The Los Angeles Lakers And The Fall Of Empires

EL SEGUNDO, CA - MAY 31: Jim Buss, executive vice president of basketball operations of the Los Angeles Lakers, listens to Lakers new coach Mike Brown's speach during his introductory news conference at the team's training facility on May 31, 2011 in El Segundo, California. Brown replaced Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who retired at the end of this season. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

You don't need to read between the lines to see storm clouds gathering around the Los Angeles Lakers. You need only observe the negativity surrounding all facets of the franchise. Despite last night's victory over the Portland Trailblazers, the team has struggled to find any real footing. Their record isn't terrible, but neither is it encouraging of the type of success that Lakerland, to say nothing of Kobe Bryant, demands. The roster is depressing due to notable gaps that have existed for ages, and the lack of depth surrounding the three stars on which the Lakers continue to hang their hats. The coaching staff seems, if not necessarily poor outright, ill-fitting with the personnel at their fingertips. Aside from the occasional victory on the court, there is rarely any kind of good news. The team's unsurprising lack of chemistry had me comparing the situation to the fall of Rome.

Well, if Ken Berger's latest opus is to be taken at face value, I had the wrong empire.

There's a certain comfort in comparing the Lakers to Rome, even in mentioning Rome's eventual decline. The obvious allure is that the Roman empire was the pinnacle of Western society. Its longevity, its size, and its contribution to the foundations of modern societies all ensure that, while the Roman empire no longer exists, it is spoken of with respect and reverence. If the Lakers are the Rome of the NBA, that's not a bad thing, even if it must eventually come to an end.

More importantly, the fall of Rome was such a gradual process that there are spirited debates as to the exact cause. Was it disease, or malaise on the part of the Roman citizen? Was it technology or a series of catastrophic events? There isn't one specific answer, and that's a good thing. It indicates that there was nothing inherently wrong with the empire's foundation, and that the reason for its decline is most aptly explained by the universe's natural progression towards change. Change is inevitable, nothing is permanent; Rome couldn't maintain its power and Kobe Bryant's Lakers won't be able to either. There's no shame in that, and there is solace to be taken from the fact that, while Rome eventually ceased to exist, the ideas that made up Rome's foundation were so solid that they continue to be utilized today. The empire may be gone, but its imprint on the world is not.

That's how I'd like to think of the Los Angeles Lakers in their current incarnation. Once great, clearly weakening, but based upon a foundation that is immortal. This is how the Lakers have been able to rebuild so many times throughout their history, from Mikan to West to Jabbar to Magic to Shaq to Kobe. These emperors were all (relatively) short lived, but the empire has maintained because its foundation has been the best in the sport. The team can always be rebuilt around a new emperor, and relative to the basketball world, it can be rebuilt in a day. We've seen it happen.

This time, it's different. This time, it is the foundation that is causing the decline. This time, all of the weakness, all of the failure, can be traced back to a single source ... Jim Buss. I'll let Ken Berger take it from here with some of the choicest words in the above linked column:

[T]he real motivation behind Bryant going public was to shed light on the dysfunctional, borderline comical way the Lakers are handling their basketball business and hope it prompts someone to fix it..

The Lakers' front office is an uncommunicative, rudderless fiasco, and the unrest and paranoia that have been festering for years threaten to derail the team's plans to ride Bryant to his sixth NBA title while they still can. And much of it can be traced to the growing influence of executive vice president Jim Buss, the owner's bon vivant son, who has helped transform a great franchise into a steaming pool of nepotism and nincompoops.

...

None of [the people who were let go prior to the lockout], who formed what a longtime NBA executive called one of the best front office staffs in the league, was given the courtesy of knowing whether they would be brought back after the lockout ended. Some are still waiting for that phone call.

...

Even people who work in the basketball operations department have "no clue who's on the staff," said a person with direct knowledge of the organization's structure.

"It would be interesting to find out who's doing the scouting," the person said.

...

