Saturday, January 24, 2015

Are the Lakers Tanking?

On Friday the Lakers received the news that Kobe Bryant is most likely out for the season thanks to a torn rotator cuff.  That night the purple and gold were set to take on the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, and Coach Byron Scott decided to make drastic changes to the team's starting lineup. Scott benched Ed Davis, Wesley Johnson, and Ronnie Price in favor of Ryan Kelly, Robert Sacre, and rookie Jordan Clarkson.

While Scott claimed that these were moves he was planning on making with or without Kobe the timing does seem a bit suspect.  With a 12-32 record, good for 4th-worst in the league, the Lakers are more than halfway through the season and will clearly not be competing for a playoff spot.  If the playoffs are out of the question (and they are) then the team has significant incentive to lose as many games as possible, as their 2015 draft pick goes to the Phoenix Suns unless it falls in the top 5 thanks to the Steve Nash trade disaster.

However, with the hyper-competitive Kobe Bryant in the fold the Lakers had to do everything they could to win at all cost.  While Kobe was steadfastly supportive of Laker GM Mitch Kupchak and proudly stated time and time again that he would not seek a trade there was still pressure on the team to perform well for their star player.

They even attempted to trade for proven commodities like Rajon Rondo in order to get Kobe some help and make a push this season.  Without Bryant though that pressure is gone, and the team can focus on rebuilding.

Enter Coach Scott's lineup shuffle, which saw three players with an average age of 27.6 replaced by players with an average age of 23.  That average will drop even lower when 25 year-old Robert Sacre is replaced by Tarik Black, which Scott asserted would happen as soon as Black returns from an ankle injury.

Along with Black the fantastically named Kelly Clarkson combo figures to be a big part of the Lakers future, and giving them valuable minutes now will not only speed up their development but will also allow the team to pick up a few more valuable losses while the young bucks go through their NBA growing pains.

The Lakers, to their credit, have long been steadfastly anti-tank, but in this case they canattempt  justify their actions by explaining that the team wasn't winning anyway.  With more minutes the younger players they will be better prepared to contribute next season, which will likely be the last of Bryant's legendary career.

Of course they will also be more likely to hang onto their pick as the losses mount and teams below the Lakers in the standing begin to move up (New York has been winning recently and the Wolves have Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, and Nikola Pekovic returning, which should increase their win total).  Expect the Lakers to downplay this benefit though, as again, they don't want to appear to be tanking.

Regardless of what they call it, the Kobe-less Lakers "youth movement" makes almost perfect sense.  There are just a couple of things that still stand out as odd about Scott's decisions, at least at first glance anyway.

Specifically, starting 27 year-old Jordan Hill over bouncy big man Ed Davis and giving the backup point guard minutes to Price instead of the 26 year-old Jeremy Lin.  However, there is method to the madness behind these calls as well.

As mentioned previously Lin and Hill are two of the most likely Lakers to be dealt prior to the trade deadline on February 19th.  By moving Hill from the Center spot to Power Forward the Lakers will be able to showcase the versatility that his jumpshot provides while still getting him the minutes needed to put up solid numbers.  If Hill proves he can effectively play both PF and C that just makes him an even more valuable trade chip.

Furthermore, shifting Ed Davis, a player the Lakers would like to keep, to the bench squad to play alongside Carlos Boozer allows him to get minutes as a Center.  While Davis has proven valuable with his rebounding, shot blocking, and efficient finishing around the rim his lack of range outside of 10 feet means that he may ultimately need to transition to the Center position full-time in order to avoid killing the team's spacing.

Davis' lack of bulk may prohibit such a move, and there is no better time than now to find out if that is the case.  If the Lakers are going to spend big money on Davis this summer (and they will have to if they want to keep him), then they need to know if he can be the team's defensive anchor.  What better way to find out if he can handle the job than by slotting him next to the defensively challenged (to put it mildly) Carlos Boozer?

Unlike Davis, who merely saw his role adjusted, Jeremy Lin suffered the indignity of being benched completely against San Antonio.  Scott did hint that Lin would play in the future and was by no way out of the lineup permanently, but the message was clear that if Lin doesn't start playing up to his potential then he won't be seeing the floor.

Most likely this isn't about turning Jeremy Lin into a valuable contributor for this season's Lakers.  Instead, it's about increasing his diminished trade value.  Currently Lin has little value around the league, so making a drastic move like benching him for an entire game makes sense.  If Scott can get Lin playing his best basketball over the coming weeks it will be easier to find a taker for the popular point guard, who the Lakers are unlikely to bring back next season.  If the move back fires and Lin sulks instead of picking up his play, well, he didn't have a ton of trade value anyway so little was lost.  It's a low risk, medium reward gamble on the Lakers part.  

