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What the Lakers can learn from ‘Game of Thrones’

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The Lakers are facing a fight for their own identity, and “Game of Thrones” can teach them plenty about over-commitment to tradition.

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NBA All-Star Game 2018 Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Los Angeles Lakers owner Jeanie Buss has made a couple of passing references to “Game of Thrones”, a fairly popular show that airs on HBO, for the three people left who weren’t aware of that fact. Kobe Bryant delights in retelling the story of how he told Jeanie to embody Daenerys Targaryen by firing her brother, Jim, and then general manager Mitch Kupchak when it looked like the Lakers were at risk of being harmed by an incompetent front office.

Her solution to this point, unfortunately, seems to just be doubling down on the same strategy to replace them — a strategy that didn’t work the first time. If she’d been watching the show closely, however, she could have noticed one of the central themes: That characters who don’t consider their continued survival enough, and instead demand that they continue to exist only on their terms often wind up dead.

The stakes obviously aren’t THAT high for the Lakers, but the similar themes are still worth exploring. We all remember Eddard “Ned” Stark, who lost his head when he refused to sacrifice some of his ideals for the sake of sticking around for his children — or at least not until it was too late — and then King Joffrey was able to make the decision to behead Stark unilaterally.

One of the show’s most gut-wrenching deaths came when Oberyn Martell decided it wasn’t enough to merely kill “The Mountain,” but literally danced and screamed around the body until the elder Clegane was pissed off enough to use his remaining strength to cave in Martell’s face.

Hell, even the closest thing the show has to an outright protagonist (Jon Snow) was murdered because he ignored the effect his principled defense of the Wildlings would have on those he commanded. His adopted brother, Robb Stark, considered marrying his choice of bride more important than an alliance that would help the North win the war against the Targaryens . Or put more simply, he, like Jeanie is now, considered having the person he wanted around him more important than bringing in the person who would theoretically help him most, and lost his life, the lives of his wife, unborn child, mother, direwolf and countless lives of those committed to his cause because of it.

It’s obviously fine to have principles. Without them, you develop an untrustworthy reputation, as no one will ever know what you stand for. But enough about Rob Pelinka. In “Game of Thrones,” success is defined by survival, and sacrificing that for the sake of inflexible morality really gets away from the point of the game itself.

The Lakers are currently sacrificing success (wins) for the sake of an unyielding identity as a family-run organization.

After firing Jim and Kupchak, Jeanie could have opened up a thorough search for a replacement and garnered the attention of some of the league’s foremost thinkers at that time. Instead, she passed up on that opportunity to hire Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, two members of the Lakers’ immediate and extended family.

We know how that turned out. Maginka will go down as one of two front offices to ever put a team together that even LeBron James couldn’t get to the playoffs. Johnson stepped down before the final game of the season without warning anyone, and since then, despite being presented with an even more exciting opportunity to catch the Lakers back up to a league that has passed and lapped them, Jeanie doubled down on her devotion to Lakers family.

In doing so, Jeanie is sending the message that merely succeeding in the NBA isn’t enough. According to this message, the Lakers have to attain success in a specific and unchanging way, a la Old Dead Ned.

Remember that stretch of time when Snow met with Dany and refused to bend the knee? The guy had just literally died for his principles and was about ready to make that same mistake all over again, driving audiences everywhere insane. To have gone through all he did only to once again fail to understand the sacrifice necessary to further his mission would have been one of the most frustrating character arcs ever seen.

Fortunately, he listened to his advisors, lightened his stance, bent the knee and helped continue to try to secure the safety of the entire realm from the undead.

Johnson leaving the Lakers the way he did could be somewhat analogous to the mutiny that led to Snow’s murder. Except in Jeanie’s case, she went through all that and has once against refused to adapt to the modern NBA. This could change of course, but it seems highly unlikely at this point.

To make matters worse, Jeanie has further shrunk the talent pool from the already narrow group of former Lakers and their closest associates to now not include arguably the greatest basketball mind the Lakers have ever employed, Jerry West.

It’s hard to find a direct comparison to this level of commitment to an ideal, to be honest. Technically, Cersei Lannister has seen the circle of people she trusts shrink to, well, basically just her, but even she brought in Qyburn when his, er, experiments proved useful.

Spurning West’s reported interest twice now would be analogous to Cersei telling Tywin Lannister to turn it around when he rode in on his horse to save everyone at the Battle of Blackwater.

Now look, things still might work out for Jeanie and the Lakers despite her dogmatic commitment to keeping it in the family. Hell, Jon has had a death wish for three seasons and he’s still around somehow despite being one of the worst military minds the realm has ever produced.

**SPOILERS FOR THE MOST RECENT EPISODE OF “GAME OF THRONES” AHEAD**

(Seriously, Jon? You’re vastly outmanned, you’ve seen the dead in action up close before, and you considered it wise to just waste 50,000 Dothraki within the first five minutes of battle? You thought screaming at a freaking dragon was going to work? What the hell, man?)

Maybe Pelinka winds up being an incredible basketball executive capable of bringing the Lakers back from the brink of outright upheaval in ways the dragons have offered House Targaryen another stab at ruling the realm. Maybe Kurt Rambis can be Jeanie’s Grey Worm as a reward for her trust iN Missandei (Linda Rambis). Sometimes, stuff just works out because you have more resources than the competition.

(Though, Dany, please avoid landing Drogon in the middle of a bunch of bad guys again. Come on. Do better.)

**SPOILERS OVER**

But it is wins, not identity, that defines success in the NBA. The Lakers once built their brand via leadership that was ahead of its time. Had the Lakers always maintained this level of commitment to family, Bill Sharman never does what he did to win a title of his own and help set up the Showtime Era.

If Thrones can teach us one thing, it’s that demanding that success come only via your own strict adherence to principles that don’t always fit the situation tends to result in either the interested party’s own direct demise, if not also the deaths of everyone they care about around them.

Since Jeanie appears to be a fan of the show, all we can hope for is that she’s actually been paying attention.

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