Column

Lakers are in denial of shrinking status in NBA

The Lakers are no longer the Lakers.

The basketball world knows it, their front office needs to own it, and the Buss children need to start acting like it if they have any chance of becoming the Lakers again.

The Lakers are no longer the Lakers, and have not been since their last championship in 2010 coincided with the beginning of the physical decline of owner Jerry Buss. When Buss died in February 2013, an aura of invincibility died with him, and the family's ensuing efforts to imitate his giant footsteps, instead of forging their own path in basketball's new era, have resulted only in embarrassment and defeat.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Lakers' image: In the July 5 Sports section, a column about the Los Angeles Lakers' failure to lure big-name free agents was accompanied by an incorrect photo caption. LaMarcus Aldridge, who left Portland as a free agent and turned down the Lakers, has agreed to sign with San Antonio, as the article noted, not with Dallas. —
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Buss was a charismatic visionary whose genius gave the team a golden credibility that resonated throughout the league. People paid attention. People felt lucky to be in his presence. When Buss was running things, it seemed that whoever the Lakers wanted, the Lakers got, from the coin flip draft of Magic Johnson, to the signing of Shaquille O'Neal, to the trades for Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.

Now, when the Lakers talk, those same people just shrug and turn away, witness the case of LaMarcus Aldridge, the former Portland Trail Blazers power forward who was the free-agent centerpiece to the Lakers reloading efforts this summer.

When the news broke Saturday that Aldridge was going to sign with San Antonio, it marked the third consecutive off-season that the Lakers failed to convince an All-Star to wear their uniform. First there was the billboard-size failure to retain Dwight Howard, and, while that failure was applauded in this space, the Lakers really did want him. Then last season they failed to sell not only a guy from across the country named Carmelo Anthony, but also a guy in their own locker room named Gasol.

Now, they lose out on Aldridge, the most compelling of the humiliations, not only because they were one of two favorites to win his services, and not even because he turned them down after two pitch meetings because the first one went so badly. The scariest part of this failure is that they blew it with Aldridge by trying to sell a brand that no longer exists. It was as if the Lakers officially became the last people on Earth to realize they are no longer the Lakers.

They tried to sell Showtime, a marketing and entertainment phenomenon that is available today in all sizes of NBA markets, just ask Kevin Durant. They tried to sell Hollywood, which in today's NBA can happen in Oakland, just ask Steph Curry. They tried to sell Bryant, who attended the first pitch meeting even though he will probably be an active Laker for only another 10 months, and even though his presence insinuates a team power structure that his retirement would make irrelevant.

Only in the end did the Lakers try to sell Aldridge on the future of their basketball. But because they have been bereft of talent since the Buss children handcuffed their roster by giving Bryant a two-year, $48.5-million appreciation contract in December 2013 — once again, living in the age of Jerry Buss — their basketball future is muddled.

And if you don't want to believe some silly sportswriter, check out the credentials of all those players who turned them down this summer even after being personally pitched.

Aldridge lives in Southern California, and has viewed the Lakers closely for nine years in the same conference, and still wouldn't sign here. Greg Monroe, a Detroit Pistons free agent who has never been on a team that has won more than 32 games, didn't consider the Lakers winners and ended up Milwaukee. DeAndre Jordan has watched them from across the hall for seven years, didn't like what he saw, and is now in Dallas.

The courting of Aldridge was as ill-conceived as the master plan that included him. Once again, that plan was based on the Lakers still thinking they were the Lakers.

Flash back to this summer's NBA draft, when the Lakers stunned the basketball world by passing up big man Jahlil Okafor to select guard D'Angelo Russell. When the gold dust settled, the word out of Lakers camp was that they passed on the traditional franchise-changing giant because they were confident they could fill that spot with Aldridge in free agency. In other words, the Russell pick carried an undercurrent of the old Lakers entitlement that they can have whoever they want.

Not anymore. The basketball populous doesn't view them as royalty anymore. The players rarely stop to chat with Jack Nicholson anymore. The Laker Girls are in every NBA city. O'Neal is a TV personality, Magic owns a baseball team, Bryant will soon be 37, Jerry West works in Oakland and Phil Jackson is probably still waiting for Jim Buss to call him back.

Once again the Lakers have been reminded by the rest of the league that they are nothing special, which will lead to a third consecutive season that could be something terrible. Their failure to sign Aldridge leaves them stuck with two point guards, an underachieving big man in Roy Hibbert, who basically was run out of Indiana, and little chance of playing beyond April.

It will be emotional watching Bryant's potential last season, and fun to watch Russell, fellow 2014 first-round pick Julius Randle and upstart Jordan Clarkson try to figure it out. But mostly, it will be sad to watch a franchise so rooted in its past that it can't figure out how to create a future.

The best idea to make them the Lakers again is the same idea that many have supported since Jerry Buss' death. Jeanie Buss, who is the club president but defers to brother Jim on basketball matters, needs to take control of the basketball operation and hire some forward thinkers who understand the mind of the modern player and can take the front office into the age of analytics. Jeanie needs to reinvent the brand with less Hollywood glitz and more Hollywood brains, with less sentimentality and more cutting edges.

But Jeanie has said she is going to give her brother two more years to figure it out, apparently basing that timetable on Jim's statement to The Times' Mike Bresnahan last year that he would step down if he didn't turn this team around in three seasons.

That now seems like too much time. One more summer like this should be enough to trigger massive changes, especially since next summer should be a Lakers rebuilding bonanza. That's when Bryant's contract finally comes off the books, leaving the team with heaps of cap space and piles of available money, enough ammunition with enough available free agents — yeah, Durant — to return to greatness.

If Jim Buss can't get it done next summer, he never will. If Jeanie Buss won't make changes necessary after that, she never will.

The Buss family has made such a positive impact on this community for so long, both in the standings and the stands, that so far there has been little public pressure for them to sell the team. But that time could be coming. If next summer does not hold the first fruitful days of a new era, that could be the last straw.

The owners of the Lakers have to figure out a way to turn themselves back into the Lakers again, or their flickering torch needs to be passed to someone who can.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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