Oh Lakers...how in the world did we end up here? This was supposed to be the historic three-peat. An unbelievable send-off for Phil Jackson with ring No. 12. Six for Kobe and Derek. Instead, it all ends in ignominious fashion, getting swept by the Dallas Mavericks.
And to do it in such an embarrassing way. Did you not know that Dallas likes to shoot the three? Except for Kobe Bryant, the Lakers couldn't buy a basket and the Mavericks couldn't miss. I still can barely believe this is true, but Dallas' BENCH alone scored the equivalent of the Lakers entire offensive output in game four.
I can't even bring myself to check the box score, it's so ugly. And then to lose your composure at the end. Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum? You're better than that. Just an awful way to end the season. It's one thing to lose in a hard-fought game. It's another thing entirely when sportsmanship goes out the window.
But full credit must go to Mark Cuban, who followed one of the central tenets of Championship 101: build your team to beat whomever stands in your way. In this case, the Lakers.
Even though the Mavs hadn't played the Lakers in the playoffs for some time, Cuban knew that eventually the Lakers are the team you would have to get past.
All year long, the Lakers coasted, confident that their height and championship mettle would carry them through. But they got fat and lazy. And when they finally woke up after New Orleans scared the dickens out of them, they were not in fighting shape. Not mentally, at least.
So here comes Dallas, hungry and tall, with some guys who can shoot (is Jason Terry in a contract year?). With nothing to lose. And hungry. Unbelievably hungry. Dirk Nowitzki gave an interview where he talked about how the loss in 2006 to Miami still haunts him. Well, Dirk, careful what you wish for because you may have the chance to avenge that. Right after you make the acquaintance of Mssrs. Durant and Westbrook. Or the boys from Memphis. Good luck with that.
It took me a while, but I finally pinpointed what this playoff series reminds me of: 2008 against the Celtics. Only this time, the part of Kevin Garnett is being played by Jason Kidd, featuring Dirk Nowitzki as Ray Allen.
All this time, we thought the Lakers would be beaten by youth and speed. Turns out veteran savvy and desperation for a title are a stronger force.
I said it before, but the Lakers are fat and lazy, metaphorically speaking. Not Kobe and Derek Fisher who shared an amazing "let's win this" moment in Game 3 after a great shot when there was still some hope. Both those guys get it Winning a title at all is so against the odds, it's almost unimaginable. Repeating is mind boggling. Being in a position to three-peat? There almost aren't words. These two know that. But the rest of the team?
It's almost like too much togetherness. Ever spend a long holiday or vacation with your family at the end of which you can barely wait to hop in your car and get away? Of course, you love them with all your heart, but after 14 days together, every tic and trait drives you nuts.
I think that's the Lakers. I can see how Kobe's relentless competitiveness could make you crazy. I can see teammates thinking, "Back off man! We've just won two world championships."
In Kobe's defense (and I always wonder how he came to be like this), he knows that the chance to win rings is unbelievably small. Many players never even get a whiff of a chance. But not everybody is wired like he is. So he gets frustrated too.
When he sees players not playing up to their potential or phoning it in, that drives HIM nuts. I can easily imagine how his teammates must sometimes think of him as a browbeating taskmaster and how his opinion of them must boil down to: lollygaggers.
So who's to blame? Well, there is plenty of it to go around. Unfortunately, Pau Gasol, by all accounts (and it is rare for the media to be so unanimous on anything), it a tremendous fellow. A gentleman in the best sense of the word. But he is about to get a crash course in how this town chews up and spits out its heroes.
He is here because of the Summer of Kobe's discontent. Without him, there would be no 2009 and 2010 championship banners hanging in Staples. And even though 2008 came just short, every single person on that team and in the city knows he was the missing piece. But that is not going to stop the tidal wave of criticism that is coming his way.
Pau, I don't think you are prepared for what is about to go down. My advice is to get out of town. Go somewhere with no Internet, just beautiful beaches, good food and drink and relax and regroup. In the town's parlance, you are the star in a successful franchise that just released its third installment. Which bombed. Terribly.
