("What went wrong this season?" is the question we get the most from fans at Silver Screen & Roll. The 2012-2013 team had championship expectations, but a convergence of worst case scenarios kicked down LA to the the fringes of playoff contention. In this post series, we'll be taking a look at just what went wrong with each part of the Los Angeles Lakers this year, how it affected the organization and if this could be a problem going forward. Check out our examinations of the guards, big men and head coaches from this past week.)
What went wrong with the 2012-2013 Los Angeles Lakers ... front office?
June 28, 2012: Selected C Robert Sacre with the 60th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft
July 11, 2012: Sign-and-trade deal for PG Steve Nash, 3 years, $28 million (traded a 2013 1st round draft pick, a 2013 2nd round draft pick, a 2014 2nd round draft pick and a 2015 1st round draft pick to the Phoenix Suns)
July 25, 2012: Signed PF Antawn Jamison for 1 year, $1.3 million
July 25, 2012: Re-signed PF Jordan Hill for 2 years, $8 million
August 10, 2012: Traded for C Dwight Howard, PG Chris Duhon and F Earl Clark, sending C Andrew Bynum to the Philadelphia 76ers and PF Josh McRoberts, PG Christian Eyenga and a 2017 1st round draft pick to the Orlando Magic
August 13, 2012: Signed SG Jodie Meeks to 2 years, $2.9 million (2nd year team option)
What went wrong with the 2012-2013 Los Angeles Lakers front office?
The team double-downed on age and experience, and it couldn't have gone worse.
Four potential Hall of Famers, six former All-Stars and a boatload of expectations. What could go wrong?
The Lakers went into last summer after two consecutive second round playoff exits with some serious questions and a capped-out roster that would make it potentially difficult to make any significant moves. Even with Derek Fisher on the team, LA had a significant hole at point guard, as well as one of the league's most unproductive benches. Andrew Bynum had his healthiest season ever, earning his first spot on 1st Team All-NBA, but it was unclear whether or not he could be counted on as a max-contract player when he became a free agent in 2013. The Lakers looked like a very good but not great team on the downslide that would either have to completely rebuild or suffer a slow, withering death. It didn't look great, to say the least.
However, in true Lakers fashion, when the future always looks the darkest, fate swings in and grants the Show a reprieve. Over the course of a month, the front office decided to go all-in with the remaining years left in Kobe Bryant's career, gamble on their future and double down on championship glory.
The first step was a formerly unthinkable trade for chief Lakers nemesis over the past decade Steve Nash, who came to the team on a sign-and-trade deal that sent two 1st round and two 2nd round picks to the Phoenix Suns. Aside from his obvious skills as a point guard, many thought a ring-less Nash would bring LA a championship hunger to erase a growing sense of complacency over the past two seasons. The former two-time MVP was signed to a 3-year deal, which would finish up months after his 41st birthday.
The second step was fortifying a reserve unit that had ranked as one of the league's worst in 2011-2012. On the same day in July, the Lakers re-signed Jordan Hill as well as former All-Star Antawn Jamison to come off the bench. Hill had come to the Lakers in the Derek Fisher deadline day trade, surprisingly contributing late in the season with his extraordinary athleticism and defense. The former lottery pick had "bust" written all over him in stops with the Knicks and Rockets, not to mention a sketchy injury history that included knee and back ailments. Even more surprising, Jamison came to the Lakers for the veteran's minimum in a move that signaled the 36 year-old was interested in winning a ring and not much else. A few weeks later, the team signed Jodie Meeks, a sharp shooting guard who threw up threes with no regard for human life. In Jamison and Hill, the Lakers were using up their few (and thus valuable) resources in signing an injury-prone and aging player, respectively.
Finally, the biggest step: dealing Andrew Bynum for All-Star Dwight Howard. The trade had been in the rumor mill for over a year, with the Lakers seeming like the natural landing place to add to their trophy case of great centers. All it took to get Dwight to LA was several failed trades with the Brooklyn Nets, an awkward interview with Stan Van Gundy and finally a four-team deal involving 12 players and several draft picks.
