Last week Ben Thompson (author of Stratechery, host of the Exponent Podcast, and die-hard NBA fan) wrote a fantastic piece about the "curse of culture" as it pertains to historically successful businesses, namely Apple and Google.
While I won't butcher the piece by trying to explain it fully (it's a highly recommended read), I wanted to highlight a key part here:
"The rigidity of both is the manifestation of the disease that affects every great company: the assurance that what worked before will work eternally into the future, even if circumstances have changed. What makes companies great is inevitably what makes companies fail, whenever that day comes"
This is such a great lesson to not only businesses but sports organizations as well, especially those with a storied franchise that have shown consistent, unprecedented success. Organizations such as the Los Angeles Lakers.
For the past few years, much has been made about the Lakers' "silly" aspiration to sign top tier free agents despite having little to offer other than the Lakers' brand and geographic location.
For outside observers (myself included), the question was always: "Why wait on a player like Carmelo Anthony rather than play the restricted free agency game or sign a player like Isaiah Thomas to a good contract when he wants to come?" To evaluate that, let's first think about what the Lakers culture actually is.
The Lakers have always held a noble "championship or bust" mentality and won with marquee superstars. From Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain, Magic and Kareem, Shaq and Kobe, the Lakers were always a dual threat of star players and championship aspiration.
Owner Dr. Jerry Buss believed in this vision and continued to bet on it successfully and created a culture that spread to each employee in the organization. A strong culture is something that spreads organically, and doesn't need to be explicitly stated. An Apple employee doesn't need to be told that every millimeter of a physical good must be perfected; he or she is well aware of the expectation when they walk into the door. A Google employee doesn't need to be told that their code needs to be impeccable and contribute to Google's incredible platform - he or she knows that implicitly.
Similarly, Dr. Buss may have passed, but his vision hasn't. Dr. Buss did not sit down with Jim Buss, Mitch Kupchak, and Jeanie Buss and hand them a guide of how to run the team, they understood what the Lakers culture stood for. So it's understandable that the Lakers have conducted themselves in a "wait on the 1% chance Carmelo Anthony joins the team rather than build steadily" manner. It make sense that the Lakers traded for Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, and Chris Paul, and signed Kobe to his last extension. It makes sense that the Lakers tried to recreate Showtime with Mike D'Antoni, and it makes sense that subsequently they've hired coaches that "know what it means to be a Laker". It makes sense that Jim Buss thought the Lakers would be a contender by this season, and publicly declared a deadline putting his job on the line. It might make sense, however, but it might not always be right.
"What makes companies great is inevitably what makes companies fail..."
This is where the "curse of culture" comes into focus. There comes a time where what has worked for generations simply doesn't work anymore. Who internally will be the driving force to come to that realization and shift the culture? Will they do it at the right time, or will it be too late?
My argument is ultimately not that the Lakers need to make a dramatic shift in the way they've done things, nor that they haven't already come to this realization. The fact remains that to win an NBA championship, you need to have superstars on your roster. As the CBA evolves and the competitive landscape of the NBA shifts to create a semblance of more parity, the Lakers, like others, have to adapt. The path towards a championship is based more on organic growth and less on the dramatic acquisitions that the Lakers are accustomed to.
It appears that the Lakers are on the right path after some missteps, from hiring Luke Walton to Mitch Kupchak refuting rumors that the Lakers would be looking to trade the #2 pick. The "curse of culture" is perhaps the reason it took the Lakers longer to reach this point than it should have, but it is understandable for all the reasons stated.
Moving forward, if the Lakers continue their measured and strong approach, their built-in advantages will be amplified in the free agency market. If the Lakers sign players that fit what they're building and avoid signing big name players for the sake of doing so (hi, DeMar), the win totals should exponentially grow and make the team that much more attractive to prospective players.
The gift and the curse of culture is that once it gets established, it gets deeply ingrained. The Lakers are in a prime position to adapt a culture that has worked for more than 30 years. If they succeed, it could set up the next 30 years in the team's storied history.
You can follow this author at @damanr.