A Bridge to Nowhere: The Lakers Coaching Hole

On April 30th, 2014 Mike D’antoni disastrously fell to his death. He boldly crashed into the icy terrain of failure and humiliation and his enemies ecstatic glee. His sword was waiting and Mike D’antoni fell on that too. Cresting above him, unreachable and in the distance, was success and championship glory, none of which he could claim for himself. All he knew was exhaustion coaching the Lakers. At the end of a battle he couldn’t overcome, all that was left for D’antoni was to hang onto the fading crumbs of his Lakers tenure.

It goes without saying there is nothing worse than that last gasp of breath when someone wants to fire you and you want to keep going. Truth be told, D’antoni should have been fired the summer before. When he was not, when Kobe Bryant did not drive him over the edge but a terrible season exposed his Lakers failures, it was the last day of April.

The end of the D’antoni chapter felt euphoric. Despite the quixotic cheers that echoed in bars and office buildings and on front porches everywhere, the world did not drastically change. The next day hunger and famine continued to cling in the South Sudan. The Taliban continued recruiting children. Sports in American remained sports in America.

The NBA, an epicenter of newsworthy events since April 30, 2014 and the fall of D’antoni, rolled right along as if the Lakers did not even exist. A new NBA champion was crowned. Lebron James left South Beach; Dwayne Wade took less money.  The Houston Rockets gambled and lost their starting point guard (to the Lakers) expecting Chris Bosh to make up for the difference. (He rejected them).The Kevin Love soap opera reached the point of nausea.

And the Lakers did not hire a head coach.

Of course this is a First World problem. But here is where the dissonance is particularly brazen especially when Mitch Kupchak is himself speaking. Yesterday, after signing Nick Young to four more years Kupchak continued with the propaganda. “We are happy to retain such a skilled player committed to being part of what we are building as a franchise.”

Forget the skilled player part, it was the building part that caught my attention. Building what? You don’t have to be an architect or a contractor to understand the basics. To build something there must be preparation for the foundation. You have to move the soil apart and create a trench and dig holes, you have to build the footing, you have to pour concrete, you have to frame the exterior. You must pass inspection.

Apr 14, 2014; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Nick Young (0) reacts during the second half against the Utah Jazz at EnergySolutions Arena. The Lakers won 119-104. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

But exactly what are the Lakers building? Do they even know?  Absent a basketball voice and leader they are whispering in the dark. Who knows how they are going to play. Or what defense needs to be taught and re-taught. Or, in the macro view of things, what system? Who is going to start for them, what 5? Who is going to act as the judge and jury of players? To whom will offensive organization be attributed to, Kobe? I never believed in the coaches are teachers romance that is constantly peddled but I do know the coach is the most important person in the players’ lives the next eight months just because he is their boss.

What is the Lakers philosophy going forward? What is their ethic? What do they believe in? And that is the real problem here. There is a hole in the room, there is someone big missing.

A few days ago, late for his session with television critics, Kobe Bryant who was publicizing his Showtime documentary, Kobe Bryant’s Muse, to air in November, offered an excuse for his tardiness. “I was out looking for a head coach.” It elicited laughs but really was it that funny? Or was it true?

According to Forbes Magazine and Tanya Prive the traits of a true leader are honesty, confidence, commitment, communication, creativity, ability to inspire. Let’s accept that the Lakers are honest and are run by good ethical people who work hard. The question then becomes do they instill confidence?  Is there an ability to trust Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak after they have devalued the basketball operations these last few years by hiring coaches who were so diametrically opposed to any value the Lakers stood for it often seemed as if blind men were making the decisions.

The Lakers have always been committed- they have- but to the wrong thing. Obsessed with the past has put them at a distinct disadvantage to map out the future. Players no longer see the lure of Los Angeles as some sort of dream coming true. Frankly, it doesn’t matter where you play anymore; the global world is a reality. A kid in China can play a video game with a kid in Newark who can then text someone in the Philippines.

Jun 15, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; Miami Heat forward LeBron James (6) brings the ball up court during the third quarter against the San Antonio Spurs in game five of the 2014 NBA Finals at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

NBA players are less interested with cities- Lebron is in Cleveland again. Instead they romance over the roster that is currently in place. Players and their agents ask: is the roster filled with the talented and the young not yet in their prime who have endured a few NBA seasons? Or are the players on the roster average and casual and lack enough of a competitive will and edge they don’t use their summer to get better?

The Lakers threw everything at Carmelo this summer and frankly there was nothing provocative about the way they went about it except it was the antithesis to how they tried to woo Dwight Howard the year before. Still this must be said about them: their effort would have made Dr. Buss proud. Kobe gave it high marks. But a hunt followed by empty hands hardly needs applause. Neither does a lack of creativity (if we don’t get Carmelo we’ll just sign last year’s players). It is not particularly contemptible in this era to do what you always used to do.

But the Lakers have taken Dr. Buss’s model of superstars and the greatest entertainment city in the world as a way to pull free agents to Los Angeles. It only means they believe in myth making.

The Lakers list of superstar players who left their teams and came to Los Angeles stands at one: Shaquille O’Neal. (Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, Pau Gasol were products of trades).  Face it. The NBA world has separated, has cut the Lakers off.

Kevin Durant has publicly said the thought of going back home to Washington D.C. in 2016 is intriguing. Kevin Love, raised in Los Angeles, would rather play in Cleveland than for the Lakers.

Add to this the well reported  Lakers missing head coach drama. Is anyone inspired by the idea that the Lakers can sign an average NBA player in Nick Young  but cannot hire his boss? Is the Lakers fear of failure so exaggerated that they cannot even bother to fulfill their obligation to the Lakers, the players, the city and their fans? Do they no longer covet the art of taking a risk?

83 days ago it was April 30, 2014. The air was filled with anticipation once the Mike D’antoni page was turned. There was something about D’antoni’s ending that made you think and hope about someone else’s beginning. It was a way to alter the truth so as to not harm the truth but just to give it a little push towards reliability. But now, in hindsight, it almost seems predestined, D’antoni and then 83 days of nothingness.

In a way that only these Lakers could pull off, the new beginning is tarnished. Gone is that brilliant gold of the Lakers championship trophies that blinded the sun. It is not even silver anymore. Rather, it is the reflection of a team that used to mean everything but is now some cheap color that has no glow.


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Tags: Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers Mike D'antoni

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