Thirty-one years ago today the Los Angeles Lakers selected forward James Worthy from the University of North Carolina with the number one pick in the 1982 NBA Draft. The Lakers, coming off the stunning Magic Johnson-led World Championship in the 1981-82 season added Worthy to an already-formidable roster that included the aforementioned Magic, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Cooper, Norm Nixon and Jamaal Wilkes, and cemented itself in basketball lore as the premiere franchise that could always get it done.
And get it done they did.
Using Worthy as a barometer, the Lakers were the pillar of excellence during his 12-year career (all with Los Angeles), qualifying for the playoffs in all but one of those seasons, getting to the Western Conference Finals eight times, advancing to the NBA Finals seven times and winning three NBA Championships.
Those are my Lakers.
But wait, there’s more.
Worthy’s final season with the Lakers (1993-94) was the early section of a three-season bridge that saw the storied franchise throw together a decent blend of youth – Nick Van Exel, Cedric Ceballos, Eddie Jones and Vlade Divac – with some seasoned veterans – Kurt Rambis, Sedale Threatt and even the return of Magic Johnson – that resulted in a competitive if not championship-quality set of teams.
These bridge teams link the Worthy Era Lakers to the Kobe Bryant Lakers, as Bryant and center Shaquille O’Neal arrived in Los Angeles for the 1996-97 season and formed a truly dynamic duo that played together for eight seasons. The Kobe-Shaq teams were coached by the great Phil Jackson and won three consecutive NBA Championships (2000, 2001, 2002), and even after a personal feud broke-up the Bryant-O’Neal tandem the Kobe-led Lakers won back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010.
It has been this sort of consistency that has lifelong Lakers fans forever thirsty for more and bandwagon fans jumping onboard the Laker Train in droves pretty much each season.
The success from Magic to Worthy to Kobe to Shaq is due in large part to former Lakers General Manager Jerry West, who through keen drafting and deft trading acumen kept the team contending for championships on a regular basis since the 1980s, and has carried well beyond West’s departure from the team in 2001 when he retired and passed the reins to current GM Mitch Kupchak.
This is the team and the organization that I have grown up with, but lately it just feels like the Lakers are not aging well.
Owner Jerry Buss passed away and son Jim is navigating the ship now. Kobe is getting older and injuries are a factor. Still a great player, Kobe Bryant cannot be questioned about his desire to always win games, but it is now a nearly impossible task to surround him with teammates who are both willing and talented enough to live up to Kobe’s and our expectations. Coach Mike D’Antoni – a hiring that I personally advocated when it happened – is the absolute wrong guy to be leading this version of the Lakers, as his up-tempo style of offense is a poor match for the Lakers’ rapidly aging roster.
There there’s Dwight Howard.
There is no denying that the 6-11 center/power forward is an amazing athlete and wonderful basketball player. His stats speak volumes about his ability to score, yank down rebounds and play defense. He’s been named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year on three occasions, he’s been the league’s rebounding leader five different times and has been named to the All-NBA First Team five different times. Howard can play.
Traded to the Lakers prior to the 2012-2013 season from the Orlando Magic with a soon-to-expire contract, it seemed like a marriage born in Basketball Heaven, what with Bryant the veteran scorer and Howard the go-to center that has been missing since Shaq departed. Not to mention the added defensive spark that Howard’s presence in the middle would bring, something the Lakers were sorely lacking.
But something happened on the way to the Lakers revving up their engines to take off on another championship run, and whether we should blame it on the D’Antoni hiring, the team suddenly looking very soft and extremely old, or Howard’s poor physical conditioning following off-season back surgery, it doesn’t really matter because this team is really a mess. They are lacking a reliable point guard, have not much in the way of a steady outside shooter and there’s no telling if Bryant will be ready to start the season as he continues to recover from his season-ending Achilles’ tendon tear.
And then there is the biggest question mark: Will Dwight Howard be back? Question 1A: Did he even want to be in Los Angeles in the first place?
You’ve likely heard something about this.
The Lakers are the only team in the league who can give the wayward free agent a max contract of five years/$117 million, but Howard is said to be unhappy about his one-season audition in Los Angeles. He clashed often with Bryant, admitted to being out of shape and complained loudly that the D’Antoni offense just wasn’t for him, or at least that he felt “marginalized” because the coach turned to Bryant as the team’s leader and not him. Howard has a bit of a coach-killer reputation for his role in Stan Van Gundy being shown the door in Orlando during Howard’s soap opera-esque final months with the organization.
There’s a lot of drama when it comes to Dwight Howard. It’s difficult to believe that he is only 27 years old because that is so young for an NBA diva. Whether he will sign with the Lakers come July is something only Howard knows at this moment, but if I had to make a prediction I tend to think he’ll walk. He wants the ball and he wants to be the man and he doesn’t like to be told otherwise. He’ll find a team that will tell him what he likes to hear, throw a bunch of money his way and life will once again be rosy for Dwight Howard.
That is until he doesn’t get the ball as much as he wants or he doesn’t like his new coach’s system, then the cycle will repeat itself. Beware Houston, Dallas and Atlanta. You’ve been warned.
Which leaves the Lakers with what exactly? Still old and still without a point guard, the team would go into the season with Bryant on the mend and Pau Gasol at center, Steve “Father Time” Nash as its fragile point guard and a bunch of guys named Jordan Hill, Jodie Meeks and of course Metta World Peace.
Sounds like a recipe for a sub .500 season and some misery for Laker fans. The bandwagon is about to clear-out and head on over to the Clippers.
We Laker fans like our players devoted to the purple and gold with a healthy respect for the team’s rich history. We love guys like Derek Fisher, Robert Horry and Rick Fox. We like our players to grimace at losing and scream at failure, not big headbands and smiling faces when missing free throws.
And we certainly do not like our franchise big men opting to walk away from the Los Angeles Lakers.
However when it comes to this particular big man I’m actually okay with his potential departure. Clearly he doesn’t care about history and doesn’t seem remotely interested in doing what it takes to win a championship let alone a bunch of championships.
We fans also expect a lot from team management.
We expect them to forever assemble a team for greatness and act professionally. We certainly don’t expect them to spend millions on a billboard campaign to woe Howard back to Hollywood, imploring him to “Stay” with shameful and pathetic pleas to a superstar who clearly will not be swayed by that sort of stuff.
There was a little documentary on the Lakers cable channel during the season that placed its spotlight on Dwight Howard walking around the team’s facilities following his trade to Los Angeles. He looked at the multiple championship trophies and curiously described the situation as “bananas.” He looked at the retired numbers in the rafters and listened as Kupchak told him that he’d like to see Howard’s name and number up there at some point. Howard just kind of stood there and said nothing, either stunned at the thought or essentially knowing that there was simply no way that was going to happen because he wasn’t staying beyond the one season. It was practically an eye-roll.
“Bananas” is how Dwight Howard described it.
“Tomatoes” is how I’ll describe it. As in, I want to gather a bushel of rotten tomatoes to throw at those “Stay” billboards.
You’re a phenomenal player Dwight Howard, but if you don’t want to be a part of Lakers history and you don’t care about winning championships and care not that your free throw shooting is a joke or that your on-court body language tells us all that it’s really more about the name on the back of your jersey than the one on the front then please don’t go away mad.
Just go away.