CHICAGO – Hey, everyone has a bad decade or so.
Welcome to the Los Angeles Lakers’ future.
Uniforms, history and tradition don’t win. It’s talent, and unless the Lakers get very fortunate they’re likely to be in for a long ride down.
The Celtics, the gold standard of the NBA, went 10 years without winning a playoff series and more than 20 years between titles.
The Bulls after six championships with Michael Jordan went seven years before they were even back in the playoffs.
This current Lakers’ collapse, which is hardly surprising given Kobe Bryant missed almost the entire season with injury and Pau Gasol and Steve Nash often injured and rarely playing, is just a hiccup in the view of Bryant.
He says he’ll return — a two-year $48.5 million contract that was the idea of ownership as a thank you for service provided — and the Lakers will be back in contention.
It’s why Bryant was such a great competitor and champion. But after Achilles surgery and a knee injury, it’s unlikely he’ll be anywhere close to the player he was.
The problem is he’ll think he is. Like Michael Jordan with the Washington Wizards from 2001-2003. The body can no longer cash the checks the mind writes.
Veteran coaches say there’s nothing worse on your team than a former superstar who no longer is. Because they cannot adjust to being a supporting player. It’s not in their DNA.
So the Lakers will struggle again next season.
Coach Mike D’Antoni is likely to be replaced, an inevitable victim of the personnel morass.
The Lakers then likely would go back to “one of the family,” like former player Byron Scott, now a team broadcaster. It won’t change the outcome.
Unless the long-term plan hits.
The Lakers aren’t likely to do anything major for next season: Bring back Bryant, work out a short-term deal with Gasol and get a No. 1 pick as they’re said to be angling for Australian point guard Dante Exum.
And then try to make the playoffs. If not, no big deal.
Nash’s contract then comes off the books and it’s step No. 1 of the big plan.
The Lakers in the summer of 2015 sign free agent Kevin Love, who attended UCLA in Los Angeles and is said to want to return to the West Coast from snowy Minnesota, where he never has made the playoffs.
Then it’s Love with Kobe, Pau and the rookie, and perhaps a few veterans sprinkled in. So the Lakers take another step.
Then it’s big step No. 2 as Kobe’s contract expires in the summer of 2016 to then reach out and sign free agent Kevin Durant. And they’re back!
If it works, the Lakers are back.
But no one knows Durant’s thinking. And if the Thunder happen to win a title before then, he may just re-up in Oklahoma City.
And Love still may not have made the playoffs.
Though the big contract for Bryant has been much questioned, the theory the Lakers were working under was to both reward the popular Bryant at the end of his career, as is their tradition, and have a space holder for a big free agent in 2016 when Durant could be the head of the class.
Maybe LeBron. Perhaps LaMarcus Aldridge. Maybe Russell Westbrook, also from UCLA, in 2017.
The Lakers are playing the “We Are the Lakers” card and figuring that everyone else will fold.
But this isn’t those Lakers.
As these New York Yankees have found out in Major League Baseball and, for example, the Detroit Pistons in the NBA.
The Pistons have been a listing ship of fools since the death of patriarch Bill Davidson.
The Yankees haven’t gone so far down, but it’s not like having George Steinbrenner.
And we’re starting to see that with the Lakers with the death of Jerry Buss.
His children have been openly feuding about the operation of the team, with former Lakers like Magic Johnson condemning Jim Buss, who took over the basketball side. Buss kept out popular Phil Jackson, who is engaged to be married to Jim’s sister and team business side president, Jeanie.
So Jackson went to run the Knicks.
It’s been just the beginning of a contentious environment with the community angry with Jim and basically taking it out on D’Antoni.
Kobe had been supporting D’Antoni, but that seemed to change in recent weeks, pretty much determining D’Antoni’s fate.
The Lakers have had a history of attracting the best talent given the way the franchise dominated most others along with much better weather than Boston.
But there are many other successful team options now. And Dwight Howard did what no one had ever done before: Left the Lakers to take less money elsewhere.
A whiff of dysfunction, which always existed elsewhere, now was wafting over the Lakers with the infighting and internal and external criticisms.
Suddenly, the Clippers were becoming the L.A. franchise with the top coach in Doc Rivers and attracting the top players.
The rumors are if LeBron were to leave Miami one place he would like to go is Los Angeles. But to the Clippers because of Chris Paul.
LeBron is said to have zero interest in the Lakers.
And when you are bad now, you don’t get Magic Johnson and James Worthy in the lottery, but teenagers ill-prepared for any immediate NBA life.
And they’ll have to deal with a most impatient Kobe Bryant, who has made it clear he won’t be any fun to be with playing out his last two seasons on a losing team.
Oh, well, the fans have the beach and the nation’s best overall climate.
Who wants to stay inside watching basketball, anyway?
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”