With their anti-tanking stance the Lakers, rightly or wrongly, won't ship players out for less than they are worth just to help the team improve their draft pick.  This tactic burned them two seasons in a row with Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, but given the precedent teams know they will have to pony up full price in order to obtain the Lakers trade assets.  If they are going to demand top value for players like Lin and Hill they will need to be producing at their highest level, which explains the motivational tactic that was Lin's one-game benching as well as Hill's transition to Power Forward.

So, are the Lakers tanking?  No, of course not, the Lakers don't tank.  They are simply building for the future by giving major minutes to younger players who just so happen to not produce a lot of wins at this stage of their careers.  In other words...yeah, they are tanking, they just won't admit it.

And it's about time.

For more Lakers insight follow me on twitter @16ringNBA  

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Thirsty Lakers and the Free Agent Drought

The Los Angeles Lakers have long enjoyed being one of the league's glamour franchises.  With warm weather, a star-studded fan base, and a history blessed with championships there has been simply no better uniform to wear than the Golden Armor.

Not surprisingly the Lakers were able to lure in the top talent in the league through either trade or free agency.  Stars like Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, Shaquille O'Neal, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, and Kobe Bryant were brought in to continue to grow the Laker legend.   Meanwhile the draft had been kind as well, allowing the team to land all-time greats like Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Andrew Bynum (just kidding).

Today things look considerably different for the Lakers, with an aging and injured Kobe Bryant as the team's only star player (Nick Young would disagree, but he'd be the only one).  They are doing what they can to improve the roster, and are rumored to have attempted to land Rajon Rondo, Brook Lopez, and Greg Monroe via trade.  While all of these players are talented they don't represent the typical superstars that the Lakers chase after, which is indicative of a serious problem.

The NBA changed the rules on the purple and gold, with small markets ganging up on the profitable behemoth during the last Collective Bargaining Agreement.  In spite of all the money teams make off the Lakers in the form of profit sharing they were determined to pull a Treaty of Versailles on the Buss family's franchise, because that totally worked out well for the world.  

Small-market owners not only wanted more parity in the league but they also wanted to see the Lakers nerfed for as long as possible.  One of the ways that they went about doing that was by making it incredibly difficult for young players to break away from the teams that drafted them, limiting the Lakers ability to add talent.  Today, due to restricted free agency most players don't truly have the opportunity to leave for greener pastures until they have been in the league for as long as 8-9 years.

The only way for players to avoid this and get out before then is to play for the qualifying offer presented to them in their 5th season, which is a one-year deal and typically pays well below the going rate.  The drawbacks of a move like this are enormous, as a star player would likely be turning down a max deal in order to accept a qualifying offer.  A max contract is not only worth more than double the qualifying offer in a players 5th year but it also lasts for 4-5 years at the highest pay rate possible, which means that even if a star player despised the team that drafted them they would have to be willing to risk tens of millions of dollars in order to leave.

In other words, Anthony Davis will be staying with the Pelicans for a long, long time.

So what does all of this mean for the Lakers?  They have hoarded cap space in order to chase superstar free agents but, for this summer at least, there really aren't any available.  Instead of poaching guys like Shaq in free agency or Pau Gasol via trade the team now has to choose from the likes of Rondo, Monroe, LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol, Goran Dragic, Jeff Green, Luol Deng, and DeAndre Jordan...all quality players to be sure, but franchise-saving superstars?  Not quite.

And yet each of the players on that list will command a max or near-max contract.  That's what happens when the supply of free agent talent is low and many teams have cap space to burn.  

Most of these teams also have rosters that are closer to winning than the Lakers 2015 lineup, which currently features only Young, Tarik Black, Ryan Kelly, Julius Randle, and farewell-tour Kobe on guaranteed deals (Ed Davis has a player option he is going to opt out of, while Jordan Clarkson, Tarik Black, Robert Sacre, and Jordan Hill all have team options).  Suffice to say that the Lakers are currently not set up to win in 2015.  Free agent magnets they are not.

To make matters worse, except for Jordan and Monroe, every player on that list is in their late 20's already, which means that by the time the contract is over they will be well into their 30's.  They may be solid players, but given their ages they may not be willing to wait for a season or two while the Lakers rebuild.

