Walking into Madison Square Garden on Superbowl Sunday, there was no surprise that the crowd's collective attention was elsewhere--after all, everyone had somewhere to go at 6 PM to watch the most important NFL contest of the year, just an hour after a meaningless late-January NBA game. While MSG was filled up, there was a certain stillness to the air very uncommon to the annual Lakers-Knicks bout.
Having been on the East coast for years, I've been privy and idiotic enough to drop an embarrassing amount of money on the Lakers as they graced New York. Whether it be Smush Parker dropping hot dimes a decade ago, Pau Gasol duping the Knicks in the post, Jumaine Jones taking the corner threes or Kobe Bryant putting on a show for the greatest city in the world, it's never a placid affair at the Garden. A rivalry that doesn't exist somehow comes to life between the fans, as the Knicks faithful talk trash in their building's sacred halls and decry anyone not wearing the blue and orange. Even so, walking through those hostile corridors, there are Lakers fans everywhere, more than happy to give a high five to a stranger clad in clashing colors and a giant "L" adorned across their chests. There's a frenetic energy in the air, a palpable buzz that distinguishes itself even in a city that never sleeps. While the Knicks and their fans would love for you to believe that the very same feeling is there no matter who's in the building, NYC doesn't get up like that when the Hornets are in town, or Milwaukee's bus pulls up on 34th St. The Lakers are special. It's like the city and the very concrete it's covered in vibrates. It's magical.
I slunk into the Garden on Sunday to a odd silence, with both sets of fans moving slowly, more like a funeral procession than the usual march to war. There was no trash talk, no hostility. There were no high fives, no boisterous hollering. But on Sunday, that buzz, that feeling, those vibrations... a deafening absolute zero.
It didn't take long to understand why. The starting lineups bellowed through the concourse as I walked to my seats, with the NYK PA announcer introducing the visiting team. No Kobe Bryant. No Dwight Howard. No Pau Gasol. No Steve Nash. Announced in their places a bunch of fellows whose names I couldn't even hear over the questions in the crowd:
"Who is Jordan Clarkson? 'North Carolina' Wayne Ellington, that guy? Carlos Boozer is still in the league? Oh my God, remember Jordan Hill?"
Even as the PA system proudly pronounced "CARMELOOOO ANNNNTHONYYYYYYYY" to the All-Star's entrance, the audience only slightly stirred, as if the deflating news of Kobe's week-old injury had just permeated through the 18,000 in attendance.
The game finally began with a usually vocal crowd hushed as if it were a tennis exhibition. For their part, the Knicks have been one of the very worst teams in the NBA this season, with their (at the time) 9 wins acting as just another numbing agent to a comatose Garden. It was like the arena was a crock pot, with the minutes slowly ticking away like meat off the bone to a much less satisfying conclusion. Neither team played particularly well, perhaps an indication of Carmelo's first half detachment from the events of the game and the other of the lack of talent on the floor. Only after a cross-court alley-oop to Anthony did the crowd ring in its first "DE-FENSE" chants of the afternoon, an ironic reaction considering the teams involved. Even the dying fumes of Linsanity couldn't create more than a momentary reaction from the opposing fanbases. Trying times, indeed.
The Knicks won handily after that, spurred by a monstrous third quarter by Carmelo and a Lakers team that was simply unprepared to follow up on Thursday's titanic double-OT win over the Chicago Bulls. In many ways, it was one of the most meaningless games the Knicks and Lakers have ever played. One marquee player between the two squads, a meager 23 wins combined and two very nebulous futures ahead of them being determined by a pair of ever-connected and unproven front offices. The Lakers fell 92-80, with extended appearances by Robert Sacre, Ed Davis, Ryan Kelly and Wesley Johnson.
As I sauntered down the stairs and into the winter air, I tried to recall the game I had just witnessed. I couldn't really think of anything besides the barrels of heckling my buddy and I had unleashed onto an unsuspecting but strangely appreciative section around us. I struggled to remember a single notable play the Lakers made all game, besides Jeremy Lin's turnover-palooza, Wesley Johnson's inability to make decisions with the ball and Sacre's on-court power of invisibility. No player, young or old, left an impression on me. It was merely an event that happened.
I then reached a very inescapable conclusion: The Los Angeles Lakers had become... boring. Bland. Vanilla.
For this team in particular, this is a fate worse than anything else. After all, it's not like the Lakers hadn't been bad before.
Last year, the Lakers finished 27-55. It was the most losses in Los Angeles history and a horrid team, to say the least. However, the Lakers still had All-Stars Pau Gasol and Steve Nash (at times), as well as the week-to-week sagas of whether or not those two would be traded and if head coach Mike D'Antoni would be fired. A terrible squad, but one that could never be accused of lacking drama.
The 2004-2005 Lakers finished 34-48. That team too, was awful, but... they had a 26-year-old Kobe Bryant in the prime years of his career. While the Lakers lost (up until then) the second most games in LA history, they had one of the most exciting players in the NBA.
The 1992-1993 and 1993-1994 Lakers lost a combined 93 games over two seasons, but those teams at least had the sideshow of an over-the-hill James Worthy trying to coax some competitiveness out of his young teammates. Fans everywhere had their eyes locked on young big men Elden Campbell and Vlade Divac and guards Doug Christie, Anthony Peeler and Nick Van Exel. Those teams weren't great, but they played hard, they played fast and the future was there in the flesh. Hell, even the 92-93 squad made the postseason in a diluted Western Conference. How times have changed.
The 1974-75 Lakers were the worst LA team ever, up until last year. Still, that team had future Hall of Famer Gail Goodrich in his last All-Star year, as well as Lucius Allen, Cazzie Russel and some floppy haired young grinder named Pat Riley putting up points.The Lakers weren't anything special that season at 30-52, but they had promise and a star attraction.
As bad as all those teams were, as brutal as their season-long woes got and as desolate as the future looked, none of them navigated the territory that the 2014-2015 Los Angeles Lakers are treading: Waters of irrelevancy.
This year's team now features no veterans whose game could single-handedly ignite a crowd, nor is there a blue-chip rookie whose presence can serve as a constant reminder of hope for the future. Most of the players wearing purple and gold won't be doing so for long: any useful player will move on to more competitive pastures in the offseason, while some of the guys that can't even make an impact on this squad will probably be headed to Europe, China or elsewhere. This isn't a veteran team on the decline--those guys left already. This isn't a young team on the rise, either--Julius Randle is out for the season and Jordan Clarkson still has a long way to go before we call him a legitimate prospect. The fanbase doesn't know what the plan is beyond Kobe's last season, with every contingency based on protected picks and unfathomable free agent pipe dreams.
This Lakers team simply exists. Absolute zero. They are here to fill out a schedule for other franchises and to make sure that everyone plays the mandated 82 games. This crew is, in a word, boring. Even the most dedicated onlookers are struggling to find ways to care with a staggering 1/3 of the season left. It's an unprecedented state of affairs for the Lakers and the city, who have known nothing but league-wide relevance even in their darkest hours.
It's a sobering time for any longtime fan of the purple and gold. For the first time in my lifetime, there's simply no reason to pay attention to the Lakers, aside from blind faith and the habit of an annual routine. And for those of us following the greatest franchise in basketball history, that's a fate worst than being bad.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMabino