The 2008-2009 L.A. Lakers: Entitled for a reason

 When measured by the annals of time, the 2008-2009 Lakers campaign will surely be remembered by the final result and not the journey.  This is true of most seasons, and especially true of a season that resulted in a pivotal victory for two of the game's greatest figures, Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant.  And those pivotal moments (Phil's 10th, Kobe's 1st post-Shaq) have been covered in depth by men much greater than I (or much lesser, depending on how you feel about the mainstream media).  So I'm choosing to use this medium to analyze the journey of the team, because I can't remember another journey anything like it.

 

At the beginning of the year, the Lakers were the prohibitive favorite to win the championship.  Boston was certainly considered a strong contender to repeat, but there were (valid) questions regarding their depth off the bench, and the age of their superstars.  In the West, people pointed to San Antonio and Houston as the main threats to L.A.  Utah was also considered a possibility for the Western crown, but injuries quickly derailed their season.  Portland was too young to be taken seriously, and Denver didn’t yet exist in the form that would reach the playoffs.  Back in the East, no one suspected the level of success that Cleveland and Orlando would have.

 

The Lakers jumped out of the gate hard, looking like an absolute juggernaut.  Over the first month of the season, they were number 1 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.  They were winning games by double digits every single night.  The team looked hungry, ready to prove that all the reasons why they couldn’t obtain a championship the previous year were now reasons why they wouldn’t be stopped.  They had as dominant a one month stretch as has been seen in the NBA since 72-10.  And then it stopped.

From that point on, the Lakers acted like they were the defending champions.  And I don’t mean that as a compliment.  I mean it like the way the Lakers of the Shaq-Kobe era played.  They started playing to the level of their competition every single night.  The best teams resulted in their best efforts, and usually victory.  The worst teams resulted in their worst efforts, and usually victory.  There seemed to be a sense of entitlement to the team all year long, a sense that they felt the championship was already theirs.  They knew what their goal was, and they knew that anything that happened along the way didn't really matter, as long as the final goal was achieved.  So in the mean time, they didn’t work particularly hard, preferring to do just enough to win games.  Sometimes, it resulted in some bad losses.

They wanted the best record in the NBA, but it became clear as the season wore down that they weren't really interested in the best record, or even interested in the home-court advantage that the best record provides.  What they were really interested in was having a better record than the only team they considered a true threat to their final goal, the Celtics.  This is purely conjecture on my part, but it sure seemed like the Lakers stopped caring a whole lot about home-court advantage when it became clear that Cleveland was the only one who could take it from them.  I don't think the team felt all that threatened by Cleveland, or the prospect of having to win games in Cleveland to secure a championship.  The result was a lot of victories, but not a lot of dominance.

This rubbed a lot of people, especially non-Lakers fans, the wrong way.  Teams aren’t supposed to get that sort of attitude until they’ve actually won something.  The Spurs were allowed slow starts and stretches of uninspired play because they were a veteran team that’s been through the battles many times before.  Shaq was allowed to use the regular season to get into shape because he was a champion, and everyone knew (or thought they knew) that he’d be ready in the end.  What had this Lakers team done to deserve such an attitude?  Weren’t they the team that got crushed in their last game of the prior season?  Shouldn’t that game have left a bitter taste in their mouth that could only be satisfied by stepping on the throat of every team that came against them?  This led to universal criticism.  The mainstream media either criticized the Lakers for not being focused, or said the team wasn’t as good as previously advertised.  The Laker haters criticized them for being arrogant and smug.  Laker nation criticized them for not living up to their full potential.  Hell, once the playoffs started and there was still no sense of urgency, I criticized them for their disrespect to the game.

Make no mistake, these were/are all valid criticisms.  The Lakers were arrogant to think that they didn’t need to play their hardest against clearly inferior teams.  They definitely did not live up to their full potential during the regular season.  The way they came out in Game 4 against Houston, assuming the Rockets would keel over and die without their 7’6" anchor, was disrespectful to the game.  The point of a year in review isn’t to sweep all negatives under the rug simply because everything ended up roses.  I don’t believe in revisionist history.  The 2008-2009 Lakers were a flawed team, they just weren’t flawed in a way that could be taken advantage of by somebody else.  Their flaw was in knowing, and acting like they knew, that they had no real flaws on the court.

And, in retrospect, we shouldn’t be too surprised that a young team who hadn’t actually won anything would adopt this attitude, because the attitude comes from leadership.  This team as a whole is not filled with players who have "been there before".  But, at the top of the totem pole are a coach and two players who know all about it, having "been there" quite a few times between them.  So the young team took its cue from Phil Jackson, and was never bothered by a loss, or a close win against a lesser team.  Perhaps, in taking that lesson from their coach, they lacked the maturity and professionalism to know that they still needed to try hard every night along the way.

In the end, they were also right.  The Lakers were the best team in the NBA all year long.  No matter how many times they lost to Charlotte in the regular season, no matter how many games against cellar dwellers went down to the final seconds, the Lakers were supremely confident in their ability to get it done.  There’s a thin line between confidence and arrogance, and the Lakers trounced all over that line.  But, much like the Babe calling his shot, their arrogance/confidence proved to be justified.  Winning the championship validates the high opinion they had of themselves.  Whether it excuses them is up to you.

I’ve given up trying to pass judgment, positive or negative, on this team.  That, dear reader, is your choice to make.  Simply know this:  The Lakers don’t care what you think.  They don’t care if you love them or hate them.  They don’t care if you think their effort was commendable or shameful.  All they care about, all they’ve ever cared about, is the pot (ball?) of gold at the end of the rainbow.  Whether you think the ends justifies the means or not, know that the Lakers think exactly that.  They got the end they wanted, so they could care less about the means they took to get there.  

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