The free agent list looks a little better for a team needing young talent when restricted free agents like Kawhi Leonard, Tobias Harris, Draymond Green, Jimmy Butler, and Brandon Knight are added to it but their incumbent teams are likely to match any offer.  Even if the Lakers somehow get one of these guys to put pen to paper and sign with them they will never actually make it onto the Lakers roster.

Similarly there will be a number of big-name (and big money) stars of yesterday available at the trade deadline, but players such as Deron Williams would be more of a hindrance than a help to the rebuilding Lakers.

The bottom line is that it's unlikely that the Lakers will be able to find significant help in free agency this summer or the trade deadline in February, and that spells trouble for a team that will undoubtedly be feeling the pressure to improve.  The fan base is getting restless, Kobe is on his last legs, and let's not forget that Jim Buss promised to resign if the Lakers aren't contending again in three years.  It's under conditions like these that teams make bad decisions, and the Lakers are no different.

However, the nightmare scenario for Lakers fans isn't one where they don't land any help, it's making a panic move to attempt to win now.  This would come at the cost of their few remaining assets or precious cap space and would likely return a player that might get a few headlines but wouldn't make much of a difference in the win column.  The margin of error is so small that a mistake like that could be absolutely devastating to a franchise that has had nothing but bad luck for years now.  They simply aren't ready for win-now moves, and the consequences of jumping the gun too quickly are steep (just ask the Nets).

It's not fun, but the Lakers will have to be incredibly shrewd with their assets this year.  They need to continue to search for under-appreciated young talent  while doing what they can to add draft picks.  Maybe they will be able to find a diamond in the rough.  Meanwhile, they can rent out cap space if need be the way they did in the Jeremy Lin trade in exchange for more picks to add to their nearly-empty war chest.

Above all else, they must resist the temptation to sign a Luol Deng or Rajon Rondo-type player or trade for big money, low production "stars".  Those are band-aid moves.  The equivalent of filling an empty stomach with McDonald's instead of waiting a little longer to get to what you are really craving.  Sure, it would be satisfying in the short term, but soon you would be wishing that you had waited just a bit longer to find what you truly wanted.

                                                         Never settle.  Good Lord he's frightening.

If they play their cards right the Lakers could head into the 2015/2016 season with 2 early 1st round picks added to their roster (Julius Randle and whoever they draft with a top 5 pick this year), young role players like Sacre, Black, Clarkson, and Kelly, plus plenty of cap space to facilitate moves that bring in talent or more picks.  Build around youth and make the franchise into the fun, exciting brand that it used to be.  Wins will follow eventually as the team is built from the ground up, and when the time is right the opportunity to add championship pieces will present itself.

All it takes is a little patience from the fans, a lot of luck, and a front office with self-control and will power.  Let's hope that all involved in Laker land are up to the challenge.

Follow me on twitter @16ringsNBA for all things Lakers!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Most Trade-able Lakers

The NBA Trade Deadline is about a month away (Feb 19th) and we have already seen a flurry of activity from teams like Cleveland, Oklahoma City, and Dallas, who have added a little extra firepower for a playoff run.  Of course we have also seen teams like Boston and New York do the opposite, dealing away talented players in order to build for the future and obtain a few more ping pong balls in the lottery.

The Lakers, meanwhile, find themselves in a precarious position.  They currently have the 4th-worst record in the league, and only keep their draft pick if it ends up 1-5, otherwise it goes to Phoenix thanks to the Steve Nash disaster.  Logic says that they should deal anyone who isn't part of the long-term plan for picks or young assets who need to develop, which would help the Lakers have a better chance of keeping their pick.  In other words they should tank, and tank hard.

However, the Buss family have been vocal detractors of the tanking strategy employed by teams like Philadelphia and Boston.  They don't believe tanking works, and feel like losing their pick this year isn't a big deal because it means they would keep their pick in 2016 (retaining the 2015 pick means Phoenix gets the Lakers 2016 pick unless it is in the top 3). 

Complicating matters is the presence of Kobe Bryant, who is nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career.  The Lakers would love to give Kobe one more chance at winning a championship by partnering him with a superstar who can act as the heir to the throne.  They thought they had that player when they traded for Dwight Howard, but when the going got tough he turned tail and ran.  For now they are still searching for that next star to help Kobe ride off into the sunset.

