A year before Bob Short packed up his team and moved them west, a year before the Lakers selected Jerry West in the 1960 NBA Draft, two years before the Lakers would appear in the NBA Finals as the Los Angeles Lakers, the Minneapolis Lakers won 25 games. They were last in scoring. They were last in assists. They were next to last in defense. They had two coaches. And so the Minneapolis Lakers won 25 games that year. Two years earlier they won 19 games. That 25 win mark has not been matched in 54 years. Until now. This Lakers team has won 22 games. They need four more wins not to tie the second worst record in 66 years of Lakers basketball. They need four more wins to reach historical numbers. How low can the Lakers go? Lower than where they are right now, that’s for sure.
Nick Young who will play tonight against the Washington Wizards said the team’s goal is to not have the worst record in Los Angeles Lakers history. That record is 30-52. And yet the worst record in franchise history is 19-53. The second worst is 25-50. That is the territory the Lakers are hovering near. All time worst. Worst in Los Angeles. Second worst in franchise history. An unbearably atrocious team.
On every player’s resume this year will be a defining question. How exactly did you pull a beloved franchise into quicksand? Nick Young, how was that possible? Wesley Johnson, how was that possible? Kendall Marshall, how was that possible? Clearly it was not one player’s fault. Basketball, as Phil Jackson likes to preach, is a game about ridding selfishness and coming together as a team. But so many Lakers players have had careers in which they only defined themselves through a prism of mediocrity. Remember the optimism before the season. This was the year Xavier Henry was going to change what the NBA thought of him. This was the year Robert Sacre was going to change what the NBA thought of him. This was the year that Jordan Farmar was going to change what the NBA thought of him. But it only took a month to crash and burn. The NBA thinks worse of them now than they did in September, only because they were on the brightest stage, the biggest platform and it all fell apart. And they could not save much of anything.
Yes Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash were on the team too. But the difference is they are Hall of Fame players that have a long history of excellence and winning throughout their career. They have been depended on and they have come through. They are proven players. So as bad as this year has been for them, especially for Pau, in a year or two it will all be forgotten. At some point they will make their Hall of Fame speech and they will talk about all of their incredible NBA moments, their trophies or championships or both. What will Nick Young talk about?
The goal of getting to 30 wins and not being the worst team in Los Angeles Lakers history sounds a little desperate. It sounds as if it is finally settling in what happened this year. Fair of unfair, for some, the damage will be carried forward. For some the damage will be invisible. Winning 30 games means the Lakers will have to go 8-7 in the next fifteen games. The last 8-7 record the Lakers had this year was November 3rd through December 6th. In that particularly streak the Lakers beat Atlanta and the Warriors at home. They beat Houston and Brooklyn on the road. The rest of the wins were against non playoff teams. The 7 losses were mostly on the road although they lost to Minnesota and Memphis at home.
Of the fifteen games remaining, 7 are against playoff teams who are looking to position themselves for the two month playoff run. The rest are against teams that will be in the lottery like the Lakers but the only team the Lakers have beat are the Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves. The Lakers lost to the worst team in the NBA, the Milwaukee Bucks. They play them in six days, on the road. They lost to the third worst team in the NBA, the Orlando Magic. They play them at home on Sunday. They lost to the Knicks. They play them on Tuesday. So the path to 30 wins is more like an uphill climb for a team that has shown little desire to fight to the death all year long. Why start now?
It makes you wonder. Had the Lakers been as energized in January in trying to avoid humiliation and elimination as they are now in March perhaps this season would not have a sorrowful feel to it. Everyone is embarrassed. Sacramento Kings guard Isaiah Thomas who grew up a Lakers fans, recently said, “It sucks.” It is hard to watch. Television ratings are down, home attendance is down. The only bright spot is that the Lakers still pull in big crowds on the road which is a testament to the loyalty of many of their fans who refuse to accept the obvious.
If the season stays true to form they will bypass the 1959-60 Lakers team who won 25 games. They may win 27 or 28 games. Of the 1959-60 Lakers team, Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor averaged 30 points and 16 rebounds. But he shot 42%. And that was high on the team. That team shot 38% so it is not a surprise they could not beat anyone. But the league was different. That Lakers team, as bad as they were, went to the playoffs. They lost to the Pistons in 7 games. 54 years later this Lakers team can only try to squeeze everything in so they will not be remembered for the wrong reasons.
No one has a bigger burden upon him than Nick Young. He is from L.A. He has to live here after Wesley Johnson and Chris Kaman move elsewhere. He will never live this season down.
In 1960, after winning 25 games, the Minneapolis Lakers, in the NBA Draft, selected Jerry West. Two years later the Los Angeles Lakers were in the NBA Finals. In game 5 Elgin was sensational. He scored 61 points, had 22 rebounds. He fouled out. In the 7th game, Frank Selvy missed a game winning shot that would haunt him for the next 40 years. Losing haunts players. It makes you question yourself. Are you good enough? Do you belong? It is easy to blame losing on injuries or to blame losing on coaching but players determine the outcome of games. And so this is what remains for the Lakers of 2013-14, this trek. This trying to reach an unattainable goal, trying not to be paranoid when they think about the rest of their careers.
All athletes lose of course. Rarely do the Lakers. And yet they did in 1959-60, winning 25 games. And the consolation prize that year was Jerry West. But of the players on that 1959-60 team not named Elgin Baylor, two did not return. Most stayed with the Lakers 1-4 years after winning 25 games. Rudy LaRusso stayed 7 years. Tommy Hawkins stayed 2 years and then came back and stayed 3 more years. So it is not entirely hopeless for some of these Lakers players.
But history is what you do. The Lakers history is stunning. After 1968, 20 NBA Finals Appearances. 11 titles. 9 players jersey’s retired. 8 MVP awards. 4 scoring titles. 6 rebounding titles. 5 assist titles. Winning brings respect and it brings fame and losing brings out the worst in everybody. The Lakers “goal” of 30 wins is not really a goal. Not with everything they are used to. But to Nick Young whose career has been up and down the “goal” is very real. The problem is reaching it. It is a long shot. Just as this year was always destined to be.