The Laker Organization Faces Loud Questions and Deep Problems as It Seeks to Right the Ship.
It is rare for the public image of a sporting franchise to collapse so spectacularly in such a short amount of time. Usually such things ebb and flow gradually like the tides, or the phases of the moon. What has happened to the Lakers in the last 72 hours is more like the climactic scene in Avengers: Infinity War, when half of a team of almost-victorious superheroes watches the other half disintegrate in front of their eyes.
Specific problems with the team and the organization exist, but they don’t represent the rock bottom issue. Yes, players like Russell Westbrook and Trevor Ariza haven’t played as well as advertised. Yes, coach Frank Vogel has been maddeningly slow to adjust to in-game conditions as well as trends over several weeks. Yes, the front office crafted a roster with a small tolerance for injuries and a brutal deficiency on the wing. Yes, Kurt Rambis has been interfering with the coaching staff, team, and front office beyond his capacity to advise them well, and yes Jeanie Buss has permitted all of that to happen. Any one or two of these things could coexist and leave the team with a plausible path to success.
But all of these things occurring, and the sudden explosion of public backbiting seeking to place blame for them, point to a deeper issue that will haunt the Lakers for years if it isn’t addressed quickly: there is no level of this team that seems to trust the others anymore.
Reports came out that Vogel’s job was in jeopardy, and the front office pointedly declined to come to his defense. It is not a coincidence that leaks implicating Rambis for his corrosive influence among the coaches and front office appeared shortly thereafter. Nor is it accidental that after the Lakers’ putrid loss to Indiana yesterday evening, not one but two prominent NBA writers delivered pieces suggesting that Vogel was being scapegoated for inept management and disengaged players. No Third Eye is necessary to see what’s going on here.
The trust between star players, staff, management, and ownership that characterized the Lakers’ 2020 run has eroded under disappointments of the two seasons since. As the team has continued to underperform this season and fan discontent has reached a boiling point, the various stakeholders on the team have begun to crack under the pressure and lash out at one another in frustration.
The coach blames players and management. Management blames the coach. Players disengage. Ownership is silent. And behind it all looms Kurt Rambis, with unknown influence and uncertain role, occupying the bizarre netherworld between coach and executive and friend of the boss.
Championship-caliber basketball requires a sense of common purpose at all levels of an organization and a common vision being executed. What has become increasingly apparent is that the kind of basketball the coach would like to play is different from the kind of basketball that best suits the roster given him by the general manager, which in turn is also different from the version being pushed on the coaching staff by the owner’s close friend. Given that context, it isn’t surprising that the players are performing poorly on the court and avoiding or being diffident toward the media.
Precisely calibrating the quantity of blame belonging to each party in a situation like this is not possible, because so much of the poor result is about the disconnect itself rather than one scheme or style being innately superior. Coaches need general managers to give them players suited to their personal and tactical style. General managers need coaches to have the tactical acuity to adapt to whomever is gettable for the team. Ownership needs to set the vision, shake the hands, sign the checks, and hold everyone accountable.
The players themselves are, of course, not blameless either. LeBron James acknowledged as much with his now-infamous tweet apologizing to fans shortly before the Laker’s recent win against Utah. But players can only operate in the context they’re given, and if watchers of the team are angry at this or that player’s lack of success, it is only fair to note at the same time that few members of this roster, if any, have been put in a prime position to succeed based on their present skillset.
The Laker fanbase, and this writer in particular, have had generally positive feelings about owner Jeanie Buss since she took full control of the team which then prospered by acquiring LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and another championship trophy. But as the person ultimately in charge of the organization, any broad-based dysfunction within that organization is ultimately her responsibility.
Perhaps, given the level of the recrimination already seen in the press, Vogel or Rob Pelinka or perhaps both will have to go this season or this summer. Creating new relationships is often simpler and easier than healing old divisions. Even now there is a path to success for this team, but it is increasingly narrow. But regardless of any staff changes unless leadership and seriousness is shown from the top at a time of crisis for the team, the players and other stakeholders will lose faith. That means reestablishing discipline in the organization – and among her friends – to focus it as a whole back toward a common goal.
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