 Strengthening the case that the Lakers are anti-tanking (in spite of their record) is the list of players that they have reportedly been interested in trading for this season: Brandon Jennings, Greg Monroe, Brook Lopez, Rajon Rondo, and Dion Waiters.  Acquiring any of them would not represent a tanking move, especially considering the fact that the Lakers were using the 2015 first round pick that they received from Houston in the Jeremy Lin deal as bait.  Tanking teams rarely, if ever, part with picks.

That being said, it would appear that the Lakers are looking to acquire younger quasi-stars in any trade rather than draft picks.  Just who are they looking to deal in order to obtain such a player?  Here are the 5 Lakers who are most likely to be traded:

***Carlos Boozer would top this list but league rules say he cannot be traded because he was claimed off of waivers.  Lakers fans can breathe a sigh of relief, Boozer will be shooting rainbow-jumpers and flexing to the crowd when the team is down 20 for the rest of the season.

5. Ed Davis- Davis was one of the best bargain signings of the summer when the Lakers nabbed him on a 2-year deal worth $2 million with a player option after the first year.  He won a starting role over Carlos Boozer part of the way into the season and hasn't looked back since.  While he isn't a star on either end of the court his rebounding, rim protection, and efficient finishing would be coveted by a number of teams. 

However, at 25 Davis is the kind of young player the Lakers want to hang on to.  His contract is essentially an expiring deal, as chances are slim to none that he picks up his second year option (he is using the same strategy Nick Young did last year, signing a below-value deal and putting up numbers on a bad team for a year, then cashing in).  As a result teams won't be willing to give as much for him as they would if he was signed on a cheap deal long-term.  Ed Davis at $1 million is an incredible bargain, but if retaining him next season means paying him $7-9 million next year?  Some teams will not be interested in doing that. 

It also has to be said that the Lakers landing Davis at such a cheap price in the first place was likely due to his agent, Rob Pelinka, who also represents Kobe Bryant, Carlos Boozer, and Wesley Johnson, in addition to former Laker Chris Kaman.  As a result he has a good relationship with Lakers management and likely agreed to Davis' well below-value deal knowing that playing big minutes for the Lakers would provide the exposure necessary for Ed to land a more lucrative, long-term contract in the future.  Trading him now would go back on the good-faith, win-win deal that the agent and the team struck this summer, particularly if Davis were to be sent to a team that would use him sparingly off the bench. 

The Lakers also have the inside-track to bring Davis back long-term as they did with Nick Young last year, and having a good working relationship with his agent means that they should be able to find a solid number that would give Davis a substantial raise while still offering good value to the team.  That said it only takes one team throwing crazy money at Ed to derail everything and put the Lakers in an uncomfortable position of either overpaying or watching yet another talented big man leave in free agency.

With all that said an Ed Davis trade is unlikely, but never say never in the NBA.  If the Lakers decide that they don't want to risk losing Davis for nothing this summer or that they don't want to pay him his going rate when his contract is up they might move him now if they can find a deal that is worth rocking the boat with his agent.

4. Nick Young- Swaggy P has had his ups and downs this year but his scoring off the bench and ability to create his own shot can be very valuable.  Unlike Ed Davis though, who would draw interest from both contending and rebuilding teams, Young's market will likely be limited to teams who are looking to contend for the title and feel that bench scoring is their biggest weakness.

For what he provides Young is signed to a solid deal that pays him just over $16 million over the next three seasons.  While he may not be the best defender or playmaker out there his skills in these areas have improved beyond what his reputation suggests.  He could fit well as a contender in a role similar to the one that Jamal Crawford enjoys with the Clippers, coming in to spark the bench and also close out games. 

For the Lakers the problem with trading Young is that the fans have taken a liking to his, well, swagger.  On any given night he's a threat to get hot and carry the offense all on his own, and he plays the game with a flair that can be a lot of fun to watch.  He is a player that's hard not to like and he connects with the fans.  These are things that could prove valuable once Kobe retires after next season and attendance drops.  As such, he may have more value to the Lakers than he does to other teams.
See what I mean?

Still, if the right deal for a young quasi-star comes along the Lakers shouldn't hesitate to part with Young's swag.

3.  Jeremy Lin- Linsanity hasn't made an appearance in LA after all.  While no one expected Lin to return to the numbers that he put up during that magical run in New York the general consensus was that the Houston offense wasn't a great fit for him and that a change of scenery would allow him to better fulfill his potential. 

However, it would appear that we were very, very wrong.  That's not to say that Lin is a terrible player, but most expected him to prove that he was a starting-caliber point guard and to be an aggressive, attacking presence on the offensive end.  Instead Lin has looked unsure of himself, struggling to fit in playing alongside Kobe and unable to provide the kind of defense that Byron Scott needs from him. 