Of the three college scouts listed in the Lakers' media guide, Ryan West -- Jerry's son -- is the only one with a résumé and a workload. The others are Jesse Buss, who's currently unable to travel due to an injured leg, and a guy known throughout the organization simply as "Chaz." His name in the media guide is Charles Osborne, and supposedly he's a nice guy.

"A good guy," said a person who has dealt with the Lakers' front-office dysfunction in various management roles with other teams. "Great bartender."

That's not a description of the fall of Rome. Those are not the issues of an empire weakened only by the progression of time and a series of unfortunate events. An unclear vision for the future, a clear lack of communication at the highest levels, the sacrifice of job performance at the hands of friends and family, nepotism and idiocy as the rules of the day ... we're not witnessing the gradual decline of a once great empire. This is more drastic, more absolute. Right before our very eyes, we're witnessing the fall of the French Monarchy. And Jim Buss is our Louis XV.

For those of you not so historically inclined, we go to the Wikipedia

Louis enjoyed a favorable reputation at the beginning of his reign and earned the epithet "le Bien-Aimé" ("the Beloved"). In time, the debauchery of his court, his ill-advised financial policies, the return of the Austrian Netherlands (which were gained following the Battle of Fontenoy) at Aix-la-Chapelle, and the cession of New France at the conclusion of the Seven Years' War led Louis to become one of the most unpopular kings in the history of France. He even suffered an assassination attempt in 1757. However, his reign saw the incorporation of Lorraine and Corsica to the Kingdom.

Uninterested in politics and largely influenced by his chief mistress, Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV's decisions damaged the power of France, weakened the treasury, discredited the absolute monarchy, and arguably led to the French Revolution which broke out 15 years after his death.

Debauchery of the court? Check (You caught the part about the Lakers having a good bartender in their scouting department, right?). Ill-advised financial policies? How about making cost-cutting moves to the front office personnel and pinching pennies on the roster at the same time the Lakers are bringing in the biggest individual team television contract in NBA history? The return of a once controlled province ... How about the Lakers giving away Lamar Odom at the beginning of the year? The cession of New France hasn't happened yet, but just watch the fanbase shrink if things continue down this path. It won't be the emptying of a bandwagon. It will be the revolt of a people who are unhappy with how their team is being governed. Hell, even the term Berger used to describe Jim Buss, a bon vivant, is a French term used to describe the very same French aristocracy that contributed to the monarchy's gruesome demise.

You might be thinking to yourself ... why does this matter? The fall of Rome, the fall of the French Monarchy, it's all the same in the end. Either way, the Lakers are headed down a path we don't like. Either way, the Lakers are going to be less successful than the team to which we've become accustomed. Here's why it matters: Rome's decline was so gradual that nobody can pinpoint exactly why it occurred. The ideals of Roman society continue to live on throughout the Western world. The French monarchy, on the other hand, met with an end so abrupt, so drastic, that French society would never be the same again. You know how many ideals of absolute monarchy remain in the modern, developed world? None. Zilch. The absolute monarchy is completely and utterly dead anywhere but in the third world.

Whenever the Los Angeles Lakers have had to look into the face of change previously, there was always hope for a bright future. The team dynamics, the names on the jerseys, the style of play, all of it might change, but there was always the knowledge that the team's ideals, its goals, and its ability to reinvent and rebuild would always be second to none. With a foundation strong enough, you can always, always rebuild. But now we stand on the precipice of a new era, one in which the new leader of our little empire seems intent on running it into the ground with poor policies and heavy handed favoritism. It's the type of situation from which empires never recover, from which the only kind of change possible is drastic, revolutionary change.

If lessons are to be learned from history, the Los Angeles Lakers might never be the same. I'm not looking forward to a world where they might be any different.

[Author's Note: Obviously, in order to take this seriously, one must believe in the source material from Ken Berger. Berger's a respected journalist and he has sources, though few of them are named and the ones that are don't say anything of note. In the end, take what he says with however many grains of salt as you like. I'm always hesitant to believe it when somebody tells me exactly what I want to hear, or more appropriately, what I expect to hear. But personally, I take his article at face value, and therefore stand by the proclamations of inherent doom herein. If you don't buy in to front office discord, you'll probably disagree.]

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