The gambling industry is one of the most robust and profitable in the world, because the house always wins. And yet, year after year, people find themselves at the track, in the casino or at the counter of their local liquor store with a scratcher in their hands. Why? Are people stupid? No. The greatest force behind the success and continuity of gambling is not the hope of victory or of wealth, but the thrill of playing the game. People will do anything to seek the right kind of thrill. They will pay hundreds of dollars to strap giant rubber bands to their ankles and jump off a bridge, or jump out of an airplane with nothing between them and an almost certain death besides 1/8 of an inch of well distributed fabric. Comparatively, losing a couple hundred bucks over the course of a night can be deemed cheap entertainment.
If one participates in gambling for the thrill, there is no more thrilling activity in gambling than uttering the phrase "All In". It is a move from which there is no going back, a bet after which no further bets can be made. It is the ultimate staking of your flag, a communication of confidence, either feigned or genuine, that what you have in your possession can not be beaten. The subject matter need not be limited to cards or dice. You can go "all in" on anything, like an idea for a business or the choice of a career. Or the creation of a basketball team.
That's exactly what the Los Angeles Lakers have done. In acquiring Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, the Lakers have thrown every last chip in their sizable stack into the center of the table, and make no mistake; it is most certainly a gamble. Steve Nash will be 40 years old by the time his contract with the Lakers expires. Kobe Bryant will be top 10 all-time in minutes played. Dwight Howard has provided no guarantee besides the smile on his face that he will still be here in 12 months. His impending free agency doesn't require that the Lakers win it all in their first attempt with this amalgam of superstars, but there is pressure to have some success to keep this environment a happy one. The worst case scenario, an injury to Nash or to Kobe, frayed egos and a lack of familiarity leading to an early playoff exit and Howard catching the first plane out of town, is not very difficult to imagine.
The best case scenario is also easy to envision: An offense brimming with options and one of the finest offensive minds in the history of the game playing quarterback. A defense anchored in the middle by the best defensive player in a generation, and by two perimeter defenders with 16 All-Defense nominations between them. No team has ever had four players with a PER above 20 in the same season. One year ago, the foursome of Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol all achieved the feat for their various employers. The best case scenario for the 2012-2013 Lakers is not an NBA championship. The best case scenario, where everything clicks and everybody performs and nobody gets hurt or falls of a cliff, will be nothing short of historic. There is a decent argument to be made that the Lakers could have the best starting five in NBA history. Those are the stakes, and those are the swings. With so many possibilities, both good and bad, you now have a decision to make.
How much do you buy in?
You see, rooting for a sports team is a gamble unto itself. You make a decision about how much you want to support a team, how much of your heart and soul (and wallet) you want to pour into caring what happens to a collection of millionaires who are paid vast sums of money to play a game you'd gladly play for free. It is a gamble, because the payoff for winning and the debt for losing vary significantly based on your input. Some fans will tell you that they never waver, that they always commit full emotional investment in their team, but that is bullshit. We are fond of saying around these parts that the Lakers play only for championships, and nothing else matters, but that doesn't mean we were as invested in last year's team as in the championship winning (and losing) teams of years past. I certainly wasn't. The strongest emotion coursing through my veins at the end of last season was resignation, not devastation. "Championship or bust" is all well and good, but when you know that "or bust" is the more likely scenario, its only natural to prepare your mind accordingly.
This season, you do not have the luxury of an "expectation" safety net. All expectations surrounding this team are null and void. We don't know if Dwight Howard will return immediately to form from his back injury. We don't know if Steve Nash will survive away from the mystical powers of the Phoenix Suns training staff. We don't know if Pau Gasol can be rejuvenated by a point guard who shares his love of, well, sharing. And we don't know how Kobe Bryant will handle being on a team with so, so much talent. The Lakers could take the league by storm en route to banner 17. They could stumble through the regular season and fall prey to a team that understands each other better. And the only consensus amongst the people who "know" things is that the Lakers should be good. They are not considered the favorites.
But who am I kidding? None of it matters. I don't care whether people think Kobe and Dwight or Kobe and Steve or Kobe and everybody might not co-exist. I don't care whether people think Steve Nash can't really continue to be effective into his forties. I don't care whether the Lakers are at a familiarity disadvantage, or whether the drop off in talent between spots 4 and 5 on the roster is akin to Mount Everest. The Lakers went all in this summer, and I'm going with them. Somewhere between abject failure and legendary success lies an 82 game reality that will reveal itself at a predetermined pace. I, we, will be there every step of the way. In the end, there will be jubilation or devastation. There are no other options.
After a couple years of going through the motions, while following a team that did the same, I will be happy just to be able to feel that thrill again. No matter where it leads.