The fact that he lost his starting job to Ronnie Price, a journeyman who was a long-shot to even make the roster, doesn't help Lin's case either.   This is especially troubling since this is the now the second team on which Lin has lost his starting role to a defense-first guard who struggles offensively. 
It's doubtful that the Lakers will want to bring him back next season, but given his struggles to find a footing in LA who is going to want him?  Fortunately for the Lakers advanced statistics are a thing and most of his numbers are on par with the ones that he produced in Houston, where he was considered to be at least a solid backup. 

Given the league-wide depth at the point guard position it's unlikely that the Lakers find a team desperate to add Lin.  Ideally they might be able to find a team that would like to audition Lin in a backup role and would part with a young, under-utilized player in order to do so (similar to the Steve Blake for Kent Bazemore and MarShon Brooks deal last year).   Moving Lin would also free up playing time for Jordan Clarkson, who the Lakers need to find minutes for to aid his development.
Jeremy Lin is also a large expiring contract ($15 million this year but just over $7 million counts towards the cap) so it's possible he could be used in a deal to take back the massive salary of a disgruntled star, similar to the way Kwame Brown's expiring contract helped bring in Pau Gasol years ago.  Those deals are rare these days but it is still an option. 

2. Jordan Hill- Jordan Hill and his dreadlocks have played inconsistently this year but overall he's shown himself to be a starting-quality PF/C .  He can stretch the defense just enough with his 20-foot jumper to create space on the offensive end while providing excellent rebounding.  His rim protection leaves something to be desired but he can be a presence as a weak-side shot blocker.

Statistically Hill has regressed a little since last season, giving some credence to Mike D'Antoni's assertion that Hill plays better in limited minutes when he can fully expend his energy in shorter bursts.  Still, he would be an excellent big man for a contending team to scoop up and use in a platoon with a couple of other solid interior players. 

For the Lakers moving Hill seems to be a no-brainer, as the team isn't going anywhere this season and it remains to be seen if they will want to bring him back next year.  They also have a log-jam in the front court since the acquisition of Tarik Black.  Hill and the untradeable Carlos Boozer are eating up a lot of minutes, and some need to be freed up for younger guys like Black, Ryan Kelly, Robert Sacre, and Ed Davis.  The situation has been so bad that Kelly has had to play small forward in order to get on the floor and Sacre, a young center on a cheap contract, has seen his playing time disappear completely. 

The tricky part of trading Jordan Hill is his contract.  He makes $9 million this year and has a team option for $9 million next season, but unless the option is picked up he is treated as a player on a one year contract, and as such has a de facto no-trade clause.  The team receiving him would not be able to go over the salary cap in order to resign Hill next year, so he would have to agree to any trade unless the second year option is picked up. 

Hill, for his part, has zero incentive to accept a trade that doesn't involve the second year of his deal being picked up.  He is the starting center for the league's most popular franchise, which means his exposure can't get any better.  As a player who is currently on an expiring deal putting up numbers and getting lots of minutes on a bad team can be very lucrative (just ask Nick Young). 

Even so, the Lakers should be able to find a team willing to pick up the option and pay Hill $9 million next year.  With the salary cap rising his deal isn't a bad one, and several teams have need of another big man.  The only question is whether or not the Lakers asking price will be met.  They won't give him away as being able to bring him back next year with their team option provides insurance should they strike out on free agents this summer.  Plus at 27 Hill  isn't past his prime and would be a solid player to have going forward, so the Lakers won't be desperate to deal him unless they get the right offer.

Ultimately though it makes too much sense to not get a deal done.  The Lakers need the minutes for younger players and Hill has value around the league.  If the Lakers can find a team willing to part with a young wing player they will pull the trigger and enjoy the roster balance that comes with it. 
1. Steve Nash- That's right, Steve Nash is still on the Lakers roster..well, his contract is anyway.  The man himself has distanced himself from the team following the preseason announcement that he would miss the season due to nerve issues in his back.

This confirmed what fans already knew: that Nash's career was over, and that Nash should have retired medically (with full pay) last season.  Had he done so his contract would have come off the Lakers books and given them more money to spend last summer.  Nash admitted that he wanted to be paid the remaining $9 million on his contract, but since medical retirement would have provided him just that his decision to not go that route comes off as malicious.  He is now something of a villain in Laker Land (and a hero in Phoenix), but he just may prove useful to the Lakers in spite of his efforts.

