Back in 2012, I wrote about Lakers exceptionalism, the idea that the rules of the NBA don't apply to the most famous basketball team in the world. I wrote that as the Lakers sat teetering on the edge of the cliff of irrelevance. They'd fired Mike Brown five games into the season, abandoning an offensive system he just installed. They'd snubbed Phil Jackson after dangling the job in front of his nose. They'd bought into the idea that Dwight Howard (coming off back surgery) and Steve Nash (almost 40 years old) would team with Kobe Bryant to lead the Lakers back to the NBA Finals.
Instead, Nash's career quickly unraveled, Howard bolted and Bryant got old. The Lakers have had the worst three-year stretch in the franchise's history since then.
Under Jim Buss, the Lakers shoot airball after airball in free agency. The Jim Buss regime failed to keep Howard, failed to lure LeBron James, failed to lure Carmelo Anthony. Kevin Ding reports that recently Buss claimed the Lakers would get Kevin Durant this summer and Russell Westbrook in a year. Durant refused to even take a meeting with the Lakers this week.
It wasn't just Durant: DeMar DeRozan, who grew up in L.A. idolizing Kobe, quickly inked a hefty deal to stay in Toronto. He told Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star why he didn't consider the Lakers.
"And for me, to be second all-time scoring, the most wins as a Raptor, that's something — you might not see it now, but that's a legacy. Unless you go there and win seven championships, there's no overshadowing who played (with the Lakers) for 20 years. That's that. My whole mindset has always been, what can I do here that'll separate me from others? And maybe someday, somebody will say, I want to try to pass DeMar. I want to do what DeMar did."
There's no glory in being a Laker right now. In Los Angeles you compete against the ghosts of the past. In their current state, the Lakers are in no position to contend for titles. So, as DeMar indicates, what's the point? You'll be a hero to no one. There's no upside for a young star -- even one with deep L.A. roots -- to join the Lakers.
Buss claimed the Lakers would land Durant and Westbrook just a few months ago. Yet in the first hours of July 1, one of the first major deals reported was the Lakers handing Timofey Mozgov some $64 million over four years. The same Mozgov who played just 17 minutes per game last season. The same Mozgov who was pushed out of the Cavaliers' rotation in favor of Channing Frye and Tristan Thompson. Mozgov, who played just 76 minutes in the entire 21-game Cleveland postseason run and who turns 30 this month (he's eight months younger than Dwight). The same Mozgov who was not among SBNation.com's top-50 free agents or our top-10 free agent centers.
Timofey Mozgov. $16 million per season. Seventeen percent of the salary cap for a 30-year-old career backup center.
This is not the behavior of a team that considers itself exceptional.
The Lakers considered themselves exceptional for so long that, for a time, they seemed to forget that horrible teams don't get LeBrons, Melos or Durants. They get Mozgovs, and they pay through the nose for the opportunity. The Lakers know now. The Lakers have found their footing, and they are getting comfortable. They are making the moves of a losing franchise, a derelict and moribund team just hoping to graduate from god-awful to mediocre.
The Lakers have made the most New York Knicks move possible -- well, the most New York Knicks move since the Lakers traded multiple firsts for Nash (they still owe a pick on that), or since the Knicks traded picks for Andrea Bargnani -- at a time in which the Lakers' leader himself thought the brain trust would be preparing to pepper Kevin Durant with talk of Hollywood and courtside celebrities and warm winters.
Reports suggest the Lakers didn't even reach out to Al Horford or Hassan Whiteside when the clock struck midnight because L.A. considered landing those higher-tier centers unlikely. And so, Mozgov. This is wholly rational for a team in the Lakers' position, coming off a 17-win season that followed a 21-win season that followed a 27-win season. Teams that win 26 percent of their games over three full seasons sure as hell don't get LeBrons, Melos or Durants. They don't even get Horfords or Whitesides. They get Mozgovs.
Make fun of this deal all you want, but the Lakers have finally reached the last stage of grief after mourning the death of their exceptionalism for so long. With Mozgov, the Lakers have accepted their fate. Applaud them on their progress. Only now can the Lakers come back as strong as ever. Only now can the Lakers be great again.