With the failed pursuit of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony in free agency, the loss of Pau Gasol and the aging of Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, the Los Angeles Lakers appear to have lost their once unbeatable mojo. In the past, whenever the club seemed to be in a dark spot, something miraculous would happen to deliver renewed ecstasy to the Lakers’ faithful. The team not only won on the court but off the hard wood as well. The Lakers have always had a shine about them. No matter what happened, NBA fans assumed the Lakers would find a way to come out on top.
After Bryant clamored for a trade in 2007, the basketball gods delivered Pau Gasol. Pairing the Spaniard with Bryant and Andrew Bynum delivered two more banners to hang from the rafters. Given the salary cap space available this summer, having the Lakers swoop in to nab Anthony or another top-flight free agent seemed inevitable. Unfortunately, the major free agent signing splash has not occurred. Instead of James or Anthony, the Lakers have signed Ed Davis. The trade for Jeremy Lin is exciting, but he is not a transformative player.
Mitch Kupchak has always shown himself to be a creative and resourceful general manager. The current strategy for free agent attraction this summer appeared to be “we have Bryant, cap space and a blank slate.” Perhaps if Bryant and Nash were still in their primes, the blank slate strategy would have worked. Los Angeles has always been attractive to free agents and two superstars can draw a third plus a treasure trove of title hungry role players. With the aging of Bryant and Nash, major free agents could foresee clashes with a cranky Bryant and frustration over when Nash might be able to consistently make it onto the court again, if ever. The mojo enjoyed by the Los Angeles Lakers apparently relied on the presence of a superstar in his prime as a center of gravity, with Bryant’s aging body slowing him down the team seems to have lost its mojo and luster among prime free agent players.
The team perhaps would not have had to rely on past glory so much in the free agency process if they had a coach with a clearly defined plan for improvement. For now, the team does not even have a coach, much less a coach with a plan. News reports indicate that Bryant is lobbying for Byron Scott as the new coach. Given that the team has gone “all in” with Bryant, signing a coach to his liking makes sense. Bryant remained a good soldier through the Mike D’Antoni era, even though the Lakers often resembled mismatched parts under D’Antoni’s offensive schemes.
Kupchak finds himself in a difficult situation. Lakers fans will not accept rebuilding or even average. The club he puts on the court needs to be a consistent contender. Other franchises can choose to rebuild and keep fans enthused with small steps in the right direction. Based on the prolonged success of the franchise, Lakers fans expect giant leaps. The leaps will be difficult until the Los Angeles Lakers can recapture their lost mojo. Unfortunately, similar to the rest of the NBA, the club may need to get worse before it gets better.
Commentary by William Costolo