Part of the logic was the Lakers thinking they had an Andrew Bynum at the top of his value, and that building a franchise around a center who had multiple knee surgeries wasn't a smart idea. The other thought was that...well, it's Dwight Howard! The former three-time Defensive Player of the Year was considered the consensus best center in the game, and one of the league's three most indispensable players along with LeBron James and Kevin Durant. With Howard in the middle, Lakers management figured that he'd be able to single-handedly make up for the defensive shortcomings of a veteran roster, just as he did in Orlando with similarly lacking Magic teams. Like some of his new teammates, Dwight wasn't without his disclaimers--he had missed the last part of the season after undergoing back surgery, and wasn't guaranteed to be ready for the start of the season. Still, the front office bet big on Howard, not only on his health, but in that he'd be an unrestricted free agent in just a year's time.
In hindsight, it's easy to write about the seemingly obvious red flags. But at the time, writers and the general NBA fan base at large felt that the Lakers were teeming with so much talent that a high playoff seed was a forgone conclusion. It was that easy.
And then...well...you know what happened.
Everything that the Buss family and GM Mitch Kupchak bet on saw the dealer draw a 21. All the veterans the Lakers bet on succumbed to injuries and, as expected, took much longer to recuperate than they would have 10 years earlier. Dwight Howard was as injured as he claimed, missing much of the trademark athleticism that had made him such a valuable basketball commodity for the past half-decade. Yes, some of this was just awful luck, but remember, the Lakers made this situation for themselves. They traded for a 38 year-old Steve Nash. They depended on a 34 year-old Kobe Bryant, a 33 year-old Metta World Peace and a 32 year-old Pau Gasol. They traded for a center highly dependent on athleticism that had just come off of back surgery. Two of their chief back-ups, Steve Blake and Antawn Jamison, were in their mid-thirties. As badly as the injury bug hit the Lakers, it's not as if this was the Oklahoma City Thunder and they saw a bunch of guys in their mid-twenties go down. LA was filled with 10 year-plus NBA veterans who were prone to injury based on the sheer odds as well as wear and tear. As much as we want to blame the ticking hands of fate, the Lakers front office set themselves up for disaster. On several fronts.
To compound an aging and injured roster, the Lakers made two ill-fitting coaching hires
I covered most of this in Thursday's post, but to summarize, the two Mikes were a catastrophe in Lakerland. Although Mike D'Antoni did a much better job than most people give him credit for, it's hard to argue that he's the right man going forward. But that's a post for another time.
The obvious critique here is the move the front office didn't make, which was the disrespectful non-hire of Phil Jackson. Reportedly, after approaching the 11-time champion coach with the idea of another return to the STAPLES Center sidelines, the Lakers allowed Jackson to sleep on the prospect of leading the team once more. Phil supposedly warmed to the thought overnight and was planning on accepting the next day. Or at least until a midnight phone call telling him that the franchise had gone another way.
There's no telling whether or not this story is 100% accurate. There's been conflicting reports from both sides on the veracity of what Jackson asked for (including an ownership stake and/or personnel decision-making power), as well as how much he was promised in a meeting with Kupchak and Buss. Regardless, there's the prevailing feeling that the Lakers did Phil dirty here, as there were multiple reports that the job was his to lose in the days leading up to D'Antoni's hire.
There's also no telling if Jackson would have been any more successful than MDA or Mike Brown with such an old, snake bitten team, especially with the nuances of the triangle offense that only three Lakers had any experience in. It's meaningless to postulate on "what ifs" here, but it's very possible that absolutely nothing could have changed with Phil at the helm. There's a chance that the only thing that would have changed is the reaction from the fan base, who undoubtedly would have given Jackson a far longer leash than the unproven D'Antoni. What a disaster.
The biggest folly of the front office this season? Shaking a previously steadfast belief that the Lakers are in good hands.
This wasn't just one of the most disappointing seasons ever--it was plainly one of the worst in franchise history. But, as I wrote in our Silver Screen & Roundtable last week, the most costly part of the season was how much damage it did to the sterling reputation of the Lakers. Yes, Los Angeles will always be a great destination because of Hollywood and the weather, but the mystique surrounding the indestructible Lakers took a big hit with bad decision after bad decision. Along with Dr. Buss's passing, so went the impermeable safety net that insured that any maneuvers that Kupchak and Jimmy Buss made were approved by the greatest owner in professional sports.
Now, for the first time in over twenty years, there are very legitimate questions as to the just how good the braintrust is behind the league's prized franchise. To me, that's more damaging than any singular loss or personnel departure. That unquestioned excellence is what's made the Lakers the Lakers.
It's been an absolutely calamitous year for Los Angeles management. Perhaps all this cause for alarm will be proven unfounded with the summer ahead, but in regards to 2012-2013, it was an abject disaster.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino