Though it's difficult to focus on at the moment, with the theater of the NBA Finals set to hold our gaze for the next week and a half, we're on the cusp of a basketball abyss. It may not set in right away, but once the guardrails are cleared from the streets of Oakland or Cleveland, the obligatory Jimmy Kimmel appearances are fulfilled and the post-championship eulogies are penned, we'll be left staring into a four-month vacuum devoid of any action on the hardwood. With no substantive international competition taking place, there will be only the Summer League, which, genuinely intriguing as the blue chippers may be, often teeters on the brink of unwatchable NBA cosplay by halftime. Hopefully Mark Madsen keeps things interesting by losing a shoe.
Luckily, the void left behind by the absence of actual basketball is readily filled by coverage of ancillary events like free agency, the draft, weddings, charity golf tournaments, competition committee meetings, reports of Player X being in amazing shape and the compulsory Hakeem Olajuwon post moves minicamp. Someone will be caught on video saying or doing something of dubious moral fiber. That same someone will then have his or her character meet its grisly end under the crushing weight of Twitter's social justice hammer, only to be resurrected by the counter-fire of those decrying the ravenous metabolism of the media and the 24-hour news cycle.
Of course, comment on this cycle though we may, none of us are the slightest bit divorced from it. Though maybe we'd like to consider ourselves above the fray, transcending quick trigger emotions, hovering between and, most of all, above the warring, mudslinging sides of any ideological clash, our baser tendencies forbid it. Many have expounded on the increasingly year-round coverage of basketball's non-basketball happenings, taking a commendably meta approach to their analysis, but still, a culture of instant gratification and hot takes soldiers on.
Yet as we tumble further down this rabbit hole train of thought -- the era of the hot take has incidentally spawned its own counterpoint in the form of the overly cautious corrective. The equal and opposite reaction to what is deemed to be an emotional or poorly rationalized knee jerk is to simply wait until the dust clears, administer a few clicks of the tongue, chide both sides for their stubbornness, then say that everyone is right, no one is right, and that the answer, of course, lies somewhere in the middle.
Similar to admitting that "It's cliché to say, but..." before unleashing a trite adage, we can only shroud ourselves in so many layers of awareness and acknowledgement until we're rendered completely inert and the space-time continuum folds in on itself. Paralyzing as that thought may be, there's a certain comfort to be taken in knowing that no matter what you do, you're an intrinsic element, a key cog in at least some small aspect of the apparatus of public consumption that establishes, confirms and deconstructs narratives surrounding professional athletes.
Or professional sports franchises.
Fans (myself included) eager to press the red button and inject a healthy dose of NOS into the Los Angeles Lakers' rebuilding efforts often try to prognosticate and envision the path back to glory, as if employing some kind of visualization exercise in which our deepest desires will come to fruition if we focus hard enough. That's alright, this isn't necessarily an unhealthy practice -- good vibrations and positive thinking never hurt anyone. Rhonda Byrne approves.
Unfortunately, we often forget that much like our inability to completely extricate ourselves from the machinations of the media and those who consume it, we are also completely powerless in envisioning the events that will come to pass before the Lakers are back to playing basketball at this time of year. Nobody needs to be told they lack the extrasensory perception necessary to foresee exactly how the Lakers will get back to a championship level, but sometimes we do need to be reminded of the fact that the hopes we hold dear at this moment almost certainly won't play out how we expect, and our hoop dreams that do end up coming true will have undergone several transformations before they are realized. Again, not exactly a revelation, but with the absurd pace at which we consume and process organizational choices -- resigning ourselves to what we think will be a dour outcome or rejoicing in what we hope will be a bright future -- we frequently forget that the road to contention is hardly ever a straight line.
While it's fun to try and cobble together more straightforward scenarios in which the Lakers are once again competing for something meaningful, it's also most likely going to look silly in retrospect. That's OK, because ultimately, what else can we do at this juncture other than say things like, "Julius + Okafor/Towns + Clarkson + Free agent X + non-Byron head coach and we're right back in this thing in 2-3 years"? Everyone does it, and why not? It's entertaining, it inspires hope, and it provides a mental roadmap for us to envision the Lakers as a genuinely good team again. In a way, it's all we have.
The other side of that coin however, is that we have to remain patient if and when one of the stepping stones in that plan turns out to be a land mine. Along with that rapid narrative consumption rate comes a tendency to overanalyze and overreact. We claim ruin when something turns sour and victory at the first sign of positive returns.
