Over the past two seasons, Lakers Exceptionalists around the world have again been spoiled by a sudden return to glory more commonly experienced during the first half of this millennium. In the five years between Kobe Bryant’s Achilles injury and LeBron James’ deliverance, however, the Lakers failed to even make the playoffs once, winning just 126 of 410 games, fewer than any other NBA franchise.
These miserable seasons were marked by a series of gaffes and fumbles of such an embarrassing nature it would have been impossible to imagine them coming from the prestigious purple and gold just a few seasons prior. Now, with the days of unmatched ineptitude (hopefully) in the organization’s past, these foibles serve as reminders of the NBA’s fickle nature, and the massive gains the franchise has made in its process and results. It’s easier to appreciate how good you have it when you remember how bad things have been.
In chronological order, these are the five most embarrassing moments of the Lakers’ past decade:
Despite entering the season as prohibitive favorites to win the West — and perhaps, more importantly, a game-breakingly dominant team to play as in NBA 2K13 — the 2012-13 Steve Nash-Dwight Howard-Kobe Bryant Lakers came to be defined by a series of unmitigated disasters. For those of you fortunate enough to have erased this miserable season from your memories, here’s a brief refresher of the low-lights:
- Steve Nash breaks his leg in the preseason, missing seven weeks, and is unable to return to All-Star-caliber play
- Mike Brown’s Princeton Offense fails, leading to his dismissal after four losses in five games to start the year
- Mike D’Antoni replaces interim head coach Bernie Bickerstaff, leading the Lakers to seventh place in the West
- Kobe Bryant tears his Achilles tendon in the season’s 80th game, crippling the team’s chances of mounting a late-season charge
- The eventual Western Conference champion Spurs sweep the Lakers in four straight games
Following their mercifully expedient playoff exit, Dwight Howard’s impending unrestricted free agency decision remained murky. At the time, the Lakers were stuck with a hobbled, aging core of Nash, Kobe, and Pau and bereft of high-upside young players upon with to place the burden of the team’s future. Their best chance at remain reasonably competitive in the coming seasons was to retain their best semi-healthy player in Dwight Howard.
Instead of remaining in Los Angeles, D12 struck a deal with Daryl Morey to and eschew state income tax and play with the Rockets’ burgeoning young superstar, James Harden. Dwight’s first departure from Los Angeles became the first of many dominos to fall in a run of Laker ineptitude stemming from a disastrous 2012-13 campaign defined by more head coaches (three) than playoff victories (zero). The sudden, public groveling from the storied franchise was a sign of organizational desperation, and a harbinger of the mediocrity to come.
2. The Kaman Catnap
Still reeling from Kobe Bryant’s injury and Dwight Howard’s departure, the Lakers headed to Cleveland to face an equally hapless Cavaliers team. Entering the February 5th game, the Lakers had stumbled through the doldrums of the pre-All-Star break NBA schedule — when the excitement of a new season has long worn off, but scores of games still stand before the finish line. At 17-32, the Lakers had lost seven straight games and entered the unanticipated road contest extremely shorthanded. With Pau Gasol, Jodie Meeks, Jordan Hill, and Steve Nash all battling injury, only eight players suited up to play.
As was typical of the early-twenty-teens Lakers, bad quickly turned to worse. An injury to Nick Young kept him out of the second half, and with five fouls before the end of the third quarter, Chris Kaman was forced to sit for the remainder of the period. Joined on the pine by just one other Laker, Kaman had plenty of room to rest up before his final stint.
This has got to be a top 3 moment in the 2013-14 Lakers season. pic.twitter.com/uu8vjZm1v5— Éscoot (@Escoot) February 6, 2014
Even after the producing prevailing comic tableau of the night, the Lakers’ sorry situation took a turn for the bizarrely unfortunate, as Jordan Farmar exited the game with a calf injury, and Kaman fouled out in the early fourth-quarter having played just 17 minutes, leaving the Lakers with exactly five remaining eligible players.
After earning his own sixth personal foul with three-and-a-half minutes remaining, Robert Sacre’s disqualification left the Lakers with four eligible players. In a deployment of a rarely-used rule, especially at the NBA level, the Lakers were allowed to continue with Sacre in the game at the cost of earning a technical foul tacked onto every subsequent personal foul. Still, with a double-digit lead at the time of the infraction, the Lakers were able to come away with one of the weirdest and most memorable wins in Laker history for all the wrong reasons.
3. LA’s LMApocalypse
With a withered roster remaining around Kobe Bryant and a pair of promising youngsters, the Lakers entered 2015 free agency with their sights set on the Portland Trail Blazers’ star forward, LaMarcus Aldridge. In their initial meeting with Aldridge, the Lakers reportedly glossed over relevant concerns about his basketball fit and instead attempted to sell Aldridge on potential marketing opportunities as a Laker.
The Lakers’ cloying advances even involved Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine in the recruitment effort through the team’s verified Twitter account in some since-deleted tweets.
LMA was so turned off by the team’s lack of interest in the on-court product and advanced analytics that he totally wrote them off as an option, eventually deciding to sign with the Spurs after choosing between them and the Suns. Adding insult to injury, the Lakers’ first meeting was such a disaster that he gave them a second one to save face, though it did little to ultimately sway his decision.
The team’s official tweets failed to positively affect their intended target and nearly triggered a tampering investigation as opposing teams submitted the tweets to the league for review. Even more embarrassingly, the Lakers had actually already cleared the tweets involving the “Sunday Morning” singer with the league’s legal department, indicating an unnerving level of thoroughness and commitment to their wildly misguided plan.
