When the Lakers signed LeBron James last summer, it seemed that Lakers Exceptionalism was alive and strong.
The Lakers haven’t gone through a proper rebuild at any point in the last six seasons, even as they’ve lost more regular season games than any team in the league in that span. Their focus has been signing free agent superstars at the expense of developing talented young players or piecing together a proper basketball team. As the Lakers missed on superstar after superstar — Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Carmelo Anthony in 2014 ... even Greg Monroe in 2015 — they never changed course, forging ahead on the theory that the NBA’s best players are destined to wear purple and gold.
In acquiring LeBron, the Lakers’ reckless belief in their mystical identity was seemingly validated. Their odds of wining an NBA Championship rocketed from 20/1 to 7/2. The Lakers, in their minds, had finally returned to their rightful place at the top of the league.
Now, in mid-March, the Lakers are out of playoff contention, the young players are unhappy, the team is fractured, and the rebirth has been put on hold. Once again, the Lakers have been undone by their refusal to see who they are in order to preserve the fantasy of what they were and would like to be again.
In a scathing column, ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz wrote that team president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka need to give up the delusion that the Lakers are still the Lakers of old, take responsibility for their failures, and rebuild from that self-reflection.
As an example of the Lakers’ delusion, Arnovitz cited team owner Jeanie Buss, who said that the biggest obstacle facing the Lakers right now is “fake news.”
Jeanie’s deflection is part of the hubris that has become ingrained in the Lakers’ identity. Back in April of 2014, brother Jim Buss, who was then the president of basketball operations, said that if the Lakers weren’t contending for the title within three years, he would step down from his position. That arrogant declaration hinged on the idea that the Lakers shouldn’t have to go through the arduous rebuilding processes that most other teams endure.
When those years passed and the Lakers were still miserable, Jim Buss was disposed of and Jeanie Buss brought in Magic as the new president of basketball operations. Yet, nothing changed. Last summer, Magic made a Jim Buss-like declaration with a similar timeframe:
“Next summer if nobody comes, and I’m still sitting here like this, then it’s a failure. If you judge us on one summer, that’s ridiculous. Then a lot of dudes shouldn’t be in their roles ... And if I can’t deliver I will step down myself, [team owner Jeanie Buss] won’t have to fire me, I’ll step away from it. Because then I can’t do this job.”
So far, the Magic-era Lakers look a lot like the Jim Buss-era Lakers.
Under Magic, the Lakers acquired LeBron, and almost got Anthony Davis this past winter. That latter deal seemed inevitable: The Lakers wanted Davis, he was represented by an agency run by LeBron’s childhood friend, and had publicly demanded to be traded. The Lakers offered the Pelicans almost all of their young talent, as well as their high draft picks.
But then the Pelicans refused the deal, and in the process, publicly embarrassed the Lakers. Afterwards, Magic claimed that the Pelicans were negotiating in bad faith, while ESPN’s Brian Windhorst suggested that the Pelicans were out for revenge because the Lakers tampered with their star.
The Davis failure should have been a harsh wake-up to the Lakers that their brand may not be as strong as they think. Back in the day, the combination of Jerry Buss and Mitch Kupchak could get any deal that they wanted, but Buss’ children are forced to reckon with the fact that the Lakers are no longer a gilded destination. No team is going to lay down before them and hand over their best players.
Here’s what’s especially difficult for the Lakers: they’re under immense pressure to believe in their own exceptionalism. Arnovitz points to the Phoenix Suns as an example of an owner admitting his team is a failure and trying to rebuild. But the Lakers are not the Suns. They can’t accept that they’re bad.
The Lakers’ identity is success. It’s banners, legends — Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Jerry West — records, celebrities, Los Angeles. Purple and gold is supposed to signify that they’re better than everyone else, that they’re in a higher class.
It’s easy to argue they might still be. Even now, during their most awful period, players and fans still talk about them in the same reverent manner. After he joined the Lakers, LeBron, one of the best players to ever exist, talked about the Lakers’ championships and former great players, suggesting that the Lakers’ mystique mattered to him:
“That’s excitement in its own right ... And then it’s just always humbling for me any time I get an opportunity to be a part of something special.”
If anything, the Pelicans’ act of vengeance is validation that the Lakers are important enough to spite.
So for the Lakers to rebuild like everyone else, they would have to abandon that idea that they’re exceptional. And without that mystique, they’re just a bad team with no real basketball compass, and there’s nothing attractive about that.
In that sense, Lakers exceptionalism is coming less from a place of delusion and more from a place of necessity. No matter how many failures come with it, nor how many talented young players get lost, the idea of the Lakers is still alive in the NBA. It might occasionally fail to get a meeting with Durant, or convince George to leave the Thunder, but it can help sign LeBron and encourage Davis to make a shocking trade request. The landscape of the NBA has certainly changed since the Lakers’ peak, but while more great players prefer good basketball situations over big markets than ever before, the Lakers mystique hasn’t entirely stopped working.
The sad part, then, is that because the Lakers can never be an ordinarily bad team, they have to lean even harder into that mystique. It would be cynical to say that people like Magic or Jeanie Buss aren’t aware of the team’s structural problems. They’re intelligent basketball minds. They just have no other choice than to try fix things as fast as possible, in the only way the Lakers have ever addressed their problems. They’re confined by the team’s past successes.
The Lakers don’t have a choice but to try to return to prominence by signing stars, not only because it’s still possible that they can, but because long rebuilds and acknowledging mediocrity is antithetical to a team whose identity is staked in being more special than anyone else. The sensible path is clear, and any other team would take it. The Lakers can’t.
The Lakers have mystique. It’s what gives them their appeal, for better or worse. It’s why they managed to get LeBron, and it’s also why they can’t simply build from the ground up. It’s the blessing that they can’t escape.