The Lakers' history is littered with examples of them turning a bad break or a poor decision into some of the best luck you could imagine and achieving success in ways that would have been impossible to predict. Ten years ago, who could have guessed the tangential involvement that an awful trade and Chucky Atkins would have in the Lakers ultimately winning another two titles?
When Shaquille O'Neal was traded to the Miami Heat for Caron Butler, Lamar Odom and Brian Grant in the summer of 2004, the reviews out of LA were mixed, at best. Shaq was still in (or at the tail end of) his prime and many felt that Mitch Kupchak didn't get the king's ransom the Diesel should've commanded. While Lamar ended up working out in the long run, he was initially miscast as a second banana, and Brian Grant averaged less than four points and four rebounds per game. The Lakers won 34 games, Brian "Cookie" Cook and Tierre Brown were meaningful rotation players, and Kobe Bryant was booed at the American Music Awards...in LA. The Lakers were about as far away from contention as possible.
To make matters worse, Caron Butler, one of the few bright spots in an otherwise forgettable 2004-05 season and a personal favorite of Kobe, was then unceremoniously packaged up with Chucky Atkins and shipped to Washington in exchange for noted cake enthusiast Kwame Brown. Everyone knows the rest of this story. Kwame had small hands. Kwame played poorly. Kwame was booed at a Lakers home game for not being Andrew Bynum. This was a bad trade -- the Lakers forfeited a quality asset in exchange for a lousy one. The fact that Brown was eventually a key piece in a trade for Pau Gasol that directly resulted in two banners being added to the rafters at Staples doesn't retroactively make any of the preceding decisions good ones.
The eventually ideal outcome of winning two championships wasn't achieved through a linear succession of prescient judgement -- there were blunders, missteps, and Chris Mihm contract extensions mixed in. This isn't to discredit the Lakers front office for all the prudent decisions they did make -- pouncing on Pau at the right time, letting Shaq go when they did, not trading Kobe, drafting smartly and rehiring Phil Jackson were all smart choices that were far from accidental and directly led to their eventual return to championship prominence. There was general developmental progress for some of the younger players and admirable asset accumulation, but there were no obvious dots to be connected, there was never a definitive "Oh, I see what they're doing here" moment. The future was unclear every step of the way until a confluence of elements came together to suddenly present the Lakers with a multi-year championship window.
Arguing that teams win championships solely by way of dumb luck would be grossly lacking in nuance and perspective, but it would be just as specious to suggest that they don't benefit a great deal from it. Though sage judgement and unapologetic opportunism may form the bedrock of a successful franchise, completely unanticipated events and the subsequent fallout or windfall that follows play just as vital a role in allowing it to flourish -- Andrew Bynum's first knee injury stunted a young team's rise, yet preceded a trade for Pau and a three-year Finals run; Julius Randle's broken leg sucked the wind out of Los Angeles, but preceded the Lakers' lottery day luck, etc. You can argue about the causality linking any of those events, but they all represented completely unpredictable deviations from a linear progression without halting overall forward movement.
No one can deny that the implications of this summer are monumentally important for the Lakers' rebuilding efforts. Watching them draft as highly as they will and try to string together the basis of a competitive roster should provide plenty of intrigue; but just as the Lakers' actions over the next few months will be incredibly valuable, so too will be looking to the past to grant perspective. As much as we'll want to believe that the seedlings of success that begin sprouting are genuine, there's a good chance a fair amount will get composted along the way.
This doesn't mean there isn't legitimate cause for excitement in Lakerland -- there is. Jordan Clarkson has been a revelation, Julius Randle is teeming with potential, the Lakers have the second pick in a loaded draft, the salary cap is about to skyrocket and the front office has proven itself capable of replenishing the team's talent stores time and time again.
The formation of a successful NBA team is often an exercise in chaos theory -- there may come a moment when we as fans think the Lakers have finally reclaimed their preeminent perch atop the NBA's ecosystem only to have our hopes dismantled, rearranged and restored again.
With the basic elements in place for the next step in the Lakers' evolution, there's no reason not to allow ourselves to appreciate each stage of their growth or get irritated when things goes awry. But amid the poignancy of any given triumph or heartbreak, we would do well to remember that this team's development likely won't be a straight line, but a series of advances, retreats and abrupt left turns.
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