Even if the script was the real problem, you are going to get the lion's share of the blame. It's not fair. Just the way it is. Let your agent do the dirty work of explaining why you had such a horrendous series against Dallas.
I gave you a pass in New Orleans, because you were sick with an upper respiratory infection which would affect anyone's performance. But the Dallas series is just inexplicable. It has to be mental. But it still doesn't make any sense. We already know you have championship DNA. Why this sudden fall-off? We may never know why. The fans don't care; they just want a winner.
Nobody ever said Los Angeles is easy.
So, Lakers fans, now what?
Rebuild. Which seems weird given that most of the starters are under contract for the foreseeable future. But one of the most important lessons in Championship 101 is don't get nostalgic. If you do, you will find yourself in some very lean rebuilding years and then you have to hope that you get lucky and hit on a hot prospect or young talent. If you don't, you're back to square one.
One of the best qualities of the New York Yankees (in my mind the baseball equivalent of the Los Angeles Lakers), is they constantly try to avoid cycling down. I'm not going to get dragged into the fashionable Derek Jeter bashing. DJ is the ambassador of that franchise. He sells tickets and jerseys. They can afford his declining production because of the other things he brings to the table. Their pitching is another story altogether, but I digress.
At any rate, they are ALWAYS in contention.
Same Lakers. But this requires a smart front office. Fortunately, nobody has ever accused Mitch Kupchak and the Buss family of being dumb. Plus they are surrounded with many terrifically smart basketball people.
What to do?
1. Keep Kobe. At this point, he is an icon. He is the face of the franchise and the undisputed leader of the team. Is he 2006 Kobe? No. He knows that. But Kobe is smart enough to reinvent himself as a field general.
In fact, we saw that in Game 3—in some cases, he overtook Phil on the sidelines, yelling instructions to his teammates. Maybe the pending labor situation and the likelihood of a long time off will be good for No. 24. Rest, recharge the batteries. Don't listen to the haters. There is plenty more basketball to be played.
2. Make Brian Shaw the next head coach. He was a Laker, knows the history and demands of being one, and most important of all, has Kobe and Derek's blessing. Really, this will effectively be coaches 1a, 1b and 1c, but it won't matter because of the next point. They are going to need lots of veteran coaching whether by title or position, because they must:
3. Get young. Really young. And quickly. I'm talking 21 and 22 years old. You need, minimally, two speedsters who can run it up and down the court fast-break style and score. Find a young reliable three-point shooter. I don't care if he does nothing else, but the Lakers get killed by unreliable three-point shooting.
4. Except for Lamar Odom and Shannon Brown, dump the rest of the bench. Look, they are all nice guys. But this is hardcore professional basketball. You cannot disappear in the playoffs. The best teams do one thing: build for the postseason.
Look at the Yankees. They build for October. The Jets built for January...now they just need to build for February. The Lakers need to build for June. And the way you do that is you take a look at who you think will be there in June and what it will take to beat them. Because of the labor situation, it's kind of hard to know that right now, but speed, defense and three-point shooting will never be a wrong choice.
5. I love Andrew Bynum, in spite of his boorish behavior in Game 4. His feistiness through the last few weeks has been fantastic. So has his play. But I will not drink the Kool-Aid until I see him (at only 23!) make it through a full season without losing significant playing time to injury. Sometimes, your availability is just as important as your ability.
This team will look different whenever they next suit up. I don't know how the labor situation will ultimately play out. I also know that rebuilding won't be easy what with the contracts on the books and the money involved.
But the Los Angeles Lakers aren't in the business of being also-rans. Kobe has plenty left in the tank, albeit in a slightly different role (he can still thrill us with those dunks, though). I'd bet every cent I have that his goal is to get seven titles. It's achievable. Probably not the way he imagined, but he has a very smart organization that is committed to winning as his partner in that goal.
For now, the only purple that will rain down upon him this June are the jacaranda tree blossoms that rain down upon all of the rest of us here in Los Angeles—the first June in a long time without the Lakers playing.
Next season starts now.