Since Nash is missing the season for medical reasons the bulk of his expiring deal is being paid by insurance, which means that any team trading for his contract would not only be getting an expiring deal but also one that will cost them only a fraction of what the deal is actually worth.
Teams looking to dump a large contract to save money can't do much better than that, and it appears as though the Lakers are determined to get something useful out of Steve Nash after all.  Most trades that the Lakers are rumored to be pursuing involve a package of Nash's contract and Houston's 1st round pick, with the goal being to acquire a young talent in return.  Should the Lakers be unsuccessful in that endeavor they may be forced to switch their focus and use Nash's deal to absorb an ugly contract while picking up draft picks as compensation, which just may be the better course for them in the long run anyway. 

Regardless of the outcome the Lakers will explore every opportunity to turn Nash's contract into something valuable, making him the most likely Laker to be traded by the deadline.  

Want more Laker news and analysis?  Follow me on twitter @16ringsNBA! 

Let It Tank

Ok this is sorta anti-Lakers but it's hilarious,  Tank hard!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Welcome to the Lakers Tarik Black

Yesterday the Lakers claimed former-Rockets center Tarik Black off of waivers, giving them yet another unproven big man with some potential.  Black was waived by Houston in order to make room for the incoming Josh Smith.  The Lakers had to waive swingman Xavier Henry to add Black.  Henry is recovering from a torn achilles and is out for the season.

It's not exactly a headline-grabbing move, even though Black did start for the Rockets for a number of games while Dwight Howard was out and has shows the ability to be an excellent rebounder.  However, the true genius of adding Black to the roster is in the details of his contract.  

Black is on an extremely team-friendly deal, making just $507,336 this season.  His contract goes up next year to $845,059, which is still hardly a blip on the radar in the NBA world.  After the 2015-2016 season the Lakers can make him a restricted free agent with a qualifying offer of $1.2 million.  

Now here's beauty part: his contract is also fully unguaranteed.  As a result Black can be waived at any time and his contract instantly comes off the books.  This gives the Lakers tons of flexibility that can allow them to make any number of moves this year and next. 

For example, let's say Black pans out and proves to be a solid NBA backup and someone the Lakers would like to develop.  They would then have a plethora of bigs to put on the trade market, including Jordan Hill, Robert Sacre, Ed Davis, and Ryan Kelly, each with their own strengths that may appeal to certain teams. 

On the flip side if Black shows that he just isn't an NBA-caliber player at this point (which is possible, his PER is actually slightly worse than Sacre's), the Lakers can simply waive him.  It's unlikely they make such a move this season, but doing so over the summer could free up a little extra cap space.  They could also look to trade Black himself to a team looking to gain cap room in exchange for a 2nd rounder or as part of a larger deal. 

The bottom line is that Tarik Black is a very low-risk investment on the part of the Lakers.  If he turns out to be a solid addition then Mitch Kupchak will look like a genius, if not he can be cut with no harm done.  You don't win titles with moves like this one, but every little bit helps.    

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Winter Soldiers

"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."
                  -Thomas Paine
                   December 23rd, 1776

The immortal words of Thomas Paine once echoed through the American colonies, inspiring a wave of patriotism that ultimately led to the British defeat at the hands of George Washington's Continental Army (with a massive assist from the French, Spanish, and Dutch, of course).  

However, when Paine wrote "The Crisis" things weren't going so well for Washington's not-so-merry men.  The excitement of the unlikely triumph at Concord was long gone, as was the cautious optimism stemming from the moral victory at Bunker Hill.  More than a year had passed since those feel-good stories and in that time the American Revolution had played out just like everyone expected it to: with the British dominating.  They had one of the greatest armies on Earth with professional, well equipped soldiers and were taking on a Patriot side that was essentially just farmers with guns.  It was like last season's Lakers, with inspiring wins over the Clippers and Rockets to start the year off but then reality set in that the Lake Show just didn't have the talent to compete.   

The British were rolling and the Continental Army could do nothing but retreat.  Essentially, the British were in LeBron James' version of heaven, where their superteam could coast to one victory after another without having to challenge themselves.  After enduring the British front-running for so long the idealistic Americans were ready to break.  The losing had taken its toll and more than a few were questioning whether maybe, just maybe, this whole "take on the world champs with a bunch of plucky rookies" thing was such a great idea.  

                                     They have tickle fights in LeBron's heaven too.  Don't ask.

