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Lakers' latest comments show the mustard's off the hot dog

The Lakers official was stating a truth that was evident for years.

But that truth no longer exists, making it the wrong thing to say, and a worse thing to believe.

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“When you have 16 banners there’s going to be a natural envy from your competitors because you’re sitting at the top of the food chain,’’ Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka told reporters on draft night.

Yes, the Lakers franchise, dating to its days in Minneapolis, has won 16 banners.

But no, the Lakers are not sitting at the top of the food chain. They’re scrambling close to the bottom. They haven’t made the playoffs in five years. They haven’t won a playoff series in six years. They haven’t made it past the second round in eight years.

Their last championship acquisition was Pau Gasol in 2008. Their last championship free-agent signing was Ron Artest in 2009.

Artest is no longer Artest, and the Lakers no longer are the Lakers. If they don’t approach the upcoming free-agent season with that understanding, they’re going to come up empty again.

In the fight to lure LeBron James and Paul George — outcomes that are mired in uncertainty — the Lakers do not need to emphasize all those hanging banners, but rather the emptiness where there are no banners.

They don’t need to expound on their greatness. They need to emphasize their need to be great again, and the legacy that awaits someone who can lead them there. Don’t talk about Kobe Bryant, talk about the void he left behind, and how this smart and savvy marketplace will embrace someone who can create his own story. Don’t sell this as being part of history, sell it as forging a new history.

Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson have their work cut out for them this summer.
Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson have their work cut out for them this summer. (Nick Ut / Associated Press)

Make it about the basketball. Make it all about the basketball. Keep owner Jeanie Buss involved; she’s the basketball history. Make coach Luke Walton part of the pitch; he’s the basketball present.

Sometimes it seems like the entire Lakers offseason strategy is the staging of the Magic and Pelinka Show, and in a room with sophisticated free agents and their reps, that’s not going to be enough.

Please, never, ever, ever again mention this thing about the top of the food chain. Everyone knows you’ve been devoured in more than half of your games for five consecutive years.

Talk, instead, about being hungry. Talk about how the humbling of this organization has turned the hunted back into hunters. Offer an opportunity to pick up and carry a fallen franchise back to glory. Everything that Jerry West did to sell Shaquille O’Neal back in the summer of 1996? Say that.

It seems an impossible task to portray basketball’s most glamorous organization as underdogs, but figure it out. Make it work. Hollywood’s Hoosiers.

Scheme, sell and, more than anything, remember.

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In the last five summers, the Lakers have led the league in free-agent strikeouts. Nobody has taken more swings with bigger whiffs. Four of those years came under a previous regime, but it’s still been the Lakers brand, trying to sell itself strictly as the Lakers brand, and it’s failed miserably.

It is no coincidence the summer chaos all happened since the death of owner Jerry Buss in February 2013. He was their closer. He was The Laker.

The Lakers have 16 championship banners, but none since 2010.
The Lakers have 16 championship banners, but none since 2010. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Buss could walk into a room and sell Showtime because he invented Showtime. Nobody will ever be able to do that again. Magic was hired to replace Buss in the room; it’s the only reason he was hired, but he can’t just show up and expect results like his second father once did.

For five years’ worth of free-agent meetings, different Lakers officials have acted like the player would be lucky to be a Laker, failed to give any real basketball hope, and prospective acquisitions have walked away shaking their heads.

In 2013, it was Dwight Howard, and while I didn’t want him, and you may not have wanted him … at the time, the Lakers really wanted him.

They hung Howard-adorned banners and billboards around town reading “Stay.’’ They tried to dazzle him with as much Hollywood as hardwood. Then they brought Kobe Bryant into the room and he essentially told Howard that if he was going to stay, he would need to listen to him more. While that was true, that wasn’t exactly a recruiting pitch, and Howard left $30 million on the table to go to Houston.

Bryant was recently as strident regarding James’ complaints that he didn’t have enough help to win a title in Cleveland this year.

“If I’m Bron, you got to figure out a way to win,’’ Bryant told Howard Beck of Bleacher Report. “It’s not about narrative. You want to win championships, you just gotta figure it out.’’

OK, well, that’s not exactly a great recruiting pitch either, especially since Bryant himself once demanded to be traded if he didn’t get help, resulting in the Lakers’ acquisition of Gasol and two consecutive championships.

Howard was just the start of a string of Lakers stumbles.

In 2014, they failed in a meeting with Carmelo Anthony, then let Gasol walk for less money.

In 2015, they swung and missed on LaMarcus Aldridge twice, first with an awful courtship meeting, and then again when he gave them a second chance, both times failing to sell him on their actual plans for where he would play on the court.

In 2016, Kevin Durant wouldn’t even give them a meeting, telling reporters they were still “a couple of years away,’’ and wound up signing with the true top of the food chain in Golden State. The Lakers countered by giving horrific contracts to Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng, decisions that still haunt them.

In 2017, in Johnson and Pelinka’s first offseason running the team, they drafted Lonzo Ball, a decision initially praised in this space, but one that has since given great pause.

So now they have another chance, and they cannot come up empty again, no matter how much they will tell you, it’s OK, they can get it right in free agency next summer.

They need to return to the playoffs, now. They need somebody to help them get there, now. They can’t take it for granted that somebody will show up because right now, maybe everybody shows up, and maybe nobody shows up.

George is not a done deal, he could play one more year in Oklahoma City. James is not a done deal; he likely won’t come here alone. If San Antonio won’t trade Kawhi Leonard to the Lakers and George stays with the Thunder, maybe James stays in Cleveland?

The Lakers need to work this. They need to work it smartly, not arrogantly. The Lakers need a plan, and it can’t be just a plan titled, “We’re The Lakers.’’

Because, right now, they’re not.

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