The big guns don’t rebuild, they reload.
So goes the saying–a bit of conventional basketball wisdom that definitely counts the Los Angeles Lakers among those big guns. Until just yesterday, it was strange to think about what would follow the Phil Jackson/Kobe Bryant era, if only because the end seemed far off. Maybe not in a temporal sense, but certainly in a spiritual sense, which Jackson would probably appreciate. Phil was set to retire at the end of this year regardless, but it was supposed to be graceful. Either finish his career clutching the Larry O’Brien trophy, or bow out in honorable defeat, like an old man relaxing into his favorite armchair.
It definitely wasn’t supposed to be like this. The two-time defending champs, swept under the rug? And not just swept, but exposed. Revealed for the team they were, a team that fell short of the standards to which the organization held itself. There were individual incidents, certainly, and no shortage of minor controversies to boot, but there was still pride in the Purple and Gold.
Not yesterday. Yesterday tore it apart. I can’t speak to the incidents of the past, but I am hard-pressed to believe many offences rival what Andrew Bynum (and Lamar Odom, to a lesser extent) pulled on the court Sunday. Egregious physicality aside, to see a professional athlete strip off his jersey in front of the nation like that, to cast aside his teammates and organization in such a deliberate, base manner, was honestly shocking.
This season seems to have inspired a stunning amount of personal appraisal by the public of NBA athletes. We are not party to the decision-making process of our favorite players, but we’re all deeply affected by their actions. This is simply the unavoidable truth of sports today; it is not something I intend or even desire to ignore. We can debate the merits of Derrick Rose’s humility (boring-ness?), LeBron James’s confidence (ego?), and Vince Carter’s commitment (?), but I myself often make the mistake of passing judgement on such things without any real reason to do so. These are private guys, whose positions lend motives few of us really understand. Not the case last night. Anyone who watched the Los Angeles era crumble in Dallas last night knows exactly what happened.
So where do the Lakers go from here? The LA “title window” was not as small as that of this year’s Celtics, or maybe even the Mavs. Kobe Bryant may be slowing, but he is hardly out of gas. There is still a ton of talent in LA (not even counting the Clippers), and failing to maintain rule over the NBA empire for 1,095 consecutive days isn’t really a death sentence. Accept your fate, regroup, and set out next season to reclaim the throne.
I’m not sure such a thing is possible anymore. The organization may be equipped to handle the logistics, the finances, and everything else, but Sunday’s debacle put a psychological nail in the Jackson/Bryant era coffin. If there were trust issues before, what about now? What kind of impact does the utter breakdown of a team from defending champs to disgraced flameout have? I would trust a figure like Jackson to guide a team through it, but will he be there to do it? I trust Kobe’s dedication to winning to put everything else aside in its interest, but Kobe can’t do this alone anymore.
Even if the summer gives this team a chance to repair itself, will anyone accept it? This is hardly the Malice at the Palace, but it seems like events like this stand as a point-of-no-return. There’s no going back to the way things were. When that means leaving behind a legacy of champions, where do you go? In truth, I have no idea. But I will be surprised if the same team, or even one similar, trots out on the court when next season begins. It’s simply too hard to play basketball carrying this kind of emotional baggage.