The bandwagon began to empty and the great Revolution was running on fumes when Thomas Paine picked up his pen and preached perseverance.  While the credit for the continuation of the Continental Army can't solely go to Paine his words unquestionably made an impact.  It was fitting, as Paine had previously written "Common Sense", the pamphlet which helped inspire the colonial Americans to take up arms against the British.      
When he wrote "The Crisis" Thomas Paine had to find a way to convince the demoralized American troops to continue fighting.  Using his uniquely inspiring style Paine focused on describing a certain character trait that was necessary for success to be found.  While Paine never mentioned this trait by name he alludes to it in his denouncement of the soldiers who were quitting on the Revolution.  What America needed was Winter Soldiers.  

To Paine, what he called Summer Soldiers are today known as front runners.  The guys who are flexing and shouting when things are going their way and they are steamrolling inferior competition, but are quiet as soon as things get tough, the guys who won't do the dirty work necessary to get the win.

*Ugh that's two LeBron references already.  

Instead, Paine reached out to the men who were made from a different stock.  The guys who never stop fighting in spite of the odds.  The men who let nothing stand in their way.  The ones who push themselves farther and farther until history marvels at their greatness.  These were the Winter Soldiers that Paine sought. 

His words found friendly ears, allowing Washington to lead his freshly-inspired troops into a confidence-boosting victory at the Battle of Trenton.  The Revolution was saved.  

Similarly, the Los Angeles Lakers currently find themselves in a moment of crisis.  The greatest franchise in the history of sport has been reduced to record-setting losses and embarrassing play.  

Many fans have hopped off the bandwagon amidst a barrage of heckling and media pessimism.  The haters celebrate the demise of the former Goliath, shouting "how the mighty have fallen!" with a pride that suggests they feel as though they somehow played a part in slaying the giant.  

It appears as though the Los Angeles Lakers are in need of a miracle.  Like the Continental Army they find themselves hopelessly outgunned and overwhelmed on a nightly basis.  Their opponents simply have more firepower, more proven soldiers, and they know what it takes to win.

Washington, of course, could sympathize with Kobe Bryant.  Both men found themselves supported from behind by a rabid fan base that is desperate for victory.  In front of them stood an enemy that appears to be unbeatable  To their left and right, fighting alongside them, was a rag-tag bunch who simply doesn't have what it takes to win.  And yet both men fought on, never willing to admit defeat.  At some point though, even the great ones need help.  

* We've learned three things so far this year: 1- Kobe can still play at a very high level. 2- Kobe has no one on the team he can rely on night-in and night-out. 3- Steve Nash is secretly still a Phoenix Sun...has to be, just no other explanation. 

It's apparent that the Lakers need to re-stock their cupboard, that they need new stars to lead them into the future.  Just as George Washington found his army replenished when the French and Spanish agreed to join him the hope amongst the Laker faithful is that Kobe will eventually get a similar kind of help.  

However, before that can happen the Lakers need to prove themselves worthy of assistance, just as the Continental Army had to prove that they had what it took to win before the French or Spanish would sign on.  Free agents need to see that the Lakers organization will not back down and will keep after it until they are back on top.  

The Lakers quite simply haven't shown that yet.  They are missing a crucial piece: Winter Soldiers.  The thing that Thomas Paine prescribed for the Continental Army nearly 240 years ago is precisely what the Lakers need today. 

Just as Paine wasn't speaking to solely one portion of the army, the entirety of Lakers Nation must find their own Winter Soldiers if the team is going to turn things around.  

The Front Office

Over the past few years the Lakers front office has been faced with one challenge after another, from Stern's heinous actions and Dwight's cowardly ways to the death of the beloved Dr. Buss.  Now the Buss children, most notably Jimmy and Jeanie, have to step in to fill their father's sizeable shoes during the most tumultuous time in Lakers history.

With more questions than answers the media narrative about the Lakers front office seems to be that Mitch is a skilled GM and Jeanie is a competent leader.  Jimmy, on the other hand, makes poor decisions and is undeserving of his position at the helm of basketball operations.  

As a result power agents are sending their clients elsewhere, unconvinced that the front office can right the ship and return the Lakers to glory.  Obviously that is a perception that will take time to change, and that's where Jimmy, Jeanie, and Mitch all must show their ability to be Winter Soldiers.  Jimmy in particular must persevere in spite of all the negative publicity.  Living up to his dad's legacy will be difficult, but in time Jimmy will have the opportunity to win over the legion of Lakers fans.  

