Lakers face long road back to prominence

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I was watching the opening round of the NBA Playoffs Saturday and as the Nets were beating the 76ers, the Warriors were pounding the Clippers and the Magic were upsetting the Raptors, I was trying to remember what time the Lakers game was.

Oops.

No Lakers. No LeBron James. No Jack Nicholson. No Laker Girls.

Sometimes, we take for granted the Lakers were part of the NBA postseason, just like we used to know the Clippers weren’t. I guess it was just a force of habit after all these decades.

But times have changed. The Clippers, not the Lakers, are L.A.’s best team, even if the support for them at Staples Center doesn’t rival that of the Lakers.

L.A. has always been a Lakers town, just like the Knicks, not the Nets, have always been New York’s team. But as the Knicks try to regroup amid let another failed attempt at success, the Lakers are staring down a dark tunnel as they try to get it together.

Magic Johnson, one of the greatest Lakers of all time, decided being a Lakers’ executive isn’t as much fun as hanging out at Dodger Stadium. So he bid farewell last week as the team’s president.

Luke Walton, the head coach who was on borrowed time the moment King James arrived from Cleveland last summer, needed all of three seconds to land a new gig after the Lakers cut him loose. He’s now the coach at Sacramento, which has a lot of talented young players but hasn’t learned how to win. Perhaps he’ll regain his winning ways with the Kings.

LeBron is clearly calling the shots now. Yeah, Rob Plinka is the general manager. For now. But No. 23 will decide who coaches the team and how they’ll play going forward.

He’ll likely tap his old Cleveland buddy Ty Lue to coach the team. Lue, who won a world championship with LeBron and the Cavaliers in 2016 and got to the Finals the next two seasons before being cut loose after going 0-6 to start this season. Of course, James was long gone from Cleveland so what chance did Lue have to win?

Maybe together they can recapture the excitement and success. 

But it’s an organization that has lost its way, on and off the court. There’s always some sort of drama with Lonzo Ball. The roster is littered with aging players, underachievers and inconsistent performers. James himself turns 35 in December and played only 55 games this past season, the fewest of any single season of his 16-year NBA career. How much longer can he be expected to perform at his Hall of Fame level?

Let’s face it, the Lakers are a mess.

And that’s got to hurt Jeanie Buss, the owner who survived a family battle with her brother Jim for control of the team her father Jerry so expertly ran during most of his tenure. And Dr. Jerry did it by hiring good basketball people, actually great basketball people when talking about Jerry West, and let them do their jobs while staying out of the way.

The Lakers do not have that kind of leadership now. They’ve always been a mom-and-pop kind of operation in a Wal-Mart world that is today’s NBA. Which is not to say they can’t become successful again. But it comes down to hiring the right people and allowing them to do what they do best.

Look at any sport. The franchises that are successful hire good people to run their teams and leave them alone. The meddlesome owner model is a recipe for disaster these days because things are so intricate and involved on both the team operations side as well as the business side that it takes intelligence up and down the line for a team to win.

This isn’t to call Jeanie Buss a meddlesome owner. Not at all. She’s not telling Plinka who to draft or who to trade. But clearly, the Lakers’ model isn’t working. The 16 world championships, 31 conference titles and 23 division titles are the legacy of others, not these Lakers.

The franchise has missed the postseason six years in a row. The last time it was in the playoffs (2013) it lost in the first round. It’s been nine years since the team won a championship.

Against that backdrop, the Lakers aren’t a destination for NBA free agents. If Kawhi Leonard, one of the game’s best players, decides to leave Toronto after the season and return to Southern California, he’s likely to do so as a Clipper.

If you’re a Lakers fan and you’re looking for help through this year’s NBA Draft come June, the odds aren’t in your favor. The Lakers have only a 2 percent chance of winning the lottery and getting Zion Williamson.

And there’s not much to work with in terms of a major trade to get better immediately. You saw the way the Anthony Davis thing got bungled before the deadline in February.

So where’s the hope? Perhaps addition by subtraction. Maybe LeBron moves on, though at $35 million a year, that’s not likely to happen. Maybe the Lakers catch a break and get a future all-star out of this year’s draft. Maybe they’re able to find a willing patsy to hand them a star player via trade.

Then again, it’s probably all a Hollywood fantasy. The reality is there is no quick fix. There is no magic formula, and no Magic Johnson. The Lakers’ down cycle will likely continue. Whether it lasts as long as the Knicks’ has remains to be seen.

But hey, the Clippers are still playing, at least for a few more days. The NBA hasn’t left L.A. in the dust just yet. And when the Clippers are toast, the rest of the playoffs will be just fine, even if Los Angeles’ basketball fans are forced to watch the proceedings from their living room — or their smart phones.

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About the Author

Steve Carp

Steve Carp is a six-time Nevada Sportswriter of the Year. A 30-year veteran of the Las Vegas sports journalism scene, he covered the Vegas Golden Knights for the Las Vegas Review-Journal from 2015-2018.

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