The Los Angeles Lakers don’t do losing. This is a franchise that has won the second-most championships and games of any team in NBA history, and has gone to the NBA Finals more than any other team. They have attracted more stars than any other franchise, from Wilt Chamberlain to Magic Johnson to Kobe Bryant, and dominate the fanbase in the country’s second-largest market despite sharing a building with another team. Until a few years ago, the longest the Lakers had gone without making the playoffs was two seasons in 1975 and 1976.
But now, the era of Lakers exceptionalism is coming to an end. The franchise hasn’t made the postseason since 2013 and has suffered its four worst seasons by total losses in its history over that span. The last five years have featured more dysfunction and failure than the previous 30 combined.
It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly the downfall began. After winning the 2010 championship, the Lakers lost in the second round in back-to-back playoffs, prompting major changes in the summer of 2012. They traded for Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, teaming them with Bryant and Pau Gasol and creating what many thought would be the next great superteam. However, Bryant and Howard clashed off the court, and the 38-year-old Nash’s body started breaking down. The Lakers struggled to a 45-37 record, and Bryant tore his Achilles in the 80th game of the regular season. They were swept by the eventual champion Spurs in the first round, Howard departed for Houston in free agency, and Nash and Bryant were never able to return to form. Without a star, the team went on to struggle through five losing seasons.
But the issues really began when team owner Jerry Buss died in February 2013, just two months before Bryant’s catastrophic injury. Buss bought the team in 1979 and the Lakers immediately became the most successful team in the last 40 years, winning 10 championships under his leadership. But Buss’ biggest contributions came in the realm of style.
Magic Johnson came to town the same year that Buss bought the team and, together, they ushered in the Showtime era. Johnson’s flashy passing and breakneck pace made the Lakers the most entertaining team in the league, while Buss used his connections and business savvy to make games at The Forum in Inglewood a hot spot for celebrities. Laker games were an event, a place to be seen just as much as a place to watch great basketball.
That didn’t change when the Lakers moved into Staples Center and began their three-peat with Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. The Lakers had the two biggest stars in the game, and Buss knew how to sell them, dimming the lights shining on the audience and transforming the hardwood into a stage and players into performers. Even as the team struggled at the end of Bryant’s career and after his retirement, Lakers games remained a popular attraction for reasons outside of basketball alone.
But event culture can only take you so far in a results-based business. Time after time, Buss made the right calls that maintained the Lakers’ standing as a great basketball team: He promoted Pat Riley to head coach and was rewarded with four championships. He stuck with Jerry West as general manager after some down years in the early ‘90s, which brought O’Neal, Bryant and three more championships to the team. And he convinced Bryant to stay with the team after the star shooting guard demanded a trade in 2007, bringing the team two more championships. Buss was more than an entertainer and a fantastic businessman. He had the basketball knowledge to pick the right people and enough humility to stay out of the way when needed.
But after his death, the franchise that always seemed to make the right decisions began to fall victim to frequent mistakes. Mitch Kupchak, the general manager for each of Bryant’s title teams, was unable to bring in productive veterans and couldn’t pick young players who could return the Lakers to their former glory. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, the new decision-makers, continued this ineptitude. Perhaps their worst move was trading guard D’Angelo Russell after just two years with the team. In his fourth year in the league, Russell is averaging 20.5 points, 6.7 assists and earned an All-Star nod. His replacement, Lonzo Ball, still can’t shoot and has missed 42 games to injury in a season and a half.
The team did land LeBron James this summer, but James has done more to shine the light on the Lakers’ inadequacies than to open up new opportunities. The team tried to strongarm the New Orleans Pelicans into trading them Anthony Davis at the trade deadline before other teams had better opportunities this summer, and were summarily embarrassed when the plot didn’t work out in their favor. They are on the outside looking in at the playoff picture, with a below .500 record and the third-worst point differential in the Western Conference despite having the greatest player in the world on the team. Even accounting for the games James has missed, the effort this season has been disappointing.
The Lakers have star talent and are still a big draw. But amid the worst stretch in franchise history, it’s worth wondering if the Lakers will ever truly return to their royal form.
Aidan Berg is a sophomore writing about sports. He is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Berg is the Word,” runs every other Tuesday.