There are certain teams that are always associated with particular positions.
USC has historically been Tailback U. Great linebackers come from Penn State. And when you think of the Lakers, you think of great centers, starting with George Mikan all the way through Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shaquille O’Neal. Even Magic Johnson made a brief appearance in that lineage when the rookie jumped center in place of the injured Abdul-Jabbar in the 1980 NBA Finals.
Seven years ago, the Lakers attempted to add another superstar center to that storied history, trading the very good Andrew Bynum for the great Dwight Howard, who had won three Defensive Player of the Year awards and was a generational talent.
We all know what happened next. Suffice to say, it didn’t quite work out for Howard in L.A. But what’s more surprising, and perhaps under-appreciated in the last few years of Lakers malaise, is how much difficulty the team has had finding a competent center since Howard left.
Admittedly, Los Angeles did not have many players of note at any position for those five years, but the unending turnstile at center is especially interesting given that the team has always been known for their big men.
I’ve been re-reading the Harry Potter books recently, and the whole situation reminds me of when Voldemort applied for the Defense Against the Dark Arts job, and upon being denied, he placed a curse on the role. I’m not trying to equate Dwight Howard to He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, but it’s not too far of a stretch to say that Howard may have poisoned the well for the Lakers for awhile after his departure.
Let’s take a closer look.
During the 2013-14 season, Los Angeles was reeling from Kobe Bryant’s Achilles injury as well as being spurned by Howard. They spent much of the season with Pau Gasol manning the five, but Gasol — who had won titles and transformed into a Hall of Famer during his Lakers tenure — became notoriously disenchanted with then-head coach Mike D’Antoni.
That left plenty of time for the famously prone on the bench Chris Kaman, as well as the greatest bench cheerleader in Laker history, Robert Sacre. Gasol left L.A. as soon as his contract was up, while Kaman and Sacre combined for essentially one more productive NBA season. Losing a fan-favorite Gasol for nothing was just the beginning of the potential curse.
The next year, the Lakers unwittingly became a short-term landing spot for free agents around the league to rehabilitate their value. It worked pretty well for everyone who left Los Angeles, while the Lakers were left to deal with the scraps. That’s how Ed Davis earned a three-year contract with the Portland Trailblazers after a year in L.A., while the Lakers were stuck with midrange-jumper-chucking Jordan Hill, and alas, still Sacre. Dark magic indeed.
Things appeared to be on the up-and-up the following year when Los Angeles managed to land Tarik Black off the waiver wire to back up master of verticality Roy Hibbert, only one year removed from having helped Indiana to the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
As it turned out, Pacers President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird saw the writing on the wall with Hibbert and was pulling one last fast one on his old rivals. Black was probably the best center on the roster, and he spent most of his time on the D-Fenders.
It seemed like the tide might finally be turning for Lakers bigs in the summer of 2016. Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. had completed productive (essentially) rookie seasons, and the team drafted a European project out of Croatia, who fans lovingly likened to a young Marc Gasol. The franchise finally had some hope for its center of the future.
And then, disaster struck again, this time in the form of a 4-year, $64 million contract, the ramifications of which Los Angeles is still dealing with today.
But somehow, even with that deal, Timofey Mozgov only lasted one year with the Lakers. His replacement, Brook Lopez didn’t feel the magic in Los Angeles, either; despite being a great stylistic fit for a team that needed shooters around LeBron James, the Lakers signed a different center (JaVale McGee) to a one-year deal. That still wasn’t enough, so the team had to sign yet another (hello, Tyson Chandler!) five a few games into the season to help carry the workload.
Keep in mind that Lopez is not the only 2017-18 L.A. center who has gone on to greener pastures. 2017 draft pick Thomas Bryant is starting, somewhat successfully, for a team that will probably make the playoffs, even if it is in the East.
But that’s where our story might reach a happy conclusion. Bryant took over for You-Know-Who in Washington, who suffered the latest in a series of injuries that have derailed his career, and Howard’s demise could signal an end to the reign of terror that he unwittingly unleashed on the Lakers. Los Angeles still has issues as the five, yes, but the rise of Ivica Zubac has given the franchise hope anew.
The center position has gone in and out of vogue in the NBA over recent years, but there’s no doubt that the Lakers still put a lot of importance on fives. Think of this past draft, when Magic reportedly exerted substantial influence to select Moe Wagner, despite an abundance of available wings at that spot.
Los Angeles’ dry spell at center hasn’t been the only factor bringing the team down over the last several years, but the rotating cast of characters at the five is definitely part of the problem.
Given L.A.’s history, this stain is something uniquely distressing for this franchise, and so it comes as no surprise that it seems the front office’s top target this summer is a player who happens to be a center.
The curse needs to be ended, after all, and acquiring Anthony Davis would be some true wizardry.