Regardless of the prism, less was not more. It would become the Lakers greatest irony of 2013. The best team money could buy- money could not save. It seemed inconceivable and a little unlucky to have such a high payroll and fail as disastrously as they did, to perform as if blindfolded. Who falls off a cliff twice? Of course we know how wrong it is to think like a capitalist, to believe in no limits and that money is more powerful than men who work together without selfishness. But sports is less a vacuum than it is a mirror. If you divide the world in half you will have what the Lakers had, you will have wealth or you will have dreams. It is these two polar opposites that the Lakers planted their 2013 tree. But because life is unpredictable and sometimes unfair and because the Lakers hired the wrong coach and didn’t understand the player they traded for it unraveled in a way even they could not have imagined, meaning it was an ugly year. The wind blew it all away until it was ruined. And so the rich man in January became the poor man in December. If life is nothing else it is about cycles and trends. The Lakers lost at the beginning of the year. They lost at the end of the year. And bodies fell apart.
On January 1st, 2013 the Lakers had already committed themselves to 99 million dollars in salary. It was not a subtle figure but an oh-my-god-figure. Much of the Lakers finances were taken up by Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Metta World Peace. It was 80% of the payroll. It did not deliver what it was supposed to partly because of the age of the players and the system they were required to play in. The calculus when it was all over was of excessive waste.
The Lakers were a mediocre 15-15 at the beginning of the year. They played on New Years Day. Their opponent was a struggling Philadelphia 76ers team who had a below .500 record. The 76ers led for 41 minutes of the game, Jrue Holliday and Evan Turner doing most of the damage. Kobe took 29 shots and had 0 assists. Pau and Dwight missed 14 of the 17 shots they took. It would be the beginning of a losing streak that set into motion the idea that this was the worst team money had ever bought.
The Lakers lost to the Clippers the next game. Pau tanked, he had 2 points. Jodie Meeks missed 10 of the 13 shots he took and Chris Paul (30 points 13 assists) and Blake Griffin (24 points, 5 rebounds) destroyed D’Atoni’s weak defense. The Lakers were in the midst of a crises. It was like quicksand- there was no way out if you tried to climb by yourself. The Lakers lost the next game and losing began to feel natural. It was against the Denver Nuggets, this new low. They lost again to the Houston Rockets in a game Dwight Howard did not play in. James Harden and Jeremy Lin were uninhibited in their basketball habits as a D’Antoni defense gave up 31 points in the second quarter and 38 points in the third. The writing was on the wall, their flaws exposed, an offense derived on distance rather than an offense derived on closeness. Forget defense, D’Antoni usually does. The Lakers lost the next game to the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs led for 45 minutes of the game. The Lakers lost the next game to the Thunder. Durant had 42 points and Westbrook had 27. Together they were a +63. Kobe and Metta were a -58. It was the last of the Lakers six game losing streak, the longest losing streak of the year.
You lean into losing or it takes everything from you. Unexpectedly the Lakers won two games in a row which only meant they had not given up on the season or on each other which was a sign they had a narrow amount of trust in one another. And then they lost four in a row. The fourth loss was in Memphis, the site of the team meeting in which all of the frustration and animosity and anger came tumbling down the cliff of hell. Afterwards Kobe took over the offense leaving D’Antoni-ball to rot in a grave. The Lakers went 28-12, made the playoffs and it was an indictment of all the things money cannot do. Sometimes you can be rich and still suffer. You can still have everything you desire stripped from the bone.
Being poor is not a picnic either. Hungry, you wish for too much. You want for too much. Whereas the Lakers had money in January they were broke in October. They became a tarmac, a landing sport for the underachieving and undeserving player everyone else decided was a waste of time. Like a halfway house, the Lakers were a last chance stop for the forgotten, for those who no longer mattered, men who were refugees. Nine players on the current Lakers roster make two million dollars or less. Because you get what you pay for the Lakers have gotten energy but not much execution and consistency. Recently the Lakers played the Warriors and lost by 19. They lost to the Phoenix Suns by 27. They lost to the Miami Heat by 6. They lost to the Utah Jazz by 2. They lost to the 76ers by 7. All it means is that you cannot win with a bunch of guys no one really remembers. Refugees barely survive storms. The question is will Mike D’Antoni?
And so this is the money lie or perhaps it is the money truth. Spend too much and you are miserable. Spend too little and you are miserable. If this year taught the Lakers any sort of lesson it is that money is often a shroud. A trick. If money is not the parachute then it can be the ball and chain. Players are obedient only if they have a reason to be, if there is belief in the system and in each other, if they compete hard on both ends of the floor, and of course, if there are a couple of stars to mask their mistakes.
Losing is a certain kind of drug; it can ruin both the rich man and the poor man, make them want to quit. In an odd way this is the only thing these two different men have in common, they can have their heart ripped out of their chest, they can mourn forever. The first month of the year the Lakers were 5-ll; the last month of the year the Lakers were 4-10. The players were different, the coach was the same. The well was dry, the water was gone, it was a year of living in the desert, of being thirsty, it was year of looking in the distance and wondering what on earth happened to the dream year.