’ lineup, could it have been a worse hire? Answer: not easily. We were told that Dr. Buss signed off on D’Antoni, but why? My theory may seem preposterous, but what else is new?
If Buss knew he was gravely ill, my guess is that he worried that the hire of Jackson would slight his son, Jim. After all, Jackson was and is still engaged to Jeannie Buss. (Is Phil ever going to marry her?) Hiring Jackson would have shifted the vast majority of power to Jeannie’s side and thus prevented Jim from ever having a chance to show his mettle. (No offense, but that’s assuming there is mettle to be shown. I know, ouch!)
In hiring D’Antoni, Dr. Buss may have followed the King Solomon approach of “dividing the baby in half.” Of course, I may be totally wrong, and it certainly wouldn’t be the first time.
In the meantime, the Lakers have been an unmitigated disaster and I fear it won’t get that much better in the near future. (And I’m too old to take comfort in the faraway future.)
At this point, I’d also like to take a swipe at Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, whose $48-million contract over two years has helped seal the team’s current fate. Much as I’ve loved Kobe over the years, I still don’t know why he doomed the team with a contract that chewed up so much of the salary cap.
Money, you say? Of course, but having earned over $300 million in his basketball career (double that in endorsements), how much money does Kobe need? Couldn’t he have been content with $12 million a year, with the other $12 million going to fill the roster with quality players?
For that matter, why would Kobe want to play his last few years on a rag-tag team? It seems a pointless and actually sad way to go out. Keep in mind Kobe has missed almost all of two seasons now and his last injury came without even being touched. (A sign his body has finally started to give out.)
I better shift gears here because I’m depressing myself. Let me at least note that after that horrendous ’57-58 season, the Minneapolis Lakers “earned” the No. 1 draft choice. They selected Elgin Baylor, who went on to become a Hall of Fame player and my personal hero. (I’m sure the latter means a lot to Elgin.)
In this year’s draft, the Lakers very well might get a hugely talented player who could help resuscitate the team. In fact, they have a 37-percent chance of getting one of the top three picks. But they also have a 17-percent chance of not even getting a first-round draft choice at all! (Maybe I am Debbie Downer?)
So there you have it, Laker fans, read ’em and weep. Or read ’em and pray for the second coming of Elgin Baylor.
Jack Neworth also writes “Laughing Matters,” which appears every Friday. He’s at facebook.com/jackneworth and twitter.com/jackneworth and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — but not if you’re going to call him Debbie Downer.