The Los Angeles Lakers organization is one of North America’s marquee professional sporting franchises. It makes sense, then, that they have not responded well to their first bit of real adversity since the 1950s.
The Lakers have been overtaken in the national NBA consciousness by their roommates, the perennial laughing stock Clippers, and they have only managed to remain relevant in the post-Phil Jackson era for the wrong reasons.
That brings us to this week’s embarrassment, when a recorded conversation between rookie Guard D’Angelo Russell and Nick Young regarding Young’s tryst with a 19 year-old girl over the summer was leaked to tabloid outlets.
It’s worth noting that the video was reportedly taken months ago as part of a prank and the video got leaked when Russell sent it to a select few of his friends on Snapchat unaware that such things could be recorded and shared again. This would not normally generate more noise than the usual anecdotes you hear about professional athletes’ bizarre interactions with jersey chasers nationwide, but Young’s engagement to rapper, and very famous person, Iggy Azalea puts this story outside the normal run of things.
One might expect that the story here would be that Nick Young has been caught on tape admitting to cheating on his very famous fiancée. However, that is not the case.
The story here is how D’Angelo Russell snitched, how he broke locker room rules, how the team is alienating him, and what all of that means for his future in Los Angeles. Russell betrayed Young’s confidence, he split the locker room, and as the season winds down, this episode serves as a fitting cherry to put on top of the worst season in the history of a revered team.
Lakers fans, especially after this incident, have a very strange relationship with Russell moving forward. They have had his back and supported him through this season when Head Coach and thawed-out Cro-Magnon fossil Byron Scott spent this season going out of his way to tear down LA’s potential future franchise cornerstone. And after all of Scott’s jabs, Russell did something that confirms what Scott has been pounding home all year: that he lacks maturity, that he isn’t ready to handle big minutes on a big team. Now Scott gets the “bad teammate” label after Russell’s latest indiscretion, and the fans have followed suit as he was booed, early and often, last night against the Heat at home.
The negative reactions to Russell haven’t been limited to the crowd at Staples Center. Like all off-the-court sports stories, this episode spawned some wonderfully bad sports writing intent on driving home just how serious a locker room betrayal this is. However, almost every column eventually circles back to the harrowing notion that Russell is just weeks away from inheriting Kobe’s throne as face of the Lakers and that this video business proves that he can’t or shouldn’t be that guy. Viewing this story through that lens is much more informative than any Russell hot take. It shows us what’s really rotten in the Gold and Purple half of Staples Center: the Los Angeles Lakers’ current state of self-delusion and their poisonous fixation on Kobe’s heir apparent.
After Kobe’s most recent ring (’09-’10), the Lakers were handed convincing postseason defeats in consecutive years thanks to declining production from aging stars Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. Determined to get the “Next Great Laker” to give Kobe one last run at Ring 6, the Lakers traded for disgruntled Orlando Magic Center Dwight Howard before the ’12-’13 season. Kobe had his new second banana, and the Lakers had the new heir apparent to be the face of the franchise; the “Next Great Laker,” if you will.
There was only one problem: Dwight Howard had no interest in playing the triangle. He had no interest in giving up touches after years of being options 1-5 on successful Magic teams. And, most importantly, he had no interest in being the face of the NBA’s flagship franchise. Things turned out predictably badly. The Lakers finished 7th in the Western Conference and were swept in the first round by the San Antonio Spurs.
The most embarrassing of these pursuits came last summer during a disastrous meeting with marquee free agent LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge arrived in Los Angeles eager to discuss how the Lakers intended to use him on the floor, emphasizing that he had no desire to play the 5 even as the NBA trended small. He wanted to know what the organization’s plans for the future were and how they intended to build a winner around him. He was disappointed to find that the Lakers’ pitch almost completely ignored basketball and instead focused on the prestige associated with being a Laker and especially the heir apparent to Kobe as the face of the franchise. Aldridge signed in San Antonio a few days later after their pitch focused on how the team would function around him and budding star Kawhi Leonard.
This is the first time in the NBA’s modern history that the Lakers have had any sort of trouble recruiting players. They’re correct to make the prestige factor one part of their free agent pitches. Being a Laker isn’t just about living in a big market and one of few cities that the NFL doesn’t own (yet). It’s about playing for the fucking Lakers. However, this search for the “Next Great Laker” has been fruitless for three years now and LA is going to have a hard time convincing marquee players to come bail out a sinking ship.
D’Angelo Russell is their best, if not their only, shot at having a marquee player at this point in time. If anyone thinks that this incident makes him an unworthy face of the franchise – that he’s immature, that he’s a snitch, that he alienates those around him – it’s worth asking: Gee, who does that sound like?
D’Angelo Russell fucked the dog in a big big way. He added insult to the most injurious season the Lakers have ever seen. But, it would be best for all parties involved if everyone dropped it and moved forward. There’s an important difference in sports between being bad and being dysfunctional and the Lakers are the latter. LA fans and followers must stop pretending that Russell should be marginalized or his future be called into question because “We’re the Lakers. We sign who we want.”
The Los Angeles Lakers are the only people who have not yet figured out that they aren’t the Los Angeles Lakers anymore. If attracting free agents based purely on the accomplishments of previous generations of basketball players remains their plan to win, they will remain dysfunctional losers.
If they start running themselves like every other competent organization in the age of coast-to-coast League Pass, they may just recapture their former glory.