With the mounting losses the Lakers front office will continue to be abused in the media.  Jimmy will, rightly or wrongly, continue to be the media's scapegoat.  However, they must not panic.  To swing for the fences too soon through either free agency or trade could result in the team being stuck in mediocrity for much longer than anyone wants to see.  

With limited assets it is increasingly important that the front office continues to make shrewd moves, like the deal with Houston that landed Jeremy Lin and a draft pick.  There have been a number of missed opportunities as well but to be fair the Lakers are in an unfamiliar situation and need to learn how to truly rebuild.  Jimmy and Mitch must be opportunistic in free agency (as they were with Ed Davis) as well as on the trade market.  They need to build a core that will compete hard and generate positive press before they will be able to find the home-run move.  

If they can endure the pain of the rebuilding process and make intelligent, long-term moves the Lakers will find themselves back in the hunt sooner rather than later.   

The Team

Being a Laker is far from easy right now.  The players and coaching staff are reminded constantly that they are failing to live up the franchise's glamorous history, which can affect the confidence of even the most professional players.  

Kobe Bryant does what he can on a nightly basis and continues to defy all those who claim that his career is done.  Still, at 36 he can't be expected to carry a team of journeymen to the playoffs regardless of how superhuman he appears to be. 

The remainder of the Lakers players have to fight through these hard times, and they need to fight for something more than just their next contract.  They need to fight for pride, both in themselves and the organization.  Even as the losses pile up and frustration grows they have to continue to plug away, doing everything they can to improve both as a team and individuals.  

Similarly, Byron Scott and his coaching staff have to continue building a culture.  It takes time for any coach to get adjusted to a new environment, but the early results for Scott have not been positive.  His defense-first approach has fallen flat as the team doesn't have the athletes necessary to become as stingy as Scott would like.  However, the coaching staff must continue to believe that someday the Lakers will be that team, that someday the future will arrive.  

The Continental Army wasn't turned into a fighting force overnight.  George Washington's side was undisciplined and unruly, and he found himself too often pushed into the role of disciplinarian.  Washington resorted to brutal tactics to keep his soldiers in line and in camp, but ultimately the tough love paid off.  When the Prussian drill instructor Baron Von Steuben arrived at Valley Forge he found a group that was inexperienced but malleable, one that could be transformed into something greater.  And  transform them he did, just as Byron Scott must do with the Lakers.  

*If only we could pull a Bill and Ted and bring Baron Von Steuben to Lakers practices.  That would be excellent.

Coach Scott also has to realize that this season is about rebuilding.  It's about establishing a culture not for the team as it's constructed now but for the team that will be brought together in the future.  Being a coach is often a thankless job filled with uncertainty, but the coaching staff must not fall into despair.  Losing doesn't always equate to a loss.  To lose without growing, without building, that would be truly tragic.  Regardless of the record the coaching staff and players must continue to push forward.  

The Fans

For the fans the past few years have been exhausting.  Watching the purple and gold sink into obscurity has been excruciating, especially seeing as it all started with the diabolical actions of David Stern and his unjustifiable veto of the Chris Paul trade.  Since that moment it's been nothing but maddening injuries, free agent misses, and Dwight Howard treachery.  Meanwhile, the basketball being played on the court has been progressively getting worse and worse.  

The current Lakers team is just plain hard to watch as the losses are accumulating quickly.  While it certainly isn't a situation that any fan want to be in there is opportunity to be found amidst the sorrow.  For decades Lakers fans have been labeled as band wagoners, as front-runners who only support the team because of their success.  

The time to change that perception is now.  Lakers Nation must continue to support the purple and gold in spite of the hardships.  Those who make it through these difficult years will come to appreciate the eventual return of Laker glory that much more.  

Going into the battle of Bunker Hill there were many who expected the Patriots to turn and run at the first sight of adversity, just as many around the league expect Lakers fans to do now.  But the Patriots didn't run, they stayed and fought, inflicting massive damage upon the British army and only retreating after they had ran out of ammo.  In fact, they were so reluctant to give up the hill that the Patriot soldiers loaded bits of glass and nails into their rifles after they ran out of ammo, intent on inflicting as much damage as possible.  

It's this kind of attitude that Lakers fans must have now.  Support the franchise, support the coaches, and most of all support the team.  Let the naysayers come and fire back at them.  Prove that Lakers fans do not shrink in times of darkness but instead stand strong.  The juice will be worth the squeeze.  

The Continental Army found their Winter Soldiers and Success followed.  It's time for the Los Angeles Lakers to do the same.

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