I've been a Los Angeles Lakers fan from the first day I watched professional basketball on television as a kid. No, I was not supporting the most popular team at the time (the Chicago Bulls), or the best player (Michael Jordan), but I knew that the Los Angeles Lakers were a dignified and highly respected franchise.
I'd never thought I'd see them lose their way like they have in the last couple of years. We've seen signs of it coming, but I never thought it'd materialize like it has.
It is a sad reality for the finest professional franchise basketball has ever seen. Including its early days in Minneapolis, the Laker franchise boasts 16 world championships, 32 conference titles, and have missed the playoffs only five times in franchise history. Its rivalry with the Boston Celtics is the most storied in NBA history. And, according to Forbes, the Lakers are the second-most valuable NBA franchise.
They've employed a collection of the most talented and biggest superstars of any era, in every era. George Mikan was the league's first "superstar." Jerry West is the NBA's logo and the only man to win the NBA Finals MVP trophy for a losing team. Elgin Baylor should have trademarked the term "hang-time", because his arrival in the league revolutionized the game from a bunch of slow guys who refused to jump or dunk into an opera of athletic marvel.
Wilt Chamberlain—still the greatest statistical and physical anomaly in basketball history, perhaps in all sports history—teamed with West and Baylor to win a title. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had the longest, most enduring career of any NBA superstar and is still the all-time leader in points scored.
The electrifying Magic Johnson was perhaps the most versatile player ever. (In an epic Game 6 performance in the 1980 Finals, he played all five positions). He was, in my opinion, the greatest, most exciting guard—maybe player—to have ever played and was a key figure in propelling the NBA into a worldwide phenomenon.
All of these players are Hall of Famers, have won championships and are among, it could be argued the ten greatest players to have ever played in the NBA.
And we haven't even mentioned Shaquille O'Neal or Kobe Bryant yet.
There is a scary and inaccurate narrative that has poisoned the minds of Laker fans everywhere in the wake of Howard's decision to sign with the Houston Rockets. "We'll be fine; we're the Lakers! Things always work out for us!"
I've been vehement in my critique of Howard. I personally think he doesn't make the Rockets all that much better. Some may think of Skip Bayless is truly "Skip Base-less," but his tweet "The Lakers just got better," is something that I absolutely agree with. This is not an article written by a bitter, jersey-burning fan. Nor am I lambasting Howard's character for leaving the Laker organization and a chance at immortalizing himself as the next great Laker big man.
No, the departure of Dwight doesn't bother me because the Lakers are going to go into the 2014 season with just Pau Gasol, a creaky Steve Nash and potentially no Kobe for half the season. They don't even have Earl Clark anymore. People are talking about rebuilding, but again, that isn't what makes me disappointed as a Laker fan.
The problems surrounding Howard's departure are deeper than salary numbers, endorsement losses or their place in the Western Conference playoff picture.
The problems that the Lakers have are much deeper than that. They are endemic, infectious, and even a franchise as storied and powerful as the one that I described above can't overcome it.
They are no longer the Lakers that I know or grew up loving.
Dr. Jerry Buss ran the Los Angeles Lakers from 1979 until his death. He helped turn the Lakers into the "Showtime" brand, oversaw the drafting of Magic Johnson and the acquisition of Kareem and played the role of owner perfectly. He did whatever it took to win and propagate the purple-and-gold as the sexiest, most exciting and most dominant brand in professional basketball. He transformed the Lakers into basketball's answer to the New York Yankees; a powerful and dominant juggernaut that superstars aspired to be a part of and win championships for.
Most importantly, as owner, he left himself out of basketball operations. I personally believe his greatest moment as owner wasn't getting Magic or hiring Pat Riley. It was his hiring of Phil Jackson. In hindsight, this move seems ridiculously obvious given that Jackson would bring five titles to Los Angeles.
But here was the situation: Buss had an enormously talented team that had the two of the best players in the league, and it wasn't unlike his "Showtime" teams in terms of talent.
Yet they couldn't get it done in the postseason and deliver championships, the standard by which Laker teams are measured. So he capitulated his decision-making to the people he paid to know basketball. Dr. Buss hated the idea of spending big money on a head coach when he already had the highest payroll for players in the league, yet he ponied up a ransom of $30 million for the Zen Master. The Lakers needed a manager of talents who could command the respect of dominant and hard-headed superstars like Shaq and Kobe. And the only man who fit that bill was Jackson.
If Buss hadn't done that, the Lakers would still be title-less since the Magic and Kareem days.
