For the Lakers, winning has cured everything that once threatened to tear them apart -- but for how long?
L.A. owns an NBA-best 17-3 record, but we'll learn a lot about this team between now and the end of the calendar year
I remember standing in the concourse at Spectrum Center, home of the Charlotte Hornets, during last season's All-Star Weekend. My colleague, James Herbert, was with me. We were talking to a league executive about, honestly, random stuff I can't even recall. What I do remember is that just as the conversation was winding down, he asked us if we'd heard anything about what was going on with the Los Angeles Lakers.
That's how big of a mess things had become in L.A. It wasn't just media asking executives what was going on with the Lakers. Executives were asking the media. EVERYONE was talking about what an imploding mess one of the most storied franchises in all of sports had become.
To revisit: LeBron James and his agent/business partner, Rich Paul, were not-so-secretly trying to get all the young Lakers traded. Magic Johnson wanted Luke Walton fired. Rob Pelinka said Magic didn't show up for work very often. Nobody knew who, exactly, was running the front-office show. Was Kurt Rambis' wife behind it all?
Then Magic resigned. Without telling anyone first. He called an impulse press conference and quit. Jeanie Buss didn't know. The Lakers, who were on the court warming up for their last game of the season, had no idea. The whole thing was a circus. The locker room was in shreds. Walton was a dead man walking. The Lakers had, for the time being, failed to land Anthony Davis and were about to finish off, mercifully, a 37-win season nine months after signing the best player in the game.
Then Magic went on ESPN's "First Take" and told Stephen A. Smith that he was, effectively, being backstabbed by Pelinka, who was now, technically, in charge. Finding a new coach was Pelinka's most pressing matter, and when Frank Vogel was announced as the choice, well, let's just say it didn't inspire a ton of excitement.
The perception, right or wrong, was that Vogel got the job because the Lakers couldn't get anyone else. Monty Williams chose the Suns. The Suns! After Tyronn Lue taking the job was thought to be a done deal, that went away. There were rumors that the Lakers were trying to force Lue to hire certain assistants. Jason Kidd being one. Lue wanted more money, more years on his contract and more autonomy than it appeared the Lakers were going to give him.
So Vogel got the gig, with Kidd attached.
Immediately the speculation started that Kidd, who basically had designs on taking over the whole front office in both Brooklyn and Milwaukee, was a built-in replacement for Vogel should he slip up. Well, here it is early December and the Lakers, having pulled off the Anthony Davis trade, have the best record in the league at 17-3. And the point of all this rehashing of the circus that was the Lakers is to remind everyone that WINNING CURES EVERYTHING.
Think about it. When LeBron went to Miami in 2010, and the Heat started off 9-8, all the talk was about Erik Spoelstra and whether LeBron wanted him out as coach. When LeBron returned to Cleveland in 2014, all the talk was about whether David Blatt would be fired, which he eventually was. Then LeBron came to the Lakers, and less than two weeks into the season Walton was called into the principal's office and came out square on the hot seat.
Tell me: When was the last time you heard Vogel's name? Where are all those rumors that Kidd was brought in to replace him? It's not like he hasn't done some questionable things. He plays weird lineups sometimes, which was the biggest gripe people had with Walton. He's largely conceded to Davis playing power forward next to a second lane-clogging big man, at least for the time being, and if the Lakers were losing he would be getting killed for letting his star players run roughshod over him.
But they're not losing. They're winning. So now Vogel, who would be seen as "too passive" if a few of these close Lakers wins had gone the other way, is being touted as the perfect coach for LeBron while being named Western Conference coach of the month for both October and November.
Funny how that works, isn't it? Funny how Luke Walton was the next coming with the Warriors but a bum with the Lakers. Funny how the Lakers were getting killed this summer for waiting too long on Kawhi Leonard and ending up with a bunch of ill-fitting scraps, and now Danny Green is a "championship" player and Dwight Howard is one of the smartest bargain signings in the league.
Even the Anthony Davis trade itself is a lesson in hypocrisy. When Magic was trying to pull off basically the same exact deal, the story was the Lakers were blowing up the locker room to give LeBron what he wanted. Some even said they were giving up too much. In the end, the Lakers gave up EVEN MORE than Magic was trying to give up to get Davis and everyone thinks they got a swinging deal.
This is all interesting through the lens of how easily this could all be going differently right now. As mentioned above, the Lakers have won A LOT of close games against A LOT of bad teams. In their last 12 games, they have played two winning teams. They lost to both -- Toronto on Nov 10, and the Mavericks on Sunday, which . The last current winning team the Lakers beat was Miami way back on Nov. 8.
And it's not like they're blowing these bad teams out. They beat the Grizzlies by one, the Kings by two, the Thunder by three, the Pelicans by four, and the Thunder again by five. They've had to come back from a double-digit deficit five times.
There are, of course, two ways to look at this. Good teams find ways to win even when they don't have their best stuff. They know how to turn up the heat, and have the capacity to do so, when the situation calls for it -- indeed, the Lakers have the best fourth-quarter defense in the league, by a good distance. When push comes to shove, the Lakers, almost every time they play, have the two best players on the court. That cures a lot of sins in money time.
The other way to look at this, however, is that LeBron James, at 34 years old, is seventh in the league in total minutes played, and he's playing at an MVP level -- on BOTH ENDS -- every single night. Anthony Davis is also top 10 in minutes per game and is right in the hunt for Defensive Player of the Year. Pessimistic translation: It's taking everything the Lakers have to barely get by against bad teams, and against the good teams even LeBron and Davis at max effort and production isn't enough.
So what if the tide starts turning? The Lakers have a tough stretch coming up -- eight of their next 13 games are against winning teams, with nine of those games on the road, including dates with the Nuggets (twice), Jazz, Bucks, Heat, Pacers, Clippers and Mavericks. Remember, the Lakers were a top-four team in the West last season before LeBron got hurt. Are you really banking on a 34-year-old not getting injured all season while playing top-10 minutes?
Can Davis carry this team to wins if LeBron were to miss time? He hasn't been great making individual plays -- 33rd percentile in isolation points per possession, per Synergy. The Pelicans were never a great team -- often not even a playoff team -- with him in the lead, even with a really good player in Jrue Holiday next to him. Just how many Laker ills is LeBron covering for?
The point is this: If the Lakers were to come back to earth in this upcoming stretch, and come January they still look like a team that can't get it done against elite competition, most of these questions that existed about the Lakers and their front office and their coaching are still just sitting there waiting to pop back up. It won't take much for Vogel to go from a calming presence to a passive personality with little-to-no offensive creativity.
It won't take too much for Pelinka's roster decisions to start looking iffy again. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is in the middle of a nice stretch, but he can be pretty darn bad at the flip of a switch. Waiting on Leonard cost the Lakers potential shots at shooters like JJ Redick or Bojan Bogdanovic, and now they're 22nd in the league in 3-point makes and 24th in 3-point attempts. Nobody cares about that when you're squeaking out wins. But hit a rough patch, and now roster construction becomes a story again.
It's not to say any of this would be fair, or even true, but the questions will be asked. They have not gone away. The Lakers have just covered them with a string of wins against bad teams. Should that change, it will be interesting to see if the Lakers, from the front office to the coach to the actual team on the floor down, are truly a different organization than the one that appeared to be splitting apart from the inside out less than a year ago.
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