Much energy has been expended trying to understand the Nick Young-D'Angelo Russell cinematic tour de force, “I Know What You Did Last Night And Now So Does Everybody Else,” and the undercurrent of this lads’-will-be-lads’ debate is “How could this happen to such a proud and historically mighty franchise?”
To which a simple answer can suffice: History doesn’t mean what it used to, to anyone except old people.
The Los Angeles Lakers were indeed that team once upon a time – missing the playoffs only five times in 64 years, and winning a championship in fully one fourth of those seasons. Hall of Famers galore, Showtime, The Logo – the Lakers were the standard west of Boston Garden, just as the Celtics were the standard east of The Forum. They were, simply put, a magnificent edifice anyone could take pride in bandwagoning.
But the Lakers are so not that any more, and their glorious history is being redefined in the very real now by the Golden State Warriors, of all teams.
You see, the issue between Russell and Swaggy P are merely the rancid cherry on a cake made entirely of compost. The Lakers have been a hideously bad team for three consecutive years, and the notion that they are still a glamour team in this league is propagated only by people who are either Laker lifers or those who believe that the past is necessarily prologue to the future.
In fact, three years is plenty of time to say that the Lakers are now a fully dreadful franchise, and while the jokes are always about Philadelphia (whose three-year record of 46-193, winning percentage .197, is the only one worse than L.A.’s 63-175, .265), the Lakers are entering that rarefied air, and moving quickly past the moment when a Dwight-Howard-like quick-fix plan can save them.
The Lakers are, frankly, the kind of team the Warriors once were – beneath notice, and with this story to cap off a brackish farewell tour for Kobe Bryant, beneath contempt.
As of today, the Lakers are a spectacular total of 128 games behind the last three Pacific Division winners. Even the Sixers are only 101 back. They are in position, if both they and the Warriors can run their respective tables, of being the team to finish furthest behind its division or conference winner ever – 60 games.
Yes. Sixty. One more than Boston’s 59 in 1973, when the Celtics went 68-14, and the Sixers finished 9-73. Six. Tee.
That is not the spasms of a proud franchise just going through a patch of hard times. That is freefall. That is powering through the earth’s crust and coming out the Marianas Trench. That is just plain hideous, with a side of target hurling.
And there’s nothing honorable, glamorous or even bearable about that. Showtime may as well be the height of the Ottoman Empire, and even the Bryant-Shaquille O’Neal years seem decades old now.
This is not some backdoor way of gladhanding the Warriors, either. They are always one injury, or one arena mistake away from reverting to form, because the good old days are both “good” and “old.” And nobody is satisfied with "good" any more, and everyone denies that they’re “old.”
No, this is about the Lakers, who are not only 98 games behind the Warriors in the last year plus 90 percent of this one, but also finished 30 games behind the Los Angeles Clippers two years ago. They’ve finished 23 games behind Sacramento, and below the Kings in the standings in the three most recent seasons after finishing behind them six times in the previous 62.
They are simply, pointedly, factually as irrelevant as the Warriors have been for most of their existence. The Lakers are still the historically superior franchise, clearly, but the hole they have excavated for themselves could take six more years to escape because they now have to live on their diminished wits rather than the glorious architecture of the past.
The Lakers have picked the wrong players for the wrong reasons time and again. They’ve thrown money in all the wrong places, and used the shield of their past glories to mitigate against the current dungheap. There is nothing discernible to build upon, and there are arguments about whether Jim or Jeannie Buss should be in charge of the basketball operation.
Hint: When your ownership is the first problem, you don’t get to cling on to history. You get to spend entire seasons being sick to your stomach.
Second hint: When you employ someone named “Swaggy P,” you don’t get to cite past dignities, because you are too busy getting what you deserve.
So in a way, the Lakers are exactly the best team to host the sucking chest wound that is the Russell-Young problem. This is what they deserve. The words “once-proud,” while technically correct, are sadly misplaced here. It will take years to fix this, because the Lakers are not a magnet team any more, any more than the New York Knicks are in New York. Free agents worth having don’t want to win 10 years ago, they want to win now, and the Lakers aren’t going to be doing any of that.
Put this one last way. They could finish 111 games behind Golden State in the last two years. Not even Philly, kids. Not even Philly.
So be not shocked that Russell and Young have embarrassed the franchise in the last two days. Frankly, consider it par for the course on a team that has utterly lost its way, dignity and sense of itself. Don’t buy the line that one or two or three free agents can change this within the current decade.
Not unless they are named Curry, Thompson and Green. And not unless they come with the basketball operations department in a separate limo. Yes, limo. They like stuff like that down there.