And the current Laker organization wouldn't have made that move. We know this as an empirical, undeniable reality. Jim Buss, the former owner's son and successor, proved that twice in the last three years.
When the Lakers collapsed in the 2011 postseason to the Dallas Mavericks, he could have listened to Kobe and hired Brian Shaw. Instead, he brings in Mike Brown, somebody who couldn't succeed from the start because he never won over Kobe. Why would Kobe respect a coach who couldn't figure out how to win with LeBron James?
I'm not suggesting I could run an NBA team, but everybody knows the NBA is a players' league and you need to appease your best player, period. Particularly if he's a superstar like Bryant.
When Brown was fired, the right thing to do was to bring back Jackson. It was literally the exact same situation; a ridiculously talented team that was underachieving. He chose to go with Mike D'Antoni, who was a horrible fit from the start, losing the respect of his star big man in less than a season. He ran a system that couldn't work, building a team around a 39-year-old point guard who has had major back and knee problems since the George W. Bush administration.
And all because D'Antoni was selfishly holding onto the flash-pan success he had with the Phoenix Suns. His stubbornness ensured his failure in New York, and now he's failing in Los Angeles. In hindsight, this blind, stubborn and terrible fit of a coach is probably the perfect employee with an owner who shares the same traits.
Stephen A. Smith spoke to Howard recently after his decision to sign with the Houston Rockets. According to him, D'Antoni basically said nothing during their recruitment pitch and didn't seem to care one bit.
In the wake of his departure, Howard has admitted that he asked for the Lakers to hire back Jackson. Are we at all surprised that Buss made the same fatal mistake twice, again? He didn't listen to Bryant in 2011 and didn't listen to Howard in 2013.
Buss thinks he's bigger than the team. He's determined to selfishly run the Lakers on his own terms, doing things his way to prove that he's not just his daddy's son, letting his ego supersede the best interests of the greatest franchise in basketball history.
Call it a managerial-level equivalent of an All-Star player who puts his own needs above the team and doesn't give two cents about his fans or his teammates.
The Los Angeles Lakers aren't basketball's Yankees. Along the path they are now walking, they will become basketball's Dallas Cowboys, an overrated brand that has the talent but no institutional memory for how to foster that attitude or mettle to be the best.
And Jim Buss is worse than Jerry Jones ever will be.
Facebook, Instagram and Twitter hash tags might not have existed decades ago when Jack Kent Cooke and Dr. Buss ran the Lakers. But there is no way that they would have ever, ever thrown up the pathetic, disgusting and unbecoming banners on South Figueroa.
I blame the casual, unengaged fanbase that actually supported this nonsense and helped the "#StayD12" hash-tag trend prominently in the social media universe. Dan Patrick said it best on his radio show, "If you're the Lakers, you don't beg people to stay."
The Lakers don't need to pull this garbage; they are the Los Angeles Lakers. Superstars come here, and if you don't want to be here, you don't deserve to be here and you don't have the guts or manhood to be here. The Lakers as an organization and the Laker fanbase didn't need to stoop to being the ugly girls who can't get a date to the school dance and begging for somebody to accept them for who they are.
The only strain of optimism Laker Nation now has is the fact that the team will have an enormous amount of cap space in 2014. Hey, we're the Lakers, right? Things always work out for us!
In terms of free agency, the most recent precedent was Shaq in 1996. The Lakers had been going through a post-"Showtime" drought and didn't have any real all-stars to speak of; their best players were Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel.
It's not like today, where superstars talk about forming superteams together. Shaq came to the Lakers because they were a first-class organization, and he valued and relished the opportunity to become a part of the Laker lore and legend, to become part of an organization that had the management and brain trust systemically calibrated to rebrand the Lakers as the dominant team in the next decade.
The notion that LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony would ever sign with the Lakers hinges on the assumption that they are those Lakers. The legendary Los Angeles Lakers did anything and everything it took to win.
Those Lakers don't seem to exist anymore. There is no GM Jerry West taking Shaq on tours of The Forum, challenging him to become the next Laker great. There is no Dr. Buss pulling savvy business moves or sacrificing his own ego for the greater good of the team. There is no Phil Jackson convincing the oil and water that was Shaq and Kobe to put their feud aside to win three championships in a row.
Maybe a year from now, we'll see things differently. You never know. But the notion that we will always be there just because "we're the Lakers" doesn't mean anything. Boston suffered through almost two decades of irrelevance after Larry Bird retired. Ditto for the New York Knicks since Patrick Ewing hung them up.
I pray that isn't the same fate that will befall my Lakers, but the odds are heavily leaning towards that reality.