4. “Moneyball” Mitch Kupchak’s 2016 Free Agency
It is an open secret that de facto free agency begins before it is technically allowed to with the conclusion of the NBA’s moratorium; the dead period. Dozens of trades, extensions, and signings were announced on the first day of free agency this year, a logistical impossibility under the most stringent observance of the letter of the law. Without backchannel negotiations between teams and players through intermediaries, the NBA’s player movement marketplace would be an entirely different animal.
In 2016, former Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak took a stance in contrast with the rest of the league by apparently deciding to move with the strictest adherence to the NBA’s guidelines. As the free agency floodgates officially opened, Kupchak stormed into the marketplace and immediately acquired more than $130 million in player personnel within the first 24 hours.
Unless you already know the end of this sordid tale, you might find yourself wondering which member of the stacked 2016 free agency class the Lakers were so keen on nailing down. It wasn’t Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Mike Conley, Al Horford, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Bradley Beal, or even DeMar DeRozan — all players eligible to enter free agency that offseason. It was the combination of 31-year-old Luol Deng and 29-year-old Timofey Mozgov.
While some scrambled to justify the moves as sensible acquisitions for a team looking to move on from the Kobe Bryant Era by surrounding their promising young talents with dependable role players, the Lakers’ misevaluations soon became glaringly obvious. As bad as the pair of overpays looked at the time, even among the frenzied spending caused by a salary cap hike of $24 million, hindsight has proven these deals to be among the very worst in the history of NBA free agency. Mozgov played 20.4 ineffectual minutes per game across 54 contests in his only season in Los Angeles. Deng played in 56 games that year, averaging fewer than 10 points per game (7.6) for the first time in his career, and the team sat him for all but one more game the following season.
The opportunity cost of wasting money on poor performers hurt, but the price the Lakers paid just to excrete these bloated salaries was even greater. The Lakers were forced to part with Russell in order to unload Mozgov on the Nets (they received the pick they used to select Kyle Kuzma in that deal) and used the waive and stretch provision on Deng’s remaining two-year, $29 million deal in order to be rid of him sooner. As a result, Deng’s Cap Hold was still the sixth-highest paid Laker last season and will be the fifth-highest paid player this year. Thankfully, for the last time.
5. The Maginka Meltdown
When the Lakers let go of Mitch Kupchak, ostensibly for the aforementioned abomination, they replaced him with one of the most widely-beloved players in NBA history and a true Laker legend, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, to work alongside Kobe Bryant’s former agent, Rob Pelinka. But instead of bringing back a winning culture to the floundering franchise, Magic failed to embrace the nitty-gritty work required to become a successful front-office executive. While he and Pelinka were able to land LeBron James in 2018 free agency, effectively salvaging the franchise, Magic’s most recent departure was bizarre, ignoble, and unbefitting of an NBA icon.
An hour-and-a-half before the final game of the Lakers’ season, Magic decided to publicly announce his retirement to a throng of reporters without informing owner Jeanie Buss, LeBron James, or his supposed PIC, Rob Pelinka. Choking up before a gaggle of listeners, Magic said, “I want to go back to having fun.”
Although he sought a return to life as a successful businessman beyond the realm of basketball he’d enjoyed between his playing career and run in the Laker front office, he decided to detonate the rubble of the franchise on First Take a month later to air out his grievances with the club.
Applying a Shermanesque scorched earth policy to the reputation of his former employer, Magic implied that Jeanie Buss reneged on their understanding of his role, that he was unable to exact his preferred basketball decisions, and described Rob Pelinka’s actions as “backstabbing” and “betrayal.” He also did so on the same morning the team was set to introduce new coach Frank Vogel, leading Vogel’s press conference to transform into a de-facto (metaphorical) firing line for Pelinka, with scarcely any questions for Vogel at all.
Shortly after Magic’s public self-immolation, ESPN’s Baxter Holmes wrote a scathing piece regarding the Lakers’ organizational malfunction, titled, “Lakers 2.0: The failed reboot of the NBA’s crown jewel.” At the time, it was hard to argue with Holmes’ assessment. The Lakers had missed the playoffs and finished with a losing record for the sixth-straight season, despite having added the league’s best player. With the roster around LeBron so young and full of unrealized potential, the Lakers seemed far from championship-ready in their organization’s dysfunctional nadir.
Six years ago, the very same Baxter Holmes quoted an anonymous agent clowning the Lakers’ repeated failures in free agency:
It was, ‘OK, they’re going to get LeBron.’ Then it was Kevin Love. Then they’re going to get LaMarcus. And they haven’t gotten any of those guys. They might get [Russell] Westbrook, but they’re going to wait two more years. And [by then], five or six years have gone by and they haven’t gotten any other guys? What are they doing?
It took a while, but ironically, the Lakers now have the best two of those four players on their roster. Following their resurgence, the Lakers are absolutely vindicated in terms of trying to win through free agency, even if their first few attempts missed the mark.
Since trading in the youth movement for Anthony Davis, the Lakers have won more than 60 percent of their regular-season games along with an NBA Championship, reestablishing themselves as the veritable “crown jewel” of the league in a shorter stretch than it took for them to fall apart. Only time will tell if the Lakers look as good with Russell Westbrook as they did in ‘19-20, but no matter the outcome, Lakers Exceptionalists worldwide can be grateful for how much better things are now than they were just a few short seasons ago.
Did we miss any? What moments did you think were the funniest/most embarrassing? Let us know in the comments below, and you can follow Cooper on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.